Earth’s Last Frontier
Antarctica – That continent down under. Yes, way down under, below Down Under Australia and New Zealand. It’s where you’ll find the South Pole, and is home to many different species of penguins, seals and whales. Antarctica is also considered one of the coldest places on earth, with temperatures plummeting to as low as -89 degrees Celsius.
Not many people have visited Antarctica. Getting there is half the battle. There are no infrastructure on the continent, apart from some research bases that are run by a few countries, and are only visited and accessed by those who work in them. The easiest way is to cross the Southern Ocean via a cruise ship, which can take between 2-4 days, depending on where you begin your journey.
In my case, I started the trip from Ushuaia, at the southernmost part of Argentina. Many cruise companies operate tours to Antarctica from here, and is the shortest way to reach the white continent. It takes 2 days to cross the Drake Passage, and if you’re lucky, the crossing will be smooth as a lake (or in my case, rough as a storm with 10-meter waves crashing onto the ship for 2 days!)
The ship that I took to Antarctica was called M/V Ushuaia. It was a former US Oceanographic research vessel which was then converted into a cruise ship. It’s a pretty comfortable ship, though this is not your typical massive commercial cruiseliner. This ship can only take 88 passengers, and it doesn’t have a swimming pool or gym or theatre (though it has a lecture room which is used for lectures about the environment and landscape of Antarctica before reaching the White Continent). It’s got the basic facilities but they are all in great order.
Highlights from the trip to Antarctica:
1.) The pristine scenery -Not many places in the world is uninhabited and absolutely pure, and Antarctica is one of them. No one lives in the continent, and the only people apart from tourists that are in Antarctica are scientists and researchers.
2.) Wildlife – Penguins, seals, and whales – and so many other Antarctic birds! Wildlife in Antarctica is thriving, thanks to the end of whaling and the signing of the Antarctic treaty that limits the number of tourists allowed on shore at a certain point in time. The wildlife is definitely unique, and you can get up close to them (though not too close and not close enough to touch them and frighten them).
3.) Midnight Sun – As the cruise season starts in the summer, the sun hardly sets in Antarctica during that time. It’s something that I have not experienced and is quite a novelty to see.
4.) Port Lockroy – this British Antarctic station is the only place where you can buy souvenirs and post stuff anywhere in the world (though it may take 3 months to get any of your stuff as it goes via London on a ship before it gets sent to your address). This old station has a museum of what life was like when it was a fully functioning research station, and next door to it is the post office and shop.
5.) Icebergs and glaciers – I’ve always been fascinated by the ice, from glaciers to snow-capped mountains to icebergs. Icebergs intrigue me because of the fact that you don’t see how big it is underneath. Glaciers in Antarctica are just absolutely majestic and imposing. They tower above you like a massive skyscraper and it’s awe-inspiring to see them up close!
HOW TO GET THERE
The easiest way to get to Antarctica is to take one of a few cruise companies that depart from Ushuaia, Argentina in the southern hemisphere summer season (November – early April). To get to Ushuaia, you can take a 4-hour flight from the Argentinean capital, Buenos Aires, via LAN or Aerolineas Argentinas (frankly, I would recommend LAN if you want to get there for sure – at the time of writing, Aerolineas is still notorious for long flight delays and immediate flight cancellation without accommodating passengers to other flights).
I took the ship M/V Ushuaia, which was operated by Antarpply and is one of the best value-for-money Antarctic cruises available. The amenities inside the ship are ok, it’s more than just basic but it is not like one of those luxury cruiseliners that ply the world’s oceans. The crew and expedition leaders were fantastic and friendly, and the food was really great!