Antarctica: why it’s my best trip ever

March 30, 2017
The author sitting with rockhopper penguins on Bleaker Island in the Falkland Islands.

Antarctica is extraordinary.

Cruising through massive icebergs, tiptoeing through penguin colonies, spotting whales, getting up close with elephant seals and magnificent albatross. You have to pinch yourself that it’s all real.

You feel like you’re on a different planet. So far removed from your ordinary life, everything that’s comfortable and familiar. If disaster strikes back home, you can’t just hop on the next flight back.

It’s intoxicatingly remote. I loved the journey into the unknown, the promise of escaping civilisation for a few weeks.

I visited Antarctica 10 years ago, desperate to ‘get away from it all.’ Life wasn’t panning out according to my life plan and I needed a 240-volt circuit breaker.

Looking back, it’s still the best holiday I’ve ever had which is good and bad: I was exceptionally lucky to have the experience but no trip since has quite matched it. It was kind of like my travel PB – all the stars aligned to make it magical.

Last minute decision to visit Antarctica

I’d booked the trip at the last minute, lucky enough to get a berth on Aurora Expeditions’ three-week trip retracing the steps of legendary British explorer, Ernest Shackleton.

I remember my airplane ticket with Aerolineas Argentinas cost close to $4,000, an exorbitant amount compared to today’s cheap airfares. Two years later, in 2009, my plane fare to South America cost less than half that.

I’d never been on a cruise before and wondered how I would cope with three weeks at sea. Aurora’s ship, the Polar Pioneer, wasn’t your typical cruise ship. In fact, it was a relatively small, former Russian research vessel whose facilities were far from five-star. Many passengers, including me, shared bathroom facilities and there wasn’t much of a lounge area to speak of.

Cold, grey and bleak with snow covering the ship's deck in Antarctica.

Cold, grey and bleak with snow covering the deck of our ship the Polar Pioneer in Antarctica.

Cruising Antarctica with an adventure travel company

Which was all fine with me. I’d chosen Aurora because of its reputation for pushing boundaries and exploring new frontiers. Adventure is in Aurora’s DNA with co-founder Greg Mortimer one of the first two Australians to summit Mount Everest without oxygen back in 1984.

I didn’t want to be sitting on a luxury liner watching from a distance; I wanted to get out, explore the landscape and come face-to-face with the wildlife. And that’s exactly what Aurora delivered.

The expedition sailed a loop from Ushuaia on the tip of Argentina down through the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula, across the Bransfield Strait and past the South Shetland Islands to South Georgia and then onto the Falkland Islands. We covered 6,495 kilometres on our epic journey and sailed through the most extraordinary landscape I’ve ever witnessed.

Ten years on, I’ve had to revisit the Voyage logs to recall the detail of the trip and relive our adventures (each passenger had to write up a daily summary of our exploits). It’s astonishing how much we saw and did.

Here are some of the highlights of my best trip ever:

#1. Port Lockroy, Pleneau Island

We spent the first three days of the trip sailing through the Drake Passage. It’s a seriously rugged start to any trip to the Antarctic Peninsula as the Passage is notorious for its stormy, rough waters and difficult conditions. It certainly lived up to its reputation. A lot of passengers suffered crippling seasickness and the onboard doctor had a very busy few days dispensing drugs.

After three days at sea it’s hard to describe the excitement and relief we felt at seeing landfall. As we cruised down the Gerlache Strait the snow fell heavily around us. Out on the front deck it was hush quiet, with grey skies, surrounded by spectacular snow-covered mountains and with icebergs dotting the landscape. We were overwhelmed with the wildlife – minke whales, fur seals flapping on floating icebergs, penguin rafts (on water) and colonies (on land), leopard seals stalking penguin prey and petrels skimming the surface of the water.

The adrenalin kicked up for our first landing at Port Lockroy. Stepping onto the Antarctica Peninsula for the first time we were surrounded by hundreds of gentoo penguins who were completely unfazed by visitors and happily wandered close by. We signed the visitors’ book at the historic huts and noticed how well stocked the pantry was – they even had vegemite!

Our second expedition of the day was via Zodiac, meandering around Pléneau Island where we were lucky to witness a rare sight: a leopard seal playfully and proudly tossing around his penguin catch of the day. A reminder that nature is harsh and that we were experiencing first-hand, Life in the Freezer.

