Going to the end of the world
Going to the end of the world
Antarctica has been called the last frontier – a continent with no permanent inhabitants and mostly untouched by human footprints. Nowadays it is possible to safely get a flavour of this amazing place on cruise ships which reach the ice in the summer.
Most cruise ships go to the Antarctica Peninsula from South America because it can be reached in two days sailing rather than up to a week from Australia and NZ. Of course once you are in South America it would be a shame to miss out on experiencing the wonders of Patagonia.
Flights from Sydney go to Santiago (Chile) and a good starting place for guided or solo tours south through Argentina to Terra del Fuego and Ushuaia (Ush-wire) – the most southerly city in the world.
The southern-most part of South America is bounded on the Pacific side by the Andes with lakes, fjords and glaciers. Stretching out to the Atlantic Ocean are the Patagonian steppes – vast treeless plains not dissimilar to central Australia. Travelling south the major roads are in Argentina and these provide access to the mountains and sights that you certainly won’t find in Australia.
Caption Mt Fitzroy
One highlight is the mountains and valleys at El Chalten with the staggering Mt Fitzroy (named after the ship’s captain of Darwin’s Beagle). It is considered the toughest mountain climb in the world but there are plenty of other adventure activities there for the less daring. How about trekking on the Viedma glacier and trying a Baileys with glacier ice?
Caption Perito Mareno glacier from the boardwalk
Four hundred kilometres south El Calafarte has a major airport and provides access to the Parito Mareno glacier.
You can cruise to the glacier snout and watch from the boardwalk as lumps of ice calve off with great cracks and roars
Caption Torres del Paine National Park
Another 500k south there is an essential detour into Chile to visit the Torres del Paine National Park. It has been declared the 5th most beautiful place in the world by National Geographic. The centre of the park is dominated by a massif with three horns. Around it are spectacular blue and green milky lakes and glaciers. Hiking is very popular but watch out for high winds that roar across from the Pacific – strong enough to blow you over.
The steppes are spectacular in a different way. The plains seem to go for ever in all directions and you will see the biggest skies in your life. Intriguing cloud formations are formed by the winds and moisture being blown across from the west. And watch out for the condors – vultures with three metre wingspans that soar out of nowhere if they see a potential meal.
The last part of a drive south involves crossing the Magellan Strait by ferry onto Terra del Fuego (called land of fires because of the smoke from native fires not from volcanoes). The island is half in Argentina and half in Chile. The ferry crossing is in Chile but the main city Ushuaia is in Argentina. Enclosed by mountains and on the Beagle Channel it is the port from where most of the cruise ships leave.
The Antarctic land mass is twice as big as Australia and it doubles in size in winter with the ice shelfs around it. It is the windiest, driest and coldest place on earth but spectacularly different to anywhere else you can go.
There are around a dozen ships that run ‘adventure’ cruises where passengers can learn about the Antarctic and its animals and birds and take Zodiac boats ashore, kayak and even camp on the ice. These are not ice breakers and will generally avoid iced up areas. Most of the cruise ship operators subscribe to a code of conduct in how they run their expeditions to prevent damage to the delicate environment. You will seldom see another cruise ship because they stay in radio contact and keep out of each other’s way.
Caption MS Explorer, Zodiacs and a gentoo penguin rookery
The cruising season runs from November to March and your experience will be different at various times during this period. For instance in December you will see penguins establishing their rookeries and sitting on eggs. Later you will see young chicks and the ever present skuas (predatory birds) looking for a stray chick to grab. Whale watching is best in February when they have returned from their breeding and calving in warmer waters. In the summer it hardly gets dark at all but if you want to see the southern polar lights (Aurora Australis) you will need to do a later cruise into March.
Caption Midnight in December
It usually takes two days to cross Drake’s Passage – depending on the weather. Sometimes it is wild and sometimes calmer. Your first sight of land will typically be one of the South Shetland Islands off the Antarctic Peninsula. Although no nation ‘owns’ Antarctica the naming of islands and mountains is still hotly contested. King George Island (named by the British) for instance is Isla 25 de Mayo on an Argentinean map.
Caption Kayakers dwarfed the icebergs
A typical day on an ‘expedition ship’ will include a briefing on activities, two shore trips to get up close to penguins and seals, kayaking and a debrief at the end of the day interspersed by seminars and movies. There will be plenty of food because you will use lots of calories keeping yourself warm outside.
Every landing is different. One popular spot is Deception Island – a volcanic caldera shaped like a horseshoe. Ships can get inside to a safe anchorage and you can swim off the beach (but not for long). The volcano is still active and last erupted in 1969. Steam rises off the beach from fumeroles and piping hot water warms the sea (a bit!).
Most cruises will visit one of the international research stations and you can see what it is like to live for months at a time (or even over winter) in the coldest place on earth.
It’s a trip that every adventurer should take once in their life (or maybe twice if you missed the whales first time round).