Sep 15th, 2019

The Beautiful South

Pic Ben 3

A voyage to Antarctica

for National Geographic Traveller

I’m 8,700 miles from home when I step down from the boat, but the stones on the shore scrunch under my soles just as they would do anywhere. The wind coming in off the Southern Ocean is strong, but not a new sensation. That’s where familiarity ends. For the first time in my life, I am on solid ground that belongs to no nation – an immense landmass with no government, no economy and no whimsical tourist board slogan. An entire continent that’s unaware it’s a Friday. Behind me, one of the other passengers kneels down and kisses the ground. Partly, I think, to persuade himself it’s real.

If you’ve never travelled to Antarctica, you probably have a mental image of what it looks like. I did. I’d spent hours oohing and aahing at Frozen Planet from the sofa. It prepared me for the reality in the same way that a long-jump pit might have prepared me for the Sahara. The scale of the place is outrageous. Believe everything you’ve heard. Take your mental image, stretch the horizons, sharpen the peaks and have the glacial landscapes charge outwards and upwards until you’re left with the kind of manically beautiful scenery that you’d never previously thought possible. Add hundreds of thousands of penguins. Then steel your emotions and resign yourself to spending most of the experience floundering for as-yet-uncoined adjectives. It’s that special.

The voyage had begun in South America. There are things that an Antarctic expedition cruise can virtually guarantee, one of them being at least ten days on board a ship. It’s also likely to feel pretty special before you even embark. We were setting sail from the world’s southernmost city, Ushuaia, an outpost of Argentina on Tierra del Fuego. It had been journey enough just getting that far, and now a stack of Boy’s Own reference points were within touching distance: The Beagle Channel, The Straits of Magellan, Cape Horn. Long-haul travel can feel short on pure adventure sometimes – not so in Ushuaia. There was a chill over the little city centre, despite the summer sun, and the ship was visible in the port all afternoon. In the evening I left terra firma to mount the gangplank, and we were gone.

It wasn’t until two full days later that land was visible again. On Day One I pulled back the curtains of my cabin to see an albatross skimming over the Drake Passage. I stood out on deck with other passengers and got soundly pummelled by the swell and the spray. On Day Two I went up to the bridge and spoke with the chief safety officer, a Norwegian seadog with grey eyes and Swarovski binoculars. “I’ve done maybe twenty Antarctica sailings. It does something to people,” he told me. He pointed to a digital camera among the dials and radar screens, and cracked his first smile. “I still take around 300 photos every time I come down here.”

Late that afternoon we crossed the Antarctic Convergence, the area of mixed currents that cools the ocean temperature and lets marine life thrive. The air became colder and the wind got wilder. At length, and causing no small amount of spilled coffee in the observation lounge, an unwavering sliver of land appeared on the horizon. We’d arrived.

Man is the only land mammal that ever makes it this far south. My ship, Hurtigruten’s MS Fram, was named after the Norwegian vessel that carried Roald Amundsen and his team to the continent on their successful race to the South Pole. Together with Scott and Shackleton, Amundsen is synonymous with the heroic age of Antarctic exploration, but the three were by no means the first to arrive. Geographers and sailors had suspected the presence of a great southern continent since the Middle Ages, and once it was sighted in the early 19th century, colonists and hunters began frequenting the coast.

Initially, hard facts were elusive. Edward Bransfield, on a Royal Naval mission to the new land in 1820, was instructed as follows: “You will ascertain the natural resources for supporting a colony and maintaining a population, or if it already be inhabited, will minutely observe the character, habits, dresses and customs of the inhabitants, to whom you will display every friendly disposition.” Well, penguins deserve courtesy, after all.

In time, it became clear that the continent was unpopulated, frozen and titanic. You’ll have heard the statistics. Its land area is 5.4 million square miles, or nearly double that of Australia. Its surface is 98% covered by ice, stacked at least a mile deep in most places. It has genuine independence – all sovereign claims to the territory have been put on hold since the introduction of the Antarctic Treaty System in 1967, preserving the continent as “a natural reserve devoted to peace and science”. It is also the coldest, windiest place on the planet, once recording a low of minus 89°C. In keeping with this, the ocean surrounding the mainland freezes over completely for almost half the year, during which time the sun disappears entirely. The cruising season’s the other bit.

Our ten-day trip gave us six days on the Antarctic Peninsula, to sail down the west coast as far as the top of the Lemaire Channel, then double back up to explore the Antarctic Sound and the tip of the east coast. There were nine landings, each of which gave us at least an hour on land, with groups of eight to ten passengers ferried, at intervals, from ship to shore in rigid inflatable boats. Some of the landings took us to islands, others to the mainland itself. Occasionally the number of passengers in one spot detracted from the magic of the on-shore experience, but otherwise the landings were phenomenal.

Back aboard MS Fram, our time was spent at anchor or, more commonly, sailing slowly around the coastlines of the peninsula. Over the course of the week, we spotted just two other ships.

Before the trip, I’d nursed a worry that by being restricted to the tip of the continent, the whole thing might feel anticlimactic. What a fool. The peninsula, the focal area for almost all cruises to the region, is almost unquestionably the most ferociously handsome setting I will ever experience. As a tourist, perhaps the clearest thing that can be said about arriving here is that the place feels wholly removed from the rest of the world, and not just by virtue of its location. There’s an unreality to it, as though everything you’re seeing has been run through some sort of fantastical filter. So when a pod of orca whales appears with a pffff at the side of the ship, or you glide past an electric-blue iceberg the size of the Houses of Parliament, you find yourself thinking, am I really here?

