Antarctica or ‘The White Continent’ was my final and seventh to explore. One which holds so much curiosity and wonder but also the focus of much speculation as the ice-caps are breaking-off and melting due to global warming.
After reading how Ernest Shackleton and his men survived the wintery wrath without modern creature comforts such as Gore-Tex and synthetic fibres, I had to go. Shackleton’s trip is one of the greatest survival stories but perhaps what is more incredible, was his newspaper article to summon a team of intrepid explorers ready to face to probable death. What goes through the mind of someone signing up for such a voyage is incredible in itself.
Who to travel to Antarctica with?
I did my research on which company to travel with and decided on The Ushuaia with Antarpply Expeditions. It is the cheapest way (without a working passage) to get to Antarctica without compromising on standard. The Ushuaia is an expedition vessel carrying a maximum of 84 passengers, selling globally so I was greeted with an eclectic smattering of nationalities. The boat is devoid of the creature comforts of a modern cruise ship however, with glass viewing platforms, outside decks, dining room and the all-important conference room for detailed lectures from on-board specialists, what more would I need. The ship is built to last and more importantly to withstand the rough seas, navigate ice-bergs; I couldn’t have been happier.
Sailing to Antarctica
Launching from Ushuaia at the very tip of South America in March, sea sickness tablets were necked in preparation for the infamous Drake Passage. Many an explorer has fretted about this treacherous stretch of water which has claimed many lives and said to be some of the roughest water in the world. I don’t get sea sick, I never have done so I felt comfortable with whatever the Drake was to throw at me, but I have seen sea sick travellers many times and it doesn’t look fun…no fun at all.
I spent most of the two day crossing on top deck, sheltered top to bottom by a keen layer of ski clothing, eyes glued on whale fins breaking the water and Skua’s gliding on the air currents above. Biting weather chartered my path and the lure of ice-bergs and penguins kept me excited. The Drake it turns out was fairly calm, even a drunken night on Argentinian red wine didn’t faze me. The return leg proved to be more of a challenge for certain travellers on board.
As an ex-tour leader I know what makes the tour (excluding the reasons for initially booking the trip) are the staff. Lead by an Expedition Leader in conjunction with cooks, zodiac drivers and a team of specialist lecturers, information was delivered at daily gatherings ensuring we understood more than the aesthetics of what we saw. I was taken aback by the wealth of information we received and the informal manner it was delivered and on a base level – sometimes it really can be made too grandiose to fully grasp.
“Ice-berg on the port side” was the announcement and our first sign of life since pushing out from Ushuaia. After two days on board it came as a welcome relief and we stood glued to the railing as cameras clicked and the towering cliffs came into view, bordering the ship on both sides. We had arrived In Antarctica! It was my final continent (not that I am a big country/continent box ticker) and was a personal privilege to finally be there. Growing up my father always watched wildlife and nature shows and I remember seeing the vast expanse of the White Continent on T.V, with flashes of whales, seas of penguins and electric blue glaciers calving the sea. It seemed to be one of those places that only explorers and well planned expeditions visited; never in my wildest dreams did I imagine they would be my foot prints momentarily imprinted in the snow.
I slept on bunk beds and shared the small room with a chap from America who was ‘just in the neighbourhood and thought it would be a shame not to come’. Seriously, what kind of travel budget is that? Don’t get me wrong; half the fun of setting travel budgets is realising just how quickly they won’t work but really? Antarctica as an optional activity? Ignore me readers, it is probably extreme jealousy at having a budget which allows such shameless flaunting.
Heavy seas made showering on board a tricky experience with my only salvation being a hand rail to grip onto as we ploughed the high seas, I felt like a pensioner with one hand of the alarm panic button. The same rule applied to meal time. Firstly, I have to say the meals were brilliant. Any time I eat better away then I do at home is a big thumbs up from me. High seas made a sit down dinner with cutlery and a glass of wine eventful a good laugh and the staff went out of their way to make meal times memorable. One night they cooked an outdoor Asado (Argentinean BBQ) which was a personal touch to what could so easily have been a routine event.
Each day we had a morning and afternoon zodiac excursion (inflatable motorised rafts) which landed on the neighbouring islands or the mainland. A sea of penguins greeted us with bated curiosity, fearful of strange new visitors, but too nosy to resist. I swear I must have been a penguin in a previous life! The shores were littered with rich deep blue icebergs, sea lions and leopard seals roaming the sand as penguins nibbled at my cello-pets. It was from one of the same beaches at Deception Point, I charged full pelt into the glacial waters and….back out again. The cold hit my organs, shocking them and taking my breath away. Needless to say my ‘swim’ lasted about 10 seconds but hey, I ticked the unwritten travellers box and a glass of vino warmed the cockles once back on board.
On these landings we generally stayed close to the shore but upon landing on the mainland, we hiked to a viewpoint and were rewarded with breath-taking ice-sheet views, penguins and an eerie silence I have heard only a few times in my life. A silence that almost resonates through the sea, mountains and underfoot. Honestly, it was an amazing day, no, it was an incredible day. Is there a word that exists to describe things we see in our lives which take our breath away?
There were moments on this trip when I couldn’t really explain how beautiful the scenery was, I still can’t. We had left planet earth and landed on a frozen planet where the only living souls were these strange animals in droves who could stage an uprising at any second. A place where nature dictated over and above any other factor. One morning in particular we awoke to sunshine, landed on the mainland to strong winds and finished in a blizzard, all within the space of about 2 hours. Being the end of March the days grew shorter and darker earlier and on the 10 day tour the ice was beginning to freeze again, its progress noticeable as the cruise progressed.
All vegetarians block your ears now. Seeing a Leopard Seal stalking, catching and ripping open a penguin right in front of my eyes was the type of unique and unscheduled sight which keeps travellers visiting exotic locations around the globe. It was a primal, everyday occurrence in the animal kingdom but extremely foreign for a boy from little old New Zealand!
The whole trip was spectacular and I could write for weeks, but I’ll spare you endless paragraphs. Escaping mobile phones and computers in favour of nature in its most pure and raw form, I returned to the taunts of the Drake Passage feeling refreshed (apart from a dose of bed bugs from a hotel in Buenos Aires). It was a real and humbling experience and one hell of a story to tell my father who encouraged me to watch nature T.V shows, never thinking his son would ever be that black dot on the frozen planet!
Want to read another polar post? Check out this blog about watching the Northern Lights in Tromso, Norway.