As a child, I grew up believing that Antarctica was a strange name on the globe. In fact, it wasn’t even a colour on the maps I studied. It seemed to be a mythical continent, attached remotely to the world into which I was born. How amazing then that 50 years later, I found myself heading towards our planet’s most southerly landmass. I went sailing in a floating hotel, a luxury ship, and even though it certainly wasn’t on everyone’s cruise itinerary, it was, oh yes, certainly for me. I had no idea what to expect. But I knew I was very excited to be heading for the continent that’s still painted starkly white by cartographers.
My journey began at the cold and snowy town of Ushuaia, on the southernmost tip of Argentina, where I contemplated the bleak and freezing isolation of our destination. I appreciate that the earth is round, but I couldn’t shake off the feeling that we were travelling to the bottom of the world.
We were fortunate to have calm sailing conditions as we rounded Cape Horn and traversed the Drake Passage, the blue skies crisp and clear. A huge sense of anticipation welled up within us as we followed in the wake of early explorers who must indeed have thought they would eventually fall off the edge of the world.
It was by then really so exciting that I hadn’t had a lot of sleep. Finally, the day on which we would reach Antarctica and its desolation was about to dawn. By 4am, it was all too much to bear. I jumped out of my bed, threw on all my warmest clothes and slung my camera around my neck. I then headed upstairs to brew some hot chocolate and wait for daylight.
I stirred the chocolate powder into a mug of hot water, bleary-eyed and not really thinking about anything at all, when I suddenly exclaimed, “Wow!” There, floating past us in the still blackness of the night was an enormous lump of sparkling white ice, glistening in the shadow of the moonmy first iceberg.
We continued to sail deeper south, slowly. There were still not many fellow-passengers up on the deck. I sat alone and watched massive lumps of ice pass us silently, and I hoped the captain was keeping a watchful eye out. There is, after all, a lot more to icebergs below the surface than above.
It was taking a long time for dawn to break. I found myself staring at a mass of cloud on the horizon but, as we edged closer, still very slowly, I realized that my ‘cloud’ was the mighty White Continent at the bottom of the world, this bleakest of territories they call Antarctica.
Oh, but Antarctica is far from bleak and hostile! Orca and sperm whale swam by as daylight finally broke, their great spouts of exhaled air reaching heights of 12-18 feet as they revealed their presence to us. It was a breathtaking sight – and it was just the start! I began to be aware of the sheer beauty of this rugged land all around us.
We made landfall at the South Shetland Isles and spent our first day cruising through the Palmer Archipelago, once welcoming on board a group of American scientists from the Palmer Station on Anvers Island. They enthralled us with their experiences of living for months at a stretch in this lonely outpost, and in return they were well rewarded with good food and wine, and plenty more to take back to their base with them.
Fortunately, we had nothing but good weather on our first two days at Antarctica. The third day was a whiteout, which had the crew building snowmen on the deck, much to the amusement of visitors who had never seen snow in their own countries.
Under the careful watch of our captain and ice pilot (the officer in charge of vessels that have their course obstructed by ice), we spent two more days navigating the narrow channels between the islands, the icebergs and the enormous ice fields – great masses of ice that had broken away from the main continental landmasses eons ago. We passed by barren, craggy mountains, and glaciers that have been a part of the coldest place on earth for millions of years. Antarctica’s map, incidentally, changes all the time – what would have been a channel last week is now blocked by floating blocks of ice. But the amazing peace and stillness that permeates everything is surreal.
The utter beauty of the icebergs – their cobalt blue colouring and the amazing shapes crafted by the ceaseless movement of the water – is the stuff of a photographer’s dream. But they are also homes to vast numbers of penguins and seals, who make their home so far away from any form of ‘civilization’.
The colonies of penguins were especially enchanting. They would climb to the very top of their floating island habitat, then ski down the slopes to plunge into the freezing water, where they swam fast and furious beneath the surface, or leapt out of the water like dolphins, looking for fish. The seals, however, had already feasted, and they just lazed about in the dazzling sunshine, their stomachs full from their catch as they slept the day away, drifting on their private ice islands.
