Travellers Guide to Antarctica
This remote wilderness is like nowhere else on Earth, which makes a voyage there all the more rewarding, says Simon Calder
Saturday 21 November 2009
To the bitter end of the world. Why?
To discover a part of the planet reduced to its raw elements. "The Antarctic is to the rest of the world as the Abode of the Gods was to the ancient Chaldees," wrote Apsley Cherry-Garrard: "A precipitous and mammoth land lying far beyond the seas." That description is taken from his book The Worst Journey In The World, which chronicles Robert Falcon Scott's heroic failure to be first to reach the world's southernmost point. He and his team reached the South Pole in 1912, one month after the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, and perished on the homeward journey.
A century ago no human had visited the South Pole. And even in the 21st century, while Man has successfully colonised the other six continents, settlements in Antarctica remain microscopic compared with the vast bulk of a continent twice the size of Australia: a scattering of small research stations around the edges, with another – the US Amundsen-Scott Station – at the Pole itself, 90 degrees south.
Fewer people holidayed in Antarctica last year than can fill the Dinamo Minsk stadium (and, having visited the grim capital of Belarus, I'd take an over-winter on the Ross Ice Shelf any time). Those 38,200 fortunate folk discovered that Antarctica is the opposite of a land of milk and honey. Man has battled courageously to explore the driest, coldest and windiest continent (it is also the highest, with much of the terrain above 10,000ft). The largest indigenous terrestrial creature that does not fly or swim is an insect one-sixth of an inch long.
It is easy to imagine this is a part of the planet from which all the colour has been squeezed, leaving only monochrome images. Yet the seas and shores of Antarctica remain one of the most prolific parts of the planet for wildlife.
Albatrosses, petrels, fulmars, shearwaters and prions are numerous, especially in the sub-Antarctic islands, while penguins by the million occupy offshore islands. Sea-life includes elephant seals and several species of whale. Most vessels carry small, rigid, inflatable boats (ribs) that allow passengers to land.
Today, you can visit Antarctica in relative luxury. Besides sensing the ghosts of heroic explorers who mapped the end of the world, you encounter unparalleled landscapes and icebergs sculpted by immense forces of nature. Until travel to space becomes commonplace, this is the closest you will get to visiting an alien planet.
The cost of getting to Antarctica can be almost out of this world, too, with astronomical prices even if you choose the most basic options; these are some of the most expensive package holidays on earth. The passengers currently aboard the Russian icebreaker, Kapitan Khlebnikov, chartered by Exodus (0845 330 6013; exodus.co.uk) for a specialist photographic journey to Snow Hill Island in Antarctica paid about £10,000 each for what was billed as a two-week trip, starting in Argentina's southernmost town, Ushuaia. The price includes all meals on board; and an extra four days after becoming trapped in pack ice in the Weddell Sea.
"All of our passengers reached the incredible Emperor Penguin rookery at Snow Hill Island, the principle reason for their voyage," reports the Exodus guide on board, Paul Goldstein. "They are safe, a little frustrated that ice and weather have delayed their return, but all philosophical about their late arrival." The vessel broke clear of the ice on Thursday evening, and is expected to arrive in port tomorrow morning.
The same holiday 12 months from now costs £13,470, including flights from London to Ushuaia.
Consider Antarctica as concentric rings, with the geographic South Pole at the centre. Most of the land fits snugly within the Antarctic Circle, the line of latitude at 66 degrees 33 minutes south that marks the limit of the midnight sun: on midsummer day, usually 21 December, the sun does not set anywhere south of this line. It was first crossed on 17 January 1773 by Captain James Cook.
The Southern Ocean that surrounds mainland Antarctica is defined by the Royal Navy's Hydrographic Office as the sea south of the 55-degree south line of latitude. The Antarctic region, though, goes beyond this. It is encompassed by the Polar Front or Antarctic Convergence, marking a sudden change from the warmer waters of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans to the cold Circumpolar Current. This boundary ranges from 60 degrees south to 48 degrees south – roughly corresponding to the latitudes covered by the UK in the northern hemisphere, though with a far less benign climate.