Pristine Paradise Harbour on the Antarctic Peninsula with our ship the Polar Pioneer moored in the background.

Pristine Paradise Harbour on the Antarctic Peninsula with our ship the Polar Pioneer moored in the background.

#2. Paradise Harbour

The landscape is dramatic – the contrast of black rock, pure white snow and ice, knife-edge cliffs and smooth glaciers.

Our first few days were cloaked in a veil of grey – clouds, snow, water, dark rocks – all cold and bleak.

The day we sailed into Paradise Harbour we woke up to find an almost full moon against a clear blue sky, with fading pink hues. This was the first day the sun came out. And what a difference it made. Glistening in the sunlight, the scenery was transformed.

We got off the boat to visit Brown Station, an Argentine scientific research station, then climbed up the hill to the top for a panoramic view of the harbour. The water was so still and glassy, it didn’t look real.

To top it off, we took the easy way back down the hill, slip sliding on our bums, our natural inbuilt toboggans. What a hoot!

Surfing penguins at Gold Harbour in South Georgia

Surfing penguins at Gold Harbour in South Georgia.

King penguin colony at Gold Harbour - you can see the waves rolling in which made for a wet landing.

King penguin colony at Gold Harbour – you can see the waves rolling in which made for a wet landing.

#3. Gold Harbour – South Georgia

I can remember Gold Harbour on South Georgia Island like it was yesterday.

The surf was up so it was a wild, wet landing from the Zodiacs onto the beach.

It was like being dumped in the middle of a frantic party in full swing.

There were tens of thousands of king penguins and gentoo penguins squawking loudly, big, ugly, barking elephant seals, feisty fur seals and a throng of birdlife. Amazingly, a glacier calved in view and snow and ice tumbled down to the valley floor. It was spectacular and spellbinding.

At any party there are always a few who behave badly. The golden rule about meeting fur seals is to NEVER run if one comes charging at you. If they manage to catch you their bite is worse than their bark.

When an aggressive seal started chasing me, barking angrily, I instinctively ran, ignoring all the advice and warnings. Despite looking super awkward as they flap about fur seals are super fast and will always outrun you. Somehow I came to my senses, managed to bark back and thrust my hiking poles at him to scare him off. Phew – that was a close one!

Visiting Salisbury Plain on South Georgia was also remarkable for its stunning landscape and massive penguin colony – there are more than 100,000 breeding pairs there and it’s quite overwhelming as you approach and then wander through the throngs.

#4. Elephant Island

In many ways, Elephant Island was supposed to be THE highlight of the trip. We were retracing Shackleton’s heroic journey from 1914- 1917 when he set out to do what no other man had ever achieved – cross the South Pole continent from sea to sea.

It was an ill-fated journey.  After his ship Endurance was trapped and crushed in the pack ice, Shackleton and his crew took to the lifeboats in search of landfall. They arrived at Elephant Island where his men camped in the coldest, harshest conditions, sheltering under two upturned lifeboats, while Shackleton and five others sailed 720 nautical miles in a 20-foot lifeboat to South Georgia in search of help.

It took Shackleton four and a half months to rescue his crew from Elephant Island. Astonishingly, all crew members survived the incredible ordeal.

Zodiac cruising around the icy waters of Elephant Island. The memorial is a bust of Luis Pardo, captain of the Chilean boat that rescued Shackleton's men on Elephant Island.

Zodiac cruising around the icy waters of Elephant Island. The memorial is a bust of Luis Pardo, captain of the Chilean boat that rescued Shackleton’s men on Elephant Island.

Elephant Island is in the middle of nowhere, literally. It’s remote, desolate and very cold. It is hard to imagine spending four months here with only two small overturned wooden boats for shelter, not knowing if help would ever arrive.

As our ship the Polar Pioneer approached the island there was great expectation and anticipation of being able to step onto Point Wild where Shackleton left 22 of his men.

For our expedition leaders, Elephant Island was a tough call. Throughout the trip the staff is constantly battling the desire to push boundaries and provide passengers with the best trip ever, balanced against the need to keep people safe.

To our great disappointment, the call for Elephant Island didn’t go our way: the swell was too big and dangerous to make a landing so we had to settle with anchoring in the bay to explore the area by Zodiac and witness up close the monument that has been erected in honour of the rescue.

We were in complete awe of the place.

