Out of this world

Camp, climb, pad­dle mighty Antarc­tica

Australian Geographic Outdoor - - Contents - Words and Pho­tos Justin Walker

IT WAS A clash of wills. I was snug in­side two sleep­ing bags, them­selves in­side a bivvy bag with two Therm-a-Rest mats, dug into the ice of Rongé Is­land’s Kerr Point, in Antarc­tica. So I wasn’t go­ing any­where on this chilly night. The op­pos­ing party – an Adelie pen­guin – was equally de­ter­mined; the squawk­ing right be­side my bivvy bag had started just be­fore mid­night. I was ob­vi­ously where the pen­guin wanted to be – as in, ex­actly where it wanted to be, if the hours-long vo­cal be­rat­ing was any­thing to go by. And as much as I would nor­mally have moved on for a lo­cal res­i­dent, I wasn’t. Hav­ing to dig an­other ice bed in sub-freez­ing tem­per­a­tures, then re-in­sert my near-frozen self into my warm co­coon just to keep a per­turbed pen­guin happy, wasn’t gelling with my sur­vival in­stinct. So I just jammed my earplugs fur­ther in, rolled over, and tried to make the most of my one night sleep­ing on the ice of Antarc­tica.


That adage of the jour­ney be­ing the ad­ven­ture – or a mem­o­rable part of it – is thrown about too freely. Or so I used to think. Now, it is the first thing that pops in my head as I wake from sleep, thanks to the sen­sa­tion of be­ing hor­i­zon­tal and air­borne for a mil­lisec­ond, and then re­turn­ing to my bed’s mat­tress briefly be­fore slid­ing from one side of said bed to the other. My side­ways progress is halted by the now-un­der­stand­able high bed­sides be­fore I fol­low my room’s re­verse-roll and slide back to the other side. I am aboard the M/V Plan­cius - the Ocean­wide Ex­pe­di­tions craft I boarded at Ushuaia, Ar­gentina, for my jour­ney to Antarc­tica.

We have al­ready passed through the Bea­gle Chan­nel and are now cross­ing one of the world’s most treach­er­ous wa­ter­ways: the Drake Pas­sage (also hu­mor­ously re­ferred to as “the Shaky Drake”). The not-so-small former ice­breaker is be­ing rolled way over on its side again. And again, and again, as it plunges down into the troughs of huge waves and is then spat back up to the next crest. It’s dark out­side, the waves are above my port­hole win­dow and I con­tinue to slide all over the bed. I can­not re­call ever feel­ing quite so far ‘re­moved’ from the rest of the world as I am in this truly wild, un­tamed place – but I can, all of a sud­den, re­call in vivid de­tail the emer­gency drill we’d tack­led upon board­ing the boat back in Ushuaia. And it’s only the first night; there are two more on the Shaky Drake be­fore we even sight Antarc­tica. Cute pen­guins? They’re the last thing on my mind at the mo­ment…


I am eat­ing break­fast on the move. By that I mean I am, lit­er­ally, slid­ing left and right while sit­ting on my chair. Lucky for me – I think – my break­fast and my chair ta­ble are both slid­ing in the same di­rec­tion. It is our first morn­ing after the night be­fore of the Drake Pas­sage. There are only 15 or so of us at brekky; the rest of the pas­sen­gers – and even the on-board doc­tor, Hans Friema – are sea­sick to vary­ing de­grees. I thank my ap­par­ently strong con­sti­tu­tion while scoff­ing my muesli and look­ing out the din­ing room win­dows at the waves tow­er­ing over us. It nearly feels like our small, hardy col­lec­tive is the en­tire pop­u­la­tion on this boat,

I can­not re­call ever feel­ing quite so far ‘re­moved’ from the rest of the world as I am in this truly wild, un­tamed place

but we’re not; din­ing staff (man­aged by Johnny and Katrin) weave ex­pertly around ta­bles while mov­ing with the rolling craft, and the crew ap­pear and dis­ap­pear as they work be­hind the scenes. Ex­pe­di­tion Leader, Troels Ja­cob­sen, must also be un­af­fected; his good morn­ing mes­sage over the ship’s PA sounds cheery, at least. He would do that the en­tire jour­ney, wel­com­ing an­other spec­tac­u­lar day in the White Con­ti­nent. It sure beats a blar­ing alarm clock.

