Antarctica: Holiday in Antarctica, in Antarctica's Ross Sea

The Story

Antarctica really is Planet Earth's last frontier. And, until space travel goes commercial, it is the most disorientating place to visit. Even normal terminology fails down here. From the South Pole, everywhere is north and it is possible to go around the world in 30 . . .20 . . . 5 seconds.

The very few who fly down to the pole itself will find there is just one day and one night each year. Scientists based in Antarctica have a party to celebrate each sunrise and sunset.

The south magnetic pole is moving north and away from the geographic pole. In fact, we sailed north from the bottom of the Ross Sea towards the magnetic pole so our compasses said we were sailing south when the maps showed we were heading north. Ands even when we had travelled far enough north to experience our first night in several weeks, there was the chance that the sky would be lit by the Aurora Australis. The Southern Cross was almost directly overhead. It's all quite confusing.

When we first booked on the cruise to Antarctica, I found gazing at maps was of little use because there was no point of reference with which I was familiar. At first glance, I thought that the Ross Sea extended far towards the pole. Closer examination revealed a faint line about midway down where sea stops and the ice begins. A week after we departed Lyttleton Harbour outside Christchurch we reached that point - the Ross Ice Shelf. At least the captain told us we were there - wind driven snow and ice surrounded us in an opaque, crystal world of ice. The radar screen clearly showed a solid wall of ice over 20 metres high and less than 200 metres away but it remained invisible.

Antarctica is a continent of grand gestures. Over that afternoon the wind died down and it was as if a curtain slowly parted. First we saw a glimpse of a jagged edge of ice far above the ocean surface. By the end of the afternoon, the whole immense ice shelf stood in clear relief. This single sheet of ice covers an area larger than France (or is about twice the size of New Zealand). The bottom of the Ross Sea is as far south as it is possible to sail: the ship's satellite navigation system showed that we reached 77.51 ºS.

Most of Antarctica is covered in ice but it is certainly not the "all-white world" I was expecting. Glaciers come in a wide range of hues and many have crevasses that glow in electric blue. Their icy crystals send out shards of rainbow light, the sky is often clear blue, the ocean stands out in deep blue and much of the 24 hour daytime is golden evening-morning light. That evening we looked across an iceberg-dotted sea to the volcanic cones of Mt Terror and Mt Erebus etched against a crimson sky.

It's quite an anticlimax to admit that arranging a trip to Antarctica is no more difficult than booking a flight to London. Of course, once booked, I don't have to shop for gumboots and polar fleece clothes for a London sojourn.

Indeed, the problem for both destinations can be a matter of deciding which trip to take. The first commercial voyages to Antarctica were operated in 1956 by Lars Eric Lindblad from Ushuaia at the bottom of South America down to the Antarctic Peninsula.

Until recently, the peninsula has been the only part of Antarctica accessible to tourists. However, that is no longer the case. Our trip was a 23 day voyage on the Kapitan Khlebnikov, a Russian icebreaker capable of breaking through two metres of ice at over 15 km/h. There was about 90 passengers on our ship, part of an elite group of some 60,000 tourists who have now visited the Antarctic.

The Kapitan Khlebnikov was built in Finland in 1981. It has six engines producing 22000 horsepower, two helicopters and half a dozen Zodiacs for shore excursions. Still, the words "Russian icebreaker" may strike fear into those who like to travel in some degree of comfort. Our first view of the vessel didn't reassure us either - the KK looks like a block of flats on a badly-scraped barge. So it was with some trepidation that we approached our cabin. It turned out to be large and very comfortable. Our bathroom was considerably larger and better designed than four star "luxury" cruise ships I've travelled on. Every cabin has a large window to the outside (and a sign suggesting you don't leave it open in high seas). Our turn down service left chocolates on our pillows each evening.

