Nick Walton plays polar explorer on an unforgettable adventure to the Antarctic Peninsula.
With steam billowing from my mouth and snow up to my knees, I summit the small hill on the largest of the Aitcho Islands, in the South Shetland chain, to a round of gurgling applause from the local Gentoo penguin colony. But approval from the residents on this desolately beautiful rock isn’t the only reward for the 30 hours flying and two days sailing it took to get here; the view across the English Strait, which is bathed in glorious golden sunlight despite the late hour, is truly magnificent.
Tiny, unassuming Aitcho is our first dry land since our ship, Aurora Expeditions’ pint-sized Polar Pioneer, left Ushuaia, at the southern tip of Argentina, three days before. There’s nothing quite like five-metre sweels and 40-knot winds to bring out the explorer in you, and Aurora’s open bridge policy ensures those who venture up the ship’s narrow staircases feel like part of the Russian crew as they cling to supports and watch whitecaps slam against the hull, a cascade of cold, green sea pounding against the bridge’s windows. That’s what Antarctica cruising is all about; it’s a journey to a remote land wreathed by turbulent seas and capped with inhospitable ice, ensuring only the most willing ever venture this far south. The Drake Passage and the icy environment are not the only detractors; international conventions strictly enforce rules on the number of tourists allowed to visit each season, ensuring it remains pristine.
At the Hydrurga Rocks, two small, snow and ice-covered rocky islands in the Palmer Archipeligo, we watch Weddell seals and a solitary leopard seal lounging on the ice, the sensational views of the Buache and Modey Peaks, towering mountains on nearby Two Hummock Island, as a dramatic backdrop. In narrow, sheltered Neko Harbour, on the west coast of Graham Land on the Antarctic Peninsula, passengers who had signed up for climbing follow their guides high above the bay, while the rest of us tour a sea of towering icebergs by zodiac, serenaded by the penguins of a vast Gentoo colony perched on rocks overlooking the harbour as the noisy birds warn off dark green skuas hoping to steal from their nests.
We leave the ship behind, its profile quickly hidden by icebergs the size of double-storey houses, and follow the reflection of the valley’s snowy peaks on the water towards an endless expanse of ice floes, tracing the wake of an inquisitive minkie whale, capturing the turquoise brilliance of freshly turned icebergs, and disturbing the afternoon slumbers of a crab eating seal, the sunshine setting his fur a brilliant golden hue.
Finally, it’s our time to play true polar explorer, with two of Aurora’s most popular experiences, ice camping and the polar plunge. The ice camping is a much hardier experience but one that still seduces 80 percent of the ship’s contingent. Camping under the stars is one of the most popular in a raft of activities now offered by Aurora Expeditions; travellers can climb frozen mountain passes, kayak with specialist guides through fields of blue-white icebergs, and even snorkel and scuba dive on selected trips.
Aurora Expeditions (www.auroraexpeditions.com.au) offers cruises to the Antarctic Peninsula between November and March, with fares from US$8,700 per person, triple share.
Text and photos by Nick Walton