On the shoulders of Polar giants

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One hundred years ago, the great explorers raced to conquer Antarctica. Adrian Mourby follows their trail

This is a big year in the Antarctic.

Exactly 100 years ago, three giants from the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration made their mark on history. Robert Scott began his ill-fated dash to the South Pole in 1911 and went on to be a dead hero, while Roald Amundsen, who beat Scott to the Pole in December 1911, found himself regarded as a bit of a bounder for succeeding where a gentleman had failed. Also in 1911, the Australian scientist Douglas Mawson set out for an inlet on the Antarctic coast that he would name Cape Denison after one of his sponsors. In the UK we might say "Douglas Who?", but Mawson (who had turned down Scott's invitation to join the Terra Nova expedition) was the real success story of 1911; he contributed significantly to our understanding of Antarctica – and died in comfortable old age.

One hundred years later, I'm on board the expedition cruiser Orion re-creating the journey of "Sir Doug", as he is known to our Australian crew. There are 100 passengers on board – since the new year, the capacity of boats allowed access to the Antarctic has been drastically reduced – plus a crew of expedition scientists and two young people, Stirling and Toni, who are going to be spending the summer restoring Mawson's hut on the Antarctic coast.

This morning dawned spectacularly bright, but then it was hardly dark all night. We're deep into the Antarctic summer here. Brilliant sunshine only makes the sea a deeper shade of blue. Penguins pop up from time to time despite the fact we're hundreds of miles from land. From the top observation deck I can see nothing but 360 degrees of Southern Ocean. It's not a good time to be homesick; we are about as far from human habitation as it's possible to be.

At 9am we crossed the 60th line of latitude so there had to be a propitiation of the sea god Neptune. What this meant was Don, the grizzled expedition leader, turning a fire hose of chilly sea water on all us Antarctic virgins. Temperatures have dropped since then and we're promised icebergs soon. Captain Mike – who belts out a mean late-night "Delilah" in the bar – has an ice-pilot standing by as soon as we enter pack ice.

It all feels very adventurous but we're doing it in five-star luxury. I keep thinking what it must have been like for Mawson. It's taking us eight days to sail between New Zealand and Cape Denison. Dr Mawson lurched around on these seas for 22 days, the last few of which were spent trying desperately to find somewhere to land on the windiest coast on Earth.

Two days later we're discussing "bergies" at dinner. The occasional crash from the kitchen is the only obvious sign that seas are rough. We've got very used to 15ft swells by now. Just about everyone on this boat is an Antarctic enthusiast. Peter is writing a book on Sir Doug and is travelling with his wife, a celebrity newsreader from Sydney. Isabel is 84 and has brought her teenage granddaughters with her. Jeff is fulfilling a lifetime wish. Offered a spell looking after Antarctic huskies when he left school, he was obliged to turn it down or lose his teacher-training bursary. No gap years then.

Then there's David, the expedition photographer, who has brought his dinner jacket because he wants a picture of himself in evening dress alongside the penguins that live on Cape Denison. Not to mention the Mad Spinning Lady who has brought her wheel. When we land, she intends to spin wool and knit a replica of Mawson's signature balaclava outside his hut. "I'm doing something more special than the rest of you," she informs us blithely. The balaclava will be raffled to raise funds for building a replica of Dr Mawson's hut on the shoreline in Hobart. No, I'm never short of someone to talk to and they're never short of something to say.

There is a sudden animation among the six teenage passengers who normally live in a pile in the corner of the Leda Lounge Bar. They began the voyage in shock. The ship's internet link is so expensive ($25 an hour) that Facebook's a thing of the past. Nothing has animated them till now.

"Ice!" They are rushing outside and the rest of us follow. Off to port, it looks as if someone has smashed up an iceberg and scattered the debris all the way to the horizon. Chunks a few feet in length have melted into weird shapes, like the last skeletal wisps of ice cube in a drink that has stood too long.

"Guess we're nearing the Antarctic Circle," says Jeff.

Thirty-six hours later we do cross the 66th parallel after a night of brilliant sunshine. Don calls us up on deck for another ceremony. Fortunately, no one gets sprayed this time. All we do is toast King Neptune with lukewarm glühwein before breakfast and pray for a successful landing.

We drop to just a few knots as Captain Bob, the ice pilot, guides us through. Occasionally, the ship will clip a small berg. Sitting in my cabin I feel the vibration working its way down the ship. Two minke whales surface and blow. A humpback breaches in front of my window then dives in a leisurely fashion. I curse as my camera is charging, and he is below the ship before I've retrieved it.

