I should have listened, it was simple advice. “Whatever else, make sure you bring inner gloves to Antarctica, they’ll prove invaluable.” And so, as I bobbed up and down in a Zodiac as close to the South Pole as I shall ever be, full of wonderment at the glistening world of icebergs around me, I felt rather foolish as I furtively adjusted the black pop socks on my freezing hands. I’d found them in my suitcase, punched a hole for my thumbs and quickly pulled my mittens over the hosiery. But how I wished I’d invested in a proper inner layer to ward off the frostbite.
There’s a lot to learn when you venture somewhere as remote and wild as the Great White Continent… and it’s not just about keeping warm. It had always been an ambition of mine to go there but it was no more than a pipe dream until, about 18 months ago, I received an invitation from ROL Cruise to voyage with Hurtigruten for 11 days, followed by a few days in Buenos Aires.
Well, we’re no spring chickens and I wondered whether my husband Jim would be up for it. But I’d underestimated his evergreen zest for adventure and wildlife, not to mention his curiosity about the legendary beauty of Argentinian women!
We leapt at the chance. And so, in late November 2018, after a long but comfortable flight across the Atlantic, followed by a four-hour flight to the tip of Argentina and two days and nights crossing the Drake Passage - one of the roughest seas on the planet - we arrived at the end of the world. We soon discovered that life in Antarctica, and the rules that govern it, are entirely different.
The first and most important lesson we were taught by our knowledgeable expedition team on board Hurtigruten’s comfortable ice-class ship MS Midnatsol was that nature would dictate everything we’d do and everywhere we’d go. There could be no firm itinerary because it would all depend on the weather and the ice. Excursions and activities, such as snowshoeing and kayaking, would happen as often as possible, wherever was feasible. We should always expect the unexpected. Our mission was to visit this largely unspoiled frozen land and to leave it just as we’d found it. Even our footprints would be erased wherever possible.
Another golden rule in Antarctica is that penguins - and there are hundreds of thousands of them - must always be given the right of way. We were instructed to stay five metres away wherever possible. But, if one happened to come and sit on your lap, your duty was to stay there until the penguin chose to move. It never happened though there were times when we were left standing like statues in the snow, waiting for a penguin to decided which way to go.
Nothing will compare with that first morning when I pulled back the curtains and through the porthole saw a huge iceberg just yards away, framed by a background of virgin white mountains against a clear blue sky. It was breathtaking. Everyone has seen pictures or films of Antarctica but nothing can truly prepare you for the dazzling beauty of this gargantuan land. We had reached the South Shetland Islands, where the icebergs were studded with hues of turquoise and green. Occasionally, there were seals resting on top, sunbathing on the ice as if it were the warmest sand.
There was always so much to see and enjoy from the ship but whenever the weather and swell of the sea allowed, MS Midnatsol would launch her fleet of Zodiacs. Trussed up like turkeys in our thermals and waterproof gear, we would clamber ashore, often wading through knee-deep, icy water, assisted by the crew.
At Whalers Bay, we were greeted by an elephant seal wallowing in the shallows. It watched, with understandable curiosity, as a handful of our most hardy fellow travellers ignored the falling snow, stripped off and went swimming briefly. Another group spent the whole night on the ice at Neko Harbour, camping in deep snow and surrounded by penguins. A once-in-a-lifetime experience.
On the beautiful island of Cuverville, we all scrambled ashore onto the snow and, with walking poles, trekked to a colony of gentoo penguins who were noisily nesting. They were fascinating to watch - some mating, others squabbling - as skuas divebombed, hunting for eggs. Most surprising was the stench of penguins: pungent, distinctive and never to be forgotten.
There were days when the frozen sea blocked our way but eventually, we would change course and take another route. That’s how we ended up visiting Hope Bay and Esperanza, one of the few research stations on the peninsula, where the 50 or so Argentinian residents were delighted to see visitors after the long dark winter.
Antarctica was everything and more. One of my abiding memories, apart from the beauty, the whales and sighting a wandering albatross - was watching two penguins approaching one another on the ice. As they met, they stopped, exchanged a brief penguin chat and then waddled off in opposite directions. This is their land and to observe their community was a rare privilege. It certainly drove home the imperative the world faces to preserve this unique continent.