Antarctica: Channelling Shackleton

This year marks the centenary of the polar explorer's 'Endurance' expedition, which sailed for the South Pole but was beset by the region's perilous conditions. Emma Thomson attempts to follow in his wake

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The Independent Travel

In December 1913, the following ad is said to have appeared in a newspaper: "Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success." Back then, as now, Antarctica promised adventure unrivalled by any other continent, and Ernest Shackleton's Endurance expedition received 5,000 applications.

Most of us don't have the time to spend 10 months beset by ice like Shackleton and his team of 27 – perhaps just as well, given that the ship eventually had to be abandoned when it started sinking – but is it still possible to be an Antarctic explorer? I had boarded the Oceanwide Expedition-owned Ortelius for a 12-day "Basecamp Adventure" to find out. She is a berg-crusher of a boat named after Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius, who published the first world atlas in 1570 – a time when this part of the planet was barely mapped.

Two days in, and my bravado was somewhat diminished. We'd manoeuvred through the Beagle Channel overnight, when the public-address system in our cabin crackled to life at 8am with the cheery voice of our very own Shackleton – expedition leader Delphine Aurès, a feisty Frenchwoman fond of woollen bobble hats. "Good morning! Good morning, everyone! We're about to enter the Drake Passage and winds are gusting at 30 knots, which is more than 55 kilometres an hour, so use one hand for the ship and one for yourself. Breakfast in half an hour."

As we sat in the dining room, the porthole glass flashed blue and white while the waves washed the windows. We laughed nervously as the glasses slid left and right, and at our fellow sailors as they swayed like drunkards towards the buffet. One by one, we scuttled back to our cabins and spent the next two days rolling in our beds as the boat barrelled through the seesaw seas of this almost 1,000km-wide gauntlet. On day four, we sailed into the sheltering bays and channels of the Antarctic Peninsula – an icy finger of islands that protrude from the northwest coast. Faces reappeared from rooms in anticipation of our first landing on Wiencke Island's Dorian Bay, a gently curved pebble beach home to Damoy Hut – an old British Antarctic Survey base still stocked with emergency provisions but disused since the 1990s – and a colony of bickering gentoo penguins.

Shackleton and his men ate most of the penguins and seals they encountered, but luckily our on-board chef was slightly more imaginative and Delphine had made it clear in our first lecture that penguins were king out here: "Give them a five-metre berth, under no circumstances take any "souvenirs," and you must, must, must disinfect your boots every time you get on and off the ship, so we don't spread potentially fatal diseases," she had stressed. "Any questions?" she'd finished, scanning the crowd.

A hand had shot up at the front of the theatre. "How do you disengage a penguin?" asked the hand. We'd all craned to see Samer – a softly spoken computer analyst from St Louis, Missouri – slinking down in his seat as laughter erupted around the room. "Disengage?" Delphine echoed, perplexedly. "Er, I mean, what do you do if it approaches you?" he said. "Ah! Just stay still and don't touch."

Now, as I swung my legs over the side of the Zodiac on to terra firma, I was in danger of breaking rule No 1: a few metres away stood an adult gentoo, head cocked to the side, looking at me quizzically. We stared at each other for a minute or so before he waddled away like an old man on a Sunday walk, hands clasped behind his back.

On day six, we moored off the research station-turned-post office, Port Lockroy. "Kayaking and mountaineering groups, stand by for announcements from your instructors," chimed Delphine's voice, loud and clear over the public-address system. So, I donned my thermals, wetsuit and booties and met the other kayakers on the starboard side. We towed the two-man kayaks away from the ship and set about sliding into the seats without toppling over into the icy sea. I peered tentatively over the side into the silk-smooth ebony water. "Look at that! You can see the bottom clear as day; it must be at least 15 metres!" I shouted back to my kayak comrade, Celine. "Keep still!" she yelped.

