A pristine wilderness at the end of the world, Antarctica is truly a destination like no other - and setting foot on this empty continent is truly an emotional moment
There is a sign in the southernmost city in the world that reads “Ushuaia: the end of the world and the beginning of everything”. It may indeed be the end of the world but it certainly doesn’t feel like it. The place is buzzing with cars and people. Its busy main street is lined with souvenir stores, bars, sandwich shops, backpacking hostels and even a casino.
Although much larger, Ushuaia has an air similar to that of Kirkwall in the Orkneys. It’s a part of something and yet it isn’t. The flags in the windows acknowledge the sovereignty of Argentina but the baseball caps and T-shirts declare allegiance to Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia.
I sent a text one evening saying “sat in a bar at the end of the world” - but then realised the very fact that I could get a mobile signal gave the lie to my claims before they were even sent. Despite numerous proclamations to the contrary, this is not the end of the world. That lay some 600 miles or more further south, and that was where I was headed.
Sizing up ships
Antarctica was first sighted in 1820 but it was only around 100 years ago that explorers such as Scott and Shackleton began to take an interest in this most inhospitable of places. The only practical way for the average person to reach Antarctica is by cruise ship. The choice of vessels ranges from small ice-strengthened expedition ships to large liners. The smaller ships are tossed about more crossing the Drake Passage, and can feel a bit claustrophobic after a week or more at sea, but landings are easier. The larger ships have to be content with sailing past and viewing from a distance.
I chose the largest ship I could find that would allow me to actually set foot on the continent. Although MV Discovery, operated by Voyages of Discovery, can hold 600 passengers, its Antarctic itineraries are limited to 500 passengers maximum. Transfers to shore are by rubber inflatables (Zodiacs). Antarctic treaties limit landings to 100 people at a time, so patience is the keyword, but I found the procedures slick and well-organised.
As far as clothing is concerned we were issued with bright red parkas which had to be worn for all landings. It was explained that these made us more visible in adverse weather conditions, or worse still, in the water. You will also need waterproof trousers. If you have a down jacket or good ski jacket, bring it with you but most important of all, take some wellingtons. When you step out of the landing boats you could find yourself in a foot of icy water so rubber boots are essential footwear.
Icebergs and islands
Once past the Antarctic Covergence – the point where cold, Antarctic waters meet and mix with the warmer waters of the sub-Antarctic – we began to see icebergs ghosting towards us out of the mist. As we sailed south, they became more numerous, some flat and tabular, others looking more like rejects from the Tate Modern.
Since M/S Nordkapp ran aground off the coast of Deception Island in January 2007, cruise companies have been somewhat circumspect about entering its flooded caldera. We decided to keep our distance and instead launched the Zodiacs to go penguin-spotting off the shore of nearby Livingston Island.
The following day we reached Elephant Island. It was here that 22 of Shackleton’s men spent the winter in an upturned boat. In one of the most impressive rescue missions ever documented, Shackleton set out to seek help from the whaling station at South Georgia. Against all the odds, he finally returned to rescue his men four months later.
Point Wild, where the men camped, is a pretty desolate place even in summer. Goodness knows what it must have been like in the depths of an Antarctic winter. I wondered if Shackleton could ever have imagined the row of red parka-clad tourists gazing silently at the tiny rocky beach where his men had suffered such unendurable hardship just 91 years previously.
Our first landing was near the Arctowski Polish research station on King George Island, the largest of the South Shetland Islands. Whale bones littered the shingle beach, a bleached testament to a previous life. As I walked along the shore, a line of Adelie penguins kept pace with me a few yards distant at the water’s edge. At the point where the beach gave way to a rocky outcrop, elephant seals lay carefully camouflaged among the boulders, seemingly oblivious to the Adelie and Gentoo penguins cavorting around them.
The following day was spent creeping through an endless fog bank. All activities were cancelled as we crept towards our first landing on the Antarctic continent. At these latitudes in December it never really gets dark. After a somewhat tedious day, I awoke at 3:30am to find the fog lifted and a low sun glinting on the tops of the mountains and glaciers of Paradise Bay.
I scrambled out of my cabin to find four or five fellow insomniacs already on deck. No one spoke. I suspect no one had the words to describe what they were seeing or how they were feeling. For my part, I just watched the mountains drift by, mountains that no one had ever, ever climbed. Antarctica is the fifth largest continent on the planet, yet has a transient population of less than 1,000. How do you imagine such emptiness? It’s outrageous.
Unfortunately there was too much ice in the bay for us to attempt our planned landing but, ever resourceful, the crew found an alternative and we all managed to at last set foot on the Antarctic Peninsula. It may have been just five minutes among a jumble of boulders at the bottom of an ice sheet but after years of dreaming, I had finally landed on the Antarctic continent. It was an emotional moment.
Ice also blocked our passage through the Tolkienesque Lemaire Channel, forcing us to turn around before the narrowing ice cliffs blocked any attempt at retreat. At around 65 degrees, this was our furthest south but it would take us another four days before we berthed in Ushuaia. After visiting a chinstrap penguin rookery on Half Moon Island, we set out once again to brave the Roaring Forties and Drake Passage.
It’s hard to put a trip like this into perspective. At a time when most destinations are boasting about what they have or hope to have, Antarctica makes a virtue of what it hasn’t. No McDonald's, no KFC, no hotels, no roads, no people. Maybe for some it is the end of the world. But then again, perhaps it really is the start of everything.
Just picking up on Rick's review below. It's very difficult to advise on prices as this depends upon the time of year, cabin grade, quality and size of ship etc. If you are looking to do Antarctica on a budget however then consider doing what I did. Target one of the larger ships (they have more cabins to fill) and go for the cruise ending immediately prior to Christmas Day. Plenty of people want to spend Christmas Day in Antarctica but not many want to spend it in a hotel room in Buenos Aires. Also the week before Christmas most people have other commitments.
This is the departure the cruise companies will find the most difficult to fill and probably the one most heavily discounted. But don't expect to see discounts publicly advertised - it upsets full-fare paying passengers. Instead the cruise companies are more likely to discreetly mail details to past customers and a few specialist travel agents. If you can't find a travel agent who can help you, try negotiating with the cruise company yourself. Leave it until at least 6 weeks and preferably 4 before departure and see if they will offer you a deal. If they have no availability then there's not much you can do but if they have and they won't budge on price don't give up, try again nearer the time and don't accept any single supplements.
By going relatively early in the season you risk places like Paradise Bay and the Lemaire Channel being blocked with ice but on the other hand you could see what very few others on this earth will ever see for less than £2,500.