Antarctica. The last great wilderness. Land of some of the greatest and most heroic expeditions in the history of mankind: from Admundsen and Scott to Shackleton and even Fiennes and Cracknell / Fogle more recently. One of the most inshospitable and dangerous places in the world, yet also a haven for wildlife not found anywhere else on the planet. And it’s disappearing fast – the majestic, towering shelves of ice recede each year as icebergs the size of football pitches and height of skyscrapers carve off in to the enveloping Southern Ocean.
These were the thoughts running through my head as I sat in shorts and T-shirt 5,000 kilometres away in a sweaty internet café in Bariloche, Argentina on the northern side of Patagonia. Was it really possible? Could I make it to the last of the seven continents I was to set foot on?
I was running on a tight schedule as I had to meet a friend at the legendary Iguaçu falls on the border with Brazil in three weeks and that was more than 3,000 kms north. Going back at a later date wasn’t an option as it is only possible to reach Antarctica by sea during three summer months. If I left it any later the sea ice would start forming, making the great continent inaccessible again for another year. I willed the slow internet connection to run faster as I discovered it would take at least 9 days to get to Antarctica and back from Ushuaia, the most southerly place in Argentina. There was a window of opportunity, but it was closing fast.
If I could get to Ushuaia in the next two days (fairly unlikely given the distance and poor flight availability), I would have three days in which to board a boat. As I realised there was a glimmer of hope, and pushed financial concerns to the back of mind, I began frantically emailing and calling every company in Ushuaia that I could find that might have some way of getting me on a boat: from scientific logistics companies to tour operators. A few hours later and I had received a lone positive response. The very last berth on a former Norwegian ice breaker was available. The boat leaves for Antarctica in two days’ time!
There really is nothing quite like climbing a huge snowy cliff to sit above a pristine glacier as huge edifices of ice carve off in to the deep, dark blue of the ocean below.
Jon Stephens is a traveller, blogger, entrepreneur and business consultant with a love of big challenges and the outdoors. He has started findmeachallenge.com, a place for people to find new challenges and to share advice, experiences and inspiration. He blogs about business, ideas and life at jonstephens.co.uk.
Buses were the usual route to travel to Ushuaia, but it would take at least three days and several changes to cover the several thousand kilometres. Flying was the only option, but I soon discovered this wasn’t a popular route and planes only made the trip on sporadic days. After more frantic calling and emailing I amazingly picked-up a cancelation on a flight that was leaving for Ushuaia in a just few hours. After briefly considering the financial implications of what I was about to do, I reached to the bottom of my bag for the already smarting credit card.
Ushuaia really does feel like the end of the Earth. There’s an eerie feeling to the place; like all the inhabitants are looking out to the ocean and waiting for some impending apocalypse. Perhaps they have just been weathered by centuries of living in one of the most isolated towns in the world that becomes completely frozen-over and even more sparsely populated every winter. The town has survived on the fishing and whaling industries for decades, but is now becoming more reliant on supporting scientific expeditions and tourism.
I had realised on the plane that I wasn’t particularly well equipped for this impromptu trip to Antarctica. Somehow I couldn’t see my board shorts, flip-flops and a beanie really being much use against serious sub-zero temperatures and wind-chill. With just a few hours in Ushuaia before the boat departed, I rushed around the few shops picking-up the warmest clothes I could find. Despite making several purchases, I was to spend much of the next 9 days wearing every item of clothes I had with me (hopefully the last time I will ever wear 5 pairs of boxer shorts at once).
As the ice-breaker pulled-out from the harbour to make the journey across the notoriously choppy, and often dangerous, Drake Passage, I felt a wave of euphoria rise-up within me and massive grin erupt across my face. I was on my way to Antarctica! Barely 24 hours ago, I walked in to an internet cafe 2, 000 kilometres away with no more than an inkling that this might be possible and now I was on my way to the awe-inspiring seventh continent.
The next couple of days were spent trying to ignore the rocking of the boat and suppressing waves of nausea as we crossed the Drake Passage. On-board were a mix of scientists and other tourists, most of whom had organised their trip six to twelve months in advance, but had paid twice as much as me for the privilege. The days were spent excitedly scanning the horizon for the first iceberg sighting, learning about the history of Antarctica and the ecosystem it supports and reading of the great expeditions of Scott and Shackleton.
Finally setting foot on the Frozen Continent was a dream come true. There really is nothing quite like climbing a huge snowy cliff to sit above a pristine glacier as huge edifices of ice carve off in to the deep, dark blue of the ocean below. Exploring ghost-like, deserted whaling stations that have capitulated to the elements, and visiting small rock huts where explorers whiled-away their final few days before starving to death, are moving and thought-provoking experiences. Above all, Antarctica is a stunningly beautiful, peaceful and serene environment. It’s a place to contemplate life, to be inspired by geology, evolution and the importance of conservation, and if you can make the opportunity and get there, it’s a place to re-charge the soul.
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