Antarc­tica’s an­i­mal king­dom

A hol­i­day on ice with pen­guins for play­mates

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - MATTHEW DEN­HOLM

FORall their un­de­ni­able charms, pen­guins make de­cid­edly poor bed­fel­lows. When amassed in any num­ber, they smell — and badly. Worse, they don’t know when to shut up. And now would def­i­nitely be a time for them to shut up, as I am­at­tempt­ing to sleep while bivouack­ing on the ice on Orne Is­land in Antarc­tica.

It is no easy task, ly­ing on a bed of com­pacted snow, open to the frigid air and dis­tract­ing beauty of the sur­round­ing snow-cov­ered moun­tains and glaciers, bathed in the or­ange and pink of the never-set­ting sum­mer sun. I’m wear­ing an eye mask in an un­suc­cess­ful at­tempt to con­vince my brain that it’s as dark as nights back home. The sub-zero tem­per­a­tures bite at my toes de­spite my ther­mal socks. I’m clad in syn­thetic warm­ers and, in a fi­nal act of des­per­a­tion in the early hours, I pop a woollen beanie on my feet.

When I fi­nally lapse into an un­easy snooze, the pen­guins start up. Like neigh­bour­hood dogs on a still sum­mer night in sub­ur­bia, a sin­gle trou­ble­maker be­gins the ca­coph­ony with a provoca­tive honk or gut­tural squawk. Within min­utes they’re all at it and the si­lence of the world’s last wilder­ness is shat­tered.

Slightly more con­cern­ing is the oc­ca­sional spinechilling crack, boom and crash I hear at in­ter­vals dur­ing the night. Peek­ing from un­der my mask, I see the cause — avalanches tum­bling down the moun­tains of the penin­sula and large seg­ments of a nearby glacier col­laps­ing into the sea.

About 5am, as­sis­tant ex­pe­di­tion leader Mag­gie O’Connor, the chap­er­one of this bizarre pyjama party at the bot­tom of the world, de­cides we have suf­fered enough. It’s time to wake up (no prob­lem there), stretch stiff limbs, rub frozen ex­trem­i­ties, roll up our thin mat­tresses and sleep­ing bags, and board Zo­di­acs to take us back to Po­lar Pioneer.

Aboard this small, com­fort­able ship, op­er­ated by Aus­tralian-based Aurora Ex­pe­di­tions, warm cab­ins, hot show­ers and cooked break­fasts await. Maw­son and Shack­le­ton may have had to slaugh­ter a pen­guin or seal for sus­te­nance, but we have eggs and ba­con.

This nine-day, fly-cruise jour­ney to the Antarc­tic Penin­sula is not with­out its share of real ad­ven­tures. It is as much ex­pe­di­tion as cruise for our group of 48 Bri­tish, Aus­tralian, Amer­i­can and as­sorted Euro­pean trav­ellers. Aurora’s com­pe­tent, knowl­edge­able and en­thu­si­as­tic team keeps us safe, but we are never mol­ly­cod­dled. This is par­tic­u­larly the case for the hard­core among us who have opted to go kayak­ing when the ship an­chors, rather than take the cus­tom­ary Zo­diac cruises. And short of grow­ing fins or flip­pers, kayak­ing pro­vides the most in­ti­mate Antarc­tic ex­pe­ri­ence imag­in­able — and some­times a lit­tle too in­ti­mate.

My first heart-stop­ping moment comes as we try to lo­cate some hump­back whales feed­ing on krill in Foyn Har­bour. As my kayak glides past an­other, one of its paddlers makes a com­ment that fails to clearly pen­e­trate the beanie cov­er­ing my ears and the sound of splash­ing pad­dles. By the time I’ve as­sem­bled the frag­ments of mis­heard words to pro­duce ‘‘There’s one just there!’’, it’s too late.

A moun­tain of black blub­ber erupts from the still sur­face of the inky ocean. Sud­denly, I am only sev­eral feet away from two 35-tonne leviathans. The hump­backs are close enough for me to count the bar­na­cles on their boat-sized chins. It’s an At­ten­bor­ough moment, a gen­uine case of shock and awe. Imag­ine be­ing swat­ted by sev­eral tons of whale tail or sucked into the depths by the mon­sters’ slip­streams. For just a split sec­ond, the mod­ern

im­pulse to grab my

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