In to­tal, there are 130-plus pas­sen­gers aboard, as well as 53 crew, all ex­pertly guided by the ship’s cap­tain, Alexey Nazarov. I can still re­call his in­tro­duc­tory speech about our jour­ney while we slowly moved away from Ushuaia and the world as we know it; he said then that we could ex­pect a “mod­er­ate, okay cross­ing” of the Drake. Look­ing out the win­dows now, I note to my­self how the term ‘mod­er­ate’ can be viewed in spec­tac­u­larly dif­fer­ent ways. Still, with his – and the crew’s – ex­ten­sive ice sail­ing ex­pe­ri­ence (cap­tain and crew also work in the Arc­tic) I feel as­sured, and am al­ready pumped for what is com­ing in a few days. As they say, there’s al­ways a price to pay, and if it means ex­pe­ri­enc­ing one of the wildest sea-borne jour­neys of my life, I still reckon it’s go­ing to be worth it once we ar­rive at Antarc­tica it­self.

Over the next cou­ple of days we are ac­com­pa­nied by, firstly, a va­ri­ety of seabirds, in­clud­ing the black-browed al­ba­tross as we chugged through the Bea­gle Chan­nel, then, once into the Drake it­self, the mas­sive wan­der­ing al­ba­tross (the world’s largest fly­ing bird) and other seabirds, as well as a fast-mov­ing pod of orca. The Drake keeps pun­ish­ing the boat, too; the wind speed reaches up to 30 knots and the 89-me­tre-long Plan­cius rolls up to 30 de­grees as it is pounded by big waves, its three huge diesel en­gines churn­ing away keep­ing us up­right. On the sec­ond day, as we move ever closer to the white con­ti­nent, more fre­quent ice floes, of­ten with laz­ing seals and pen­guins atop them, slowly drift by the boat. The an­i­mals atop the floes seem obliv­i­ous to the peo­ple on our ship shout­ing ex­cit­edly and snap­ping away with cam­eras. On the sec­ond night of the Drake, we pass the Antarc­tic Con­ver­gence. Much like the Arc­tic tree­line, the Con­ver­gence sig­ni­fies where cold Antarc­tic wa­ters meet sub­antarc­tic wa­ter, and it is a nat­u­ral bound­ary – rich in marine life, most no­tably krill – but also acts as the de­mar­ca­tion line for the two dif­fer­ent cli­mates and their as­so­ci­ated marine life, and means we’re en­ter­ing (slightly) calmer wa­ters. It’s been amaz­ing but, re­ally, is still only the open­ing act for the big show. One that is about to kick off…


Its day three and I am al­ready com­fort­able in my rou­tine. Still thank­ful for not suc­cumb­ing to sea­sick­ness, I am sit­ting down for break­fast, again, and no­tice a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in num­bers do­ing the same. We have en­tered calmer wa­ters now and every­one is ex­cited about the start of our var­i­ous Base­camp ac­tiv­i­ties. This is the main rea­son I am aboard Plan­cius: there are any num­ber of boats and cruise com­pa­nies that can take you to Antarc­tica but few of­fer the smor­gas­bord of ad­ven­ture ac­tiv­i­ties once you are there. Ocean­wide Ex­pe­di­tions is a spe­cial­ist in this area (its on-board ex­pe­di­tion team’s col­lec­tive climb­ing, hik­ing, kayak­ing, div­ing and ice ad­ven­ture ex­pe­ri­ence is im­mense).

This Base­camp Antarc­tica trip, avail­able through World Ex­pe­di­tions, and run by OE, is the ul­ti­mate for ad­ven­tur­ous trav­ellers. It al­lows you not only to view and pho­to­graph Antarc­tica’s spec­tac­u­lar land­scape and wildlife, but ac­tu­ally puts you right in there, with no bet­ter ex­am­ple than the camp­ing, but also the kayak­ing, climb­ing, snow­shoe­ing and

the chance to check out a cou­ple of the ice sta­tions here. In short, it is shap­ing up as epic, and I am lucky enough to score two big ac­tiv­i­ties on the first day. Each ac­tiv­ity is run twice per day (ex­cept the camp­ing overnight, ob­vi­ously) and be­fore join­ing the ex­pe­di­tion you have to select those you wish to do, and then it’s just a mat­ter of check­ing the ac­tiv­ity log each evening to see what you’ve been as­signed.

