Antarctica: a blue and white wonderland

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.

Antarctica: icebergs

Icebergs come in many shapes and sizes; and many 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.

Antarctica: chinstrap penguin

A dainty chinstrap penguin with a glacier in the distance

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.

Antarctica: Le Lyrical

The perfect combo of gentoos, ice and Le Lyrial

Antarctica: Chinstrap penguin

Chinstrap penguins having a little rest

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.

Antarctica: Deception Island

The graveyard in the snow of Deception Island

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.

Antartica: icebergs

Our little Zodiac inflatable is dwarfed by an iceberg

Antarctica: Icebergs

The most beautiful iceberg in Antarctica

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.

Antarctica: Le Lyrical

Gentoo penguins, icebergs and beautiful Le Lyrial

Antarctica: reflections

Snowy, crystal clear reflections

Antarctica: Ice

A Christmas-day expedition among the ice

Antarctica: Icebergs

Big ship, little boat in iceberg heaven

Antarctica: gents

Antarctica: Icebergs

A towering iceberg and its reflection

Antarctica: icebergs

And there’s even archway icebergs

Antarctica: Christmas

Christmas Day iceberg selfie

Antarctica: Leopard seal

A leopard seal chills out on his iceberg

Antarctica: Leopard seal

We got oh-so-close to the leopard seal

Antarctica: Paradise Bay

The snowy mountains of beautiful Paradise Bay

Antarctica: Iceberg

Another splendid iceberg

Antartica: my seventh continent

Cheers Antarctica: A toast to landing on my seventh continent

Antarctica: penguin highways

The gentoos follow their penguin highways

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.

Antartica: Christmas Day

The deck all ready for our Christmas Day 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.

Antarctica: Le Lyrical

The sparkling La Celeste where we enjoyed many a delicious dinner

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.

Antartica: Le Lyrial

The luxurious bed and expansive views from the stateroom

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).

Antarctica: Le Lyrial

Bottomless bountiful breakfasts and buffets in LA Comete (Deck 6 aft)

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.

South Georgia: the land of penguins, seals and explorers

The entrancing wildlife and stories of South Georgia

“South Georgia is for those who grew up dreaming of a Garden of Eden where you would walk unharmed among abundant and fearless wildlife in a beautiful wilderness – an oasis of serenity in a world increasingly out of step with nature.” Tim and Pauline Carr, Antarctic Oasis, Under the Spell of South Georgia.

South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (SGSSI) is a British Overseas Territory in the southern Atlantic Ocean. South Georgia is 165km long and between 1 and 35km wide. Captain James Cook made the first landing here in 1775 and claimed the territory for the Kingdom of Great Britain, naming it the Isle of Georgia in honour of King George III.

For a while it was an important base for whaling which thankfully ended in the 1960s – these stations were unpleasant and dangerous places to work and nearly destroyed the whale population.

Now there’s no permanent population on the island. It’s an isolated and rugged (inhospitable even) place, especially in the winter. Around 10-20 scientists, support staff and museum staff come and go through the year. And of course travellers like me, coming to visit the penguins, seals and whales in their natural environment.

Nothing can prepare you for South Georgia. That first glimpse of Salisbury Plain from the ship’s deck takes your breath away and you can hear and even smell the penguin life in the distance. Oh and some little gentoo penguins swam serenely past my window when I opened my curtains. We’d made it to this magnificent island where few humans ever go. Time for our first on-shore expedition.

South Georgia: first sight

My first sight of South Georgia

Welcome to penguin heaven

Jumping into little Zodiac inflatables it started to feel like this was really happening. We were about to step foot on the land of penguins. Salisbury Plain is home to one of the largest king penguin colonies in the world – there are tens of thousands of them! It’s impossible to explain the impact that first penguin sighting has – with what looks like a carpet of them stretched out towards the mountains – a very large carpet.

South Georgia: Kings

Clusters of Kings with some furry babies

King penguins aren’t scared of humans – who they don’t see that often. Some look at you curiously – in a “What are these big red things doing in our house” kind of way (we all wore the red expedition jackets that came as part of the cruise), but mainly they continue going about their daily business like there’s nothing unusual going on.

It’s incredible how close you get, touching distance, though we were told not to touch, gotta leave them alone to live their lives! It’s just so much fun watching their interaction. I felt I could stand there all day. The onboard photography coach, Richard, told us not to take millions of pictures of penguins as we’d see endless amounts of them and they all pretty much look the same. A sound piece of advice that’s impossible to take – you can’t help yourself and the snapping soon gets out of control! Millions of pictures later…

South Georgia: penguins and glacier

A carpet of penguins under the glacier

And now it’s seal time

As well as king penguins (so many of them) we also communed with seals. Fortuna Bay was home to the elephant variety. The biggest of them are out at sea feeding at this time of year so we only saw babies (weighing in at about 1000kg) and juveniles (weighing in at up to 3000kg). These are big, quite smelly and noisy animals that emit a sound like a cross between a sneeze and a burp.

South Georgia: elephant seals and ship

Looking over the elephant seals towards the ship and the mountains in the distance

The babies are so tame and curious they come right up to you trying to suckle – their mothers are out at sea feeding. They look pleadingly up at you with their big brown eyes before latching on to your boot or trousers, obviously with disappointing results.

South Georgia: elephant seal baby

The elephant seal is probably the biggest baby I’ve ever seen!

South Georgia: King penguins

The wide-ranging king penguin colony

South Georgia: elephant seals

Juvenile elephant seals snuggle together

And then there’s the fur seals. By far the cutest-looking of their species, they’re also by far the  most aggressive. Fierce about protecting their territory, the adults have no hesitation in charging you and have even been known to bite. And like the penguins you get incredibly close to them – though we tried to keep our distance! Didn’t like the look of them getting ready to charge.

