The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel
A voyage to the most peaceful place on earth
In a time of conflict and geopolitical upheaval, Rick Jordan visits the only place in the world right now where every nation just gets on
At the hopelessly remote Hope Bay on the Antarctic peninsula, the mountain peaks are dressed in a tiger print of snow. An undulating glacier forms a sheer cliff face of steelblue ice where it meets the sea; further around is a small, seemingly deserted settlement of red-faced huts. Apart from the wind rippling the water, there’s barely a sound or a movement – it’s hard to imagine any history happened here. And yet it has significance: 70 years ago, this is where the first and last shots fired in anger in Antarctica occurred.
A voyage to Antarctica can be many things: it can be an epic journey into the heroic age, following in the footsteps of Shackleton and Scott; it can immerse you in the world of Frozen Planet, amid the tundra and whirling snow, spotting emperor penguins and elephant seals; it can chart the ingenuity of scientific endeavour, and the alarming course of climate change. But in a time of conflict and geopolitical upheaval, it can also take you to the only place in
Venture is a handsome Swiss army knife of a vessel, thrillingly kitted out for the Antarctic weather the world right now where every nation co-operates and, well, just gets on.
Initially signed in 1959 by 12 nations – the United Kingdom, Argentina, Norway and the USSR among them – and then by another 44, the Antarctic
Treaty pledges to use the continent for peaceful purposes only, to freeze any national claims on territory and share scientific knowledge. Forever. It has held tight ever since. (Those shots, by the way, were fired in 1952 by Argentinian naval officers over the heads of a British survey group landing stores from a ship, and a Royal Navy frigate was sent out in response. At the time, Churchill was a little concerned about a perceived threat to the Falklands – his instincts may have been right.)
To reach this land of mutual co-operation, I set sail on the Seabourn Venture, the cruise line’s first purpose-built expedition ship. On board were a crew made up of 62 nationalities – a symbol of international teamwork in itself. Venture is a handsome, bottle-green Swiss army knife of a vessel, thrillingly kitted out for anything the notoriously tempestuous Antarctic can throw at it.
Where expedition ships were once repurposed scientific or military vessels, this is the next-level model – as
luxurious as it is hardy. Along with an icebreaking prow and a strengthened hull, it has stabilisers to ensure there are no champagne spillages on the high seas, a propulsion system that can turn the ship on a sixpence, and a dynamic-positioning system borrowed from oil-rig technology that enables it to never drop anchor but instead hover at a fixed GPS point. There are hot tubs, a sauna, a plunge pool and even twin submersibles that resemble lunar modules. After reading in the library how ponies and huskies were eaten by ravenous explorers, I wandered down to the restaurant for salmon tartare and roast quail from chef Christophe.
Our route saw us travel from San Antonio, in Chile, down through Patagonia, grazing the coast through a succession of straits and narrows, before crossing the fearsome Drake Passage and on to the Antarctic peninsula – then back up, to Ushuaia, in Argentina. It’s a rarely sailed long way round; a slow-travel voyage on which the temperature gradually drops and the sense of anticipation rises.
At Puerto Montt, I disembarked to go whitewater rafting on the Petrohué river, hurtling down grade 3 rapids with the cloud-wrapped peak of a volcano above us. In the South Patagonian ice field, we encountered our first tidewater glacier, Jorge Montt, its surface like a broken meringue. We skimmed below it in Zodiacs, gazing up at the overhanging forest that’s rooted there since the last ice age. A couple of days later, the ship slowed almost to a standstill to ease through the English Narrows. I went to the top deck and looked up at the clear night sky, gradually making out Jupiter and four of its moons, then the Southern Cross and the milky smudge of the Magellanic Clouds. At one point, the International Space Station blinked overhead, another beacon of international co-operation.
Passing through the Strait of Magellan in just six hours – Ferdinand Magellan himself spent six weeks nudging around in search of a route between the Pacific and the Atlantic – we reached Punta Arenas, the southernmost city in the world and a jumping-off point for Antarctic missions. It has the brusque pragmatism of all frontier towns. Every so often, a wind whipped through that would whisk an admiral’s tricorne off and send it spinning down the street. Knots of telephone lines decorate broad boulevards of bright, French-style colonial mansions. In the Ethnographic Museum, I was taken with the poignant story of Jemmy Button, named after the mother-of-pearl trinket given to his father by the captain of HMS Beagle, who forcibly took him back to London to be “civilised” before he returned on the same ship, befriending a certain young naturalist along the way.
You can walk around HMS Beagle – well, a life-sized replica – at the Nao Victoria Museum, along with Magellan’s galleon. Their creator seems as determined as those vintage navigators, single-handedly constructing them plank by plank – about 70ft in length but home to 55 men for months on end, the Nao Victoria is in stark contrast to the Seabourn Venture. My own walk-in wardrobe alone would cheerfully accommodate a couple of sailors – another could squeeze into my heated clothes-drying cupboard.
A little further along the coast, watched by lines of Bible-black cormorants, a monument was unveiled in 2022 commemorating Chile’s role in returning Shackleton and his men to Punta Arenas: next to a section of hull from the good ship Yelcho is a statue of its captain, Luis Pardo, pointing southwards out to sea.
The thing about any voyage to the Antarctic is that it will never go entirely to plan. The weather will have other ideas. Appointments with glaciers will be missed, kayaking trips postponed. The chance of encountering an emperor penguin is about one in 40. But it means every trip will be totally different. Even the 600-mile Drake Passage, the tumultuous current that eddies around the continent, casting waves that have sunk hundreds of ships, was almost disappointingly calm on our two-day crossing. But the sense of excitement grew. I paced the decks, watching storm petrels and terns follow in the ship’s wake, wing tips grazing the waves, and charted our progress on the navigation screens in the bow lounge, a part replica of the bridge above. During a bio-check of our outdoor clothing to make sure no organic matter was left behind, I tested the expedition team by concealing a banana in my pocket.
Our route took us around a small part of the Antarctic peninsula, a lizard tail of land and islands at the north-west of the continent – such is the vastness of the place that a ship’s captain, poring over a map of the region, could cover our voyage with his pinky. Sailing up to Deception Island felt like drifting into the pages of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, a land that time forgot, strewn with whale bones, ghost-town oil tanks and huts from its years as a whaling station. The Venture anchored in a volcanic crater that last erupted in the 1970s, and we walked along the shore through an eggy haze of sulphurous mist. I was told that a decade ago, expedition leaders would dig a hole in the black sand and enjoy an impromptu hot bath. Tiny D’Hainaut Island felt like the Antarctic in miniature, with a glacier calving nearby, an elephant seal dozing on the ice and a hill that gentoo penguins were tobogganing down to gather stones for their nests.
As the days lengthened in the midnight sun, there was a growing sense of camaraderie, and the daily briefings and lectures became must-see events. Everyone had a favourite expedition member. American Brent, who does a mean penguin impression; Kiwi Brent, who can’t stand penguins but waxed lyrical about V-shaped valleys; and team leader Luciano – a laconic Argentinian who grew up in Patagonia dreaming of Antarctica and has since been here 60 times – who brought the house down with an annotated study on how far penguins squirt their faeces. It’s not all about penguins, though. Seb, a former Royal Navy officer, recounted his experience of sailing a replica of Shackleton’s lifeboat across 800 miles, using a barrel for a pillow. In the expedition lounge, cosy with ski-lodge throws and flickering 3D fireplaces, tales were spun of spectral dogs howling outside huts.
I found it best to rise and retire early. The one morning I decided to lie in, I cursed myself – the early Zodiacs drew a trio of humpback whales, one emerging close by and spouting. But later that day, as I stood on the deck, mesmerised by the snap, crackle, and pop of ice fragments floating below, I was rewarded with the sight of an iceberg rolling over, sending a little tsunami crashing towards shore, followed by the swoosh of an avalanche down a rockface.
Another day, we were woken at 5am to discover that the ship had nudged its way through sea ice and come to a halt in the Weddell Sea – the final resting place of Shackleton’s Endurance. With the sun blazing, we walked out into the frozen landscape for the Venture’s christening ceremony – an ice bottle broken on the prow. And on my last day in the Antarctic, I was able to descend in a submersible, floating down 280ft through a haze of plankton to see puffy starfish like enchiladas and bristling anemones on a seabed no one else has ever seen before.
After a week nosing around the continent, we recrossed the Drake Passage and set sail for Ushuaia. The three-week journey felt like a pilgrimage, entering a luminous, transcendent world; a remoteness in which people need to work together in order to survive. Hearing how a place that once inspired jingoistic one-upmanship came to be one of multilateral co-operation, its lessons for the way the world responds to global warming – which has shrunk polar sea ice to a record low this year – are clear. To take two names at random from the map of Antarctica, we need to set course for Hope rather than Deception.