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Meet Radhika Shastry, the intrepid traveller, whose visits to the North and South Pole highlights anew the environmental degradation of our planet

She’s an author, a corporate heavyweight, a restaurateur, and traveller. Aditi Natarajan has a conversation with Radhika Shastry on her life and transformative journeys to the extreme edges of our world

Radhika Shastry has travelled to over 68 countries and both the Arctic and the Antartic. Though travel did not feature much as part of her growing up, her passion to see the world was stoked over her 23 years working with RCI (Resort Condominium International), the globally renowned leisure travel exchange company. 

This meant a great deal of travel to resort locations all over the world, so travel became not only a passion but a profession. “The sad part was that whenever I went to all these exotic destinations I was working and everyone else was having fun,” says Radhika regretfully, but this spurred her to eventually start travelling for herself after she left RCI in 2014. This is when “I really started travelling,” While others in her place might have wanted to take a break, she instead set her sights on all the places she still wanted to see.

Radhika Shastry
Radhika Shastry

The Ice Woman cometh

Visiting the Arctic and Antarctic had been on Radhika’s mind for quite a while, and she jumped at the chance to see the latter as soon as it arose, in January 2018, to travel there with a group of women from India. Her first impression, “It’s a different planet there, completely uninhabited by humans except for the Argentinian and British research stations.”

Ironically, Radhika’s experiences in the Arctic and Antarctic were polar opposites in some ways, after seeing both in short succession, she believes that the Antarctic seems to be far better protected than the Arctic, the latter being much more inhabited. Although the effects of climate change were visible in the Antarctic, it was nowhere near as stark as in the Arctic.

In particular, she highlights Greenland where the group made at least 11 stops, all populated.

At the last inhabited stop she visited in the Arctic, a place called New Ålesund in Svalbard, Norway, Radhika was able to speak to two Indian scientists working at Himadri, India’s first permanent Arctic research station. Apart from the climate change concerns, they highlighted the impact of extensive whaling and walrus killing on the marine ecosystem. What she saw makes Radhika ask a question that still plays in her mind. “What have we done to this Earth?

The first Antarctic landing was extremely rough and challenging, she goes on to say, The journey through the Drake passage is the toughest in the world, with no landmass anywhere nearby to offer resistance to the powerful currents. “There was a storm chasing us, we had 8 metres of water rising”. The boat they took, the Ushuaia was old and built completely out of wrought iron without any stabilisers and “the rocking of the boat was unbelievable,” she says recalling the experience. The passengers had to belt themselves to their beds, with only a safety railing for support to counter the incessant swaying. Given the especially bad weather, the first night produced 8 accidents including multiple stitches and a broken leg. The second and third days of the journey saw them sailing in the snow, “It was a first for me, standing on the deck and it was snowing. It was ethereal and so unusual …” says Radhika, her voice still carrying the excitement of that experience.

On arrival, she describes how the ships couldn’t dock at the shore until after the passengers had fully sanitised themselves to make sure they were not carrying any infections/ microorganisms. They were carried via small inflatable round boats called Zodiacs to the shore, and then started a long, tough trek through snow to see millions of penguins in the midst of their egg hatching season. “It’s a lot of snow, penguins, whales and seals and you have to love nature otherwise you’re going to hate every second of it,” she says candidly, with a chuckle.

When asked about what it felt like when she finally reached her destination, she speaks of the exhilaration, “I felt, wow, another continent conquered!”

On the preparation involved for both trips… “It’s a foregone conclusion that you have to be physically fit. The gear is very heavy, and you’re bogged down with muck boots and many layers of clothing. It took at least 20 minutes to get ready in the first few days, It’s a ton of stuff and not very comfortable” she says with a laugh. “Not to mention your camera and mobile phone to take pictures! Gloves have to come off every time you want to take a picture on your phone,” she states wryly speaking of the minutiae of challenges faced when one was finally there.

