Where hull freezes over

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 August, 2011, 12:00am


It was eight in the morning and the sky had cleared to suggest good weather. At least that's what it looked like from my cabin window. So I went outside onto the observation deck. As I opened the heavy metal door, a so-called katabatic wind swooping down from the mountains punched me in the face while stopping our ship, the Vavilov, from moving into the bay. Indeed, it had completely halted our progress.

Our Russian captain, Valery Beluga, let the tour leaders know that with force 10 winds we weren't going anywhere around these parts. So he was steering the ship away from the eastern flank of South Georgia and taking us elsewhere.

There was nothing for it. Returning to my cabin, I picked up my Ernest Shackleton book, abandoned it, and lay back and let the morning drift away.

We'd already spent five days at sea, voyaging from Argentina to the Falklands and then on to South Georgia, an island in the Southern Atlantic Ocean. I'd decided not to attend the lectures on endangered albatrosses, wallowing elephant seals, Robert Falcon Scott, Roald Amundsen and whales. Instead, I spent my time preparing myself for something less precise that related to a radically empty landscape - out on deck, amid cold winds, watching petrels and albatrosses hop around white-topped waves. I was more than happy just to be left alone. 'Everyone has an Antarctic,' wrote Thomas Pynchon. I was finding mine.

I hadn't travelled to the South Atlantic Islands and Antarctica expecting anything mystical or life-changing. But I knew I was visiting - probably for the only time in my life - a uniquely pristine corner of the planet. I was keen, above all, not to see any televised documentaries. I didn't want David Attenborough stealing any thunder.

A couple of hours after lunch, the wind dropped. Beluga confirmed we would be able to make landfall, in small motorised boats called zodiacs, at beautiful Fortuna Bay. I shook myself out of my hermit state and got kitted up to go ashore.

Like a child in a pen full of puppies, I strolled among tens of thousands of king penguins. They were chatting, mating, fighting and trumpeting location-finding calls to their mates - all in a kind of sub-polar Eden. Deep green grasses, trickling streams of silvery water and, surrounding the huge bay, magnificent glaciers licked their glacial tongues down a mountain range. A herd of reindeer, a throwback to earlier settlement by Nordic sealers and whalers, galloped into view, slowing down to graze alongside the penguins.

If Fortuna Bay was one of the southern ocean's great wildlife experiences, the following day, in Grytviken, the 'capital' of South Georgia, I was offered a head full of history. A former whaling hub, it presented an opportunity to explore an abandoned flensing factory and a fascinating but grim museum of industrialised slaughter. One group decided to stroll along the front and see the rusting wrecks of whaleboats, while another went in search of a colony of sooty albatrosses.

After a week of lovely cosy, cabin life and lots of lavish diners, I decided I needed some exercise. So I joined a tiny group aiming to climb the small, but dramatically pointed Brown Hill. We hopped up a slope to a tarn (mountain pool) first and then, walking into increasingly inclement weather and high winds, did a long hike round a curved moraine to climb to the summit. A fierce westerly came down from the higher peaks that form South Georgia's backbone to blow us helpfully up the hill. On the main ridge we kept changing sides to ensure the gusts wouldn't send us flying into the abyss below. At the top we rested a while and then walked down head first into the squall.

Sunbursts over the tarn threw up rainbows, and we could see one perfect arc of colour that seemed to place the crock of gold where the ship was harboured. By the time we got back to the prom at Grytviken, I was fully exercised, wide awake and alive, and ready to pay homage to Shackleton. He had been buried here at the request of his wife, perhaps because he belonged here spiritually, or maybe because, ever the dandy, he was never at home anyway. This winter, a small expedition will arrive bearing the ashes of Frank Wild, to bury them alongside Shackleton's grave. Wild was Shackleton's second-in-command on the 1914-16 Trans-Antarctic Expedition and it was he who remained behind on lonely Elephant Island while Shackleton and a crew of five made their way in a tiny lifeboat, the James Caird, to South Georgia.

After this there were three more days on the open seas - following a long southwesterly diagonal towards the Antarctic Peninsula. On the fourth I woke to a low, leaden sky broken only by a faint glimmer of sun. To the west was a chain of rugged mountains, the backbone of Elephant Island, where Wild and the crew were stranded for more than four months. Huge, blue-walled glaciers were hanging over every bay, with jagged rocks offshore and a wind chilling the sub-zero temperature several degrees lower.

