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The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat -

IT may be the last wilder­ness, but Antarc­tica is no longer dif­fi­cult or even un­rea­son­ably ex­pen­sive to reach. Your first de­ci­sion is whether to tackle East Antarc­tica, the frozen con­ti­nent’s wild side, or the more eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble and more fre­quently vis­ited Antarc­tic Penin­sula.

Cruises to East Antarc­tica leave from Dunedin or Bluff in south­ern New Zealand, and some­times from Ho­bart. One ad­van­tage of a voy­age to East Antarc­tica is that it will al­most cer­tainly take in one or more of the sub-Antarc­tic is­lands be­tween Aus­tralia and Antarc­tica. Th­ese are among the most spec­tac­u­larly re­mote cor­ners of the planet, teem­ing with wildlife, in­clud­ing our own ‘‘Gala­pa­gos of the south’’, Mac­quarie Is­land, and Kiwi-owned won­ders such as the Camp­bell and Auck­land groups.

Th­ese is­lands break up what would oth­er­wise be six to seven days of sail­ing to the Antarc­tic con­ti­nent. How­ever, the sheer dis­tance to be sailed — at least 2600km each way — means th­ese trips are typ­i­cally two to four weeks, and there­fore more ex­pen­sive.

Vis­it­ing the Antarc­tic Penin­sula, by com­par­i­son, in­volves a rel­a­tively short voy­age of a few days. Cruises leave from Tierra del Fuego on the con­ti­nent’s south­ern­most tip, Ushuaia in Ar­gentina or Punta Are­nas in Chile. Of course, this means you must add the cost of flights from Aus­tralia to South Amer­ica. Ushuaia and Punta Are­nas are con­nected by reg­u­lar flights to larger cities in the re­gion.

For those short on time, some cruise op­er­a­tors pro­vide fly-sail op­tions, us­ing char­ter flights of about two hours from Punta Are­nas to King Ge­orge Is­land, in the South Shet­land group near the tip of the Antarc­tic Penin­sula, to avoid more than one cross­ing of Drake Pas­sage by ship.

A fur­ther fac­tor to con­sider is that in the past two sum­mers, ice con­di­tions have been un­usu­ally thick off the coast of East Antarc­tica. That has pre­vented many ex­pe­di­tions from reach­ing shore. The penin­sula, by con­trast, is wor­ry­ingly free of ice com­pared with years past, a phe­nom­e­non linked by sci­en­tists to global warm­ing.

Small ships are ideal for ex­plor­ing Antarc­tica — low-im­pact, safe, com­fort­able and adapt­able to itin­er­ar­ies that can change be­cause of the va­garies of weather, sea and ice.

The big­gest cruise ships are ef­fec­tively banned from Antarc­tic wa­ters on en­vi­ron­men­tal grounds. This means you typ­i­cally find your­self among 45 to 100 pas­sen­gers. You will ven­ture out from the mother ship in in­flat­able Zo­di­acs, in groups of about 10, while some ex­pe­di­tions of­fer guided kayak­ing.

If you pre­fer the flut­ter of can­vas and are not afraid to help hoist a sail, there are trips to the penin­sula on ma­jes­tic sail­ing ships such as the Dutch-based Europa.

Now is a good time to plan for trips leav­ing in the 2013-14 south­ern sum­mer; many of the Antarc­tic op­er­a­tors of­fer voy­ages to the Arc­tic in the north­ern sum­mer. au­ro­ra­ex­pe­di­tions.com.au sil­versea.com se­abourn.com aber­crom­biekent.com.au orionexpeditions.com world­ex­pe­di­tions.com/au ben­tours.com.au ocean-ex­pe­di­tions.com barkeu­ropa.com

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