The Big Freeze
We have no concept of time as the setting sun clips the horizon before immediately rising again. The ocean is choked with puzzle pieces of ice sheets jostling with iceberg rubble. The silhouettes of colossal icebergs resemble a faraway city skyline. As the ship splinters the solid ice in its path, each hit sounds like an empty oil drum being dropped onto concrete.
Three days ago we left Ushuaia, starting a 13-day voyage led by One Ocean Expeditions. The beginning of our epic adventure involved two days crossing the notoriously rough Drake Passage. Our ship is the Rolls-Royce of these seas, boasting a fancy stabilisation system that thankfully reduces the roll by 40 per cent. The remaining 60 per cent, however, confines half of the guests to their cabins for the crossing. Crew members diligently check on the absent, while vomit bags and dry crackers magically appear throughout the ship. The pharmacy of every conceivable seasickness remedy I’ve stowed in my luggage proves my saviour.
During the days at sea everyone is briefed on the wildlife, expedition plans, conservation practices and landing procedures. Suiting up for each excursion is quite the procedure to master. Layering up as you would for the ski slopes, you then add an outer skin of wet-weather gear, boots and a life vest before waddling to the gangway like a weighted-down astronaut.
Our first step onto land is at Port Charcot, a horseshoe-shaped bay on Booth Island, rimmed with towering mountains laden with glaciers. Convoys of curious penguins in their matching tuxedo onesies waddle down to greet us. Not aware of the five-metre human–penguin boundary rule, they happily move about us. Here, three species mingle. The cartoon-like features of the Adélie penguin belong in a picture book. The chinstrap penguin seems to be wearing a little tied-on helmet. A white splash above the eye identifies the gentoo. They catapult out of the water gracefully, yet turn into hopeless goofs on land, performing a slapstick comedy routine of face plants every few steps before pushing up again off their pot bellies. Nesting mothers shelter fluff-ball chicks, while their partners steal pebbles from one another in a never-ending game of switch.
As I walk to the peak, I discover I’m as useless as the penguins. The deceptive crust holds my weight momentarily before collapsing, swallowing my boots with each step, sometimes to the ankle, other times exhaustingly to my thigh. It is a long, steady trudge, but the view from the top of the ant trail of people below is a good measure of the true scope of this landscape.
The penguins catapult out of the water gracefully, yet turn into hopeless goofs on land, performing a slapstick comedy routine of face plants every few steps.
On Corner Island, I opt to sleep out overnight. As we set up camp, the blue skies succumb to ominous grey clouds and the temperature plummets. With a shovel I customise my shallow grave to protect against the frigid winds. The once flawless hillside now resembles an emergency scene lined with dozens of body bags. Hurriedly, I shed my outer layers and scramble into my sleeping bag. Only a foam mat separates me from the ice. Through chattering teeth I laugh to myself as I realise this authentic adventure will come with little sleep. Burrowing into my cocoon to contrive darkness, I wait out morning. As we unfurl our frozen bodies to pack up, one token penguin completes a good morning lap around camp.
After thawing in a hot shower, the morning thankfully consists of nothing more strenuous than a cruise around Iceberg Alley near Pleneau Island. It is a bottleneck of enormous sculptures, some standing higher than the ship. The elements have shaped them into uncanny likenesses of dramatic cathedrals, tiered wedding cakes and frozen arched waves. The ice surfaces range from crumpled paper to golf-ball dimples, crystal splinters to a glossy finish.
Day seven marks our first landing on the actual continent. Orne Harbour is the ideal location for what we call ‘body-bogganing’. Once we hike up the lung-bursting slope, it takes just seconds to careen back down. Trial runs meet with some cringing successes as heads are whacked, bodies toppled and skin left behind. The technique deemed fast yet safest is headfirst on your back. The first few toppling seconds are terrifying before adrenaline from the speed takes over. After jarring across the finish line unscathed, I trudge back up with a huge smile on my face. The view from the top seems oddly scaled – the ship appears minuscule beside the towering glacier walls. In this epic 360-degree postcard setting, I am merely a speck.
Concurrent to the onshore excursions, One Ocean runs a series of kayak tours. At water level on Paradise Bay, the floating ice crackles like rice bubbles and the submerged masses of the icebergs are clearly visible below the surface. Exposed to a rumbling glacier, we maintain a safe distance since even a minor calving would create an iceberg tsunami we’d never out-paddle. Stealing a piece of floating ice for a refreshing nibble, I try to fully absorb this pinch-me experience.
