The White Continent

Ushuaia (pronounced: ush-why-er) is a bizarre town. It is the world’s most southerly city and by anyone’s standards should be a total backwater, lost in the annals of time and beaten into submission by the waters of the fierce Beagle Channel. Yet, it isn’t. In my mind, before visiting, I thought it would have perhaps one local, dusty shop and a rundown lodge, (wo)manned by a scary mute lady with a pet marmoset. The most bizarre thing about Ushuaia, however, is how international it is. Amazing hotels, great restaurants, a multitude of shopping options, and (of course) an Irish Bar. I guess this is all because of what it leads to; not only is it the gateway to Tierra del Fuego National Park, it is the kickoff point for the epic journey to The White Continent, The Last Frontier, The Final Landscape: Antarctica.

Those seatbelts on the beds are your first giveaway, and the second is that every surface seems to have been covered in mesh; a 10 day trip to Antarctica means four days of traversing the roughest waters in the world. There is an initial calm as you leave Ushaia. All seems fine, you have dinner and meet your fellow explorers. You go to your cabin and commence a good nights sleep. It is only at about 2 am, struggling through strange lunging dreams, that you wake and think you must still be dreaming. Is this some kind of odd new fairground attraction, a roller-coaster you lie down in? Er… no. You are entering the Drake Passage—the most tempestuous body of water ever. Breakfast the next morning is an absent, muted affair with most staying below deck. For those like myself who enjoy the chance to prove your sea-legs, it’s a satisfyingly hypnotic experience, plus you have the ship almost to yourself.

I have to say, it is well worth braving the swell. Antarctica is immense, unforgettable, wondrous, blinding. My favourite escapade while traversing the icy waters of the Antarctic Peninsula has to be a trip winding through Iceberg Alley. This afternoon was akin to one spent gazing at sculptures in the Tate Modern or the MOMA. A surreal, gravity defying, overwhelming array of slowly gliding frozen monuments, or completely still icy edifices. The curving, deep blue ice reflecting in the clear, dangerous waters is utterly mesmerising until you spot a sleek, swift leopard seal powering through the glassiness below, surprising you out of your cold contemplation.

This continent is truly spellbinding; the landscapes and the sense of space and quiet are like no other destination. The serenity of the water can often be broken however, by a whale’s huge tail or spray. You can find the minke, orca, southern right, humpback and blue whale around the Antarctic shores. And then there are the endlessly amusing penguins (many different types, my favourite being the chinstrap), the multifarious seals and the many birds. Hiking a glacier is another stunning highlight as is swimming in a pocket of thermal water surrounded by ice and hard snow. There are so many thrilling excursions, but just being on the white continent, standing where so many explorers have stood and so few other folk have visited, is a rush all its own.

For a man who often fears nature, our Anton is a brave and adventurous soul. Based in London but exploring further afield more often than not, he’s your best bet to design a close encounter of the penguin kind.

Antarctica is immense, unforgettable, wondrous, blinding.