Great explorations in Antarctica

IT’S a world of glistening white, where icebergs calve, whales breach and penguins mingle in their millions. .

To visit Antarctica  – by expeditionary vessel and sea kayak –  is to leave the world of man and submit entirely to the wonder of nature Distance: From 2000 nautical miles Location: Antarctic Peninsula Ideal time commitment: Two to three weeks Best time of year: November to February Essential tip: Take ginger to combat seasickness  A continent that no one owns, with no permanent human population and no capital  –  Antarctica (cliche alert) is the planet’s last true wilderness. In this frozen zone at the bottom of our world, Mother Nature is still totally in charge. She seems to be venting her fury here though: Antarctica is the coldest, windiest and driest continent. Arable land: 0 per cent. Ice cover: 98 per cent; the other 2 per cent is barren rock. In short, 14 million sq km of freezing, hostile nothing. So why is it so beautiful? The existence of this gargantuan land was not known until the 19th century. Maoris, whalers and Captain James Cook had previously nibbled at the region’s edges, spying sub-Antarctic isles. But it wasn’t until 1820 that the main land mass was first glimpsed, then confirmed as a continent in 1840. There followed a flurry of expeditions to tick off firsts in this unwelcoming but irresistible new world. Getting to Antarctica is less perilous these days. Tourist cruises began in the 1960s, and boomed from the ’80s. Today, during the November to February austral summer, fleets of vessels carrying about 34,000 passengers set sail for the Antarctic Peninsula, surrounding southern isles and, most intrepid of all, the Ross Sea. Antarctica is busier than it was. You’ll spot other visitors: the birds, seals, penguins and whales that breed and feed amid the floes.  Cruising is a physical doddle. There are no Shackleton-type exertions; you just need to be able to get in and out of a Zodiac, the rigid-hulled inflatables that whisk explorers from big ship to shore. But there are ways to up the adrenalin levels: Many vessels carry kayaks, so you can sidle into coves for extreme ice close-ups. There may also be opportunities for tougher hikes or even (shudder) ice diving. But even if your most strenuous task is lifting your binoculars to focus on a blue whale flicking its tail, this is still the adventure of a lifetime. Essential experiences  Viewing the bergs, seals and penguins from sea level, on a kayak expedition. Mingling among the noisy, stinky, enormous king penguin colonies on South Georgia. Zipping past the face of a skyscraper-high iceberg in Paradise Harbour, aboard a tiny Zodiac. Sharing a beach on the South Shetland Isles with Adelie, chinstrap and gentoo penguins, and elephant and crabeater seals. Squeezing through the mile-wide Lemaire Channel, flanked by mountains. Raising a dram to Shackleton –  the explorer is buried in the whalers’ cemetery at Grytviken, South Georgia. —  A place of peace On June 23, 1961, a dozen countries signed the Antarctic Treaty, a landmark agreement to demilitarise and preserve the White Continent. Today, 46 countries (comprising 80 per cent of the world’s population) are members. The treaty’s aims are clear: to ensure Antarctica is used only for peaceful purposes and that it’s not exploited for nuclear testing or waste disposal; to guarantee the freedom of scientific research; and to remove the potential for sovereignty disputes over its territories. Each year, members meet to discuss pressing issues, such as environmental pressures and the impact of tourism, in the hope of safeguarding this wilderness for the future.  A place of penguins Seven species of penguin are found on Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic islands. Adelies, named after the wife of French explorer Dumont d’Urville, are small black-and-white birds with white eye rings. Chinstraps have a black line across their throats; they’re the second most numerous species. Macaronis are the first – there are 12 million breeding pairs of these orange-tufted creatures. Rockhoppers, the smallest species, also have head tassels. Emperors are the largest, growing up to 1m; kings are 20cm shorter and breed in vast numbers on South Georgia. Small gentoos flock here too, identifiable by their orange bills and white eye flashes.  Adventure unfolds You’ve found your sea legs. Crossing the dreaded Drake Passage to get from Ushuaia to the South Shetland Islands was a rocky ride. Dramatic though, watching waves crash on deck, feeling the full force of Poseidon in a strop. But then  –  calm. The tidal torrents became mirror-smooth. The last ripple you saw turned out to be a humpback flexing its fluke.  You haven’t decided what you like best yet. The elegant Arctic terns are a contender, as are the elephant seals, guarding the beaches with cantankerous grunts, and the orcas, the albatrosses, the minkes and the penguins, who don’t care for rules and peck at your boots when you’re trying to keep your distance.  Then there’s the land itself. How can there be so many shades of white? Icebergs glitter and glow blue or emerald green; some are carved into elegant shapes, while others loom like mountains. It’s gorgeously terrifying. Yesterday, as you passed an ice wall, a chunk the size of a caravan plunged into the water with a mighty boom. Your favourite moment, though, has been your small piece of peace. There are only 100 passengers on your ship more intimate than the vast vessels carrying thousands, and you can get ashore more frequently. But still, that’s 100 people, plus naturalists, guides and other crew.  So you join a kayak excursion. The land felt vast before, now it feels infinite; from kayak level you feel like a microscopic krill. You paddle to a quiet cove. A crabeater seal bobs up, keeping its beady eyes on your progress. You paddle on, under an ice arch, past a berg of dazzling blue. And, for a moment, you lose sight of the others  –  it’s just you, that crabeater and the world’s wildest place. — Making it happen Most Antarctic cruises disembark from Ushuaia, south Argentina, where they can be booked, often at discounted rates. But advance booking is advised. Itineraries range from one to three weeks. Shorter trips go to the Antarctic Peninsula; longer routes also visit South Georgia and the Falklands. Choose your ship based on its itinerary, facilities and size (bigger boats are more stable, smaller vessels enable more shore landings). An alternative challenge Today, reaching the South Pole is more about hard cash than hard graft. With $US40,000 ($38,685), it’s possible to fly there aboard a ski-plane  covering in hours the wilderness that took early explorers many months to cross. Fly from Punta Arenas in Chile to Union Glacier Camp, to acclimatise to life on Antarctica; from there it’s a four to five-hour flight to the geographic South Pole, to walk round the globe in a few footsteps, visit the Amundsen-Scott Station and, of course, buy souvenirs. For details, contact Adventure Network International. – Armchair Antarctica (Lonely Planet) Handy guidebook to the continent, including booking advice and maps. – The Worst Journey in the World (Apsley Cherry-Garrard) The Antarctic classic; tells the tale of Captain Scott’s ill-fated polar expedition. – Scott of the Antarctic (1948) Black-and-white movie retelling of Scott’s journey, filmed largely in Norway. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ rousing score was later reworked into his Sinfonia Antarctica. Special offer for Escape readers Receive 20 per cent off Lonely Planet print guides and PDF chapters at Enter code ESCAPE20 at checkout.  — This is an extract from Lonely Planet’s Great Adventures, Lonely Planet 2012. Published this month, RRP $49.99,    

Originally published as Great explorations in Antarctica

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