Zigzagging up the mountain on Cuverville Island, I hitchhike in the footholds our guide is diligently stomping. Pulling my legs out of each sunken step is like trying to conquer a StairMaster cranked to max incline. At the top the softened snow offers perfect playing conditions for rugby tackling, a push-up competition and human pyramid. Heading down we make a navigation error and face a treacherously steep route. With walking impossible, controlled slides – just a few metres at a time – are employed. Giggling despite our vulnerable state, we finally make it down, trousers and boots jammed with snow.
Blessed with glorious sunshine, Neko Harbour is ideal for sunbaking beside a very active glacier. Except for an occasional reshuffle that makes them look like fat slugs busting out the worm dance, lounging seals could be easily mistaken for rocks. The mountains are smothered in what was once a glossy meringue, now collapsed and crackled into glaciers. Fracture lines threaten to give way and the sheer edges are poised to crumble. Deep crevasses reveal the fairy-floss blue of ancient compressed ice. The slightest shift sends a noise not unlike distant fireworks reverberating around the bay. We hear an avalanche before we spot it and run to higher ground as a precaution. Only a small section collapses yet the massive plume takes minutes to settle.
I decide to take the polar plunge. with the de brillator unnervingly close by, I strip down and dash into the zero-degree water.
As we head back to the ship, the fin of a minke whale slices up through the sea’s surface. Patiently we scan the bay hoping for another glimpse. Our hearts miss a beat when the blowhole spurts directly beside our Zodiac. The whale eyeballs us before ducking beneath the inflatable and we crouch in fear of tipping.
Our last shore day begins at Deception Island. Sailing directly into the caldera of an active volcano, we make our way to Whalers Bay, its striking black beach strewn with remnants of an early 1900s whaling station. Embedded timber boats rest in front of ash-smudged hills. Despite this being the worst day of weather we’ve encountered this trip, I decide to take the polar plunge. With the defibrillator unnervingly close by, I strip down and dash into the zero-degree water. It takes a few moments to register the pain and hardly longer to race out screaming expletives and causing the puzzled penguins to scatter.
Our final hike at Yankee Harbour delivers my hardest challenge yet and, crawling along on my hands and knees, I wonder if I’ll actually make it. A deceptive icing sugar layer hides slick blue ice. It’s impossible to get a stable foothold, and unsuccessful climbers bowl others over in their wake. Nervously I kick at the ice to leverage each step. Once at the top, the inevitable slide down looks intense. After teetering like a rollercoaster carriage at its highest peak, I push off, my stomach lurching during the vertical fall. It is an awesome pay-off for the marathon hike up.
The days of non-stop activity leave me completely exhausted and the thought of the return sea crossing is almost a relief, despite the fact I’ll miss the continuous documentary that’s been played through my porthole. I book a massage and, as the sea builds, the masseuse tries to time deep strokes with each roll of the room. I concentrate on her heavenly hands rather than my unsettled stomach.
Soon the ship is again battling through waves that rise above the fourth deck. Apparently, although they look rather extreme, these conditions are classed merely as moderate. The Drake, I believe, is an essential rite of passage. Cross it and you’ll discover a glorious continent, more desolate than I envisioned, despite the gazillion penguins in residence. Out here there’s no phone reception or internet connection; you’re totally removed from the rest of the world. It is blissful isolation.
LAN Airlines flies to Santiago from Sydney. From Santiago there are onward connections to Buenos Aires and Ushuaia. There is a fee to enter Argentina that differs depending on your passport – for US travellers it’s US$160 and for Australians it’s AU$100. It must be paid prior to arrival.
You’ll need to stay overnight in Buenos Aires before connecting to Ushuaia. The Pestana Buenos Aires is a great base for sightseeing around the city. Rates start from about US$92.
Arriving in Ushuaia the day before the voyage departs is highly recommended. Cilene del Faro is located in town and overlooks the Beagle Channel. Nightly rates start at about US$217. One Ocean will collect your luggage from the hotel and deliver it directly to your cabin.
Just a tip: travel with important items in your carry-on. If your luggage doesn’t arrive, you’ll find the tiny town of Ushuaia a very expensive place to restock.
One Ocean Expeditions schedules the 11-day Quest for the Antarctic Circle Voyage trips between December and February. Prices start at about US$10,095.