The widest definition of Antarctica includes sub-Antarctic isles such as South Georgia, and many Antarctic islands including the South Orkneys and the South Shetlands; the Falklands lie beyond the Polar Front, but are often included in cruises to Antarctica. In winter, the continent's area effectively doubles because of sea ice.
The land portion of Antarctica is centred on the South Pole. The largest part of the continent bulges eastwards towards southern Africa, the Indian Ocean and Australasia. This empty half-moon of land comprises mostly high plateaux, with the Transantarctic Mountains arcing towards New Zealand.
New Zealand – a good place to start?
If you have plenty of time and money. Fly to Christchurch in New Zealand – for example, on Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; airnz.co.nz) via Hong Kong or Los Angeles and Auckland – and you can visit the International Antarctic Centre (00 64 3 353 7798; iceberg.co.nz; 9am-7pm daily; admission NZ$55/£25) almost without leaving the terminal; the attraction beside the airport features an Antarctic storm every half-hour.
This could be the best place to whet your appetite for a trip on the Finnish-built, Russian-operated icebreaker, Spirit of Enderby.
A Christchurch-based firm, Heritage Expeditions (00 64 3 365 3500; heritageexpeditions. com) runs trips for 50 tourists at a time, with facilities that include small hovercraft for skimming across the ice. A 30-day "South to Antarctica" voyage, departing on 8 January next year, costs US$15,790 (£10,535) per person in a twin cabin, excluding flights to New Zealand.
A year later, a "Scott Memorial" voyage will set sail, for similar prices. Highlights will include Macquarie Island, an Australian possession, where all three million of the world's Royal penguins breed; Cape Adare, home to the largest Adelie penguin rookery in the world, with up to one million birds; Borchgrevink's Hut, the oldest structure in Antarctica, built in 1899 (and, on a hillside above it, the first grave in Antarctica, belonging to the zoologist on that pioneering Norwegian-led expedition); the Italian research station at Terra Nova, which promises the best espresso in Antarctica; and the huts of Britain's great Antarctic explorers, Scott and Shackleton. The basic price is $16,515 (£11,000).
Quicker and cheaper?
You'll be wanting the western portion of Antarctica. Even though it is much smaller, this part of the continent is much more popular with visitors because it is much more accessible.
Most commercial trips to Antarctica approach from the southern tip of South America to the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula – the arm of land that curls up towards the southern tip of South America, and the key that unlocks the polar region. The northernmost portion is a finger called Graham Land, which gets as close as 700 miles to the main base for exploring Antarctica: Ushuaia in southern Argentina. This interesting town, which also gives easy access to the Tierra del Fuego National Park, can be reached from the UK on a range of airlines; flights via Buenos Aires or Santiago de Chile typically cost about £1,200 return. Around 30 vessels operate in Antarctic waters, ranging from small expedition craft with 50 passengers to larger cruise ships. Since visitor accommodation is extremely sparse in Antarctica itself, these self-sufficient vessels represent the best way to experience the continent.
Exodus has a dedicated Polar Expeditions brochure, which includes a trip "In the Wake of Shackleton" starting on 5 November next year, marking the 95th anniversary of the sinking of the Endurance. The month-long trip will take in Elephant Island, where the crew sheltered for four months; the Weddell Sea, including an excursion by helicopter; Paulet Island, with opportunities for sea-kayaking; South Georgia; and the Falklands. Jonathan Shackleton, a cousin of Sir Ernest Shackleton, will be a guest on the trip, which is aboard the Kapitan Khlebnikov, With flights from London, and sharing a twin cabin, the price is £19,170.
Abercrombie and Kent (0845 618 2200; abercrombiekent.co.uk ) has chartered a "brand-new luxury expedition vessel", Le Boreal, with 104 en-suite cabins, Wi-Fi and a spa. Prices for a basic 15-day trip, departing 6 December 2010, start at £6,795, including flights on British Airways, a hotel in both directions in Buenos Aires (plus a tango night and dinner in the Argentine capital).
Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; journeylatinamerica.co.uk) has a range of expeditionary cruise ships, with some availability on the newly refurbished Plancius, a former Dutch research ship, early next year.
Why do ships keep running aground?
They don't – though there have been incidents in each of the past three southern summers. These are treacherous waters. The Hydrographic Office chart for the South Orkney Islands warns V C"aerial photography and satellite imagery indicate that much of the coastline of the South Orkney Islands has a different shape to that charted, and off-lying islands are in different positions ... mariners should proceed with caution".
All commercial visits to Antarctica are governed by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators ( iaato.org), with operating procedures, requirements for technical and professional requirements, and stringent environmental controls. While there is plenty of controversy about whether tourism is harming Antarctica, the IAATO says: "The benefits derived from responsible tourism, such as better knowledge and appreciation of the region, are substantial."
How cold – and how light?
"The cold is intense, minus 40 degrees at midday," wrote Robert Scott in the Antarctic autumn of 1912. "Though we talk constantly of fetching through, I don't think anyone of us believes it in his heart." At and near the South Pole, the temperature rarely gets close to freezing point (or melting point, as it perhaps should be termed). But by the sea, life can be relatively balmy. And in South Georgia, well within the Polar Front, some visitors are able to wander around in short-sleeved shirts: this island is about the same latitude south as Skegness is north. Almost all visits are made between November and March, corresponding to May to September in the north. But unlike cruises in the far north, which routinely sail well inside the Arctic Circle, very few expeditions venture as far south as the Antarctic Circle. Accordingly, the sun sets, if only for a few hours.
You're in the wrong continent. The semi-permanent residents are scientists and military personnel who put the "long" in "long-suffering". An example that is on the route of many expedition ships is the Orcadas Base, location for the southernmost rugby ground in the world, set on a narrow, stony isthmus between two bays. It was founded by William Bruce's Scottish National Antarctic Expedition in 1903, but the British government turned down the opportunity to establish a base here. Instead, Argentina took up the offer and has maintained a presence ever since – making it the longest continuously established community in Antarctica. You can see the remains of the original stone dwelling, Omond House, which gave some protection to the earliest settlement. Today, it is run by the Argentinian navy for the benefit of scientific study: marine biology, magnetism, meteorology and seismology (a recent earthquake hit 8.6 on the Richter scale). Passing tourist ships are welcomed, with staff dispensing complimentary coffee to visitors, and selling souvenir hats and T-shirts.
The world's southernmost museum is located here, in the Casa Moneta. It is a small hut containing geological and biological specimens, and the menu from the earliest days of the base when meals tended to comprise penguin soup, penguin eggs, and penguin stew. The opening hours are "when tourists are around", and admission is free. There is also a haunting graveyard, with many crosses commemorating those who have perished here.
Can't I fly?
While the Arctic is traversed by many flights linking Europe, Asia and North America, there are very few flights across Antarctica. Your best bet is the Aerolineas Argentinas flight from Buenos Aires to Auckland and Sydney, which on some journeys just grazes the Antarctic Circle and may, on clear days (or summer nights), allow a glimpse of sea ice or even the coast of West Antarctica. Between December and February, Airbus A319 jets operated by the Australian Antarctic Division (00 61 3 6232 3268; aad.gov.au) fly weekly between Hobart in Tasmania and the base at Casey, but these are intended for people working in Antarctica.
Sightseeing flights, where passengers can see some of the highlights, have operated on and off since 1977. Indeed, this is a poignant week for the relatives of the victims of New Zealand's worst air disaster. On 28 November 1979, an Air New Zealand DC-10 departed Auckland on a sightseeing flight to Antarctica. A string of misfortunes led to the aircraft flying straight into Mount Erebus, an active volcano close to the Antarctic shore; all 257 people on board died instantly.
