x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Cruising to Antarctica: in the pit of the iceberg

High-end cruise liners to Antarctica may have improved travel and accommodation options en-route to the southermost tip of the earth, but the continent itself remains isolated, mysterious, and may - when you least expect it - prove inhospitable, all of which adds to its allure.

Inflatable zodiac boats transport voyagers from the cruise ship to the mass of ice that is land. Photo by Carol Cotterill
Inflatable zodiac boats transport voyagers from the cruise ship to the mass of ice that is land. Photo by Carol Cotterill
The leopard seal appeared unexpectedly through the slate-coloured sea, its long and spotted body twisting in an upward spiral as it neared the surface. Resting its head on the underside of our inflatable zodiac boat, it peered at us with big, black eyes and flaring nostrils.

Not too far away, towards a cluster of icebergs carved into arches and colossal columns, was a pod of orca whales. Beyond them, anchored in a bay ringed by peaks as pointy as pyramids, was the Ocean Diamond, a home away from home during our 11-day voyage to the end of the world.

Antarctica. For many, it's the ultimate trip of a lifetime: the last frontier, an inhospitable land that has lured, challenged and intrigued humankind for centuries.

But getting there requires significant time, effort, money and an unflinching sense of adventure. Those looking for a good overview to the world's fifth largest continent and its diverse wildlife, head to the accessible Antarctic Peninsula - a strip of land that extends out towards South America. Trips are limited to between November and March when the midnight sun and "balmy" summer temperatures (on average around 0°C) allow specially equipped vessels to pass through the otherwise impenetrable polar ice pack.

But unlike the early explorers who ventured due south and endured extreme conditions in centuries gone by, a trip to Antarctica no longer means roughing it.

Life is sweet aboard the Ocean Diamond. The en-suite cabins are cosy and spacious with comfy beds, small bathtubs and housekeeping services. There are even TVs and DVD players - not that there's the time or inclination to switch them on. Elsewhere, you can enjoy aromatherapy massages (quite possibly interrupted with an announcement of a humpback whale sighting) and yoga classes during which icebergs taller than houses drift past the portholes. The three-course dinners, meanwhile, were not only delicious but also completely essential in building an extra layer of insulation against the cold. At least, that's what I told myself upon a second helping of apple pie and ice cream.

Such luxury is all well and good but how does it impact on the spirit of adventure? The expedition leader, David "Woody" Wood, set the tone early on. "This is not a cruise. This is an expedition," he said firmly, as we set sail from the Argentinian city of Ushuaia on the southernmost tip of South America. The Ocean Diamond pulled away and set sail along the mountainous Beagle Channel with Argentina on one side and Chile on the other. There was no turning back.

Ushuaia rapidly disappeared from view and, with it, my final glimpse of civilisation. Moored in the harbour and dwarfing the compact city, where colourful houses tumbled down steep hillsides, was a gargantuan cruise liner with a capacity of 4,000 people. It, too, was bound for Antarctica. It was an uneasy sight.

Tourism at the end of the world started slowly when 500 plucky souls from Chile and Argentina visited aboard naval transportations ships in 1950. It's grown steadily since with more than 36,000 visiting in 2011.

Thankfully, it is tightly regulated. Rules enforced by the Antarctic Treaty decree that vessels capable of carrying more than 500 passengers may cruise the waters but not make any landings - meaning passengers must remain on-board at all times. But even with 189 aboard the Ocean Diamond, I wondered how much of an intimate experience one could expect. Time would tell.

Excitement wasn't the only feeling running high as the last specks of land merged into the horizon. Apprehension was also in abundance as we embarked on the fearsome Drake Passage: a 900-kilometre stretch of open water notorious for its severe storms and monstrous waves.

Described by many a seafarer as the roughest in the world, the two-day crossing has been dubbed the 'Drake Tax'. It's the price you pay to reach the last great wilderness on earth and, for many, it forms an essential part of the experience.

As the ship's doctor fielded dozens of questions about seasickness, I gazed out at a seascape that was both grey and flat. "We're fortunate that the forecast is smooth," said Woody. "Believe me, the Drake Passage can be brutal. I've seen waves break over the top of the boat."

