It’s hard to escape the rat race these days. There are queues to reach the summit of Everest, direct flights to remote Pacific islands and luxurious hotels in the rainforest. We’ve tamed and colonised most of the world, but one vast stretch of the planet remains beyond our grasp: Antarctica.
This frozen continent at the end of the Earth has never been permanently occupied by man. Accessible only from November to March, it has no towns or villages, no habitation bar the odd research station or expedition hut; just grand, icy, unpredictable wilderness. Even if you’re travelling there on a cruise ship, as most people do, the solitude and the emptiness will envelop you and bring you down to scale.
Not that solitude is the first thing that comes to mind when you’re standing in the middle of a penguin colony on an Antarctic shoreline. When I visited, in early February, there were thousands of birds packed tightly on every rock, both shy gentoo penguins and the bolder adélies, which seemed happy for us to wander among them, cameras clicking furiously at the grey fluff-ball chicks tapping their parents’ beaks to be fed.
Adult penguins nudged each other into the sea and “porpoised” through the water like leaping salmon, their oiled white feathers gleaming silver in the sun. Later in the trip we came across chinstrap penguins on Livingstone Island, looking for all the world as if they were sporting old-fashioned motorcycle helmets.
Penguins are by no means the only stars of the show here. It was equally thrilling to see a wandering albatross circling above our ship, dipping its great wings into the rolling waters of the Drake Passage. Or fat elephant seals lolling on the beach in a soup of algae, snorting and bellowing at each other like elderly members of a gentlemen’s club.
Most exciting of all, though, were the whales. As the call went up from the bridge – “Humpbacks!” – we spotted three of them leaping from the water beside the ship – their magnificent tails emerging and dipping as if in slow motion, so close that we could see their great barnacled heads, their eyes and blowholes.
One even swam under the ship, flippers outstretched like an enormous aeroplane, clearly visible in the clear turquoise water. Later, several minke whales played alongside us as we took a Zodiac dinghy cruise among the icebergs.
Ah, the icebergs. The glassy world of the Weddell Sea is a surreal panorama of icy skyscrapers stretching to the horizon. Some are whipped by wind and water into fantastical shapes – oriental palaces, ruined fortresses, even an Art Deco cinema. In others you can glimpse arches and grottos of such intense blue they look as though they’re lined with topaz or aquamarine.
“Of course many of the people who go on those big Alaskan cruise ships would hate this,” a fellow passenger said to me as we were buffeted by winds and showered with icy water on one of our Zodiac trips ashore. “There’s no disco and no spa. It would be too rough and remote for them, too strange, too adventurous.”
But that is precisely what makes a voyage here so wonderful and extraordinary. A journey to Antarctica is about as other-worldly a travel experience as you can have, short of a flight to the Moon. Afterwards you’ll never look at the natural world in quite the same way again.
When to travel
You can only visit the area during the Antarctic summer, from November to March. Prices are cheaper at the beginning and end of the season, but there is less to see in the way of wildlife. Photographers wanting to capture classic images of pristine Antarctic ice will get their best shots in November, and at this time, penguins start to come ashore for courtship rituals and nest building, but the days are shorter and the ice thicker, restricting access to some areas.
From mid to late December penguin chicks start to hatch on the Antarctic Peninsula, and in January you can watch the feeding frenzy. By February, penguin colonies are busy, noisy and smelly as the young penguins begin their moult; February to early March is the best time to see whales, and a good number of fur seals. By mid March most penguin colonies are emptying as the birds return to the sea.
Is it safe?
Yes, if you go with a reputable company. Check that your chosen operator is a member of IAATO (the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators), which has strict guidelines for safe and environmentally responsible operations. Captains and crew on expedition voyages are likely to have experience of polar conditions, and will be very aware of safety issues.
The two-day crossing of the Drake Passage, the stretch of water between Tierra del Fuego and the Antarctic Peninsula, can be very rough indeed and not for fair-weather sailors, but conditions are usually fairly calm once there.
How to travel
Most people visit Antarctica on a cruise ship. The IAATO website (iaato.org) lists all the operators cruising in the area, and while this includes some of the large, mainstream cruise lines, I would strongly recommend opting for one of the smaller expedition ships carrying between 50 and 200 passengers.
They may not be as fast or luxurious as the larger vessels and you won’t find casinos or themed dining on board. But they all provide reasonable levels of comfort and are much more likely to have ice-hardened hulls and a captain and crew with specialist knowledge of polar regions.
Most have expert naturalists and polar historians on board, who give talks and lead frequent shore trips and Zodiac dinghy tours (weather permitting). This is when you get a real feel for the landscape and can see (and photograph) the wildlife close up. Prices for an 11-day trip to the Antarctic Peninsula start at about £4,000 per person in late November, excluding flights.
Larger ships with more than 500 passengers are not allowed to land passengers in Antarctic waters so you can only view the landscape from the ship. While this might be a sensible option for anyone with restricted mobility, who would have difficulty getting into and out of a Zodiac dinghy, it does mean you miss the essence of this great ice wilderness.
