Apsley Cherry-Garrard, one of only three men to survive Robert Scott’s ill-fated 1910–12 expedition to the South Pole, penned the definitive book about Antarctica and called it “The Worst Journey in the World”. “Polar exploration,” he wrote, “is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised.”
Mankind has come a long way since then. We’ve devised new and more terrifying ways of having ‘a bad time in isolation’ (Cherry-Garrard should count himself lucky he never had to sit through an episode of Fear Factor) while making travel to Antarctica safe, sociable and fun – as I found out last year when I travelled to the ice continent aboard the Antarctic Dream, a Chilean cruise ship.
Beagle Channel – Photograph by Matt Chesterton
The AD is one of many passenger vessels sailing regularly for Antarctica from Ushuaia, the provincial capital of Tierra del Fuego and Argentina’s southernmost port. During the antipodean summer (November to March) all kinds of ships ply these grey seas, from sleek luxury liners crammed with modern amenities to Russian ice-breakers crewed by hard-bitten sea dogs whose beards never thaw. The AD is somewhere in between – small enough for passengers to sustain the illusion that they’re engaged in some kind of Shackleton-like exploit, not so small as to get tossed around horribly by the prodigious swells of the South Atlantic.
These waves are worth more than a passing mention. In order to travel from Argentina to Antarctica you must first cross the Drake Passage, generally reckoned the roughest stretch of water in the world. How much you enjoy this leg of the voyage will depend on how prone you are to motion sickness. I got lucky. Nausea-free, I was able to enjoy albatrosses swooping gracefully around the ship; strolls on deck with the tang of briny air in my nostrils; and, sublimest of all, the extremely manageable queues for the fried foods section at the breakfast buffet.
Drake Passage. Relatively calm – Photograph by Matt Chesterton
Having survived the ‘Drake shake’ (it took us three days to navigate the Passage) we were rewarded with the much calmer waters around the Antarctic Peninsula – the ‘S’ shaped promontory jutting out northwards from the ice continent proper. Most cruise ships ghost up and down this mountainous landmass, whose territory is carved up between Argentina, Chile and the UK.
It was only once we’d begun to shadow the coast that the main advantage of travelling on a smaller vessel became apparent. Strict rules govern the amount of people permitted to stand on any Antarctic beach at any given moment; travel on a large ship and you get fewer landings. We on the Antarctic Dream were able to land at eight separate points along and around the Peninsula – each contrasting, each memorable.
Gentoo Penguin colony, Yankee Harbor. Some of these hens are guarding eggs; others, newly hatched chicks – Photograph by Matt Chesterton
What did we find? More than we’d expected to. Antarctica isn’t like the jungle: it doesn’t overload you with sensory data. But nor is it a blank slate. We filled our memories (and memory cards) not only with life and landscapes – Weddell seals lolling on the rocks, Adelie penguins nesting in huge rookeries, mighty elephant seals in perpetual lethargy, sea birds in perpetual motions, china-blue icebergs glistening in the midnight sun, and so on – but also with countless bits of man-made junk which, through some strange process of history, have become precious, protected artifacts. So we tripped over iron blubber pots and the bleached-wood carcasses of old whaling boats, and peeked inside ugly warehouses that have stood untouched for the best part of a century.
Weddell Seal – Photograph by Matt Chesterton
It is this blend of the untouched and the unfamiliar that makes Antarctica so alluring – and which entices people to shell out the best part of ten grand on a two-week cruise. It’s not an obvious addition to an Argentina travel itinerary, but it’s hard to imagine a better one.
If this post has piqued your interest in crossing from Argentina to Antarctica, here’s a rough video I edited together of my exploits. Enjoy:
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