Be­fore that, though, we just have to run through the pre­cau­tions all com­pa­nies have to take when bring­ing vis­i­tors to Antarc­tica. Our clothes and equip­ment are vac­u­umed and cleaned to en­sure no for­eign mat­ter is taken onto the is­lands or the con­ti­nent it­self – both of which we’ll be vis­it­ing. We also take de­liv­ery of our rub­ber boots (an­other Antarc­tica es­sen­tial) and be­gin pre­par­ing for our first big day out. Nu­mer­ous run­throughs of emer­gency pro­ce­dures, talks on what to ex­pect and what to bring, and then mak­ing sure cam­eras have bat­ter­ies (and spares) take up the rest of the day on board as we cruise ever closer to Antarc­tica.

Troels’s voice wakes us ear­lier than usual the next morn­ing. A quick peek out the win­dow sees a spec­tac­u­lar clear day dawn­ing as we sail through the Ger­lache Strait. To say I am pumped is an un­der­state­ment; I have scored big-time with two ac­tiv­i­ties on this first day – and two of the ones I was most look­ing for­ward to: moun­taineer­ing and then a night camp­ing on the ice. The land­scape sur­round­ing us as we con­tinue south­west along the coast­line of the Antarc­tic Penin­sula is gob­s­mack­ing; steep, rocky snow-clad peaks spear sky­ward di­rectly from the im­pos­si­bly glassy wa­ter. I haven’t climbed for a few years, but I am al­ready fig­ur­ing out how I could get back here and spend a few weeks us­ing a boat as a base to climb some of these beau­ti­ful moun­tains. I am also hav­ing trou­ble com­pre­hend­ing the sheer size and scale of the place; even as I fire off a num­ber of shots on my camera I al­ready know the im­ages will strug­gle to do jus­tice to the vast­ness here at the bot­tom of the world.

Break­fast can­not be eaten quickly enough be­fore I dash back to my room, grab my climb­ing gear (we’d been fit­ted with it the pre­vi­ous day) and hus­tle down two lev­els to the Zo­diac launch site, off the side of the boat. The vibe is in­cred­i­ble here; every­one seems to ex­ude ex­cite­ment at fi­nally be­ing here and get­ting onto the ice. I am part of the moun­taineer­ing group that is tack­ling a climb at Kerr Point, on Rongé Is­land. Our land­ing point here will also be our camp­site for the night so I have def­i­nitely struck it lucky scor­ing two ac­tiv­i­ties on the one day. An­other group is head­ing to nearby Danco Is­land to check out a gen­too pen­guin colony, while more are jump­ing aboard kayaks to ex­plore the area.

The Zo­diac pro­ce­dure runs like clock­work. Watch­ing as these fast, tough wa­ter­craft veer out and away from the Plan­cius, carv­ing their wakes into the glassy, still Antarc­tic wa­ter is pretty damn cool – as is the fast blast across to Kerr Point. Then it is time to take my first step onto Antarc­tica. As much as I would like to say it was mo­men­tous – a per­son­alised ver­sion of that first step on the moon, for ex­am­ple – it is not; it is just a semi-jump/stum­ble, fol­lowed by a scram­ble up some steps cut into the ice. It is more than just ice, though; it is Antarc­tica…


It has been a long time (and more than a few ex­tra kilo­grams) since I did any climb­ing so I am thank­ful that this half-day climb­ing up an icy spur at Kerr Point is rel­a­tively be­nign in terms of dif­fi­culty. This not only means I can ease back into the rou­tine of be­ing roped up (some­how I score lead on a group of four) and fo­cus on each step, but it also al­lows me and my small team to soak up the visual splen­dour of our lo­ca­tion. The climb is steady and steep, and guide Tim Blake­more keeps all the roped groups close to­gether as we wind our way up to­ward a bluff cliff face, the only bare rock amongst the ice and snow tow­er­ing above us.

It is amaz­ing stuff; paus­ing at one point to look back down at the Plan­cius I re­alise just how im­mense this small part of Antarc­tica is. The

air is so clear, dis­tance is hard to judge and sound trav­els far. Sur­pris­ingly, there is lit­tle talk among us, every­one awestruck by the sur­round­ings. All too soon we reach our sum­mit point and, again, take in crack­er­jack views (yeah, I will run out of ad­jec­tives soon to de­scribe this place!) be­fore grab­bing some food and wa­ter, then tak­ing the straight route back down, glis­sad­ing some of the way be­fore re­turn­ing to the Zo­di­acs.

