Stepping from the boat, the stones on the shore scrunch under my soles just as they would anywhere — but I’m 8,700 miles from home. And the wind coming in off the Southern Ocean is strong, but not unusually so.
But that’s where familiarity stops.
For the first time in my life I’m on ground that belongs to no nation — an immense landmass with no government, no economy and no whimsical tourist board slogan. An entire continent that’s unaware it’s a Friday. Behind me, one of the other passengers kneels down and kisses the ground. Partly, I think, to persuade himself it’s real.
If you’ve never travelled to Antarctica, you probably have a mental image of what it looks like. I did. I’d spent hours oohing and aahing at the BBC’s Frozen Planet from the sofa. It prepared me for the reality in the same way that a long-jump pit might have prepared me for the Sahara. The scale of the place is outrageous. Believe everything you’ve heard. Take your mental image, stretch the horizons, sharpen the peaks and have the glacial landscapes charge outwards and upwards until you’re left with the kind of manically beautiful scenery you’d never have thought possible. Add hundreds of thousands of penguins. Then steel your emotions and resign yourself to spending most of the experience floundering for as-yet-uncoined adjectives. It’s that special.
There are things an Antarctic expedition cruise can virtually guarantee — one of them being at least 10 days on board a ship. We were to set sail from the world’s southernmost city, Ushuaia, the capital of Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego Province. It had been journey enough just getting that far and we were within touching distance of reference points like the Beagle Channel, the Straits of Magellan and Cape Horn. There was a chill over the little city centre, despite the summer sun. In the evening, I left terra firma to mount the gangplank, and we were gone. It wasn’t until two full days later that land was visible again.
Out at sea, I pull back the curtains of my cabin to see an albatross skimming over the Drake Passage. Standing on deck with other passengers, we get pummelled by the swell and the spray. I go up to the bridge and speak with the chief safety officer, a Norwegian sea-dog with grey eyes and Swarovski binoculars. “I’ve done maybe 20 Antarctica sailings. It does something to people,” he tells me. He points to a camera among the dials and radar screens, and cracks his first smile. “I still take around 300 photos every time I come down here.”
Late that afternoon, we cross the Antarctic Convergence, where cold and warmer currents meet, enabling marine life to thrive. The air becomes colder and the winds wilder. At length, and causing no small amount of spilled coffee in the observation lounge, a sliver of land appears on the horizon. We’ve arrived.
No man’s land
Man is the only land mammal that ever makes it this far south. My ship, Hurtigruten’s MS Fram, was named after the Norwegian vessel that carried Roald Amundsen and his team to the continent on their successful race to the South Pole in 1910-12. Together with Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton, Amundsen is synonymous with the heroic age of Antarctic exploration, but the three weren’t the first to arrive. Geographers and sailors had suspected the presence of a great southern continent since the Middle Ages.
Edward Bransfield, a master in the Royal Navy, is widely credited with discovering the continent during an expedition in 1820. Before setting out he’d been told to ‘ascertain the natural resources for supporting a colony and maintaining a population’. Or, if he found it was already inhabited, to ‘minutely observe the character, habits, dresses and customs of the inhabitants, to whom you will display every friendly disposition’. Well, penguins deserve courtesy, after all.
It soon became clear the continent was unpopulated, frozen and vast. Recent mapping efforts have told us precisely how vast and icy: nearly double the size of Australia, at 5.4 million sq miles, 98% of which is covered by ice, at least a mile deep in most places.
Antarctica is an ‘unclaimed territory’ and all sovereign claims to the territory have been put on hold since the Antarctic Treaty came into force in 1961, with the intention of preserving the continent as ‘a natural reserve devoted to peace and science’. It is also the coldest, windiest place on the planet, once recording a low of minus 89C. The most tangible effect of this intense cold is that the ocean surrounding the mainland freezes over for almost half the year, during which time the sun disappears. The cruising season is the other half.
Our 10-day itinerary gave us six days on the Antarctic Peninsula, to sail down the west coast as far as the top of the Lemaire Channel, then double back up to explore the Antarctic Sound and the tip of the east coast. There were nine landings, each of which gave us at least an hour on terra firma, with passengers ferried from ship to shore in rigid inflatable boats. Some landings took us to the islands that clustered around the coastline, others to the mainland itself. Occasionally the number of passengers in one spot detracted from the magic of the on-shore experience, but otherwise the landings were phenomenal.
Back aboard MS Fram, our time was spent at anchor or, more usually, sailing around the coastline of the peninsula. Over the course of the week, we spotted just two other ships.
Before the trip, I’d worried that by restricting ourselves to the tip of the continent our experience would be somehow lacking. What a fool. The peninsula, the focal area for almost all cruises to the region, is unquestionably the most ferociously handsome setting I’ll ever experience. As a tourist, perhaps the clearest thing that can be said about arriving here is that the place feels wholly removed from the rest of the world, and not just by virtue of its location. There’s an unreality to it, as though everything you’re seeing has been run through some sort of fantastical filter. So when a pod of orcas appear with a ‘pfff’ at the side of the ship, or you glide past an electric-blue iceberg the size of the Houses of Parliament, you find yourself thinking, am I really here?
There are times too when you end up rotating, dazed, around the deck, determined not to miss anything but uncertain which way to face. Towards the rainbow over the mountains? The seals on the ice floe? The calving glacier? “It’s just too much,” I heard a Canadian lady exclaim to her husband early on. “We may as well hurl the camera overboard.”
On one of the first landings, at Cuverville Island, so staggering was the scale of what I was seeing — hundreds of gentoo penguins, with a spread of bays and peaks in the background — I thought I wouldn’t feel short-changed if the trip were aborted there and then. That was before realising it was just a taste of things to come. Stunning is an overused word, but here it can be taken literally. The dimensions are giddying.
The weather regularly turned on a whim. One landing was in a grey, whippy snowstorm, far more easily borne by the stolid rookeries of chinstrap penguins than the anorak-clad voyeurs, yet the same afternoon saw mile-wide ice shelves and high ridges bask in sunshine.
Being January, the mid-summer temperatures were a relatively balmy few degrees below zero, with just five hours of darkness each night. On the long evenings, we wrapped up to gawp as the skies became candy-striped with shades of blue and orange. On the evening we sailed through Paradise Bay — a wide, natural harbour on the west of the peninsula — the light, the ice and the mountains combined to such radiant effect that I found myself outside for three hours straight.
History and humpbacks
As with any cruise, what was going on outside was paired with life on board, where 199 international passengers were making home for 10 days. Outside were bergs and whales, but inside were buffet lunches, treadmills and kisses blown surreptitiously between junior crew members. Would the couple from Chennai ever finish that Scrabble bout? Why did the family from Wisconsin never speak to each other? And would the Catalans finally be tempted by the Terry Wogan autobiography in the ship library?
The MS Fram is my kind of cruising vessel — steering clear of the lobster-and-Champagne frenzy of stereotype but providing plenty in the way of diversion. There were saunas, photography workshops and scheduled lectures. Much of the voyage to and from Antarctica was taken up with these talks, in fact, which covered everything from the region’s geology and history to bird life and global warming. And if the waves meant the lecture theatre sporadically found itself tilting 20 degrees off its natural axis, it did at least help it feel less like school. The food was generous, the expedition staff were reassuringly eco-minded and the cabins were comfortable. You weren’t obliged to dress for dinner. And I bet Scott never had chocolates on his pillow.
Just as the profound panoramas came in dizzying numbers, so too did the wildlife encounters. Whales appeared regularly.
“We have humpbacks close by to starboard,” announced the ship PA one afternoon. A 10-second pause, then: “We have orcas close by to port.” In the larger inlets, it was sometimes possible to spot spume-clouds in six or eight parts of a bay.