All of us on board had our share of whale-watching in the middle of all this. Suddenly, in their search for food, these magnificent beasts would have their massive bodies into the air, arch gracefully, and drop back into the frigid ocean, their great tail dripping water as it disappeared from sight. It was a wondrous sight. Oh, but where was I to look next? Terns, albatrosses and petrel followed us with keen interest, screeching loudly as we passed their populous colonies perched on the rocky shores of this vast wasteland.
We visited Elephant Island, King George Island, Gerlache Strait, Paradise Bay, Lemaire Channel and Hope Bay – such strange names for these distant locations, it seemed, but they were the bases from which early explorers had travelled and staked their conquests on this hypnotically beautiful yet desolate region.
Three days more and we were headed back north from this barely explored continent. Evocative memories of our time here were indelibly etched on the minds of each one of us. It was, without a doubt, the voyage of a lifetime.
When to go
Antarctica’s summer lasts from late October to early March.
Journeying to the end of the world is still uncommon, mostly because of the costs involved, but a remarkable number of cruise companies offer a multiplicity of voyages these days, so it would seem sailing to Antarctica is not quite so rare after all. Ushuaia, the southernmost city in South America (and the world), is a popular embarkation point for trips to the Antarctic Peninsula, and it’s where my cruise commenced. Trips to eastern Antarctica and the Ross Sea typically begin and end in either Australia or New Zealand.
Your planning must, of course, be based on your port of embarkation. Lan Airlines (lan.com) flies Buenos Aires to Ushuaia for about $600, round trip. Several leading airlines fly from New Delhi to Buenos Aires, usually with two stops in the onward journey, at least one of which is somewhere in Europe. A round-trip economy class ticket costs from Rs 95,000; American Airlines is currently the cheapest option.
There are dozens of sailings from different liners on offer at the well regarded PolarCruises.com (from $4,700 for a 10-day voyage in an expedition ship to $22,906 for 22 days on a luxury liner, with vessel-wise options in itineraries, inclusions, accommodation and prices), a US-based operator specializing in trip planning to the poles; they only represent ships operated by companies that are full members of IAATO, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. They divide ships that carry tourists to Antarctica into four categories: icebreakers (tough ships with few frills), luxury liners (no compromise on comfort, especially in the accommodation and food), expedition ships (small groups, more intimate experience, simpler lodgings) and adventure ships (to the sub-Antarctic islands and Ross Sea region, the far side with longer journeys). Seabourn.com, the US-headquartered liner on which I travelled, offers luxurious cruises to Antarctica (from $2,999 to $11,999, for voyages lasting a week to 24 days, with some itineraries including parts of South America, especially Patagonia). There’s also Chile-based Victory-Cruises.com (from $4,720 to $21,499, for voyages lasting 9 to 32 days) with a clutch of sailings listed. All rates are per person on twin-occupancy. Prices vary considerably based on when you book, type of ship, itinerary, and cabin category.
Indian tourists visiting Argentina can apply for a tourist visa, available at no cost from the Embassy of Argentina in New Delhi (011-40781900, eindi.mrecic.gov.ar/en) or their Consulate in Mumbai (022-22871383). Visas are processed in about five working days after due documentation. Permits are required for anyone visiting Antarctica, although the continent is not controlled by any one government and visas are not issued. It is standard practice for shipping companies to arrange permits for their guests.
What to see & do
Antarctica is all about wonderful scenery, and marine, animal and bird life. There are opportunities to make landings on the smaller ships – a zodiac (a small, inflatable craft) takes passengers ashore to visit breeding grounds of rare chinstrap, gentoo and adÃ©lie penguins, and to scientific research centres. Such excursions enable you to join that lucky minority of the world’s people who can say they have set foot in Antarctica.