There was much to pass the time: safety briefings, lectures delivered by historians and geologists, and cocktails in the bar. Mostly, though, I hid away in the library, devouring books on the adventures of Scott, Shackleton and other iconic Antarctic explorers. Before them, the pioneers of global exploration in the 15th and 16th centuries - de Gama, Cook and Magellan - sailed these waters. They never made it quite as far as 69°S, but they put in motion an appetite and curiosity for the Southern Ocean and the frozen land beyond that continues today.

Land was spotted a day and a half after upping anchor with everybody rushing outside into the biting breeze for their first glimpse of the White Continent.

Our first stop was Half Moon Island, one of the 20 or so South Shetland Islands. This archipelago, 120km from the Antarctic Peninsula, was first discovered in 1819 by Englishman Captain William Smith who had been blown off course while sailing around Cape Horn. Seal hunters soon moved in, but these days it's home only to colonies of Chinstrap penguins.

We were given strict instructions to maintain a distance of several metres and to never block the "penguin highways" that crossed the island. Not everybody followed the rules, however. I stood back, watching five Chinstrap penguins - named so for the thin black band under their heads - waddle along the shoreline and up the snowy embankment like little men in tuxedos. They ventured close, to within a few feet before rushing off on urgent penguin business. Others stayed perfectly still with fluffy grey chicks huddled at their feet. A rotund Weddell seal lazed on the pebbled beach.

Sailing farther south, the Antarctica continent itself soon appeared. Frozen walls of glaciers etched with dark crevices loomed tall, rising from a sea peppered with chunks of ice, big and small. Humpback whales joined us along the way, as the bergs became more abstract, the mountains more rugged, the scenery more spectacular.

We cruised through Paradise Harbor, aptly named by 19th-century whalers who were evidently impressed by their surroundings, and Wilhelmina Bay, where Gentoo penguins sped through the water like tiny torpedoes.

We hopped off the boat for thrilling zodiac cruises and long walks to scenic spots overlooking calving ice shelves and noisy penguin rookeries.

Those weren't the only adventures on offer. Some kayaked, sharing the water with leopard seals and humpback whales, while others went mountaineering. I opted for an afternoon's cross-country skiing with expert guide Jean Cane.

"I've been skiing here for years," she said, as we set off around Damoy Point on the rocky shores of Dorian Bay. Safety is paramount. The underside of our thin skis had been layered with a carpet-like material for extra stability. In other places - where deep crevasses lurk under the snow - harnesses must be worn and skiers tied together with taut ropes. This was no place to take chances.

"It's dangerous and challenging but exhilarating, too," said Jean. "You can reach places that are impossible to get to on foot - you'd just sink in the snow. It offers a totally different perspective of Antarctica."

And, so, we were off; venturing deep into the unforgiving interior, our skis swishing through the fluffy powder to the sound of Jean's voice echoing around the mountains. "Push and slide. Push and slide," she repeated like a mantra as I struggled to remain upright.

Heavy clumps of snow started to tumble almost horizontally from the darkening skies above and the whole scene shifted to black and white. The boat was now nowhere to be seen. Suddenly, we were all alone in this vast and inhospitable place, travelling like the explorers of yesteryear. In the very smallest of ways, I felt like Captain Robert Scott, crossing endless icy plains with the elements against him. He, too, skied here and, like me, it wasn't a mode of transportation he took to naturally. In preparation of his ill-fated 1910 Terra Nova expedition - in which he set out to become the first to reach the South Pole - he hired the Norwegian explorer Tryggve Gran to join him and teach him the basics. Not only had Scott been pipped to the post by Roald Amundsen, who arrived at the Pole 35 days earlier, but the return journey proved fatal. In March 1912, Scott and three others perished in their waterlogged tent as supplies dwindled and blizzards raged. Among the search party who discovered their bodies eight months later, was Gran.

Our own journey took us along sweeping bays filled with cathedrals of ice that had drifted in from the Ross Sea. "They come here to die," said Jean. "They crash into each other, break apart and melt away until there's nothing left."

We came to an eventual end at a rickety refuge hut originally built to serve a nearby airstrip. Hanging on the bare wooden walls inside the musty cabin were grainy photos of 10 heavily bearded men taken on Christmas Day in 1979. They stared into the camera with hollow eyes.

Exhausted - and after just the one tumble - it was back to the cosy confines of the Ocean Diamond. The massage table beckoned for some skiers, but for me, it was a warming bath followed by a hearty dinner - two luxuries beyond the reach of Scott and his doomed crew. It seemed only right to raise a glass to them and to the rugged yet ethereal beauty of the White Continent.