"Can we paddle closer to the glacier?" I asked Louise, our instructor. I liked that her 65 years didn't stop her wearing a multi-coloured headband that made her greying hair sprout over the top like a punk rocker's. "Sure, but only because I know that one's a land glacier – those ones don't normally calve and create tsunamis!" The crevassed wall rose high above our heads glowing pale blue. As we paddled closer, a raft of penguins rocketed out of the water to our right, leap-frogging through the sea in search of krill to feed their chicks back on shore. Clumps of brash ice had collected in the still waters beneath the ice cliffs. We moved slowly, placing our paddles carefully into the gaps.

It was so calm that as we bobbed there, peacefully surveying the snowy mountains, it all felt too easy. Then a glacier across the inlet cracked its knuckles and creaked closer towards the ocean, sending a thunderous boom across the bay. I jumped like a coward and set the kayak rocking.

After dinner and with the weather still good, Delphine gave the go-ahead for 30 of us to spend the night back at Dorian Bay, camping wild. As the Zodiacs skimmed across the water, I kept an eye on the ring of snow clouds that were gathering and obscuring the mountains. By the time we landed the first snowflakes were falling.

With the light quickly fading, we carved out our snow nests, blew up our Thermarests, and wriggled right down inside our sleeping bags to escape the gusting flurries that popped and crackled against the outer tarpaulin. After some time, it started to get stuffy so I squirmed in search of fresh air. I popped my head into the open space and got a face full of snow that melted instantly on my hot cheeks and ran in icy rivulets down my neck. I winced at the sensation. "I'll never be able to get back to sleep now," I huffed, so I lay on my back blinking away the snowflakes that still fell from the hazy sky.

What felt like a few minutes later, our camping guide Pablo's muffled voice echoed across the bay. "Good morning, campers! 5.45am – time to get up!" I had slept the whole night. I did a mental pat on the back: sleeping in rough conditions like Shackleton and his men – check. While we defrosted back on Ortelius, sipping mugs of steaming tea, she sailed across the Gerlache Strait to Neko Harbour, on mainland Antarctica.

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After landing, our beginners' mountaineering group rigged up and, strung together like a necklace, slowly started to ascend towards a jagged mountain peak; our belay rope slithering through our carabiners as we stepped in each other's snowy footsteps. Each steadying prod of my ice axe into the snow revealed the ghostly blue glow of the ice below.

When we'd left the hikers and wildlife-watchers far below, I turned around to take in the scene. Reading about his expeditions on the page, I had struggled to understand why this land of snow had so ensnared Shackleton, but up here the untainted beauty worked its magic. Fissured hunks of glacier jostled towards the sweeping iceberg-studded bay and all that could be heard on the crisp, whispering wind was the reassuring chug of Ortelius's engines. Far below us, I could just make out the red dash of the kayaks wending their way through the ice.

Berthold, our sinewy German mountain guide, warned us about catching the "polar bug": "In this world of no maps, ice and extreme weather you're forced to operate in the moment. There is no past, no future – only that moment. It is a kind of flow and it's so addictive."

Back on board we celebrated our ascent at the bar and then, later, sardined ourselves into one of the cabins; sitting in a circle and passing round plastic cups of vodka and Listerine-like Fernet cooled with jagged shards of glacier ice. "Let's each sing a song from our homeland!" suggested Roland, the Dutchman, so Seán falteringly started to sing an Irish lament and Celine followed with a Spanish ditty.

As we swayed along, I suddenly recalled a passage from Shackleton's book, South, recounting the Endurance expedition: "May 24, Empire Day, was celebrated with the singing of patriotic songs in the 'Ritz'" – their nickname for the mess room. I grinned. I'd braved seasickness, kayaking, climbing and camping wild in an attempt to channel Shackleton, but in the end I'd found him at the bottom of a bottle – just like a real sailor.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Emma Thomson flew to Buenos Aires with Air Europa (0871 423 0717; aireuropa.com), which departs daily from Gatwick, connecting in Madrid. From Buenos Aires, connecting flights to Ushuaia are offered by Aerolineas Argentinas (0800 0969 747; aerolineas.com.ar) and LAN (0800 977 6200; lan.com).

Sailing there

KE Adventure (01768 773966; keadventure.com) offers a 12-day Antarctic Basecamp Adventure from November to March starting at £4,995pp including all activities, but excluding flights and transfers.

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