If you ever get the chance to travel to Antarctica, take it. Better still, make it happen.
It will undoubtedly cost a bomb but it will be worth every cent. As I wrote in my post Antarctica: highlights of the best trip ever, where I travelled to Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands, it was the most extraordinary holiday and totally lived up to the cliché ‘trip of a lifetime’.
Travelling to Antarctica is a big investment so here is my Antarctica travel guide – what you need to know before you go as well as some questions to ask your travel company:
1. Where to go?
If you’re pressed for time you can do a short 10/11-day trip to the Antarctic Peninsula. The peninsula is the closest point to reach by ship, usually leaving from Ushuaia in Argentina and sailing down the Drake Passage, so it takes the least time to get there.
Around the Antarctic Peninsula you’ll likely cruise through the Lemaire Channel, visit Paradise Harbour, Port Lockroy and Deception Island. You’ll see icebergs, pack ice, a great mix of wildlife and will feel like you’ve been to another planet.
My strong recommendation is to ‘go the extra mile’ and include South Georgia in your trip. It’s worth it just for the wildlife, the massive penguin colonies at Gold Harbour and Salisbury Plain and the breeding areas for the wandering albatross. Really, it’s only about 2,000 kilometres away so you’re pretty much in the ‘hood…
2. What size ship?
My advice is to go on a smaller ship with fewer passengers. This was critical for me. If you have hundreds, or even thousands, of people on board, it will limit how often you can get off the boat and onto land to really experience the wilderness and the wildlife.
The company I travelled with had 54 passengers on board. The ship was a former Russian research vessel, so it was relatively basic and far from five star. But it provided a much more intimate experience, with other passengers, the expedition team and support staff and most importantly, Antarctica.
A small group of travellers meant we were agile and could get on and off the ship several times a day.
3. How often will you get off the ship?
Ask the company you’re thinking of travelling with how often you will get off the ship. Every day? More than once a day? How long does it take to get on and off? Do you need to be ready to go an hour or more ahead of time? How do they manage getting on and off?
On the Polar Pioneer we had to ‘clock off’ and clock back on so staff could keep track of everyone. It’s not a fast process. Even with only 54 people on board we had to queue patiently to get on the Zodiacs. When you get back on board after a landing, you need to cleanse your boots in a bucket of antiseptic and brush off any dirt or material you may have picked up on shore.
To make the most of your experience and adventure, you need to be getting off the ship regularly.
4. What gear should you take for a trip to Antarctica?
Taking the right gear is very important. Temperatures are extreme. As one of my fellow passengers noted – one hour in a Zodiac is great, two hours will turn you into a popsicle!
I wore my ski suit (pants and jacket) for our shore landings and zodiac cruising and had multiple layers underneath – a fleece wind jacket, a sleeveless vest as well as thermals. You’ll need gloves, beanies, neck warmers, thermals and thick, thick socks. Two pairs of socks on a Zodiac cruise feels like nothing!
Aurora, the travel company, provided gumboots, though I took my own (a very basic pair bought for $20 from the hardware store) and left them on the boat at the end of the trip.
For walking around on board the ship and sightseeing off the bow, you’ll need some shoes with a strong grip so you don’t slip on the wet deck or stairs. I had a pair of Salomon Gore-Tex trail running/hiking boots.
5. Take walking poles
I used them a lot as the terrain we trekked on was often rough, slippery, rocky and muddy. The poles will also come in handy for fending off aggressive, scary seals.
6. Take critical gear as cabin luggage on your flight
This might seem like a no-brainer but I recommend you take all your important gear as cabin luggage on your flight. If your luggage goes missing, and it has happened, the ship will sail without it. This would stress me out big time!
Apart from being stressful it’s hard to get good quality replacement gear at short notice. I put my bulky ski suit and fleecy tops in those space saving travel bags that compress all the air out and carried them on board with me for my international and domestic flights.
7. Allow a couple of days to get to your departure point
I know, holiday schedules are tight as you try to pack as much as possible into your time off. However, our flight from Buenos Aires to our departure point at Ushuaia was cancelled and it was total chaos at the airport. Angry, frustrated customers upset the airline staff who then walked off the job in protest. Crap! I spent a very nervous, nail-biting day worrying that I might miss the boat which was leaving the next day. I was so wishing I’d built in an extra day to get there.
8. Sea sickness medication
Don’t leave home without good sea sickness medication. You’ll need it. Crossing the Drake Passage from Ushuaia to the Antarctic Peninsula is no picnic. Many people were cabin-bound for the three-day crossing and the dining room was virtually empty at mealtime. Some passengers even needed injections from the onboard doctor to treat their sea sickness. So. Not. Fun.
9. Zodiac cruising
You’ll be riding in Zodiacs to get ashore, and cruise around the channels and harbours to see the wildlife and icebergs up close. Getting in and out of the Zodiacs isn’t for the faint-hearted. We had to climb down a ladder from the ship and jump on board the Zodiac, sometimes in choppy, dangerous swells that could easily throw you against the ship or even overboard. The Russian crew were good at launching you into the runabout but it’s hard going at times.
You’re generally landing onto beaches, not jetties, so there’s also a good chance you’ll have a wet landing on shore – it’s not always possible to get out of the Zodiac onto land without having to walk through the shallow water.
10. Life jackets
You must wear life jackets to go in the Zodiacs. Trust me, with layer upon layer of bulky warm gear and a life jacket on top your mobility will be seriously diminished and it’ll be next to impossible to bend over! Plus, you have to juggle your camera gear and possibly a backpack all in a pretty confined space.
11. Organise your camera gear
When I went to Antarctica in 2007 it was the first time I’d taken a camera that was more sophisticated than a happy snapper.
Digital cameras have evolved enormously in the last decade especially with the arrival of Instagram and social media. Thankfully the travel company provided some good tips on what gear to take.
You’ll need a dry bag for travelling on the Zodiacs. And you’ll need cleaning equipment, batteries, chargers, memory sticks. There aren’t any shops to buy whatever you may have forgotten or whatever gets damaged or lost. You don’t want to miss the incredible photo opportunities.
12. Shared bathroom facilities
On board the Polar Pioneer many of the rooms don’t have their own toilet or shower and you often had to queue up or wait your turn. The difference in cost to have your own ensuite is significant – patience is a virtue and a money saver.
13. The single supplement
I never pay the single supplement and I certainly couldn‘t afford to do so on an expensive trip like this. I took my chances with a roommate and lucky me, shared a ‘suite’ with an awesome Canadian woman.
There are some triple cabins with three single beds – if you can manage it, I’d pay the bit extra and go for a double room. Of course, take the usual ear plugs and eye masks just in case.
Often on expensive trips like this, the passengers tend to be older. We had a great mix in our group, with one (very lucky) young girl travelling with her parents, some honeymooners and plenty of fun-loving, like-minded adventurous travellers.
14. On board laundry
There was a laundry on board but beware – our guide described the clothes dryer as a nuclear reactor that would shrink the life out of your prized Icebreaker woollens. So no problems washing anything, just be vigilant with the clothes dryer.
15. Take your togs (cossie, swimsuit)
Some trips offer swimming in the freezing Antarctic waters however we didn’t do that. Phew! There may however be a sauna on board and it’s absolutely delicious to thaw out your frozen body after a long Zodiac ride.
Notes: I travelled with Aurora Expeditions and would highly recommend them.