DANVILLE – Most Midwesterners would opt for a beach vacation in midwinter. But when Danville doctors Surendra and Usha Paruchuri headed south this winter, they skipped over every beach spot in the Western Hemisphere and chose Antarctica instead.
"I'm always interested in going to end-of-the-world places," said Usha Paruchuri, who's a doctor at Veterans Affairs Illiana Healthcare System in Danville. Her husband, Surendra, is a doctor at the Danville Polyclinic.
Although the Paruchuris didn't get to the exact southern end of the world, they got closer to the South Pole than most people ever will.
It's the coldest and windiest place on earth, 5.1 million square miles of 98 percent ice. The lowest temperature on earth was recorded there, 129.3 degrees below zero, and winds often reach 200 mph.
Summer does come to Antarctica, however, and that's when the tourist season takes off. The Antarctic peninsula, which stretches north toward the tip of South America, has become a tourist destination.
For a few thousand to several thousand dollars, a person can take a more traditional cruise that offers views of Antarctica. For a higher price, travelers can take a voyage in an icebreaking ship with daily explorations on land. Those who don't like ships can take a jet flight that offers a lofty view of the cold continent without much detail.
The Paruchuris opted for the icebreaking ship voyage.
The first two days of the journey might convince some passengers a jet flight would be better. A ship must navigate the Drake Passage – 750 miles from the tip of South America to the Antarctic peninsula. The trip takes two days, and it's some of the roughest sea conditions.
The crew teaches passengers how to walk on the ship during the crossing in the rolling seas. Furniture and other items are nailed to the ship floor, and steel rods run along the ship's ceiling for passengers to hang on to.
Surendra Paruchuri has been on cruises more than once, he said, without taking anything for sea sickness. But on this trip, he needed a patch and a pill to get through it.
Despite some rough seas, Usha Parachuri said the trip was more than she expected.
"It was a great trip," the travel lover said.
Last year, she saw a television show featuring the late Steve Irwin, Australian wildlife advocate, exploring Antarctica. His crew was picked up by a tourist expedition when the weather turned bad. Parachuri began researching trips on the Internet and booked for mid-December, the middle of Antarctic summer, when most tourist activities take place.
The Paruchuris boarded the Polar Star in Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost tip of South America. About 90 tourists from all over the world joined the ship's crew and a team of scientists, who shared their knowledge of Antarctica during the weeklong voyage.
Usha Parachuri said many of the passengers weren't just tourists. Some were doing research, using laptops and imparting their own knowledge of Antarctica.
"A lot of them were more knowledgeable than us," she said. "I just went for curiosity's sake."
She also wanted to see penguins and icebergs.
The Paruchuris saw plenty of both.
"It's unbelievable," she said.
The Paruchuris walked within a few feet of adult penguins standing over their babies as they hatched from eggs.
"You can sit there and watch them forever and ever and see their antics," she said.
But you must get used to all the penguin poop, she said: the sight of it and the smell. The passengers' boots had to be washed off after every trip ashore.
The Paruchuris also saw whales up close, seals and all types of birds. They visited outposts on the peninsula, and on Deception Island, off the Antarctic mainland, they visited a former whaling site, where they saw massive whale bones and actually stripped off most of their clothes and waded in hot springs. The island is an active volcano and thermally heats the waters of Pendulum Cove.
Deception Island was Usha Paruchuri's favorite part of the trip. The view of the Antarctic mainland from there was beautiful, she said.
She said the trip really made her appreciate the nature there and how much it needs to be preserved. The expeditions can't take more than 100 people onto the continent at a time, according to the Antarctic Treaty. Surendra Paruchuri said the crew takes other precautions to protect the animals and the environment, too.
"While you are there you are very conscious about (preserving and protecting)," Usha Parachuri said.
Although she likes warm, relaxing beach vacations, too, Usha Parachuri said she's planning to visit the other end of the earth in 2008: the Arctic.
"I really want to see the Norwegian Fields, Iceland and cross the Arctic Circle," she said. "There are many special places I want to go before I can't walk anymore."