Guide to travelling to Antarctica

DISCOVER the extraordinary wildlife and landscapes of Antarctica and the islands of South Georgia, as bewitching now as they were in the days of the early explorers.

Getting there:   Practically all visitors to Antarctica arrive as part of an organised tour  and almost always on a ship. The Antarctic Peninsula is the most regularly visited part of the continent, with boats departing from Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego in Argentina. From Ushuaia, it takes roughly two days to reach the Antarctic Peninsula, depending on the sea conditions. When should I go? Most boats set sail to Antarctica from November to March, during the Antarctic summer. January and February can be a good time to see penguins’ eggs hatching, while March is peak season for whale watching. How do I pick a tour? Meals, transport and accommodation are normally included in Antarctic tours  but travel to the continent is expensive. Sharing a cabin or nabbing a last-minute berth in person at Ushuaia can be a way of reducing costs. See if your tour operator is a member of IAATO  an industry group that promotes responsible travel to the continent. Check for a list of member tour companies.   Ice Tracks Expeditions, run by Frank Wild expert Angie Butler, offers a number of trips to the continent (from about $5000 a person; What is life like on board? Sailing to Antarctica isn’t like travelling on a luxury cruise ship  seas can be infamously choppy, and passengers are advised to keep one hand free should the boat roll suddenly. Lectures, screenings and workshops often take place on board during the daytime while sailing to and around Antarctica and ships will often have a library.   Many guests choose to entertain themselves by birdwatching or spotting icebergs.   Days can be long, with as many as 20 hours of summer sunlight in the Antarctic Peninsula. What happens when we land?   A highlight of any visit to Antarctica is setting foot on land. Shore visits take place on Zodiacs  rigid inflatable boats that are launched from the main ship. Ask your tour operator how many landings are planned  visitors from smaller ships may spend longer periods on the shore than those from bigger ones due to environmental restrictions, although landings will depend on the weather conditions. What should I pack?   As well as sensible hats, gloves and coats, it helps to pack knee-high wellies to stay dry on Zodiac landings, while UV sunglasses provide respite from the glare off the snow, ice and water. Bring plenty of layers and make sure that your outer clothing is both wind and waterproof. The last journey of Frank Wild The funeral party made its way from the little wooden whalers’ church in Grytviken to the cemetery that lies on a tussock hill overlooking the glassy waters of Cumberland Bay. As the small box containing Frank Wild’s ashes was lowered into the ground, I reflected on the extraordinary seven-year journey I had undertaken. My aim had been to bring John Robert Francis Wild known simply as Frank back to Grytviken, a place he described as "one of the most perfect little harbours in the world". Finally, I had fulfilled Wild’s wish to be buried alongside one of the greatest polar explorers, Ernest Shackleton, his dearest friend and the man he called "boss". Wild was born in Skelton, North Yorkshire, in 1873. He joined the navy at the age of 16 and his first polar expedition in 1901 was on the Discovery with Captain Robert Scott. Their attempt to reach the South Pole failed but the expedition proved serendipitous in other ways: it led to his first meeting with Shackleton. In 1907, Shackleton assembled his own expedition to try once again to attain this elusive glory. He invited Wild to join him. They came to within 160km of the prize before turning back, knowing that, if they reached the Pole, they did not have the resources to return to base alive. Scott finally reached the South Pole in 1912. His party was met with the sight of a fluttering Norwegian flag, evidence that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beaten him to it. Ravaged by hunger, cold and disappointment, Scott and his men perished on the journey back. Wild accompanied Shackleton on three more expeditions to Antarctica. His calm countenance, popularity among the men, loyalty, humour and an extraordinary capacity to withstand the punishing hardships of Antarctica made him one of the greatest explorers of his time. It is said that Shackleton never made a decision without consulting Wild first; as he once remarked of his friend, "He is my second self. I love him. He has been a tower of strength to me." It was during the final expedition that Shackleton died suddenly of a heart attack, at the age of 47. The stress of funding expeditions and the lack of money to pay his men their wages contributed to his death. Little was left for Wild once he returned to England the "boss" was dead and Antarctic missions were of little public interest in post-World War I Britain and in 1923 he departed for South Africa. Here, his first marriage failed, as did his cotton-farming project. Caught up in the 1930s Depression he took what jobs he could, mainly in the mining industry. His character was undiminished by these upsets he was popular, unflappable, self-effacing and prepared to face any obstacle. Yet he mourned for the comradeship of his exploring days and, particularly, for Shackleton. His plans to return to England evaporated. The five expeditions had taken their toll: Wild, only the second person ever to be awarded the Polar Medal with four bars, died on August 19, 1939, his second wife at his side. Rather than