We jumped into the zodiacs to get closer to a scene in grey. There were chinstrap penguin colonies nearby. A few birds were bobbing in the icy surf, but then we saw thousands standing stiff like sentinels on a seemingly inaccessible rock shelf, high above the crashing waves. On my left was a monument to Luis Pardo, the captain of the Yelcho, the Chilean boat that finally made it through the pack ice to rescue Shackleton's marooned companions in the bay now known as Point Wild.

We were motoring through brash ice, which crunched against the aluminium bottom of the zodiac. My toes and fingertips had lost sensation but I forced my index finger to take a few photographs of this beautifully bleak outpost.

It wasn't the Antarctica of coffee-table books - blue skies, gleaming ice, surreal bergs and cutesy penguins - but rather the real thing. It was lonely, bitterly cold, repellent to human habitation and almost deathly. As we sailed away whales breached and blew on both sides of the ship.

My first encounter with the clich?of Antarctica took place the next day, when I spied the continent on the portside. It was actually a subplot of that day, as we were turning into the collapsed caldera of Deception Island to see Whaler's Bay, a wind-blasted scrapheap of old houses, blubber farms and outbuildings that the eruption of 1969 had failed to cover in black dust.

But the white slab on the left diverted my attention even when there were humpback whales breaching and blowing close to the ship, chinstrap penguins porpoising on the bow and lenticular clouds shooting across the sky.

We eventually got up close to the ice, entering Charlotte Bay in the early morning. It came with blue skies, calm waters, freezing drafts of fresh air and utter stillness. Dawn was a smear of fiery orange above the glaciers. After the squalls we'd weathered while crossing the Southern Ocean, Antarctica was peace.

We cruised down a remarkable channel called the Gerlache Strait. Between sheer walls of white ice was an obstacle course of surreal bergs that might have popped out of a mad dream. I spotted a cruise liner, a huge fin, and Moorish villas all depicted in ice. We were not quite alone. There were the flukes and blows of the showy humpback, fur seals floating along on iceberg transporters, and the skuas, squawking as they dived to alarm the penguins.

Even in the coldest climate and the dimmest light - that morning the sky was an ethereal grey - nature and its mess is ever present. Jagged peaks rose up through the ice and volcanic dust stained the white cliffs to prevent it all from being just too pristine.

Finally, the time arrived for us to set foot on the Antarctic continent. It took place on a low white hill at the end of the strait. The sky had turned wintry and eerie and the sun was low, dying. It looked like the mythic end of the world that the early sailors imagined - the terra incognita.

But there was an Argentinian naval base nearby and, of course, my home, the Vavilov.

A century ago this December, Amundsen, approaching from the other side of the ice continent, arrived at the South Pole. That marked the end of the Heroic Age and, in a way, opened up Antarctica for the rest of us.

But my own voyage still felt epic, unique, strange. The early adventurers came to compete and conquer. Now, we visit Antarctica to be in a place nobody owns and where human passions - conquest, competition, all that dross - are calmed, or shown up to be petty.

After three hours hanging out on our frozen hillside, it was time to go back to the ship. I was ready for a final day and night of rough seas, as we crossed the notorious Drake Passage - and a last chance to be in my cabin, staring out at the sky, be it grey, blue or star-speckled. I could indulge in the beautiful loneliness of Antarctica.

Five cruises

The Antarctic cruise season is from November to April and most people board in Ushuaia, Argentina. All prices exclude flights.

Exodus' 20-day Antarctica, Falklands & South Georgia cruise (as featured in the main story) uses ice-strengthened ships, including the Akademik Sergey Vavilov. From GBP7,560 (HK$96,700). www.exodus.co.uk

Hurtigruten's 10-day Classic Expedition, on board the MS Fram is for those who want to see Antarctica fast. From GBP3,443 if booked before December 31. www.hurtigruten.co.uk

eWaterways' 14-day cruise aboard the M/V Plancius, departing November 20, includes a partial solar eclipse (November 25) in the Antarctic peninsula. From GBP4,995. www.ewaterways.co.uk

Aurora Expeditions offers cruises from Australasia (from Hobart, Tasmania and Bluff, New Zealand) to Antarctica's less-explored east. Its 26-day Mawsons Centenary Expedition, on the Akademik Shokalskiy, visits Macquarie Island, Petrel Island and the Dibble Ice Tongue. From US$15,100. www.auroraexpeditions.com.au

Silversea Cruises and BA offer a 10-day luxurious expedition from Ushuaia to the Antarctic Peninsula, aboard its purpose-built Silver Explorer ship. The ship is very luxurious, but you still have all the dramatic highlights of an Antarctic trip. From GBP5,748. www.silversea.com