You lose all sense of time when night is optional, an illusion created by drawing the curtains. If it weren't for all the meals – two breakfasts, lunch, afternoon tea and supper – there'd be no way of measuring out the day. I attend lectures, go to briefings by Don and his team and wonder about using the gym. Bar prices and internet rates curb my usual vices.

The next day I wake at 6am to find the engines have stopped. We have arrived and outside my window is the most thrillingly awful sight: the coastline of Antarctica. It appears to be one long, white glacier hundreds of feet high, shot through with veins of blue ice and frozen in the act of collapsing into the sea. How can millions of tons of ice just hang there in mid disintegration?

Over the public address system, Don is calling us into the Zodiacs. These nippy black inflatables are piloted by the ship's silent Filipino crew. They live and work in the bowels of the ship and we see them only on Zodiac drill. We bundle up in thermals and layers topped with a red Orion parka and life jacket. Down in the mud room, people tug on the Wellington boots we were all told to bring. We're as bulky as deep sea divers as we clamber up the steps to paddle in a large shallow tank of Virkon, designed to stop us bringing alien microbes to Antarctica. Finally, I'm out through the sea door and manhandled into a Zodiac lurching below. Regardless of how calm the sea or how nimble you claim to be, the Orion crew grabs your forearms and pulls you into the boat. Then it's off, hunched, through the waves. Even on a sunny day the wind is bitter.

As we round the headland into the tiny natural harbour that Mawson was so lucky to find 100 years ago, the first thing that strikes me is the size of the penguin colonies. Adélies (named after the wife of the French explorer who first sighted this coastline) are everywhere. About 18 inches tall, they stand on rocks and on bits of ice making their strange mechanical laughing call. Some are involved in synchronised fishing, leaping out of the water and diving back in like hyperactive Busby Berkeley Belles. Others are on the shore staring at the Zodiacs or running important messages to each other. Penguins do remind me of courtiers.

Yanked up on to the shore by the crew, we make our way across the ice to Douglas Mawson's wooden hut, which consists of two large rooms each with a low pyramidal roof. It lies on a small rock plateau that Mawson and his team of young scientists blasted on arrival. The only problem was that temperatures were so low the dynamite would not ignite unless first warmed in trouser pockets. Now that's devotion to science.

Large brown Weddell seals lie in the way as we approach. These 6ft-long slugs with the faces of benign cats have forgotten that humans can be predators. They loll, wholly unprotected with their big eyes smiling up at us, seemingly unaware that their ancestors fed Mawson and his team for nearly two years

Only three people can go into Mawson's hut at a time so we queue. Meanwhile, the expedition crew is running around looking for the Mad Spinning Lady's chair so she can begin the wool for her balaclava. In the distance, I can see Isabel and her granddaughters making their way from the landing stage. Surely the first Zimmer frame on Antarctica.

Soon it will be my turn to enter the hut where Mawson, in his own quiet way, did more to further our understanding of Antarctica than either of those shooting stars, Scott and Amundsen. After Sir Doug left, the hut was invaded by snow. For the past few years it has been excavated from within. What I will step into is akin to the Marie Celeste, a time capsule from the beginning of the 20th century, preserved exactly as it was when Mawson closed the door on his work and left Cape Denison in 1914.

We're fortunate that the weather is so good. Captain Mike always made it clear that a landing at Cape Denison was not guaranteed. You can come all this way, eight days at sea, and still not set foot on the last continent. Katabatic winds might spring up at any time, blasting down the glacier. Don and his team have offloaded tents just in case the Orion is forced to abandon us for a day or so at the windiest point on Earth. Exploration has got a lot safer and a lot more comfortable in the past 100 years, but the elements are no less implacable. All being well, we'll have today, and possibly tomorrow, to walk this snowy promontory below those looming glaciers. Mawson named the bay at one end John O'Groats and the other Land's End and we'll hike between the two. The rest of the time we'll be photographing the penguins and seals and, in my case, quietly thanking God we won't have to spend several winters eating them like Sir Doug.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Adrian Mourby travelled to the port of Dunedin with Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; airnewzealand.co.uk), which offers return fares from £1,169. He travelled to Antarctica with Orion Expedition Cruises (020-7399 7620; orionexpeditions.com), which offers 19-day voyages to Mawson's Antarctica for £11,965 per person, including meals and excursions. The next voyages will be in December 2011; early booking is advised.

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