Words can’t even begin to describe how magnificent, lonely, unearthly, and just plain incredible Antarctica is. Photos don’t help much more either. It’s so infinitely more than snow, ice and penguins, that unless you’ve been you’ve no way of imaging what it’s actually like. Parts of Greenland come close to recreating aspects of the magic without really coming close to the total experience, and I would assume the wilderness of Svalbard and remote areas of Alaska would be similar, but Antarctica is, quite literally, a land apart from the rest of the word.
It’s utterly, utterly pristine, unimaginably vast, and near-as-dammit completely untouched by human hands. Perhaps more than anything though it’s the journey there that sets it apart from the rest of the world. Travellers can access Antarctica on cruise boats and ships departing from South Africa, Australia and the southern tip of South America. The vast majority of humans (apart from scientists and others working at the various scientific stations scattered around this vast icy continent), however, visit from Ushuaia, a very atmospheric place at the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego, the island at the end of the South American continent.
Arriving here by plane for the first time is an extremely thrilling experience, as the town (dubbed the world’s southernmost town) has a strong end-of-the world feeling about it. It’s very remote, the air is extremely pure and carries a fresh chill even in the height of the brief summer, while the surrounding mountains form a majestic backdrop. If you were to go no further south, Ushuaia could well remain in your mind as one of the world’s really far-flung, remote spots.
However, returning from a week or two sailing along the Antarctic Peninsula, Ushuaia may become an unwelcome return to a world severely compromised by humans, with its roads, hotels, annoying chic boutique travellers shops, restaurants, movie theater and airport. Visiting Antarctica, for me at least, was little short of a kind of religious awakening, perhaps a vaguely pagan one, where for the first time in my life I saw real, completely untouched nature (the other remote corners of the world I’ve visited – Patagonia, the Sahara Desert, the Siberian Steppe, for instance, don’t come anywhere even close) – what the world would have been like before man came and built roads and town, polluted the air and water, and upset the Earth’s delicate balance. It was a brutal awakening, and I’ve never been quite the same since. I often say I’d re-mortgage my house (if I had one) if that was the only way to return to Antarctica. I’ll be back one day – nowhere else I’ve visited in all my travels has come even close.
Reaching Antartica from Ushuaia involves a two-day crossing of the Drake Passage. It’s a rough and often uncomfortable journey – hell for those who easily suffer from seasickness. It’s alao potentially dangerous. A ship belonging to the company we used sank the year before we visited (although all the passengers where rescued), and on our boat, a passenger was thrown down stairs by the violent jerk of a wave on the way south during the first day of ‘paying the dues’ as the crossing is called. She suffered a compound fracture of her leg and had to be helicoptered off to hospital back in Argentina as soon as we reached the first research station on Antarctica the following day. Despite the hardship it’s still the easiest and quickest way to reach Antarctica, since there are (and hopefully never will be) tourist flights to the peninsula.
Because of this enormous degree of isolation, the Antarctic Peninsula has an utterly magical atmosphere that I’ve felt nowhere else before or after. Seeing land for the first time there’s the vague feeling, almost, of arriving on some distant planet. And from then onwards, as the boat heads slowly south, usually past the South Shetland Islands and on along the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula, it’s sheer, unadulterated magic. The peninsula is fringed with countless islands, and the sea along the coast is frequently calm, at times of an almost unearthly stillness. The weather in summer is also often surprisingly mild, and very calm, with clear skies and amazing sunsets (later in the season at least).
Visiting Antarctica will likely be one of your greatest travel memories, but to make sure you get the most out of your trip (assuming you’re seriously interested in seeing and experiencing Antarctica) I discovered a few points that made our trip so much better than it could have been.
- If you’re at all interested in getting a feel for the Peninsula, stick to a small, expedition-style ship – up to 150 people maximum. These smaller boats tend to attract people that are genuinely into seeing Antarctica, so your fellow passengers are likely to be more curious than the usual cruise ship crowd. Smaller boats also mean the crew and onboard naturalists get to know you a bit (we finished our trip with an impromptu dance in the dining room after the crew found out I could play the piano and unearthed an electric keyboard). It also means, hopefully, more chances to land (by Zodiac inflatable), and, of course, fewer people to disturb the penguins when on land. We enjoyed two landing each day as we sailed down the peninsula and back again.
- Get the longest possible cruise you can afford, even if it stretches the budget. Many cruises are only 8-10 days. We joined a 13-day cruise that saw us just cross the Antarctic Circle (a very much harder taste to achieve than crossing the Arctic Circle!). Much more importantly, it’ll give you more priceless days to experience this incredible place. It was extremely hard to leave, and I fell into a mild but distinct depression upon leaving the boat at the end of the trip, and those extra few days down there were greedily lapped up.
- Decide when to go – the penguin babies are at their fluffiest early in the summer (December-January) but then thick ice can make some spectacular spots hard or impossible to reach. By late February (when we visited) the ice has thawed much more, access is better, and the penguin young, although growing, are still fluffy and amazingly cute.
- Finally, and most importantly, realize what an incredible privilege it is to visit this place. It’s one of the Earth’s most mind-bogglingly spectacular places, so leap at every opportunity to experience it in every way you can. The smaller expedition-style outfits like the one we went with offer expensive excursions by kayak, dry suit dives, and trekking on the ice, but I had unforgettable experiences each day by waking up at 3 or 4 in the morning, heading up on deck, playing Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus in my Ipod and absorbing the utter, unearthly stillness, completely alone. There’s nothing better.