I never anticipated all the interest I’d have from friends and family about my recent trip to Antarctica. I should have known. I’d probably have been the same. The Antarctic seems almost like it’s of another world on a planet in a galaxy far far away.
With all this interest in mind I thought I’d attempt to write a post in an informative way, with less ridiculousness and fewer references to penises. I’ll tackle this piece as if I was telling an elderly relative about my trip, as if they had their notebook out, their freshly sharpened pencil poised and their smudged spectacles balanced on the tip of their nose. They’re expecting to be left informed, not bewildered.
Here goes nothing.
Approximately 90% of the passenger ships leave from Ushuaia in the south of Argentina, which possibly has something to do with it being the closest point to the Antarctic, closer than places like Tasmania, South Africa and Chile. This would reduce time spent navigating the open seas, which can’t be a bad thing, given how rough it can be. AntarctiFact*: The stretch of sea between the horn of South America and the South Shetland islands of Antarctica is called the Drake Passage. If you decide to embark from Ushuaia (Del Fin Del Mundo or The End of the World) you’ll most likely need to fly into Buenos Aires and catch a connecting flight to Ushuaia.
This isn’t budget travel. Even if you choose the cheapest option, for example, a four-bed cabin I did, you’re still looking at over US$5000. If you have all the time in the world you can just rock up in Ushuaia and get a last minute deal but it’s still not going to be cheap. Look at it like an experience, a once-in-a-lifetime, never to be repeated (probably) experience. This shit is bucket list gold, not bucket list paper or bucket list nickel.
If you’re a pansy like me, you should probably expect to experience some form of sea sickness. I tried to wing it and rely on pill handouts from my kind cabin mates, but then I just went and chundered them all up. Some people were fine. Some people were not. Some people relied on those pressure point arm band things. Some people only survived after applying the seasickness patches behind their ears and they still wanted to die (i.e. me.) The patches still make you feel like shit. You’re thirsty no matter how much you drink and I felt hungover the whole time the patch was applied. But they do make life infinitely more bearable.
And anyway, you’re going to Antarctica after all, so take a teaspoon of cement and harden the hell up.
Our trip included all meals and I imagine most cruises would. It’s not like you can pop out to a 7 Eleven for pot noodles. The food on our trip was fantastic and the variety was good. I can assure you that you will not go hungry.
I love old people. Sometimes I enjoy their company more than that of people my own age. However I’d pictured getting my rocks off for the duration of the trip playing bridge with Mable and Manfred from Maine who were celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary. But I shouldn’t have worried. Our itinerary on this “Basecamp” cruise was fairly adventure-based, with kayaking, camping, mountaineering and snow-shoeing being offered as part of the package. This meant that there was an interesting mix of people from all over the world, with ages ranging from around mid-twenties to mid-seventies, with the bulk I’d guess in their thirties and forties.
I choose to do my cruise in the middle of November, which was still towards the beginning of the season, and I was amazed at how warm it was. The weather was so good that our expedition leader was almost disgusted at our wonderful luck. We only had one day where it was little colder and sky was grey but the rest of the time the sky was blue and magical.
Antarctica was absolutely pristine and the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) are very serious about keeping it that way. Before we went on land for the first time we had to bring our daypacks and outer wear to the common area to be vacuumed cleaned in case we’d brought any contaminants from home. We weren’t allowed to take food on land with us. And we weren’t allowed to heed the call of nature on land either. If anyone needed the bathroom they had to hold it or make use of a pee bottle. If the situation was more, ahem, serious or if some privacy was required (no bushes or penguins to hide behind) one of the crew had to take that person back in one of the zodiac boats to the ship.
Communication with the outside world:
As you would expect being at the end of the world your means of communicating i.e. posting to Instagram are limited. You can pay to use the phone and the Internet on board, but it’s understandably expensive. It was actually rather pleasant being offline for the duration of the trip. On a personal note I will always remember where I was from I first learned that Trump was elected president of US, as the expedition leader woke us up early one morning with the news broadcast over the loud speaker.
What you’ll see:
Sea. Ice. And. So. Many. Penguins. (I actually learned before the trip that you only see penguins in the southern hemisphere and polar bears in the northern hemisphere. But you might have already known that.) I also saw minke whales and killer whales. Again—with our disgusting good luck we spent about an hour on the ship watching a pod of B1 killer whales teaching their young to hunt seals by breaking the ice. It was some next level Discovery Channel shit.You can also expect a variety of sea birds whose names I don’t know except for the Antarctic Shag for obvious reasons. We were also treated to several sightings of seals.
In October/November there’ll be more sea ice and the land is covered in a lot more snow/ice, before everything starts to melt, and there’ll be much penguin sex if you’re into that sort of thing. In December/January the chicks will start to hatch as the weather warms up even more and in February/March as you come to the end of the season you’re supposed to see more whales.
Oceanwide Expeditions took our safety as seriously as you would hope they would when we’re sailing to the arse end of the world. We sat through a very thorough safety demonstration and even completed a practice evacuation drill as we headed out on the Beagle Channel (when it was still calm).
That’s very nice. But what is Antarctica actually like, yo?
This is a tough one. Jon Krakauer, who wrote one of my favourite books Into The Wild says that “Antarctica has this mythic weight. It resides in the collective unconscious of so many people, and it makes this huge impact, just like outer space. It’s like going to the moon.” And I couldn’t agree more. It feels like one of those places you see on TV but you never think you’ll end up there. Being there made me feel like a real-life adventurer.