I confronted the captain, Peter Golikov, and asked him how much upgrading had been done to the cabins to convert them for paying passengers instead of Russian sailors. "In fact the cabins have been downgraded," he replied. "The television sets and radios were taken out because there are lectures instead. And every crew member - even deck hands - had his or her own cabin; we had to put in sofa beds to convert them to two berth accommodation. Not surprisingly, many of those crew left now they have to share inside cabins. They have been replaced by staff from the hospitality industry."

Our next surprise was the standard of the food on board. The chefs and hotel manager are Austrian so while the food was a bit bland by Asian-influenced Australian standards, it was impossible to criticise. Venison, lobster and caviar made regular appearances. Most remarkable was the kitchen's feat in continuing to serve three varieties of fresh lettuce (including, most aptly, iceberg) several weeks after we left all vegetation behind. Hydroponics were responsible we suspect. Even the bar drinks were reasonably priced: $US8 bought a bottle of Lindemans Bin 65 Chardonnay while cocktails were $US3.

How can I tell the truth about our crossing of the Southern Ocean, the world's wildest and most savage expanse of water? I could tell of mountainous seas and monumental seasickness. But it would be a lie - we had very smooth passages both ways. That was a good thing too: with all the weight in its ice-strengthened keel, the good ship Khlebnikov bounces upright like child's toy.

There is a great sense of security in being on a vessel that can recover from a roll of 70 degrees off the vertical. The best/worst we achieved was 34 degree during a short Force 8 squall in the Ross Sea. Lars Wikander, a director of Quark Expeditions the charterers of the vessel, explained that every roll over 40 degrees is expensive: "we have to replace the crockery". Many of us wore anti-seasickness patches which seemed to work because very few ever missed a meal.

Our journey was longer and more expensive than trips to the Antarctic Peninsula but the range of exotic experiences provided an unequalled overview of the continent. Not only did we visit the Subantarctic Islands of New Zealand and Macquarie Island with their prolific wildlife but we also landed at Cape Adare, where the first human footprints were placed on Antarctica a century ago in February 1895 and where the oldest building in Antarctica still stands. We visited and were hosted by the research stations of McMurdo (US), nearby Scott base (NZ) and the French base of Dumont d'Urville. We flew in one of our ship's helicopters to land in a remote area of the Dry Valleys in the Transantarctic Mountains. We crossed through the South Magnetic Pole and did a lot of serious icebreaking. And, of course there was the ubiquitous wildlife.

One of the most intense moments of the trip was when I found myself alone in Captain Scott's Cape Evans hut. This was where he left on his race to the pole. And this was where he was returning to when he perished in the snow after being beaten to the pole by Roald Amundsen. This, like Shackelton's hut just up the coast at Cape Royds is a true shrine to the age of great explorers. Both huts are as they left them. Shackelton's is in a sheltered cove with a large penguin rookery and ice lake out the front. With their reindeer sleeping bags laid out and even sides of seal meat still hanging up after 80 years, the huts look as if the pioneers left only last week. Touching the stove to see if it's still warm becomes an irresistible urge.

We saw, but couldn't visit, Douglas Mawson's hut at Commonwealth Bay. We came into the bay and waited for a few hours but the wind never dropped enough to make landing possible. This is par for the course. Mawson arrived in 1911 in calm weather and started erecting the hut when the wind came up. So the team stopped work and waited for it to subsibe. I don't think it has yet. He named it "the home of the blizzard". Taking readings every 4 hours one May he reported that they averaged out at 110 km/h. This is because the air, supercooled by the ice cap above, pours down towards the bay, picking up speed as it goes.

Until you stand here, feeling the chill katabatic wind flowing over you, it's easy to forget that Antarctica is covered in 30 million cubic kilometres of ice which is nearly 5000 metres thick in places. That's 90 per cent of the ice on earth and about 70 per cent of the world's fresh water. The Southern Hemisphere is much colder than the northern. It's possible to drive north through Scandinavia for several days after crossing the Arctic Circle. However, some cruises along the Antarctic Peninsula don't even reach as far south as the Antarctic Circle.