While most people find the daily shore excursions and Zodiac rides fulfilling enough, there are cruises that offer the option of kayaking, snowshoeing, mountaineering or cross-country skiing. And on some Aurora Expeditions’ cruises (auroraexpeditions.co.uk) passengers are given the opportunity to dive and snorkel (UK bookings through steppestravel.co.uk).
If you want to play the intrepid explorer and trek to the South Pole, you can join a land expedition; see the various options available through Discover the World (discover-the-world.co.uk). Companies such as White Desert (white-desert.com) will fly you in to their temporary pod campsite in Antarctica, from where you can trek to see emperor penguins. By the time you’ve added flights these trips usually cost upwards of £40,000 a head, however.
Most cruises leave from Ushuaia in Argentina or Punta Arenas in Chile, and take about two days to reach the Antarctic Peninsula. But if you are short of time, or can’t face crossing the Drake Passage, it is possible to fly to the South Shetland Islands and join a ship there, though this will add at least £2,000 a head to the cost of the trip.
What to take
You may be travelling in the Antarctic summer, but temperatures are still likely to be at or below freezing. Dress as for skiing in January: thermal underwear, a thin insulating layer, then a fleece or a thin down jacket, all topped with seriously waterproof trousers and jacket (with hood). Also a hat, ski gloves, good sunglasses and waterproof boots to at least knee height for wet landings; if the boots have grippy soles for scrambling over rocks and ice, so much the better.
Also take the best binoculars you can afford, and a camera with a good zoom if you want to avoid photos of black humps of whales on the horizon; carry both in a waterproof case or backpack, as Zodiac trips can be splashy. And do pack bucketfuls of seasickness pills. You’ll be crossing the notoriously rough Drake Passage, so don’t be tempted to cut costs by picking a cabin without en suite facilities.
Who will it appeal to?
Anyone who enjoys seeing wildlife and the natural world. If this isn’t your thing, you might find yourself asking why you’ve come all this way to stare at icebergs.
Where to go
This might seem obvious, but many Antarctic itineraries include the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, as well as the Antarctic Peninsula. If you are very keen on bird and animal life, it’s worth taking one of the longer cruises to all three destinations, but these tend to take between 18 and 22 days.
For most people a classic 10 or 12-day cruise to the Peninsula gives a really good feel for the special nature of the place: the icebergs, penguins, whales, seals, expedition history and solitude. South Georgia will appeal to devotees of Ernest Shackleton, since this is where he made his famous journey to save the crew of the icebound Endeavour, and it’s also the site of his grave.
While you’re there
Since most international flights land in Buenos Aires or Santiago, where you change for an internal flight to southern ports, it’s worth spending a few days in either city, or a week or so exploring further afield. Popular side trips include Iguazu Falls, a stay on an estancia or trekking in Patagonia. Ushuaia, the departure point for most Antarctic cruises, is also a good base for exploring the lakes, valleys and forests of the Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego.
Discover the World will organise side trips for customers booking an Antarctic tour; and LATA (the Latin American Travel Association) has a list of specialist tour operators on its website (lata.travel).
Who to travel with
Discover the World (discover-the-world.co.uk) has a good range of cruises on various expedition ships. If you want a deeper level of comfort, opt for a cruise on Abercrombie & Kent’s Le Boreal or Le Lyrial (abercrombiekent.co.uk). Noble Caledonia (noble-caledonia.co.uk) also offers a range of expedition cruises in the area, and if you’re prepared to really splash out, Natural World Safaris (naturalworldsafaris.com) will fly you there via private jet with packages up to £74,000pp for an eight-day adventure, or charter a private yacht through Eyos Expeditions (eyos-expeditions.com) from around £130,000 to £423,000 per week. See the IAATO website for details of other operators and cruise lines visiting the region.
Most cruise ships have a good library of reference books on Antarctic flora and fauna, but to get a feel for the area, try to buy or borrow a book of the black and white photographs taken by Frank Hurley and Herbert Ponting, the official expedition photographers with Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott respectively. Looking at these is the next best thing to visiting Antarctica.
The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (Vintage Classics) is a fascinating account of Scott’s disastrous South Pole expedition, written by one of the young members of his team. By contrast, South: The Endurance Expedition by Ernest Shackleton (Penguin) tells the extraordinary story of the mission to rescue his 1914 expedition – all members of which survived.
John A Harrison won the English-language non-fiction award in the Wales Book of the Year competition in 2011 for Forgotten Footprints: Lost Stories in the Discovery of Antarctica (Parthian).
When it comes to fiction, Skating to Antarctica by Jenny Diski (Virago) contains an accurate and entertaining account of an Antarctic cruise – and captures the allure of this icebound world. The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge (Abacus) is based on Scott’s expedition to the South Pole. With Scott to the Pole (Bloomsbury) contains a selection of Herbert Ponting’s extraordinary black and white photographs.