We have a bit of time be­fore din­ner back on the ship, so duck across to Danco Is­land to check out the gen­too pen­guins. There are strict guide­lines to view­ing pen­guins – no closer than five me­tres, un­less the pen­guins come closer to you of their own vo­li­tion is the main one – but I needn’t have wor­ried about bring­ing a long zoom lens for this day; these lit­tle guys hap­pily am­ble among the gawk­ing throng that is us, al­low­ing for some amaz­ing close-up ex­pe­ri­ences and pho­tos. From climb­ing to pen­guins in a mat­ter of min­utes is awe­some, but I know there is some­thing big­ger on the hori­zon; the camp­site back at Kerr Point beck­ons.

Back at the Plan­cius every­one is ex­cit­edly gab­bing about what we’ve all ex­pe­ri­enced on this amaz­ing day. I lis­ten at­ten­tively, but I’m also dis­tracted by, firstly, the awe­some food on board (restau­rant qual­ity is a spot-on de­scrip­tion) and, se­condly, how quickly and po­litely I can stuff my­self be­fore head­ing back to my room to grab all the gear I need for a night of camp­ing on ice. The gear list it­self is pretty im­pres­sive: two sleep­ing bags, two Therm-a-Rest mat­tresses, a sleep­ing bag liner, a pee­bot­tle (you can­not leave any hu­man waste on land; there is a toi­let at camp, but it’s only for ‘emer­gency’ use. I will leave that to your imag­i­na­tion…) and as many lay­ers as I think I will need to stay warm in sub-zero tem­per­a­tures. I swap lay­ers on and off in a mild frenzy be­fore dash­ing down to the Zo­di­acs where I join 31 other lucky cam­pers.

Back at Kerr Point I am greeted by shovel-wield­ing guides and guests; we have to dig down be­low the ice sur­face to en­sure if there is any wind dur­ing the night, we are out of it. It takes about 10 min­utes for me to dig out a cof­fin-sized hole in the snow and then set up all my sleep­ing gear, care­ful to keep the ice and snow out of it, but also mak­ing sure it is all snugged to­gether prop­erly. I am a tad sweaty once I fin­ish but not un­com­fort­ably so; any dis­com­fort is for­got­ten as I wan­der around the camp­site, check­ing out oth­ers’ ef­forts be­fore sit­ting down on the ice and ob­serv­ing the bril­liant sun­set and Alpen glow over camp.

I have said this be­fore of other ad­ven­tures, but I reckon this Antarc­tic camp­site would have to be one of my most mem­o­rable – and cer­tainly re­mote – I have ever had the luck to doss down at. In a lot of ways, it re­minds me of camp­ing in the deserts of the Aus­tralian out­back. As there, this place is mag­i­cal in its re­mote­ness, vast­ness and si­lence. Well, it is, un­til I wel­come my sur­prise camp-mate, that ob­jec­tion­able Adelie pen­guin. For such a small crea­ture, it can make an amaz­ing amount of noise; squawk­ing aside, even its webbed feet seem to emit a thun­der­ous sound as it runs up and then back down the hill be­hind our camp to fin­ish be­side my bivvy where it con­tin­ues its ver­bal­ing of me and the other cam­pers. Even the rum­ble of an avalanche above us at some point in the night doesn’t dis­suade the pen­guin from its task. The fact it keeps it up most of the night – and I get no sleep as a re­sult – could be viewed as an aw­ful ex­pe­ri­ence, but noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth. It is both hu­mor­ous and heart­en­ing to see that us hu­mans can­not al­ways con­trol things, and as I hear the Adelie thump­ing back down the hill to­ward me once again, I am hap­pily rec­on­ciled with that fact, and sim­ply jam my earplugs fur­ther in.

Our 4.30am wake-up call seems to come too soon and, go­ing by the num­ber of peo­ple who have al­ready packed up, prob­a­bly not nec­es­sary. Fun­nily enough, the cause of that lack of sleep – the Adelie pen­guin – has dis­ap­peared into the Antarc­tic ether, like a noisy ap­pari­tion. Even with the lack of sleep, I am not keen on leav­ing, but the en­tice­ment of more top food and a warm shower, en­sure I pack all my gear up and join the tired and hun­gry throng wait­ing for the first Zo­diac.