We saw lots of babies on this trip! The fur seal babies were unbelievably cute, the sort of animal you want to take home with you with their pretty faces and soft-looking black fur. Of course you’d never be able to do that and actually you really wouldn’t want to as they are born aggressive. The vicious-sounding growls that come from them as you walk past are quite startling!

South Georgia: baby fur seals

The cutest of cuddly baby fur seals

You’ll be noticing that I also couldn’t resist taking pictures with our lovely ship Le Lyrial in the background.

South Georgia: Fortuna

Hanging out together in South Georgia

After our magical penguin and seal-filled day we headed for Stromness and Grytviken.

Stromness was a whaling station from 1907 to 1931. It is also known as being the arrival point of Ernest Shackleton after his epic journey from Elephant Island. Now this an amazing story!

The legend of Shackleton

In April 1916, Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition became stranded on Elephant Island which is about 1,300km (800 miles) south-west of South Georgia. Shackleton and five of his men set out in a small boat (I mean a very small boat) to summon help and on 10 May they landed at King Haakon Bay on South Georgia’s south coast.

I did a similar journey on this cruise and we passed by the hostile-looking, isolated Elephant Island on our way from South Georgia to Antarctica. It’s a long way and there’s nothing in between! Okay it was highly enjoyable onboard a luxury ship, but I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for them to get there alive! Especially as they’d already had some epic travels.

And to make matters worse they discovered on landing that they were on the wrong side of the island. So Shackleton, Tom Crean and Frank Worsley had to walk 22 miles over the spine of the mountainous island to reach help at Stromness.

Legend goes they were welcomed at Stromness by Norwegian Thoralf Sorlie with the words: “Who the hell are you?”. They definitely weren’t looking their best!

They’d left 22 members of the expedition on Elephant Island who were subsequently rescued. They’d survived living under two of the upturned boats and were all still alive when Shackleton returned.

Shackleton’s story is one of hardship and endeavour, I guess that’s obvious in any exploration of the white, icy wilderness of Antarctica. The fact that he never lost a crew member reflects the bond he built with his fellow explorers and his determination to be a solid leader.

It’s interesting if you google him – there are myriad sites about him, his obsessional mission to reach the South Pole first (a mission he failed to achieve – in fact he never reached the Pole at all). And some dubious personal decisions including the fact that he allegedly cheated on his wife and more or less abandoned his children. How he had the time and energy for any of that is another mystery. Whatever the truth, he was undoubtedly someone you’d want on your side when trouble came, trouble we can’t possibly even understand in today’s world. I could discuss this forever but it’s time to move on..well, sort of.

Grytviken: Shackleton’s resting place

Our next stop was Grytviken, home to Shackleton’s grave, a museum and the rusty remains of a whaling station.

Shackleton died onboard ship in January 1922 while moored in King Edward Cove, South Georgia. His body was on its way home to England when his wife was informed of his death and she insisted that he was buried in South Georgia, saying: “Antartica was always his mistress.”

It’s such a moving experience visiting his grave, surrounded by a white picket fence in the desolate remains of the whaling station.

We all had a toast to “The Boss”, as he was known, with a shot of Jameson’s Whisky, half of which we poured on his grave (as is the custom), while pondering how it was physically possible to do what he did with the very limited resources he had available.

South Georgia: Ernest Shackleton

Polar explorer Ernest Shackleton’s last resting place

The ashes of another noted Antarctic explorer, Frank Wild, who had been Shackleton’s second-in-command on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, were interred next to Shackleton in 2011.

These explorers were made of different stuff! The stuff of legends.

South Georgia: Frank Wild

Frank Wild’s resting place next to The Boss

Our final onshore expedition in glorious South Georgia was in Gold Harbour. An amphitheatre of hanging glaciers and cliffs rises from the sea creating the most beautiful backdrop for the ever-abundant wildlife.

By now I was totally in love with the gentoo penguins, smaller and daintier than the kings, with their bright reddy-orange beaks and beautifully curious personalities. We found their nesting grounds in the tussock hillside (after wading through a lot of mud!).

South Georgia: gentoos

The gentoos breed under the fluffy tussock grass. 

And we spent more time communing with the lovely kings and their families. Some of them nesting their eggs under their down, balanced on their feet. The edge of the colony had plenty of the brown, fluffy chicks, yet to moult their fur and become elegance in black, white and yellow.

South Georgia: Young king penguin

Fluffiness in brown – a young king penguin

The elegance of the king penguins on shore mirrors the elegance of our ship in the distance

I cruised The Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica aboard Le Lyrial on a fabulous Abercrombie & Kent expedition. We embarked and ended in Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra del Fuego, an island at the bottom of South America approximately a three-hour flight from Buenos Aires. Tierra de Fuego is half owned by Chile and half by Argentina. Ushuaia is officially called “The End of the World”, because it’s the southern-most populated city on our planet. And it does feel like you’re in the  middle of nowhere – that is until you start heading east and then south discovering even more remote places.

What an adventure. One that you will never truly understand until you’ve been there yourself. So go, seriously you have to go, and discover more about our fabulous planet and why we should be doing more to preserve it. Escape to the land of penguins and seals, whales and albatrosses, absorb the peace and harmony and try to keep it in your soul. Well that’s what I’m trying to do.

One of the expedition leaders Richard (AKA Black Jack) made a video of our unique experience which you can watch on YouTube by clicking here.