I dug a hole, put down the sleeping bag and settled in for one of the most memorable nights of my life. There was a stillness than hung in the air. It was only interrupted by the occasional cracking in the distance. The sound was made by the ice, as it was breaking away from the glacier. Slowly at first, but then with an almighty crash as huge boulders of ice plummeted in to the sea. The sound reverberated around the vast, empty mountains and was breathtaking to listen to. How did I get to this moment on Antarctica?
When I told people I was going to Antarctica, the most common reply was: “You can go to Antarctica?”. You can, and you don’t need to be a world renown climate change researcher or trust fund owner to visit.
It all started with a vague plan, my friend and I would travel to Argentina and down to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. There, we would wait for however long it took, to get a last minute deal to Antarctica. From November until March, is summertime in Antarctica. The ice melts and you can travel there on a number of ships leaving from Ushuaia.
Typically, the boats cost between 9,000 USD to 15,000 USD and above. However, at a helpful travel agency in Ushuaia, with a last minute deal, that price can come down to around £3,000 ($5,000). You just have to be prepared to wait, and wait we did.
To keep our costs low, we settled in to the Cruz del Sur hostel for two weeks, each day visiting the travel agency to hear about any new deals. Eventually, the deal we wanted became available. The Akademik Sergey Vavilov would be leaving for Antarctica on the 27th of January, doing the classic Antarctic Peninsula tour for 11 days. The trip included camping and a polar plunge. We leaped at the chance.
A few days later we were crossing the Drake Passage, which can be one of the roughest seas in the world. On board the ship were experts on photography, penguins, Antarctic history, birds, nature, along with a doctor and a Russian crew.
Our first glimpse of Antarctica came at around 4am. An announcement on the boat woke me, and I grabbed my camera and dashed to the deck. It felt like arriving on another planet.
Each day we did two landings, using the Zodiac boats. Our first ever landing was right in the heart of a Gentoo penguin colony. Sitting in the snow, we observed in awe as they would waddle close to you, stop, have an inquisitive look around, then waddle past. Each time they’d fall forward on their front, always brought a smile.
We also got up close to Crabeaters seals, Leopard seals and whales.
Beyond the wildlife, you also get a glimpse in to the lives of people living in Antarctica. With no native population, there are only people to be found in the research bases.
The Ukrainian base even included a pub with a pool table. For 7 months of the year, the team of 12 researchers are cut off from the rest of the world, as the ice is too thick for a ship to reach them. Apparently, getting a position to work here is like hitting the jackpot. Lots of people apply, but only a very lucky few are selected.
You also visit a former British base called Wordie house that is maintained by the British Antarctic Survey. It is really interesting to walk around the base and imagine what life would have been like for the earliest explorers. The contents are like taking a step in to the past.
The final day was spent on Deception Island. Here, as the weather was starting to turn, we were offered the chance to go for a swim in Antarctica. I really wanted to try this, so along with a couple from Scotland and a woman from Ireland we formed team GB and climbed out of all of all layers, before running in to the freezing waters.
I couldn’t feel my toes afterwards, but the experience was incredible. It completely clears your mind of all thoughts other than “oh wow that’s cold!”.
When you combine the scenery, along with the unique stillness of Antarctica and being completely disconnected from the world for 11 days, with no wifi, emails, calls, you really get a very special experience. For anyone who’s tempted, I’d really recommend this trip.
I’ve included some more pictures here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/andikam/sets/72157640778048215/
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As seen on The Guardian, BBC and The Independent.