Way beyond the end of the world

By Simon Calder

The Drake Passage, which separates the world we know from Antarctica, can be one of the lumpiest, least pleasant stretches of open water on the planet. Photo / Thinkstock
The Drake Passage, which separates the world we know from Antarctica, can be one of the lumpiest, least pleasant stretches of open water on the planet. Photo / Thinkstock

Ushuaia's self-proclaimed status that it is the fin del mundo ("end of the world") prompts a natural question: what lies beyond the port? And the answer is: nature, at its rawest, wildest best.

The Drake Passage can be one of the lumpiest, least pleasant stretches of open water on the planet. It separates the world we know from Antarctica.

A clue lies in the title of Apsley Cherry-Garrard's book, The Worst Journey In The World, which chronicles Robert Falcon Scott's heroic failure to be first to reach the world's southernmost point.

It begins: "Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised."

The driest, coldest and windiest continent is unfit for human habitation. Settlements in Antarctica remain microscopic for a continent twice the size of Australia: a scattering of small research stations around the edges, with another - the Amundsen-Scott Station - at the Pole itself, 90 degrees south.

Yet almost all the tourists who venture south from Ushuaia to Antarctica deem it worthwhile: where else are you likely to see an iceberg the size of Heathrow's Terminal 5 drift by, and then land on an island teeming with millions of penguins?

The seas and shores of the region comprise one of the most prolific parts of the planet for wildlife, particularly birds: albatrosses, petrels, fulmars, shearwaters and prions are numerous, especially in the sub-Antarctic islands.

About 50 vessels are licensed to operate in Antarctic waters, ranging from small expedition craft, with a few dozen passengers, to larger cruise ships carrying many hundreds.

Shore landings are made using rigid inflatable boats ("ribs"). The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators specifies that no more than 100 passengers may go ashore at a time, which can prove frustrating if you are on a larger vessel - though these tend to be cheaper.

A basic 10-day trip from Ushuaia costs about NZ$7900, including all meals. To this you need to add the cost of your airfare to Ushuaia. Almost all visits are made between November and March.

Unlike cruises in the far north, which routinely sail well inside the Arctic Circle, very few expeditions venture as far as the Antarctic Circle.

Typically, it takes two days to cross from Ushuaia to the Antarctic peninsula, the arm of land that curls up towards the southern tip of South America - a trip of about 1125 kilometres.

Given the uncertainties of weather, you should not set your heart on setting foot on the Antarctic mainland. The broadest definition of Antarctica includes sub-Antarctic isles such as South Georgia, and many Antarctic islands including the South Orkneys and the South Shetlands.

IF YOU GO

Discover the World and Journey Latin America offer a range of Antarctic options.

- INDEPENDENT

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