Aurora Expeditions’ Al Bakker has been leading kayaking trips at the ends of the Earth for 21 years. Laura French finds out what it’s like.
Q. How long have you been kayaking?
A. I started when I was 16, so it’s been nearly 40 years. I grew up in Vancouver and when I was 24 I went on a six-month working holiday to New Zealand, armed with half a kayak (my wife had the other half – we cut it in two to get it on the plane!). We took the kayak to Fiji and set up trips there, and somehow, I never quite made it back.
Q. How did you start working with Aurora Expeditions?
A. I set up a kayaking business in Australia in 1987, and in Sydney I worked at the same adventure company as Greg Mortimer, the mountaineer who set up Aurora. He asked if I wanted to start leading kayaking tours from his ships, and I said “yes”.
Q. What does being a kayaking guide on Aurora trips involve, and where have you travelled?
A. I do six or seven weeks on the ship at a time, and also manage the programme. I’ve been to Russia’s Far East, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Antarctica, South Georgia, Papua New Guinea…
Q. Where is your favourite place?
A. If I had to pick one spot, I’d say Greenland, for the scenery. The peaks reach 3,200 metres and the fjords drop to 3,000 metres, so you’re just surrounded by vertical shards. At Scorseby Sund, you go almost 200 miles into the fjord, so it’s totally remote.
Q. What’s Antarctica like?
A. I didn’t have any grasp of the scale – you’re looking at huge peaks that might be 20 miles away, but they look like they’re right there. And it’s unlike anywhere else; when you go to the Arctic there are flowers, it’s colourful. In Antarctica, it’s black and white and blue and grey, so you feel pretty secluded.
Q. What are the key challenges?
A. You never know what the weather will do. I get up at 5.30am and speak to the expedition leader to see what will be possible. We don’t just have a couple of set routes – every day it changes. So after 20 years of paddling in Antarctica, I still find myself in places I’ve never been to before.
Q. What is it you love most about kayaking in the polar regions?
A. It’s a bit like riding a bike down a country lane, with no traffic or people around. You leave the ship and within 10 minutes you’re away from any noise – you’re literally in the middle of nowhere. It’s the same for everyone who goes, and it’s why we all go back.
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