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Antarctica: Into the great white

Ernest Shackleton’s attempted land crossing of Antarctica became one of history’s greatest survival stories. Almost a century later, intrepid travellers can follow in his footsteps — navigating icebergs and coming face to face with killer whales and curious penguins on a mission to explore the coldest, driest and windiest place on earth

Antarctica: Into the great white
Penguins, St Andrews Bay, South Georgia. Image: Chris Van Hove.

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Bad weather’s brewing in the Scotia Sea. It’s the stuff of Antarctic legend — waves crash over the bow, things are tossed about the cabin, and at breakfast, a rogue wave sends plates, cups and people flying.

Most passengers retreat to their bedrooms to wait out their seasickness, adrenalin junkies station themselves on the bridge; the rest claim sanctuary in the bar, whisky in hand.

A hundred years ago, another boat battled hurricane-force winds along this same course, but under different circumstances. It will take our 233ft-long, ice-strengthened expedition ship, Polar Pioneer, just two and a half days to sail 800 nautical miles to South Georgia; a century ago, the crew of the James Caird, a 23ft-long converted lifeboat, would struggle for 16 days before reaching shore.

Their story is one of the most heroic tales of survival from the so-called Golden Age of Polar Exploration. In January 1915, explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew were stranded when the Weddell Sea froze around their ship, Endurance. Drifting north west with the pack ice, she eventually sank in November, forcing the men to pull lifeboats across the ice. When the ice began to break up in April 1916, they set sail for Elephant Island. But their ordeal wasn’t over. From there, Shackleton and five other men set out in the James Caird for South Georgia to raise the alarm. When they eventually arrived, they had to battle fierce weather for 22 miles to reach Stromness whaling station; popular myth holds that when Shackleton identified himself, the station master turned and wept. Against the odds, Shackleton set out from here to rescue his men and all the crew of the Endurance were saved.

Our vessel, Aurora Expedition’s 54-berth Polar Pioneer, is following in Shackleton’s footsteps with a journey of just under three weeks, taking us across the notorious Drake Passage to the Antarctica Peninsula, into the Weddell Sea, and up to South Georgia in the southern Atlantic Ocean.

My time on the Antarctic Peninsula allows me to fall under the spell of this frozen world — a place explorer Douglas Mawson famously described as ‘that sweep of savage splendour’. Despite being the driest, windiest and coldest place on earth, Antarctica charms with warm weather (at times), blue sky and bucket-list animal encounters. A pod of killer whales cruises by the boat in the Bransfield Strait and at Livingston Island, I turn to find a conga line of curious gentoo penguin chicks waddling behind me. At Cierva Cove, a leopard seal plays barely three feet away from our Zodiac rigid inflatable boat, chewing on a piece of ice like a puppy with a bone. Within days, Antarctica has me, and I begin to understand why Shackleton was willing to gamble everything to reach it.

Penguins & playful seals

Despite the relative comfort expedition passengers experience in the brief summer season from November to March, Antarctica is a land ruled by ice. A season’s worth of ice and weather reports lie neatly clipped together on the bridge of the Polar Pioneer. Leafing through, each page glows a crimson red where the sea ice is thickest.

When Shackleton set out for the Weddell Sea, whalers warned him it was a heavy season for ice; this year, we’re experiencing similar conditions. Up until the week before our voyage a mile-long tabular iceberg had been blocking access to the Weddell Sea since the start of the season. With it gone we’re able to weigh anchor and head for Paulet Island.

We land in the late afternoon, navigating a maze of icebergs in our Zodiacs. The drift of the pack ice brought Shackleton and his men within 60 miles of Paulet Island. But it’s another group of shipwrecked sailors — the Swedish Antarctic Expedition whose boat was crushed by ice in 1903 — who’ve left their mark on this island, which, during summer, is home to a colony of 100,000 Adélie penguins. On the shore, their nests cover the crumbled remains of the men’s stone hut, along with the solitary grave of one sailor who didn’t make it.

I stand by the shore and contemplate the ice. Barely three metres away a curious Weddell Seal and her fat pup meander in the shallows, and we watch each other. Our expedition leader speculates we may be the only ship to have visited Paulet so far this season, and there’s every chance I may be the first human this timid seal pup has ever seen.

From the Weddell Sea, we tack our way north through cracks in the pack ice, past icebergs dotted with resting penguins and drifting tabular bergs the size of football pitches. Shackleton had originally planned to land on Paulet Island, but as the ice began to break up, the currents favoured making a run for Elephant Island instead, and after days of rowing and sailing, his party set up camp at Point Wild.

Bust of Captain Luis Pardo at Point Wild, Elephant Island. Image: Chris Van Hove.

Bust of Captain Luis Pardo at Point Wild, Elephant Island. Image: Chris Van Hove.

