Visit Antarctica, a stunning part of the world barely touched by man, and come away with the memories and pictures that other people only dream about
"Antarctica! Why on Earth would you want to go there?"
My friend's reaction when I informed him I was planning a trip to Antarctica told me that he did not share my sense of adventure. Visiting the coldest, driest and most unforgiving place on Earth appealed to my senses and the chance to visit a place so far off the beaten track was an opportunity that I could not pass up.
I flew to Argentina as tours to the continent generally leave from Ushuaia which is a small city located at the southern tip of Argentina and many people will fly here from Buenos Aires. Aerolineas Argentinas is the main airline to fly down to Ushuaia (www.aerolineas.com.ar/home.asp) although it is worth checking out the few others such as LADE (www.lade.com.ar) who can also provide cheap flights. It is possible to leave from Australia and New Zealand, although the vast majority of these flights and ships are reserved for workers and research scientists.When to go
February itself is a good time to visit as the late summer provides the opportunity to spot wildlife such as whales, seals, penguins and dolphins. The ice at this time is relatively sparse which allows ships to access the Antarctic Peninsula as the weather and sea conditions tend to dictate what you can and cannot see and do during your visit. Leaving from the city of Ushuaia is therefore the norm and this small city referred to as ‘the end of the world’ has its own appeal. Despite the picturesque snow capped mountains offering various walks and day trips, the increase in tourism - especially over the last 10 years - is, for many visitors, because of its geographical position rather than its character and many of the tourist shops will play on this. You can even obtain an 'end of the world' stamp in your passport at the 'end of the world museum'. However there is debate over this accolade as a port in Chile, Puerto Williams, also claims to be the southernmost city with a population of over 2000. The debate between the countries as to what defines a city rumbles on....
How to get around
Of course the mode of transport is important and the ship you decide upon is a personal choice. I chose 'Polar Star' which is a ship used by www.expeditiontrips.com (Tel:+12065470700) who offer a wide variety of ships, prices and adventure options. My decision was made on price, availability and itinerary and the fact that this ship was an icebreaker would allow the opportunity for the ship to reach places that a large cruise ship, for example, would not. Between £3,000 and £3,500 is what you would expect to pay for a 10-14 day cruise although you can start adding on hundreds and thousands if you want a more active trip including kayaking and climbing for example. Last minute deals in Ushuaia are sometimes available for around £2,500 but you may have to wait around for a week or two before departure.
As I boarded my ship on the afternoon of departure I wondered what to expect. I checked into my room on the boat where I met my roommate - a fellow Englishman who tipped the calendar at a cool 77 years old. 'Have you been on a ship like this before?' I enquired as I attempted to make early conversation. 'No, I wasn't in the war' he replied. I thought it could be a long 12 days in the cabin. It did not take long for me to find people of a similar age with similar interests and in fact, on the ship of approximately 100 guests with age groups ranging from early 20s up to perhaps late 70s I would suggest that we were the youngest and the oldest passengers travelling on our own. There were other single travellers in their 20s and 30s who I would have been perhaps better suited to room with so the decision to pair us up remains a mystery, and this would be my only criticism of the organisation.
Sleeping in an en suite room was comfortable and if you are willing to bunk up with like-minded travellers rather than have your own room then you will save a lot of money. The days on the boat comprised of lectures and landings (a few of which are on the continent itself) and this allows you to gain some information the wildlife, ice formations and history of Antarctica. A PA system woke us up in the morning and rightly so – the first 5 am start on day three was spectacular. No matter how many lectures you have heard or pictures you have seen, nothing can quite describe the first time you see the salmon pink rays of the early morning sun dance between the glistening icebergs you have read about. Everyone is quiet as they try to absorb this otherworldly place; it is like a Hollywood movie and has to be seen to be believed.
Visiting the ice
During our six days navigating the peninsular, three landings a day were made which allows you the opportunity to get up relatively close and personal with the wildlife and it is a fantastic experience to know you are walking where not many people have walked before. To see the natural wildlife in its element behaving as they have done for centuries without human interference amidst a sweet backdrop of crisp, sugar coated mountains really is jaw-dropping stuff. A popular stop for most of the tourist ships is the British owned historical site Port Lockroy which has a cosy converted museum and a post office that sees up to 80,000 postcards sent each year. The shop accepts British Pounds, US Dollars, the Euro and credit cards although there is a 50 dollar minimum if paying by card. Palmer station is another popular haunt that we visited and is one of the three US research stations in Antarctica. Research focuses on marine biology and further information about the work they do and even volunteer options can be found on their website pal.lternet.edu. The temperature outside was possibly the most surprising feature for me as it was probably about 5C on average which was hardly the Antarctic climate I had presumed but it did make life outdoors relatively comfortable.
When not cruising in a zodiac (an inflatable boat used for transport to and from the shore) or hanging out with penguins, on board the ship our meals were delivered with efficiency and variety. Three courses with self serve options meant that no-one would be left to go hungry and with coffee and biscuits available 24/7 on the pleasant observation deck, I was pleased I had not shelled out bringing my own extra snacks. A small bar, gym and email facilities were also available although to try and preserve a sense of isolation I decided against emailing back home to find out the latest football scores! For me, part of the Antarctic experience is being somewhere in the middle of nowhere and this state of solitude allows for reflection and acknowledgment of where you are and how far you have come. This alone is recommendation for a smaller ship rather than a larger and potentially more comfortable cruise liner as the more intimate experience is a far more rewarding and personal experience.
A return to civilisation 12 days after departure brings the return of reality along with the anticipation and apprehension that your camera still works. It is impossible to take bad pictures and the memories you will have will truly reflect this once in a lifetime experience.