The most extreme form of Antarctic tourism is provided by a company based in Salt Lake City, Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions (001 801 266 4876; antarctic-logistics.com), which flies passengers in on Russian-made aircraft from Punta Arenas in Chile to its base camp at Patriot Hills in the foothills of the Ellsworth Mountains. From here you can fly to the South Pole, for a trip price of $37,850 (£25,200), excluding flights to South America.
Go with the floe: Nature's wonders
The main sights during Antarctic expeditions are ice and ocean – possibly seen through a blizzard or blur of fog, just two of the perennial maritime hazards. When the weather clears, you can appreciate one of nature's greatest artistic accomplishments in the form of the icebergs that drift through Antarctic waters. Some come in slabs that have the colour and texture of a wedding cake frozen in mid-icing. Others adopt the manner – and scale – of battleships. Still more are exquisitely sculpted and smoothed by the sea.
Icebergs comprise glaciers that have crumbled into the ocean. Since the ice from which they are formed began as snow, they are fresh water – indeed, Antarctica is said to contain 70 per cent of the world's total supply of fresh water. Much of it is stored in the gigantic Ross and Ronne ice shelves – each a floating sheet around the size of France. On land, the ice cap can be more than two miles thick. This is despite the fact that Antarctica is a desperately dry continent, with minimal precipitation – the ice at the bottom is up to half-a-million- years-old. An average of four inches of precipitation falls each year, though this is uneven; in some areas it has not snowed for centuries, while the Antarctic Peninsula experiences the equivalent of a foot of rain each year, most of it falling as snow.
Glacier ice takes on several guises: much of it is white, which signifies that plenty of air remains in it. Some icebergs are blue, indicating a purity of water with air squeezed out. Others are discoloured, either because they contain rocks from the edges of glaciers or because penguins use them to rest upon.
Making the most of it: How to get there
Many travellers are understandably concerned at the impact on the planet of a trip to Antarctica: from the UK, the journey involves a minimum of three hops by air to the sea departure point, totalling about 9,000 miles each way in the case of London-Madrid-Buenos Aires-Ushuaia, and then a minimum of 10 days on board a small ship. While this is hard to square with a clean, green conscience, one way to mitigate the effects is to achieve as many South American aspirations as time and money permits on a single trip – and cover part of the journey overland.
From next month, you can fly on Air Europa from Gatwick via Madrid to Salvador on the north-east coast of Brazil. From here it is easy to make your way slowly overland by bus to Rio, continuing via the beaches of southern Brazil and Uruguay to the lovely old city of Colonia, directly across the River Plate from Buenos Aires.
After a stay in the Argentinian capital (see www.bit.ly/SERb for our latest 48 Hours), Patagonia beckons: a vast, almost empty land that forms part of the modest Welsh empire. Then still further south to "the end of the world, and the beginning of everything", as Ushuaia styles itself. When you return to this soggy port, you can either retrace your steps or, better still, begin the long, thin journey through Chile: the Lake District, Santiago and Valparaíso, plus the Atacama Desert make this the perfect antidote to Antarctica. Once into Bolivia, you can explore the startling colonial cities of Sucre and Potosí, the scruffy capital – La Paz – and Lake Titicaca, which leads to Peru's Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. Trains and buses will whisk you the length of Peru, into Ecuador and ultimately Colombia, from which you can return easily via Florida thanks to no-frills flights on Spirit Airlines – see our "Bargain of the Week" on page 10.
Last words: Polar exploration
"Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised"
The first line of The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who led the relief expedition that found the bodies after Robert Falcon Scott's heroic failure to be first to reach the South Pole
"Tomorrow we will throw away everything except the most absolute necessities" - The Anglo-Irish explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton on Christmas Day 1908, during his first failed attempt to reach the South Pole
"The Pole. Yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected ... great God! This is an awful place" - Scott on 17 January 1912, when his party discovered Roald Amundsen's expedition had reached the South Pole a month earlier
"I am just going outside and may be some time" - Captain Oates, 16 March 1912 (a day before his 32nd birthday)
"I do not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past ... These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale" - Scott, 29 March 1912
"The history of the human race is a continual struggle from darkness towards light" - The Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen
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