#5. Fortuna Bay and the walk to Stromness Bay and Whaling Station

If someone had told me I’d be hiking steep hills and muddy tracks in cheap $20 ill-fitting gumboots, I’d never have believed them. But it’s amazing how quickly you adapt to your environment.

Whenever we got off the ship to explore on terra firma we invariably hiked several kilometres, often climbing steep, wet, rocky and slippery terrain to the mountaintop and beyond. Thick socks and gumboots were the only footwear suitable for navigating the often deep mud.

The most memorable walk was from Fortuna Bay to Stromness Bay, retracing the route Shackleton and his small rescue team did on May 21, 1916. We had it easy compared to the original explorers – while they climbed through snow and had to descend a freezing waterfall to reach help, we had a six-kilometre hike in cold but relatively benign weather conditions.

Looking down onto Stromness Bay after walking from Fortuna Bay, retracing the journey of explorer Ernest Shackleton.

Looking down onto Stromness Bay after walking from Fortuna Bay, retracing the journey of explorer Ernest Shackleton.

Zodiac cruising around the icy waters of Elephant Island. The memorial is a bust of Luis Pardo, captain of the Chilean boat that rescued Shackleton's men on Elephant Island. Ruins of the Whaling Station at Stromness Bay, South Georgia.

Ruins of the Whaling Station at Stromness Bay, South Georgia.

The terrain was interesting and changeable – loose shale, moss beds, spongy moss bogs and rocky outcrops. We could only imagine the euphoria that Shackleton and his men felt when they reached the top and spied the Stromness whaling station below. Help at last.

That night we had an ‘extreme’ barbeque on the stern deck. Crazy, huh? Layer upon layer of clothing plus a liberal splash of gluhwein kept out the cold – a fun way to celebrate our achievement for the day.

#6. Prion Island and the wandering albatross

I’ve always had a fascination with the albatross. Perhaps inspired by watching David Attenborough’s brilliant documentaries. The enormous wingspan of the albatross and the incredible distances they fly each year captivated me.

So our visit to Prion Island was the realisation of one small dream – to see an albatross up close. Prion Island is a popular breeding ground for the wandering albatross and the sooty albatross. I can’t describe how cold it was as we crouched and huddled low to spy on the birds as they sat on their nests and fed their chicks. Despite feeling numb, it was a magic experience.

Beautiful sooty albatross on Prion Island.

How beautiful is this sooty albatross that we sat and watched for ages on Prion Island?

#7. The Falkland Islands

The final stop on our epic journey was the Falkland Islands. The only thing I knew about this place was the war between the British and Argentines in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher was in power.

For us, the Falklands represented a gentle re-entry to civilisation. We’d been in places so remote, we didn’t see one other tourist on our travels and only once saw another small boat in the distance. Travel companies worked hard to make sure there wasn’t any crossover with ships and that no two travel groups collided anywhere on the journey. That may not be possible these days.

After the simple colour palette of the Antarctic and South Georgia landscapes, Stanley, the Falkland Islands capital, provided a surprising splash of colour. The brightly-coloured houses and roofs, fresh white fences, lush green grass and floral splashes felt like a very warm welcome.

We ambled about the town, dropped into the local pub and with Range Rovers buzzing by on the roads, it certainly felt very British. The beautiful sunshine and clear blue skies – not at all British – were definitely not the norm, the locals assured us.

We had one other stop before the big sail back to Ushuaia – to Bleaker Island, home to one couple only who run a sheep and cattle farm and rent out self-contained cottages.

They certainly weren’t alone on the island which was teeming with wildlife – my favourites were the crazy looking rockhopper penguins who were mostly moulting and looked like they were having a very bad hair day (think Kramer from Seinfeld). We also saw Gentoo and Magellanic penguins, plus a large colony of imperial cormorants.

A moulting rockhopper penguins on Bleaker Island.

I loved the rockhopper penguins on Bleaker Island. They were moulting and looked like they were having a very bad hair day.

It was a wonderful wrap up to our journey. A trip where we felt so humbled by our insignificance in nature and the heroic, brave achievements of those that had come before us.

On a personal level it took only a few days for the pristine and remote environment to work its magic on my emotional health. From a place where I felt desperate to escape my everyday life, I felt a wonderful sense of freedom and possibility on our Antarctica journey.

It reminded me that there’s a big wide world out there, that life is full of possibilities, you just have to go out there and grab them, or at least have the courage to take that important first step.

Ah, the wonderful healing nature of holidays.

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