Appearing on the horizon, Elephant Island is a desolate mass of black rock and ice, held down by clouds. Surrounded by a rough swell and swept by gale-force winds, there’s a fierce debate about whether or not we can launch the Zodiacs in these conditions. Perpetually exposed to bad weather, there are staff on board the Polar Pioneer who’ve been coming to Elephant Island for five years and never been able to land at Point Wild. But we launch, using our Zodiacs to pick and push our way through bits of bergs and brash ice to Point Wild. Nearby, a glacier moans and cracks, spitting tiny chunks of ice into the bay. It’s sleeting, and for the first time I feel the cold seep into my bones.

Two crew in drysuits help us scramble up slippery rocks to the commemorative bust of Luis Pardo — the captain of the ship that eventually came to Shackleton’s rescue. The wildlife resting here is bewildered by our arrival; weened penguins run to us, fur seals bark aggressively, and elephant seals blubber off in a huff. The conditions are so rough and there’s so little space on this headland we spend only a few minutes here, each Zodiac taking turns to land.

It’s the most hostile place I’ve ever encountered. To imagine being shipwrecked here is draining. How could a place so savage be of any comfort to men stranded here for four months? As if to hit home Point Wild’s indifferent brutality, a leopard seal lurches from the deep in front of our Zodiac, snatching a gull mid-air and thrashing it on the surface until the water is red. The playful, puppy-like creature we’d encountered days before is transformed into a prehistoric predator before our eyes. Leaning over the nose of the Zodiac, I wait for him to surface. Without warning, the seal thrusts his body straight up out of the water a foot away, almost as if he was on his tip-toes trying see into the boat. Luckily, we’re as frightened of one another as we should be: I launch backwards with a yelp; he turns tail into the water.

The cold drives us back to the ship, which turns in the direction of South Georgia. The days at sea give us a chance to not only digest our experience in the peninsula, but to let our anticipation build for South Georgia.

Like most people, I’d always been besotted with the idea of visiting Antarctica, but paid little attention to the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia in the Antarctic Convergence — the invisible line where the warm northern and cool southern waters meet in an explosion of marine life. But I soon realised South Georgia was Antarctica’s best-kept secret.

“When you get to South Georgia,” our naturalist tells us at the bar one night, “you’ll wonder why you ever bothered to go south.” I imagine that after 16 days at sea in a lifeboat, Shackleton and his men might have thought the same thing.

When South Georgia emerges on the horizon, the low-pressure system that had lashed the island has passed. The piercing peaks of the island snap at the blue sky, divided by glaciers and from the waterline by a green smudge.

A small plaque commemorates the place where Shackleton landed at Cave Cove in King Haakon Bay. From here, he faced one final challenge: crossing the uncharted alpine terrain by foot with two companions and no equipment.

The treachery of this crossing is evident when our own party attempt to traverse South Georgia in Shackleton’s footsteps. Setting out from King Haakon Bay, our vessel’s small party of experienced mountaineers make good progress. Overnight, however, they’re battered by winds of up to 60 knots, which bury their tent under so much snow it takes three hours to strike camp.

They abandon their climb. What our team of mountaineers couldn’t achieve with years of experience, training, proper equipment and technology, Shackleton and his men did in 36 hours without a map, sleep or gear.

Prion Island, South Georgia. Image: Chris Van Hove.

Prion Island, South Georgia. Image: Chris Van Hove.

The final chapter

Thankfully, the tremendous bounty of wildlife along South Georgia’s shore is a worthy consolation prize. At dawn, we launch for Prion Island, where fingers of thick black seaweed slow our engines to a crawl in the narrow channel. The ticking of the motor rouses the curiosity of the locals, and an overexcited schoolyard of hundreds of juvenile fur seals escort us in, looping in a frenzy.

When we reach the shore, they descend like seagulls being thrown hot chips; boldly dashing forth in territorial displays, and when courage fails them, scampering back again.

At St. Andrews Bay, we visit a colony of 100,000 stinking, squawking king penguins; their silken white breasts offset by the magnificent golden plume on their neck. In minutes the theatre of life plays out for us. We coo as a mother nurtures her tiny chick, tucked onto her feet; we laugh at the awkward, ugly adolescent penguins covered in brown feathers; and we’re shocked as two scavenging skuas get hold of a baby penguin chick, tearing it to pieces while the mother squawks helplessly in protest.

At night, the captain, ever mindful of the ice, takes the boat out to sea. I accompany our naturalist as he searches the deck for seabirds drawn to the light of our vessel. He finds a burrowing petrel fluttering about on the stern; cradling it in his hands, he holds it up to my face.

“Have a sniff,” he says. Feeling awkward, I lean down and breathe in; amazingly, the bird smells of damp and soil, the aroma of its daytime burrow, miles away. He tosses it up high into the darkness, I can just make out the movement of its wings as it flies away.