There are times too when you end up rotating dazed around the deck, determined not to miss anything but confused about which way to face. To the rainbow over the mountains? The seals on the ice floe? The calving glacier? “It’s just too much,” I heard a Canadian lady say to her husband early on. “We may as well hurl the camera overboard.”

At one of the first landings, Cuverville Island, I found myself so staggered by the scale of what I was seeing – hundreds of Gentoo penguins in the foreground, a preposterous spread of bays and peaks in the background – that I thought I wouldn’t feel short-changed if the trip were aborted there and then. That was before realising it was just a taster of things to come. Stunning is an over-used word, but in Antarctica it can be taken literally. The dimensions are giddying.

The weather regularly turned on a whim. One landing was in a grey, whippy snowstorm, far more easily borne by the stolid rookeries of chinstrap penguins than the anorak-clad voyeurs, yet the same afternoon saw mile-wide ice shelves and high ridges basked in glassy sunshine. It being January, the seasonal temperatures were only a few degrees below zero. Added to this were just five hours of daily darkness, meaning the evenings gave the prospect of wrapping up to gawp as the skies became candy-striped with chilly shades of blue and orange. On the night we sailed through Paradise Bay – a wide natural harbour with never a truer name – the light, the ice and the mountain scenery reached such stupidly celestial proportions that I found myself outside for three hours straight.

As with any cruise, what was going on outside was paired with life on board, where 199 international passengers were making home for ten days. Outside were bergs and whales, but inside were buffet lunches, running machines and surreptitious blown kisses between junior crew members. Would the couple from Chennai ever finish that Scrabble bout? Why did the family from Wisconsin never speak to each other? And would the Catalans finally be tempted by the Terry Wogan autobiography in the ship library?

The MS Fram itself was the kind of cruising vessel that you’d hope for, steering clear of the lobster-and-champagne frenzy of stereotype but providing plenty in the way of diversion. There were saunas, photography workshops and scheduled lectures. Much of the voyage to and from Antarctica was taken up with these talks, in fact, which covered everything from geology and history to birdlife and global warming, and if the waves meant the lecture theatre sporadically found itself tilting at 20° off its natural axis, it did at least help to feel less like school. The food was generous, the expedition staff were reassuringly eco-minded and the cabins were comfortable. You weren’t obliged to dress for dinner. And I bet Scott never had chocolates on his pillow.

Just as the profound panoramas came in dizzying numbers, so too did the wildlife encounters. Whales appeared regularly. “We have humpbacks close by to starboard,” announced the ship PA one afternoon. A ten-second pause, then: “We have orcas close by to port.” In the larger inlets, it was sometimes possible to spot spume-clouds in six or eight parts of a bay.

Seals were commonplace too, lying fat and serene on the ice. On the morning the ship was due to sail through the Lemaire Channel, heavy pack ice forced a change of plan. Passengers were instead put into inflatable boats for frosty mini-cruises. Our particular little vessel was nosing through the brash, blocks crunching under the bow, when we found ourselves ten metres from a dusky Weddell seal, flat out on a floe. It opened two kohl-black eyes, evaluated us for a few seconds, then went back to rest with a placid snort.

But it was the penguins that provided the real Attenborough moments. Swimming offshore in their sixes and sevens, waddling up rock hills in their hundreds, huddled in whiffy rookeries in their tens of thousands. On Day Six we landed at Paulet Island, only a mile in diameter but home to a quarter of a million Adélie penguins. Statistics like this seemed almost normal by this stage of the trip, but the overall effect on the senses was hallucinatory. At one point I missed my footing, causing a passing penguin to stop and stare me square in the face. It was a look that said: “You know what pal, when you’re back in some supermarket queue in the real world, you’ll struggle to believe this ever happened.”

Paulet Island also has a human history. In 1903, a Swedish expedition ship was trapped in nearby ice for a full winter, leaving twenty men to spend nine months in a rapidly constructed stone hut on the island. They survived on penguin meat and bloody-mindedness. Stories like this are everywhere on the peninsula, and are part of what lends it such a tang of adventure.

Fittingly, our very last stop, a headland named Hannah Point, delivered a genuine wildlife crescendo. Elephant seals play-fought in the surf, skuas circled the sky and blue-eyed cormorants fussed over seaweed nests. There were humpbacks in the bay. Setting stall for the future meanwhile, and seemingly impassive to it all, a mass of stoical penguins stood guardian over a mass of stoical penguin chicks. All this was framed by five-mile-long ice cliffs. When Antarctica goes for the climactic moment, it goes big.

Regular visitors claim Antarctica puts a hold on them. The few individuals who stay here summer-round are scientists and support staff. Mid-voyage, we’d stopped at Port Lockroy, a British base on a mountain-ringed island. Outside the main hut I chatted with Claire Brown, a young graduate midway through a five-month residential placement. It was hammering down with rain and we were standing in a morass of penguin droppings. So is it fun out here, I asked?  She cast a damp arm at the view and gave the ear-to-ear smile of a zealot. “I’m loving every single minute,” she said quietly.

Today, a combined total of around 20,000 tourists physically set foot on Antarctica each year. To give perspective, this is the same annual number that visits Milton Keynes Community Museum. It takes time and money to reach Antarctica, and it’s worth both. If you’re coming simply to plant a figurative flag on that awkward last continent, rethink. Come with open eyes, and discard any preconceptions. I hadn’t expected to have my horizons hammered out of shape, hadn’t imagined the reality would be so dazing, and certainly hadn’t envisaged becoming a helpless, moist-eyed cliché, welling up every time I tried to talk about the fragile awe of it all. But you know what? The ship was full of us.