The Polar Plunge was perhaps her most singular achievement on both trips and she describes jumping into the freezing cold waters at both ends of the earth - a truly unforgettable experience

A sobering reality

Radhika’s trip to the Arctic was to follow soon after the Antarctic, but the pandemic delayed her plans and she was finally able to visit in July 2022 through a NY-based expedition group. It was very different, she says, with much calmer seas and fewer animals. “The latter are facing rapid extinction,” she says somberly, because the ice is melting at such a fast pace. “Greenland could be gone within our lifetime.” She describes the massive ice calvings she saw firsthand. “They were unbelievable, with even the expedition leaders remarking that they had never seen such massive calvings before. I saw a lot of glaciers that had retreated and others which were in the process of retreating and drying up,” she says in a poignant moment. She stressed on the fact that while glaciers develop over millions of years it is frightening that they’re disappearing at such an alarming rate. It has been posited that half the world’s glaciers will be gone by 2100, even under the prevailing protocols of the Paris Climate Agreement.

She believes that the measures humanity is now taking to combat this threat are already too late, “A lot of it is already lost.” Rapidly losing their habitat, polar bears are forced to endure starvation and higher temperatures. Radhika recalls that not even the sled-pulling Huskies were spared, and the unbearably warm 5-degree temperature made them “stop every hundred yards– panting and asking for water.”

Apart from the climate change concerns, they highlighted the impact of extensive whaling and walrus killing on the marine ecosystem. What she saw makes Radhika ask a question that still plays in her mind. “What have we done to this Earth?”

Awe-inspiring nature

The Polar Plunge was perhaps her most singular achievement on both trips and she describes jumping into the freezing cold waters at both ends of the earth – a truly unforgettable experience. Stripping down to your bathing suit, in itself, makes one shiver and then dropping into the unimaginably cold waters changes one’s definition of cold. Wading into the water from Deception Island in the Antarctic and jumping straight in at the mouth of a glacier in the Arctic, Radhika describes her reaction, “It’s like a thousand daggers hitting you at once, but such a thrilling experience. Your brain, your whole body, just freezes when you jump in, and you have to start swimming immediately.” She also mentions the element of the unknown in undertaking such an adventure and the thrill is in seeing how your body reacts to such a sudden drop in temperature.

Radhika speaks in reverent tones about the incredible feeling of being so outnumbered by penguins in Antarctica “Just a few of us and millions of them!” was a humbling wake-up call to the sheer immensity of nature. She recalls the stunning rock formations across the Eastern coast of Greenland in every imaginable colour– “each sight/site seemed to be better than the one before.”

The extreme weather

When asked if she would recommend the experience to others, she says yes, but with some caution. It’s not for the fainthearted. You really need to have to have that spirit of adventure otherwise it could get uncomfortable and monotonous pretty quickly. She adds emphatically, “It’s very expensive, and it takes a lot out of you to do it. And if you do have the will, then you must do it, and soon, because I don’t think these expeditions will go on forever. The Antarctic perhaps 30-40 years, but the Arctic, especially Greenland could disappear much sooner.”

For intrepid travellers looking to see these places, Radhika offers helpful pointers. Do your reading, but also pay careful attention to the guides, who give you invaluable guidance on the local flora and fauna and key briefings on safety and what to expect each day. A laundry list of things to see may not be the best idea, she feels. “These kinds of expeditions are very fluid” she explains, entirely contingent on the vagaries of nature, so you don’t know what you may see or miss along the way. “The idea is to embrace where you are in the moment and adapt to what nature throws at you.” She also recommends travelling with someone you know, mainly because the experience is so much better when shared in that moment, never being the same by the time you come back home.

Overall, Radhika describes her polar adventures as “a divine experience”, where she encountered nature undiluted. “It’s the closest you come to God” she says, speaking of the beauty of communing with nature undisturbed and in its most pristine form being akin to a spiritual transformation, “You have to be blessed to be able to do this,” she adds.

Just travel she reminds us all, whether it be near or far, “It teaches you so much and you come back with a little piece of each place you’ve visited. And you’re always better for it.”

Besides travelling to some of the world’s most inhospitable places, Radhika still keeps her hospitality roots alive in the form of award-winning cafe she runs in Coonoor, South India. Her next plan is to visit the Galapagos Islands for two weeks.

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