The ul­ti­mate en­durance

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - JONATHAN THOMP­SON

IT was the be­gin­ning of the end. As the pack ice closed about the ship that evening the men thought lit­tle of it, but the ves­sel’s sit­u­a­tion had be­come ter­mi­nal. It was dy­ing: a slow, frozen, twisted death in Antarc­tica. And those on board would be lucky to es­cape with their lives.

A cen­tury ago, Ernest Shack­le­ton’s fa­mous po­lar ves­sel, the En­durance, was be­set, gripped by stran­gu­lat­ing sea ice off the Antarc­tic Penin­sula. Shack­le­ton’s dream of be­com­ing the first to cross the south­ern con­ti­nent on foot was over, and one of his­tory’s most fa­mous bat­tles for sur­vival had be­gun.

A cen­tury later, that same penin­sula, a great white arm reach­ing for the dis­tant tail of South Amer­ica, looks much the same. Whiskered Wed­dell seals laze on ice floes, while pen­guins squab­ble over pebble nests and a wa­tery sun squats over anony­mous moun­tains. The only dif­fer­ence is that, where once Shack­le­ton and his men were be­gin­ning a des­per­ate race against death, now tens of thou­sands of peo­ple come ev­ery year for the “hol­i­day of a life­time”.

Next year marks the 50th an­niver­sary of or­gan­ised tourism to the re­gion; it’s a busi­ness that sees more than 30,000 vis­i­tors a year. They come to soak up the unique snows­capes, to pho­to­graph the gre­gar­i­ous wildlife — and to ex­pe­ri­ence a slice of the Heroic Age of Ex­plo­ration.

In this con­text, Shack­le­ton re­mains front and cen­tre: a swash­buck­ling James T. Kirk, in con­trast to Cap­tain Robert Fal­con Scott’s colder, more sci­en­tif­i­cally minded Spock. At the heart of his ro­man­tic ap­peal, and the tourism it has in­spired, is the En­durance ex­pe­di­tion it­self, specif­i­cally Shack­le­ton’s suc­cess, against over­whelm­ing odds, in get­ting all 26 of his men, plus a teenage stowaway, off the penin­sula alive. This epic un­der­tak­ing be­gan with months spent camp­ing and trekking across treach­er­ous sea ice be­fore Shack­le­ton and five oth­ers suc­ceeded in a near-sui­ci­dal pas­sage of more than 1200km across the fe­ro­cious South­ern Ocean in a tiny lifeboat.

It’s a coup there­fore that one of the lead­ing Po­lar tourism op­er­a­tors, Quark Ex­pe­di­tions, now em­ploys the his­to­rian, au­thor and cousin (twice re­moved) of the great man him­self, Jonathan Shack­le­ton, as an Antarc­tic guide.

“Ernest had a huge amount of charisma and en­ergy and he loved the wild,” says Shack­le­ton ju­nior, stand­ing on the deck of Quark’s Ocean Di­a­mond. “He loved chal­lenges and he loved go­ing places no­body else had been. It was all about that lure of the wild — that ven­tur­ing into the un­known. And to a large ex­tent that’s what’s still at­tract­ing peo­ple here to­day.”

Antarc­tica re­mains a per­ma­nent fea­ture on travel bucket lists. It’s the elu­sive sev­enth con­ti­nent — the win- diest, wildest and most pris­tine land mass on the planet. But it’s also a tourist des­ti­na­tion reg­u­lated by two key fac­tors: cost and the no­to­ri­ous Drake Pas­sage, which de­ters all but the most determined from at­tempt­ing the Great White Con­ti­nent.

Ah yes, the Drake: a 965km-wide chan­nel sep­a­rat­ing Antarc­tica from South Amer­ica. It also hap­pens to be the point where three of the world’s great oceans — the At­lantic, South­ern and Pa­cific — all meet head-on, squab­bling for supremacy.

The bad news is that, like Shack­le­ton dur­ing the fi­nal leg of his epic es­cape act, pretty much ev­ery Antarc­tic trav­eller must tackle the Drake, some­times in vi­o­lent con­di­tions. One of Shack­le­ton’s com­pan­ions, a young Ir­ish­man named Felix Rooney, de­scribed it as “so rough, the ship would roll the milk out of your tea”.

Thank­fully, dur­ing the past cen­tury there has been sig­nif­i­cant ad­vances in nau­ti­cal tech­nol­ogy, from GPS nav­i­ga­tion sys­tems to gy­ro­scop­i­cally con­trolled ship sta­bilis­ers. And while the two-day cross­ing of the Drake to­day has the po­ten­tial to be slightly un­com­fort­able, as long as you don’t do any­thing stupid such as or­der soup or at­tempt to shave, you’ll be fine.

Dur­ing our pas­sage across the Drake, we are treated to a se­ries of lec­tures, on ev­ery­thing from Shack­le­ton’s early ex­pe­di­tions to the wildlife we are likely to en­counter. Tom Hart, a pen­gui­nol­o­gist from the Uni­ver­sity of Ox­ford, Eng­land, and guest lec­turer on the ship, is at pains to point out 21st-cen­tury tourism is con­sid­er­ably more re­spect­ful to­wards Antarc­tica than Shack­le­ton and his co­horts ever were.

“Let’s face it, early ex­plor­ers used to kill and eat pen­guins,” says Hart, who leads the in­ter­na­tional Pen­guin Life­lines ini­tia­tive. “Even as late as the 60s they’d be shoot­ing seals to feed to their dog teams. Not to men­tion the fact they’d lit­ter all over the con­ti­nent. Things are far bet­ter now un­der the cur­rent sys­tem of in­ter­na­tional rules, which are very well reg­u­lated.”

Those rules, un­der the aus­pices of the In­ter­na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Antarc­tica Tour Op­er­a­tors, are sur­pris­ingly strict and de­signed to min­imise hu­man im­pact on the con­ti­nent. They range from care­fully hoover­ing out day sacks at the start of each trip to the manda­tory dis­in­fect­ing of your boots be­fore and af­ter land ex­cur­sions and main­tain­ing a re­spect­ful 5m dis­tance from any pen­guins (un­less they ap­proach you first).

The rules go on: no more than 100 peo­ple are al­lowed to land in the same place at any one time, and on the rare oc­ca­sions when overnight camp­ing away from the ship is an op­tion, num­bers are strictly capped at 60. (This, more than any­thing, brings you clos­est to the con­di­tions that Shack­le­ton and his men would have ex­pe­ri­enced dur­ing their fa­mous trek, with the sig­nif­i­cant bonus of mod­ern bivvy bags over the sod­den rein­deer sleep­ing bags of 1915.)

On larger ex­pe­di­tion ves­sels such as Quark Ex­pedi-

A Wed­dell seal

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