Some­times, when you’re in the wilder­ness, it is good just to sit back, look and ab­sorb ac­tu­ally where you are. That’s what I am do­ing to­day; after such a busy day yes­ter­day, with the climb­ing and then the camp­ing, it was great to get to Paradise Bay and sim­ply sit and watch. Never has a place been so aptly named; the im­mense moun­tains, blue-ice glaciers and pic­ture-per­fect weather make it a def­i­nite paradise.

It’s an­other busy day for every­one, bar this con­tent ob­server. Some peo­ple are vis­it­ing an Ar­gen­tine re­search sta­tion (Brown Sta­tion), com­plete with gen­too pen­guin rook­ery, but I am just chill­ing, try­ing to com­pre­hend the vast­ness of this place – and its unique­ness; as I sit fil­ing pho­tos, I glance out my win­dow to see a Wed­dell seal, float­ing past on an ice floe, star­ing right back at me. A boom and crash sig­nals a mas­sive avalanche that sees im­mense ice boul­ders splash through the mir­ror-like sur­face of the bay’s wa­ter. For an hour or so I watch as the day’s kayak­ing group pad­dles un­der an im­mense jum­ble of semi-calved ice from the sur­round­ing glaciers. I try in vain to cap­ture im­ages that show the scale of the moun­tains against the kayak­ers. The sum­mits of Mount Banck and Bar­baro Point fall to climbers this af­ter­noon, while cam­pers spend a night – sans Adelie pen­guin – at Stoney Point.

It’s a fan­tas­tic day, and leaves me psyched for the next ad­ven­ture: kayak­ing.


Dur­ing the af­ter­noon and night, we have moved around to Ge­orges Point. We have, once again (and quite un­usu­ally, ap­par­ently) been gifted a blue­bird day. I join the small group of kayak­ers – and guide Paul Dono­van – as we head out to check on Orne Is­land and its gen­too pen­guin rook­ery. The pad­dling here is sub­lime; rich, iri­des­cent blue ice­bergs float by us, and the glass-like wa­ter shim­mers brightly un­der the morn­ing sun.

It is, ac­tu­ally, quite hot (for Antarc­tica), but this doesn’t stop us mak­ing the most of the morn­ing. Paul leads us around the is­land’s shore­line be­fore we reach the back-end of Orne Is­land. We can see from here that it’s rel­a­tively ice­berg free and so we con­tinue all the way around it, dodg­ing ice­bergs and check­ing the pen­guins’ an­tics on the is­land. We also had our first look at some chin­strap pen­guins here, with their rook­eries on this side of the is­land. Once we’d spent a cou­ple of hours there, we turned to­ward nearby Ge­orges Point, and more gen­toos. Some of these kept us com­pany on the cross­ing be­tween Orne Is­land and Ge­orges Point, por­pois­ing (div­ing out of the wa­ter and back in) in front of our kayaks. We rafted up close to the shore of Ge­orges Point to watch as hun­dreds of gen­toos waited pa­tiently to join a sin­gle­file line head­ing to the var­i­ous rook­eries here. The or­der among the seem­ing chaos was im­pres­sive.

A short break for lunch was fol­lowed by the Plan­cius moor­ing closer to Cu­verville Is­land. Here, I take I a Zo­diac to shore to get up close and per­sonal with the pen­guins. Thank­fully, I don’t get too close to one ice­berg just off shore; I hear a very loud groan­ing sound, then turn to see the im­mense berg flip it­self over. The af­ter­noon’s kayak­ing group is around 100m away but I reckon I can still hear their ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from my po­si­tion. It’s a big, visual les­son in just how un­pre­dictable ice­bergs can be.


I wake to my first Antarc­tic morn­ing that ac­tu­ally looks like it. As in I’m greeted by over­cast skies and strong winds as I ven­ture out on deck to snap some shots of this ‘more typ­i­cal’ scene. Ac­cord­ing to the crew, we have been ex­tremely lucky to have ex­pe­ri­enced such good weather on our jour­ney to date. But, it looks like our luck has now run out. We have cruised dur­ing the night to reach Neko Har­bour, our land­ing site for the day on the ac­tual Antarc­tic con­ti­nent it­self.

The gloomy, dra­matic sky, com­bined with the over­hang­ing ice cliffs, cloud-shrouded moun­tains and wild wind ac­tu­ally make for a wel­come change – well, for this pho­tog­ra­pher, any­way. It’s a bril­liant morn­ing – cold winds and all.

