Kate Humble: Into the land unknown – and I can't believe I'm here

Something to Declare

We walked down the gangway and on to the Tarmac. I stood nonplussed by the noise of traffic, the sight of buildings, of trees. Two weeks before I had climbed up that same gangway, and on to a ship that would take me across an infamous stretch of water, to somewhere that for centuries was known simply as "terra incognita". I had arrived on the shores of places I had read about, seen photographs of; places synonymous with hardship and extraordinary human valour, with Drake, Cook, Scott and Shackleton. But all those books, the photos, the television documentaries narrated by the mellifluous tones of David Attenborough, none of them prepared me. There is, simply, nowhere on Earth like Antarctica.

We saw our first iceberg on our third day at sea. The much-feared Drake's Passage had proved smooth enough to allow us on deck to enjoy the soaring majesty of the occasional albatross and showy flying skills of the Cape petrels, with their distinctive mottled black and white wings which earn them the Spanish name "pintado".

Our first landfall was on the South Shetland Islands. The fog hung low, veiling the highest peaks in grey, swirling mystery. Chinstrap penguins awaited us on the beach; fearless, curious and as happy to pose for the battery of cameras as any seasoned celebrity.

It may have nothing like the biodiversity of a rainforest, or even an English garden, but the wildlife that inhabits the outer edges of the world's highest, driest continent is plentiful, accessible and largely benign. There are no toothsome hunters like polar bears to worry about, and despite decades of exploitation, which saw the killing of untold thousands of whales, seals and penguins, those same species of animals now give humankind unforgettable close and peaceful encounters that we surely don't deserve.

A female humpback whale and her calf cruised the frigid waters, lazily hoovering up great mouthfuls of shrimp-like krill. I sat with eight other people, in a small inflatable boat, amid towering chunks of floating ice, transfixed. In perfect unison, two smooth, steely grey backs broke the surface of the smooth, steely grey water, their small, blunt dorsal fins carving rippling furrows before vanishing.

"There they are again!" I cried, in a sort of awed stage whisper and for an hour the whales stayed within feet of our boat. The calf raised its strange, knobbly head clear of the water, spy-hopping, and then, perhaps aware that it had a captivated audience, proceeded to roll over, fin slap, lie on its back, wave its tail and occasionally raise its head clear of the water again as if to check we were still watching.

We ran out of superlatives, and sat, smiles stretched across our faces and tears in our eyes. And all around was Antarctica with its harsh, chaotic beauty.

"Is this your seventh continent?" someone asked and dimly I realised it was. But the otherworldliness of it now makes it almost impossible for me to believe I was there. It still remains terra incognita.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Bid Writer

    £25000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £20,000 Uncapped

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Guru Careers: Membership Administrator

    £23K: Guru Careers: We're seeking an experienced Membership Administrator, to ...

    Day In a Page

    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific