The magic white world of Antarctica

ANTARCTICA has forever been on my bucket list for "one day". I longed to tackle the notorious high seas of the Drake Passage like the adventurers you often read about, and explore the continent that, by all accounts, seemed as if it was from another world and, in many minds, almost unreachable.

But, as I have found out, the end of the Earth really isn’t that far away, and witnessing the White Continent is the most magical journey I have been on. This was not your ordinary journey. Apart from it being to the "final frontier", we had also asked our loyal Places We Go viewers to come with us. And join us they did. More than 80 intrepid passengers met us in Ushuaia, Argentina, to come with us on an adventure of a lifetime together. We were to travel to the white continent on board the MV Ushuaia, one of the specialist Russian icebreaker vessels that adventure operator and our travel partner Chimu Adventures charters to Antarctica. And with a rumble of its engines, we left the dock, bound for the world’s southernmost continent. The mood on board was infectious. Everyone was sharing stories of how they ended up on this "trip of a lifetime". Di from Queensland had only been out of Australia once before and now she was crashing through the waves heading towards the South Pole. Everyone had a different tale to tell. But, above all else, everyone was primed to take the adventure on. Our 11-day journey took us from Ushuaia, through the Beagle Channel, across the Drake Passage, around Cape Horn and down to the South Shetland Islands and Antarctic Peninsula, where we would land at various points to explore. With Places We Go’s much-loved sailor Jesse Martin as my companion, I felt I had put myself in pretty safe hands for the voyage. After all, he wrote himself into the history books when he became the youngest person to sail around the world unassisted, and, while that was more than a decade ago, he always has a twinkle in his eye and a passion for adventures like this. I am sure his confidence on the water made many of us feel comforted about the journey ahead. We were all bracing ourselves and armed with seasickness tablets for the crossing of the notorious Drake Passage, which is commonly known as the Drake "Shake" or the Drake "Lake" depending on the waves. Luckily we experienced something somewhere in between. With moderate seas of just 3m, the Drake Passage actually came and went without much fanfare, but just enough to feel the power of mother nature on the open water. I stood out on the deck as we made the crossing, wind in my hair, and tingles in my fingertips. I had never felt so alive. After two days at sea, our approach to the South Shetland Islands was almost scripted. The islands were shrouded in fog as we approached, then, as soon as our ship was in reach, the fog lifted like a curtain for the show to begin. With the glow of the afternoon sun hitting the mountains, we kitted up for our first landing, adrenalin pumping. We piled into the Zodiacs and headed for shore with a chorus of penguins welcoming our big arrival. There were tears among the group, as well as silence. Many of us were speechless. On land, our group broke up and we wandered around in awe, taking in the magnitude of our surrounds, not knowing whether to look up at the snow-capped mountains, or down at the penguins at our feet. A seal was playing in an old boat that was washed up on shore. You couldn’t help but wonder where the boat came from. An old explorer? Or a current research expedition? Back on the ship, we sailed through the night to anchor at Portal Point in Charlotte Bay for our first official landing on the continent of Antarctica. The sunrise was magical, and the ship was surrounded by the first icebergs I had seen. They dwarfed our Zodiacs as we pulled away from the ship. On route to land, two humpback whales paid us a visit and they weren’t the shy type. They were not even a metre from our vessels and you could feel their breath as they came up for air. All that could be heard was the crackling of the icebergs and the breath of the whales, and all on board the Zodiac were speechless. As we stepped on to the white continent, armed with the information that this was the point where all expeditions used to begin, Jesse and I contemplated how the great explorers such as Shackleton and his companions tackled this harsh, unforgiving land. We joined our guide Valerie – who moved to Ushuaia to dedicate her life to guiding trips down here – to explore for ourselves. She says it’s the kind of place that, no matter which country you are from, leaves you speechless. Over the next few days we cruised the Antarctic Peninsula in the comfort of our warm ship, swapping stories with fellow travellers over dinner and drinks at the bar. Our captain skilfully navigated the Lemaire Channel, a gap of just 1600m between mountainous peaks, and we explored jaw-dropping stretches of water with names such as Ice Berg Alley. Gentoo penguins literally jumped out of the water as if welcoming our ship to Danco Island, which is home to thousands of their breed. Antarctica has about 4000 people living there during the summer months, with bases from about 30 countries operating research stations. We were invited into the Ukrainian base station Vernadski and met geophysicist, Bohgdan, who took us on a tour of the base. While it was filled with hi-tech radios and power stations, it was his recital on his homemade piano that gave us the biggest insight into living in such isolation. Our journey ended following in the footsteps of some of the world’s greatest explorers and sailors in one of the safest harbours in Antarctica, Deception Island. Together we went out with a bang, braving the cold and stripping down to our bathing suits to jump into the icy waters to be able to say we had "swum in Antarctica". And back on board the Ushuaia, while we were celebrating around the bar and reliving our stories with newfound friends, a dolphin was at the bow of the ship, as though ushering us a safe passage home. Watch this story, and more, on Places We Go at 4pm on Network 10 today. Go2 – ANTARCTICA Getting there: Aerolineas Argentinas has direct flights between Sydney and Buenos Aires with connections on to Ushuaia. Doing there: Chimu Adventures’ 11-day Classic Antarctica journey on board the MV Ushuaia is priced from $3990 a person, twin share.  "Like" on Facebook Follow @Escape_team on Twitter

Originally published as The magic white world of Antarctica

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