From this dra­matic lo­ca­tion, we now move deeper into the ice-choked Er­rera Chan­nel; the crash­ing and crunch­ing sounds as the ice­breaker lives up to its moniker through this section of wa­ter is awe­some to hear.

Equally awe­some, as we move into the more open wa­ters of the Ger­lache and then Brans­field straits, is what we see next: a leop­ard seal ly­ing on an ice floe. Alexey brings the Plan­cius in quite close so we get a fan­tas­tic view of one of Antarc­tica’s prime preda­tors. The leop­ard seal it­self seems hardly both­ered, but I guess when you’re one of the apex mam­mals in this part of the world, there is lit­tle to worry about. Well, al­most…


Iron­i­cally, as we leave the sea leop­ard be­hind, and con­tinue through Brans­field Strait, I am de­bat­ing with my­self what is the stand­out of this trip. The com­pe­ti­tion be­tween camp­ing, climb­ing and kayak­ing, plus ob­serv­ing the sea leop­ard, makes it hard. Or it does, un­til Troels roars through the ship’s PA that one of the crew has spot­ted a pod of orca cir­cling an ice floe that has a num­ber of crab-eater seals on it.

What I wit­ness next is some­thing I will never, ever for­get. The boat moves closer and we see a pod of four orca (three adults and one ju­ve­nile) spy-hop­ping (where orca lift their heads out of the wa­ter to see where their prey is) around the ice floe, con­cen­trat­ing mainly on one small floe with one seal on it, but also cir­cling the larger ice floe, which has a num­ber of seals hud­dled to­gether in the mid­dle. The team­work of the orca pod is in­cred­i­ble; they spy-hop to check where the seals are, then pro­ceed to try and punch a chan­nel through the ice it­self by push­ing their bod­ies against it, to break it up. There is one orca, in par­tic­u­lar, that is stands out. Ap­par­ently he’s known as Fat Boy, and is part of this pod, which is known as the Big B (fam­ily group B) orca group. This sig­ni­fies that they are seal-eaters, as op­posed to fish-eaters, or Type C/D – orca that eat whales. From what I can see through my zoom lens, Fat Boy is, I reckon, close to the size of a bus in terms of girth, and equally as im­pres­sive in terms of over­all length. In short, he’s bloody mas­sive.

The pod keeps at it for at least 30 min­utes or so, mak­ing plenty of progress – even at one point look­ing like they’d nabbed the solo seal on the small ice floe – be­fore sud­denly turn­ing away and mov­ing fur­ther out in to the open ocean. Troels be­lieves they were teach­ing the young ju­ve­nile the hunt­ing process. For us, it was the chance to wit­ness some­thing truly unique; ap­par­ently it took the BBC’s Planet Earth film crew two sea­sons to cap­ture a sim­i­lar thing.


The last day has dawned and it’s an­other cracker, with us moored just off Half Moon Is­land. This tiny isle is chock-full of chin­strap pen­guins and, semi-fa­mously, two mac­a­roni pen­guins. The is­land’s land­ing point is the usual ice and rock, with a few res­i­dent NZ fur seals and pen­guins. Also on the shore is a re­minder of Antarc­tica’s wild his­tory, with what looks to be the re­mains of a boat be­long­ing to ei­ther a sealer or a whaler – just the ribs and some planks are left – half-buried in the ground.

I land on­shore nice and early and watch as, firstly, the moun­taineers, then the snow­shoers head off to ex­plore their sur­rounds. The kayak­ers also have an­other nice day. For me, though, it is the last chance to check out some chin­strap pen­guins and – hope­fully – pho­to­graph one of this is­land’s near-myth­i­cal mac­a­roni pen­guins. I don my snow­shoes, then fol­low the well-worn path across to a point on the is­land where the high­est con­cen­tra­tion of pen­guins is. On the way, I pass a slum­ber­ing Wed­dell and briefly envy its re­laxed ap­pear­ance. A short climb later takes me to the fenced-off view­ing point where – just there, in the dis­tance, with its dis­tinc­tive red/orange ‘eye­brows’ – I spot a solo mac­a­roni pen­guin.