When I was there everything was so pristine that it was almost unbelievable and it exceeded my expectations a million times over. Besides from a fair amount of brown penguin shit mottling some of the landscape what you see is an endless continuum of bright white to deep blue, and when the sun dips lower in the sky at night you’re treated to reds, oranges and pinks.
[Aside: I learned during a pub quiz in Guatemala a few years ago that hippopotamus milk is pink. And ever since I’ve been telling anyone with ears on the sides of their heads about this. Therefore during a lull in conversation I shared this titbit with my group of newly acquired homies and the time the sun dipped in the sky (but never actually set) was henceforth referred to as ‘hippo milk time’. Alas I was understandably devastated when I checked Google during the writing of this and was told in no uncertain terms that I’d been living a lie, that it’s a fallacy that the milk of a hippo is pink. I don’t know which way is up anymore.]
The silence was something else that struck me, almost like Antarctica knows how special she is and doesn’t feel the need to make noise, to shout and wave her hands about.
My trip highlights:
# My kayak trip was absolutely phenomenal. I’ve been lucky enough to do some cool shit in my life but manoeuvring a kayak between icebergs on a beautiful bluebird day has to be in the top 5 most awesome things I’ve ever done. It was a pinch myself moment fo’ sho’.
# The BBQ on one of the back decks one night was a highlight just because of the sheer novelty of it. The staff went out of their way to make it special with coloured bunting flags strung up, music, warm gluhwein and dope dessert.
# Bonding with the group of chicks I met. I was nervous about being stuck on a ship with strangers for 11 days. You see, I do these things, where I hurtle myself out of my comfort zone and then I have to deal with the consequences. But I needn’t have worried, because I struck gold with these women.
*Please note that it was the cupcake on the far left of this photo, Alicia “What’s my angle?” Williams who coined the phrase ‘AntarctiFact’ after too many plastic cups of gluhwein and a disturbing piece of Madonna trivia. I take zero of the credit for this gem.
My trip lowlights:
# Seasickness! At one point I’d just vomited (luckily) in the toilet but couldn’t make it back to my bed during all the rolling about on high seas and I ended up lying down on the cabin floor, making my cabin mates step over me. I wanted to die.
But the Plancius staff were so lovely that when they heard I hadn’t made it to the dining room for a few meals I got a risotto brought to me on a plate covered in foil, which I ate lying down in my bunk. My cabin mates were also lovely, bringing me back fruit and dry crackers, and checking on me every now and then to make sure I wasn’t dead. (The bunks had little curtains that you could draw around the whole of your bed so it was like you were in a dark little cave.) The doctor on board also visited me twice—once when I was on the train to Chunder City to give me a seasickness patch and again when I got a crappy cold.
# The camping. I feel like a bit of brat admitting that I didn’t enjoy the camping. What? You didn’t enjoy camping on freaking Antarctica? What is wrong with you? Etc. Etc. I think the issue was a gap between expectation and the actual experience. I had expected tents and fires and marshmallows. (The brochure had tents advertising the camping. The fires and marshmallows were on me.)
As I explained earlier you’re not allowed to take food on land (which I would have known if I’d done more research beforehand) and fires are banned. It is also a requirement that when you move off the land you leave it in the same state that you found it. So if you built a snowman for example you’d be required to take it down before you left. I imagine it would be a bit of a ball ache to put the tents up every night for a camping group (because all activities are broken down into groups) only to have to take them down the next day—and to have to do so for four nights in a row.
So basically we had to dig a shallow grave in the snow and we slept in said grave, rolled up into a sleeping bag inside a sleeping bag inside another sleeping bag on top of a thin Therm-a-rest inside a waterproof bivy bag. On top of that we left after dinner and we were expected to “hold it” during the night although plastic bags were provided if you were desperate to do your business. The zodiacs then picked us up the next morning before breakfast.
If I was going to defend myself I would probably tell you that I was in the first camping group, the first night after arriving in the Antarctic, when the crossing hadn’t been a pleasant experience. The camp was also treated to a rogue visitor penguin who squawked the whole night, trying to find his mates. Every time I almost dropped off he’d squawk again. So no sleep for me and a cold-ass face.
And in conclusion:
Travelling to the Antarctic is a big, expensive deal so make you sure you research all your options. Having said that, I would highly recommend going on the m/v Plancius Basecamp trip with Oceanwide Expeditions (and they’re not even paying me to say that). The staff were amazing and I couldn’t fault the trip at all (except for feeling like I might have been mislead about the camping). I’m sure there are cheaper trips with activities similar to those offered on the Plancius but it’s important to note that all activities on the Plancius are included in the price that you pay, which can’t be said for similar trips with other operators. Everything is included, except for extra drinks and any medication you need while on board. But if you are prepared and bought snacks and a nice big bucket of wine with you you could probably get a way with not spending much else. And it’s not like there are shops that you stop at while on the trip so your money is safe in your wallet.
I hope this was helpful.
If you’re thinking about going to Antartica and have any questions that I haven’t already answered feel free to shoot me an email.
Peace, love & penguin sex. X
P.S. All photos in this post are mine (when I eventually got the settings on my camera right!) I didn’t get round to editing them but don’t think they’re too bad as they are.
P.P.S. This post contains Amazon Affiliate links. If you buy anything I recommend by clicking the links provided I get a little somethin’ somethin’ at no extra cost to you. (Thanks!)