So 2017 was an amazing year of travel for me when I explored eight new countries and two new continents. Which gave me a full set of continents visited when I landed on the wild and dazzling Antarctic peninsula. Serious lump-in-the-throat stuff.
We went on a never-to-be-forgotten cruise from the bottom of Argentina (Ushuaia) via the Falkland Islands and South Georgia to the Antarctic and back again through the infamous Drake Passage. You can read all about my time on the magnificent island of South Georgia by clicking here.
Antarctica isn’t owned by anyone – it’s a continent dedicated to peace and science. It’s uninhabited by humans, except for during the summer when there are a few stations where scientists stay while studying the wildlife and the changing shape of our planet.
When you say you’re going to Antarctica, the immediate reaction is: Ooh, polar bears. Although some of my friends did react with: Are you mad!? Wrong in both cases. The bears live up in the Arctic, rather we were heading for the land of penguins, seals, mountains, ice shelves and, most beautiful of all, myriad icebergs in different shades of blue.
That first sight of an iceberg is impossible to capture, either in words or pictures, though obviously I’m trying. Who knew they’d be so beautiful? I was entranced by every one and took another million pictures, including way too many iceberg selfies. Like taking pictures of penguins, you just can’t help yourself.
We had five onshore expeditions around Antarctica at Yankee Harbour, Deception Island, Cuverville, Paradise Bay and Port Charcot.
Communing with gentoos at Yankee Harbour
Yankee Harbour has a natural stone gravel spit that extends for about a kilometre and protects the harbour. We had our first sighting of chinstrap penguins – so cute and delicate. My love for penguins was growing by the day.
There was also several thousand pairs of gentoo penguins nesting and inspecting their latest visitors. These curious little creatures come right up to you without fear. I felt so in harmony with the natural world in this magical place.
Deception Island is out of this world
Next stop, Deception Island – by now it felt like we were on another planet! It’s one of the most famous islands of the South Shetland archipelago which was originally discovered by sealers in the 1820s.
The deception is in the fact that it has a doughnut-like shape, like someone’s taken a small bite out of the doughnut which forms a narrow entrance into the flooded caldera of what is an active volcano. The entrance is so narrow that many early visitors sailed straight past, unaware of what was waiting inside.
The volcano is still active which makes for the weirdest natural phenomenon I’ve ever witnessed. The day we went ashore it was cold and snowing and as we stepped off our little boats we noticed the steam rising from the water. The water was hot – in the snow! We wandered around this otherworldly place with its ramshackle buildings, graveyard and whirling snow. Such an incredible experience.
Going onshore was always incredible, and everywhere was different. And once we’d headed deeper into the icy blue world our boat journeys in the seas around our ship (which were always glass-calm) also become a highlight. All that ice with its unique beauty that we were so fortunate to get so close to. Now I know exactly what ice blue looks like – and I really do need the addition of garments in that exact shade to my wardrobe.
Playing in the snow and ice on Cuverville Island
Cuverville Island is at the northern end of the Errera Channel. By now it was getting icier and snowier – though not terribly cold – it was the middle of summer after all. Here we saw loads more breeding gentoos, perfectly at home in the snow and ice, protecting their eggs from the large and sometimes aggressive skuas (birds) homing in for a nice eggy dinner.
Our luxurious home from home – Le Lyrial
We cruised on the beautiful Le Lyrial on an Abercrombie & Kent expedition. On Christmas Day we were anchored in Port Charcot and after our expedition morning in the ice and endless Christmas hat iceberg selfies we came back on board to a Christmas Day BBQ lunch served on the deck of La Comete Restaurant (one of two onboard restaurants). I can’t imagine anyone had a more beautiful venue for their festive lunch.
Our time onboard Le Lyrial lasted 15 days and many of those were at sea. We travelled over 3,000 nautical miles with an expedition team of experts on every subject Antarctic-related. Every day at sea there were talks in the plush theatre so I learnt about all the explorers of the region, the birds, mammals, geology, well pretty much everything that there was to learn. I wish my brain was less full (by which I probably mean younger) and I could have retained it all! How I loved the passion and knowledge those people hold deep in their souls – I salute them all.
And then there was the food. Fabulous, diverse, gourmet, exciting…and never-ending. Every meal was an event, and all accompanied by amazing wines. There were also never-ending cocktails, gin and tonics and hot drinks after onshore expeditions. One of our new on-board friends Mike introduced me to hot chocolate with a dash of peppermint liqueur. So good I had three one day – only one day as I did feel a little over-indulged afterwards! The perfect Antarctic beverage.
Our staterooms were spectacular with large comfy beds, balconies with never-ending views, bathrooms stocked with never-ending Hermes products and 24 room service. Oh and a Nespresso machine just in case you needed a quick caffeine hit.
The breakfast buffets in La Comete were the breakfasts of dreams. And we often had them on the deck (fully decked out in our cold-weather gear).
The ship had special stabilisers so it could cope with the potentially rough crossings. Drake Passage is particularly notorious for its wild seas so we came prepared with a bagful of seasick tablets – we did take a few “Just in case”, but they were left largely untouched. In a perverse sort of way we were looking forward to seeing how we’d cope when the going got rough, but it never did. The biggest the swell we experienced was three metres and that made for really fun sailing. Also, the weather was very kind to us. The worst it got was on Deception Island, with lots of wind and some snow, but somehow that seemed so perfectly appropriate. The ship provides jackets, over trousers and boots to suit the conditions and of course you make sure to dress appropriately (something you are briefed in detail about). I was never cold or uncomfortable and did enjoy wearing my selection of newly-acquired hats!
What more can I say? The trip of a lifetime indeed! I’d never have believed as a child growing up on a farm in Zimbabwe that I’d get to visit all seven continents in my lifetime. And that I’d toast my landing on Antarctica with champagne on a small boat within touching distance of the magnificent icebergs. What a moment that was.
Antarctic v Arctic – the differences
Antarctica is a continent surrounded by the ocean at the South Pole. The South Polar ice sheet covers 98% of the land. The mean annual temperature at the South Pole is -50C. Yes -50! It’s home to marine mammals (whales and seals) but there are no terrestrial mammals and there are less than 20 bird species. And most beautiful of all, it’s the land of penguins. I miss those penguins every day.
The Arctic is an ocean surrounded by continents at the North Pole. It has limited land ice. The mean annual temperature at the North Pole is -18C. It’s home to terrestrial mammals, including reindeer, wolf, musk ox, hare, lemming and fox as well as marine mammals (whales and seals). There are more than 100 bird species. And of course there are polar bears.
Find out more about this life-changing cruise to the land of penguins, seals, icebergs and peace by clicking here.