Walk­ing back to the Zo­diac land­ing point, I re­alise there is still one more thing to do. And it is some­thing I had initially dis­missed as clichéd and not worth my while: the fa­mous ‘po­lar plunge’. As the name sug­gests, it’s the sim­ple act of im­mers­ing your­self in Antarc­tic wa­ters. Sounds easy, hey? Well, it does – the ac­tual act of swim­ming and div­ing, any­way – but it be­comes a lot harder to con­tem­plate when you hear Troels glee­fully in­form all of us that the ac­tual wa­ter tem­per­a­ture is 1.5°C. One. Point. Five. Sud­denly the po­lar plunge be­comes some­thing that is ju­ve­nile and just plain silly. Well, I used all those rea­sons – and then plenty more – to jus­tify my ini­tial de­ci­sion not to do it…

Sit­ting on shore, with the sun out and the blue sky, look­ing over to the ship that had been my home for the past week or more, and then glanc­ing around at my sur­round­ings, I change my mind. Yep, all those flimsy ex­cuses dis­ap­pear after I watch the first two peo­ple jump in. They are laugh­ing (okay, maybe gri­mac­ing from the shock of the cold) and that’s enough to con­vince me.

Fool­ishly, I think leav­ing a merino T-shirt on will some­how add warmth, but I am in­deed a damn fool – on all counts. I run into the wa­ter and dive. The ab­so­lute shock of not be­ing able to breathe from the cold, nor be­ing able to move my legs makes my hoped-for fast es­cape any­thing but. I reckon I’m back ashore be­fore I can coax my lungs to draw breath again. I still can’t feel my legs and no, that merino T-shirt made ab­so­lutely no dif­fer­ence. But yeah, I would still do it again.


As I sit in my cabin dur­ing our re­turn jour­ney across the Drake Pas­sage en route to Ushuaia, tak­ing notes at the desk, I am hav­ing trou­ble col­lect­ing my thoughts and mem­o­ries. Antarc­tica is just so, so dif­fer­ent to any­where else; it is hard to re­late this im­mense con­ti­nent back to be­ing a part of this world as we think we know it. I could bang on for hours about the many, many high­lights of this trip – camp­ing on the ice, the orca hunt, climb­ing, kayak­ing, the crew and guides, the wildlife, the land­scape, the awe­some food and even the po­lar plunge – but any words, and in­deed, any im­ages, would still strug­gle to con­vey the majesty and true wild­ness of Antarc­tica.

There is an old say­ing that goes roughly like this: some­times you need to see some­thing with your own eyes; put the camera down, stop talk­ing and just breathe it, smell it, ob­serve it, im­merse your­self in it – and damn the price. I lay odds that the per­son who came up with it has been to Antarc­tica – it fits that mag­i­cal land’s eter­nal ap­peal per­fectly.

Climb­ing up Kerr Point, on Rongé Is­land, Antarc­tica.

Cam­pers at Kerr Point, Rongé Is­land take a breather after dig­ging their ice beds to ob­serve the mag­i­cal Alpen glow, post sun­set. Note the guides’ tent – they were very com­fort­able all night.

Clock­wise from top The zo­di­acs pro­vided fast trans­port to each of our land­ing points; a knife-blade ice­berg floats in the tran­quil wa­ters; even when not on land, there was plenty of in­cred­i­ble scenery to view from the ship.

The rich iri­des­cent blue of the sub­merged section of this ice­berg seems other-worldly.

Clock­wise from top A skua keeps the M/V Plan­cius dur­ing the epic cross­ing of the Drake Pas­sage; a Gen­too pen­guin does its best Happy Feet im­pres­sion; one of Antarc­tica’s apex preda­tors – a leop­ard seal – calmly ob­serves us as we float past its tem­po­rary home on an ice floe in the Ger­lache Strait.

The ex­pe­di­tion guides worked tire­lessly to en­sure every­one had a safe and awe­some ex­pe­ri­ence in Antarc­tica.

Clock­wise from top The rare op­por­tu­nity to watch an orca pod ‘spy hop­ping’ (lift­ing their head out of the wa­ter for bet­ter ob­ser­va­tion) as they stalked a group of seals on an ice floe was in­cred­i­ble; JW takes stock of his digs for the night at Kerr Point; the un­manned Brown Sta­tion has a large num­ber of Gen­too pen­guin rook­eries; a sole mac­a­roni pen­guin in a sea of chin­straps.

Kayak­ers cir­cum­nav­i­gate Orne Is­land, ob­serv­ing the gen­too and chin­strap pen­guin rook­eries found there.

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