being buried, Wild was cremated, in the hope that his lifelong wish for his remains to be returned to South Georgia and interred alongside Shackleton’s might someday be realised. He died only weeks before the outbreak of World War II, making repatriation impossible, and his remains subsequently disappeared. It seemed that his dream would go forever unfulfilled. It was my passion for the Heroic Age of exploration that first led to my discovery of Wild, Antarctica’s unsung hero a drifter and a drunk in later life. I felt driven to repair his tarnished reputation. It seemed barely credible that his ashes were "lost". I had found a 1965 newspaper cutting suggesting Wild’s ashes were in a chapel in South Africa but with no indication of where. I knew of only one possible place, in Braamfontein, and decided to investigate. In January 2011, a cemetery worker took me down into a vault under the chapel. The hairs stood up on my neck; a sixth sense told me that Wild must be there. I didn’t have enough time to check the hundreds of caskets and urns, so I asked local cemetery expert Alan Buff to look for me, and flew back to England. A few days later I received an email: "Commander Wild’s ashes found." All that was left to do was secure the blessing of his descendants and permission from the Falkland Islands Government to take his ashes back to South Georgia. They not only agreed but, in an unprecedented move, allowed them to be buried next to Shackleton. A voyage to South Georgia beckoned: I had come to the end of my quest and the beginning of Wild’s final voyage. — KING penguins wade through the shallows of Fortuna Bay in South Georgia. The spring sun has laid bare the mountains, exposing the brown-shingled moraine. These placid-looking peaks are part of the range that explorer Ernest Shackleton navigated on foot in one of the most audacious rescue missions ever undertaken in these territories or, indeed, anywhere. In August of 1914, Shackleton set out from Plymouth in Devon, in his ship the Endurance. He planned to be the first explorer to traverse Antarctica from coast to coast via the South Pole. Before he could even set foot on the continent, the Endurance became ice-bound in the Weddell Sea. After months of drifting in the pack ice, the ship was crushed and sank in November 1915, stranding 28 crew members and three small lifeboats on the ice.   Leaving his men on Elephant Island with Frank Wild in charge, Shackleton and five others took one of the lifeboats and crossed the Southern Ocean in a terrifying 1300km journey to South Georgia. Reaching the island, they were separated from the safety of the whaling station at Stromness by a precipitous mountain range. A 36-hour scramble of extraordinary bravery, good judgment and a little luck resulted in the half-starved, half-frozen men finding sanctuary, leading to the rescue of their comrades on Elephant Island more than four months after they’d left them. — DARK clouds gathering over the Southern Ocean are mirrored in its steel-grey waters as a kelp gull watches from lichen-clad rocks. Sealers first saw Antarctica’s forbidding snow-capped mountains, spliced by glaciers and riven with crevasses, in 1819. Yet it is the extraordinary courage displayed by the explorers of the "Heroic Age" of 1901-1922 their stories of triumph and tragedy that still draws us to this unfathomable continent. Driven by desire for fame and fortune, and the honour of planting the flag for king and country, men like Sir Ernest Shackleton, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, Sir Douglas Mawson and Roald Amundsen faced unimaginable hardship. Those who survived the hazardous four-month journey by ship into the pack ice were often ignorant of the perils that awaited them. And, of course, there was no guarantee of a safe return. Many of these men like Shackleton’s right-hand man, Frank Wild returned to the white continent. Wild said of Antarctica: "Once you have been to the white unknown, you can never escape the call of the little voices." Three deals: Budget World Expeditions THERE’S a 40 per cent discount on an Antarctic trip departing March 20. A 10-day sailing from Ushuaia to spot humpback, minke and orca whales now costs $US3414 ($3190). The trip was $US5690 ($5320). Ph World Expeditions on 1300 720 000, see Moderate Peregrine Antarctic Express Ten days from $A6120 a person, twin share. After making shore visits on the way through the South Shetland Islands, the tour arrives at the Antarctic Peninsula, on the continent of Antarctica. These areas boast an extraordinary abundance of wildlife, including five species of seals and massive rookeries of gentoo, Adelie and chinstrap penguins as well as a profusion of seabirds ranging from albatross to skuas.   Another wildlife highlight may well be observing a variety of whales in close proximity as they crest the surface of the waves. On the White Continent, you’ll also see remarkable landscapes of ice. The trip departs on March 2 next year. To book go to Luxury Abercrombie & Kent A&K operates two itineraries to the Antarctic Peninsula. Two departures for the 12-day Classic Antarctica and two departures for the 17-day South Georgia and Falklands, one of which is a dedicated family departure with unique activities specifically designed for the young adventurer.   Prices start from $US10,995 ($10,275) a person. Special offer: Reservations made by March 31 receive a 10 per cent discount off published fares (excluding owners suite). To book or inquire further contact Abercrombie & Kent on 1300 851 800 or

Originally published as Guide to travelling to Antarctica

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