A window of good weather lets us complete the final three miles of Shackleton’s overland crossing from Fortuna Bay to Stromness whaling station, a steep hike up through slippery grass tussocks and down across scree and shifting shale. Most landings in Antarctica and South Georgia are restricted to the shoreline. The opportunity to hike inland is a rare privilege.

We stop at the top of the ridge where Shackleton and his companions, Tom Crean and Frank Worsley listened for the whistle that signalled the start of the working day at the whaling station, and their arrival back to civilisation. While there’s no whistle, just the zipping of the wind, the view to the station is incredible: a black-and-white zebra pattern of snow and rock giving way to the blue of the harbour. Standing there, I realise this is what salvation looks like.

Euphoric, a few of us decide to recreate Shackleton’s famous descent down the mountain — a dangerous and thrilling slide on your behinds — to beat the oncoming darkness.

A steep snowy patch is deemed a fine substitute for a mountain, and a few of us whoop down 50 metres or so. I’m rewarded for my enthusiasm with a slash in the back of my trousers, but I laugh it off; Shackleton’s companion, Frank Worsley, suffered the same undignified fate.

Torn Gore-Tex flapping from my backside, we reach the bay as darkness sets in. Our only disappointment is we’re unable to enter the dilapidated whaling station where Shackleton raised the alarm, for safety reasons.

The only former whaling station open to explore is at Grytviken, which was once the centre of whaling and sealing activities on South Georgia. Today, it’s home to a small administrative office, museum, post office and gift shop. It was from here that Shackleton originally set out on the Endurance for Antarctica. It’s also where he was buried after his death in 1922.

We walk in silence along the bay, past sea lions at play in the belly of a burnt-out whaler’s ship washed up on the shore, to a cemetery, surrounded by a picket fence to keep the wildlife out (gravestones have, in the past, made for irresistible rubbing posts).

If coming over the crest of the valley at Stromness had felt like the climax of the trip, standing beside Shackleton’s grave feels like the final chapter of the journey. It’s a moment of quiet reflection. It’s hard not to walk away with tremendous respect for the man, but also for the incredible treachery, beauty and wilderness of Antarctica and South Georgia.

Shackleton once wrote, “We all have our own White South.” A hundred years on, Antarctica still maintains its bewitching allure for travellers; an inconvenient, expensive and occasionally difficult destination that shows us our own fragility, and humbles us with a world that’s greater than anything the imagination could conjure.

As I turn to walk away, my attention is drawn to a quote from the poet and playwright Robert Browning that’s etched on the back of Shackleton’s grave: ‘I hold that a man should strive to the uttermost for his life’s set prize’. If Antarctica is your dream, find a way. Go.

Essentials

Getting There
Most Antarctic expedition cruises leave from the Argentine port of Ushuaia, at the bottom of South America, with some leaving from Punta Arenas in Chile. British Airways flies direct from Heathrow to Buenos Aries, while Aerolíneas Argentinas offers connections from Buenos Aries to Ushuaia. ba.com   aerolineas.com.ar

 

Getting around
The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) strictly regulates landing sites and shore time. Slots are pre-booked by individual cruise companies, although itineraries are always subject to weather conditions. The Antarctic Peninsula is accessible via a two-day sailing over the Drake Passage (notorious for having some of the roughest seas in the world). Rigid inflatable Zodiac boats are used for transferring passengers to shore. To maximise time on the peninsula, most operators arrange a fly/sail option from King George Island on the peninsula at an additional cost, meaning less time spent in the Drake Passage. South Georgia can only be accessed by boat.

 

When to go
The Antarctic cruise season (summer) runs from November to March, with peak season during December and January and temperatures around 2C . Warm polar clothing and wet weather gear are essential — temperatures can plummet without warning.

 

Need to Know
Health: Most expedition cruises require a compulsory pre-departure medical check.
Insurance: Insurance with emergency medical evacuation is generally compulsory. Check carefully to ensure polar regions are covered.
Time difference: Varies with location as many research stations use the time of the country they belong to.

 

More info
Lonely Planet Antarctica. RRP: £18.99.

 

How to do it
Aurora Expeditions operates various tours to Antarctica on the 54-berth Polar Pioneer, with its Across the Antarctic Circle cruise starting from $7,100 (£4,247). It has five cruises visiting South Georgia during 2014/2015, priced from $12,660 (£7,572) per person for a 19-day cruise. Its In Shackleton’s Footsteps cruise runs from 31 January-19 February 2015 and starts from $13,660 (£8,170) per person (shared), with an alpine traverse on South Georgia an additional $1,295 (£774). The company’s The Shackleton Spirit cruise departs 9 March 2015 and costs from $12,660 (£7,572). auroraexpeditions.co.uk

Published in the June 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)