Anyone who travels to Antarctica soon becomes expert in snow and the terminology of floating ice. Everyone rushed to the bridge when we saw our first iceberg a few days out of New Zealand. Throughout the time while we were below 64 oS icebergs were everpresent. We passed a tabular berg that must have been a kilometre long - and that's tiny in comparison with the giant 107 km long and 75 wide that broke off the ice shelf in 1967.

The last of the winter ice melts by the end of February and the new ice starts forming in March. We spent days passing through hexagonal-shaped plates of new ice ranging from about 25 cm across to some that were about one metre in diameter. Most had pushed-up edges, like waffles - a form of ice perversely known as "pancake" ice.

One a micro scale, the barman brought a basin of glacial ice into the bar one night. Its high gas content results in it fizzing quietly into our drinks. That was a change of pace from the excitement of icebreaking which, in thick ice, is rather like driving down a gravel road at speed. We all got used to the constant grinding and sudden jolts when we hit a patch of particularly hard or thick ice.

All this talk of ice suggests that it is the only thing you see in Antarctica. In fact, after a few days, having ice around seemed just as conventional as having grass around at home. However, icebergs crowded with penguins or seals were always worthy of note.

As anyone who has lived in a communal house knows, a lot of strange life can thrive in a freezer. Antarctica in summer is home to an astonishing variety of wildlife. One morning on a typical day in the Ross Sea began with the whole horizon was a wall of icebergs that appeared as a shimmering white sunlit crystal. By noon we'd seen plenty of crabeater seals on ice and a leopard seal almost under our bow. Minke, sei and humpback whales swam past, snow petrels circled the ship, Adelie penguins stood on floes and swam in the water, skuas flew past, and an emperor penguin watched us from regal isolation on his own floe.

Over the three week voyage we made some dozen landings by Zodiac inflatable boat or by helicopter. Just about everywhere we went there were Adelie penguins to greet us - though a couple growled at me like dogs when I went ashore late one night when they were trying to sleep. In most places there were some very young chicks in the grey bunny suits they wear until their first moult. Penguins in mid-moult look rather like an object you'd find in your laundry lint filter. Other look like punks, or penguins with attitude. We came back from most excursions smelling like penguins (or chook sheds) after sitting down among them.

For lunch one day, the captain lodged the ship in thick ice. We strolled down for a barbecue. A few emperor penguins came over to watch the show. Then we found several killer whales were cruising only a few metres away observing us all. The whales became bored and left but the penguins loyally waited by the gangway to watch us depart.

We left the Antarctic continent from Dumont d'Urville. It was a beautiful day and we'd spent it cruising through gleaming iceberg valleys in the zodiacs. As we sailed away into the cloudless blue sky, champagne was served on the helicopter deck and we thought the trip was pretty well over.

We arrived at Macquarie island a few days later to discover this tiny verdant Tasmanian outpost to be an unexpected highlight. The volcanic black sand beach of Sandy Bay was thronged with thousands of curious king penguins. Only after hearing a noise like bad plumbing did I realise that the brown lumps on the beach were elephant seals, each weighing up to four tonnes.

I walked up a small rise to find a rookery crowded with a perhaps hundred thousand royal penguins. Around another corner stood a flock of gentoo penguins while rockhopper penguins watched on from a headland. While watching some kings apparently performing aquarobics in the surf, I almost fell over a fur seal and her very young pup. As we left, a younf elephant seal was trying to suckle from the pointed rear pontoon of our Zodiac.

If tourism to the polar continent grows, I fear that we'll need to establish an Antarctica Anonymous group for those who return and can't stop talking about it and wallowing in memories of the experience. Our tour organiser, Greg Mortimer, told me that he thought most people would view Antarctica as a one-off "trip of a lifetime" but most are planning their return while still on the voyage home.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd