Antarctica: Chilling thrills for those who dare go south

By Ian Henderson

Ian Henderson relished the chance to venture beyond the world of safe, scheduled travel. His wife was not so sure...
Adelie Penguins on Antarctica's Cape Hallett. Photo / Phil Lyver
Adelie Penguins on Antarctica's Cape Hallett. Photo / Phil Lyver

We were in the Jose Nogueira Hotel at the southern tip of Chile sipping pisco sours at the Shackleton Bar when they told us the regular plane couldn't take us to Antarctica the following morning.

Instead, the operators were going to borrow a C130 Hercules from the Uruguayan Air Force. Thrilling, of course, but I began to suspect our plan for a quick visit to Antarctica may have been a little ambitious. How far were we going beyond the safe, predictable world of scheduled travel?

Antarctica. A word to make you shiver. An entire continent covered in ice, bigger than Europe, without a single proper town or airport, cut off from the world by the Southern Ocean, a sea renowned for being unpredictably violent.

A place where human history started only a century ago, where the time of heroes may not yet be past. Somewhere so remote that I'd always thought going there simply wouldn't fit into the narrow gaps between children and work.

The early explorers, staring down from the walls of the Shackleton Bar, bristled with derision at such mundane concerns.

I'd found out that with a bit of luck and a new air service that cuts out the five-day return trip by sea, 24 hours in the air could get us all the way to an Antarctic base.

From there, we could board a small research ship for a week's sailing along the Antarctic Peninsula and land on the continent itself. With a 10-day window before starting a new job, the plan looked good. To me, at least.

Olivia, my wife, was less certain. She wasn't happy about leaving the children so far away, even in the capable hands of good friends. And she pointed out that you have to go past some really, really nice places - hot ones, and with beaches - just to get there. I was already on thin ice, so the last thing I needed was to get her stuck on a small ship in the Southern Ocean.

The weather is one of the main drawbacks. It is always extreme and even in the southern summer you need so many layers to make the place tolerable that it feels like getting dressed for a trip to Mars.

One of the Russian crewmen's hats read: "Aliens in Antarctica'', which is exactly how it feels to step ashore from a Zodiac inflatable boat into a colony of penguins going about their daily business of looking after the nippers, commuting to the sea to bring home the krill, maintaining the nest, bickering with the neighbours and all the rest of a life that seems so familiar.

Tourism in Antarctica is controlled by a consensus between the 50 countries that govern the continent and sea-based visits are encouraged as they minimise environmental impact.

Being on a ship isn't the endless snow desert experienced by explorers such as Scott, Amundsen and Cherry-Garrard. But it can be utterly ravishing, an other-worldly vision of sea, ice and cloud-wrapped mountains in a minimalist palette of blues and greys.

It was easy to forget the cold, wrapped in our down jackets watching icebergs so blue they look like someone had soaked them in ink, skuas swooping above and seals lolling on ice floes like indolent teenagers.

On a small ship Zodiacs can take passengers ashore two or three times a day but on larger cruise ships, it can be difficult for passengers to get much time ashore.

Some areas of penguin colonies, historic sites and research areas are protected, so even a small group like ours often has to stick together off as well as on the ship.

Smaller boats make people-watching more fun, getting past the national stereotypes of crazy Russians, partying Latins and birdwatching British to find numerous motivations for a visit to Antarctica.

Some people just like the vast emptiness. Then, with the help of the scientists on board, there's a surprising amount to learn about penguins.

Or the sense of history being newly made - the ruins of a Chilean base, most of it burned to the ground by a doctor left alone for the winter when the authorities refused his request to be allowed home. We climbed a hill behind his charred hut to look out over a bay surrounded by black mountains and jumbled, tumbling glaciers, then tobogganed madly down.

Port Lockroy is perhaps the most remote museum in the world. An abandoned British Antarctic Survey base. It was due to be cleared away until some former Antarctic Survey hands heard about it. Pointing out that it would be cheaper to repair it than remove it, they restored the buildings as they would have been in the 1950s, complete with long johns drying over the cast-iron cooker, the original wind-up gramophone, and cupboards full of Marmite.

Curator Rick Atkinson now spends four months a year manning the Port Lockroy post office and museum with just the wildlife and a couple of assistants for company.

Then there's the extraordinary Deception Island. An active volcanic caldera 10km in diameter, it contains one of the world's largest natural harbours, reached through a dangerous gap in the crater wall.

As a pod of minke whales crossed our path, the ship eased slowly into the mist-shrouded entrance. Inside, the fog lifted a little, grey resolving into black and white; ash and rock, snow and cloud.

Vents under the black beaches produced steam that rolled across the sea like an effect in a horror film. It sent shivers down the spine - but not as much as taking off your thermals and swimming in alternate waves of boiling and freezing seawater.

Although Antarctica is endlessly fascinating, Olivia was by now running up a huge bill calling the children on the ship's satellite phone and it was time to go home. Or so we thought. Antarctica had one more surprise - a storm that came out of nowhere just as we arrived back at Frei base, the wind rising to above hurricane force in less than an hour.

The Grigory Mikheev's captain hauled up the dragging anchor and turned for the open sea. Heading south again was the last thing Olivia had in mind. After an exhausting 30 hours at sea the storm subsided and we returned to find the plane had left and another was on its way, but no one knew quite when.

After stamping our feet in a freezing hangar for hours our Hercules finally thundered in through the cloud, lights blazing. Well over 24 hours later, we were home.

Antarctica isn't like anywhere else on Earth, not even the Arctic. It still runs on the looser timetable of scientists and the military, and remains unconnected to the world of scheduled travel.

Roald Amundsen, the first man to the South Pole, said "adventure is just bad planning".

Antarctica is so extreme it defies the best-laid plans, so there's no doubt you'll get a genuine adventure.

CHECKLIST

Top tip: Travel to Antarctica is highly dependent on weather both in the air and at sea. To get the most out of a trip it's a good idea to be prepared for extreme weather - Zodiac landings can demand some agility, and you're likely to get wet. The right clothes are essential to enjoying the experience, so invest in good down jackets and waterproof outer layers, with layers of thermals underneath. Warm neoprene boots are provided, but you must take your own waterproof gloves, windproof scarf, sunglasses and hat.

Details: The Antarctic cruise season runs from October 17-March 15. Adventure World's Antarctica Base Camp Expedition aboard the M/V Plancius takes 114 passengers in comfortable cabins to some of the most remote and wildest places on Earth.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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