Seals were commonplace too, lying fat and serene on the ice. On the morning the ship was due to sail through the Lemaire Channel — an iceberg-filled strait — heavy pack ice forced a change of plan. Passengers were instead put into inflatables for frosty mini-cruises. Our little vessel was nosing through the brash — ice blocks that crunched under the bow — when we found ourselves 30ft from a dusky Weddell seal, flat out on a floe. It opened two kohl-black eyes, evaluated us for a few seconds, then went back to rest with a placid snort.
But it was the penguins that provided the real Attenborough moments. Swimming offshore in their sixes and sevens, waddling up rock hills in their hundreds, huddled in whiffy rookeries in their tens of thousands. On day six, we landed at Paulet Island, only a mile in diameter but home to a quarter of a million Adélie penguins. Statistics like this seemed almost normal by this stage of the trip, but the effect on the senses was still hallucinatory. At one point I missed my footing, causing a passing penguin to stop and stare me square in the face. It was a look that said: “You know what, pal, when you’re back in some supermarket queue in the real world, you’ll struggle to believe this ever happened.”
Paulet Island also has a human history. In 1903, a Swedish expedition ship was trapped in nearby ice for a full winter, leaving 20 men to spend nine months in a hastily constructed stone hut on the island. They survived, thanks to penguin meat and bloody-mindedness.
Fittingly, our very last stop, Hannah Point — a headland on the south coast of Livingston Island in the South Shetland Islands — delivered a genuine wildlife crescendo. Elephant seals play-fought in the surf, skuas circled and blue-eyed cormorants fussed over seaweed nests. Meanwhile, and seemingly impassive to it all, a mass of stoical penguins stood guardian over their chicks. All this was framed by five-mile-long ice cliffs.
Regular visitors claim Antarctica gets under your skin. The few who stay here summer-round are scientists and support staff. Mid-voyage, we stopped at Port Lockroy, a British base on a mountain-ringed island. Outside the main hut, I chatted with Claire Brown, a young graduate midway through a five-month residential placement. It was hammering down with rain and we were standing in a morass of penguin droppings. So is it fun out here, I asked? She extended a damp arm towards the view and gave the ear-to-ear smile of a zealot. “I’m loving every single minute,” she said quietly.
Today, around 20,000 tourists a year set foot on Antarctica — the same number Milton Keynes Community Museum can expect.
It takes time and money to reach Antarctica, and it’s worth both. If you’re coming simply to plant a figurative flag on that awkward last continent, rethink. Come with open eyes, and discard any preconceptions. I hadn’t expected to have my horizons hammered out of shape, or that the reality would be so dazzling. And I certainly hadn’t envisaged becoming a helpless, moist-eyed cliché, welling up every time I tried to talk about the fragile awe of it all. But you know what? The ship was full of us.
Cruising is the most common way to visit. The vast majority of boats leave from Ushuaia, at the southern tip of Argentina. It can be reached by plane from Buenos Aires, El Calafate and other parts of the country. The city marks the end of the Pan-American Highway, so has road access. The sailing twice crosses the Drake Passage, where you should expect rough seas.
It is possible to fly to Antarctica, although just a handful of operators, including White Desert, take travellers to camps across the continent. www.white-desert.com
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.
When to go
Winter pack ice means the cruising season is restricted to November-March.
Need to know
Visas: None required.
Health: Visitors should be in good health. Medical aid is offered on board, but the nearest major healthcare facilities are days away.
Time difference: Varies with location as many research stations apply the time of the country which owns them.
Port Lockroy. www.ukaht.org/peninsula/port-lockroy
Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of the World’s Most Mysterious Continent by Gabrielle Walker.RRP: £20. www.iaato.org
How to do it
Hurtigruten has six Classic Expedition departures for 2012/13. From £4,304 per person, based on two sharing. Includes nine nights’ full board on MS Fram, flights between Buenos Aires and Ushuaia, a trip to Ushuaia National Park and all landings and lectures. www.hurtigruten.co.uk
Published in the Jul/Aug 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)