Tierra del Fuego is described as El Fin del Mundo (“the end of the world”), but there is more to see further south – and we decided it was worth taking the opportunity to board a boat, suffer 5 days in the worst seas in the world, to go see…
Despite the ticket price, a trip to Antarctica had been a line item in our budget right from the start. How you put a price on such a trip is pretty hard to judge, but, for us, it has been well worth it. Despite the surprisingly large numbers of cruise passengers that visit the seventh continent each year (around 37 thousand, although many are on large ships that aren’t able to offer the opportunities to go to land that we enjoyed), we feel remarkably privileged to have been two of them.
We did the basic cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula, sailing on a converted ice-breaker, the m/v Plancius, which takes only 114 passengers at one time. This trip, the shortest on offer, gives you 4 days in Antarctica, with two excursions, mostly to land, per day. Some sites limit the number of visitors, but by being on a smaller vessel, we were all able to do all of the landings if we wanted to.
We enjoyed a snow-shoe walk up to the top of an island, visits to several penguin colonies, a couple more short hikes up to viewpoints, several trips on zodiacs (inflatables carried on the back of the ship) to appreciate glaciers, icebergs and bird life close up, and, a highlight for us, a visit to Port Lockroy. This is an old UK base now restored in 1950s splendour and run as a rather successful museum by four hardy young Brits who spend the summer season there (with hot showers only when one of the visiting cruise ships invites them on board).
Wildlife highlights included: dolphins, Orcas, three species of whales (Fin, Minke and Humpback), three species of penguins (Gentoos, Adélies and Chinstraps), four species of seals (Crabeater, Weddells, Leopard and Southern Fur), numerous sea birds, including some sightings of Wandering Albatross. More in the photo gallery!
Despite visiting the most northerly and nearest point on Antarctica, it still required 2.5 days at sea crossing the infamous Drake passage between South America and Antarctica, to get there. Neither of us are good sailors, particularly not me, but we were well stocked up with sea sickness drugs and were blessed with about as smooth a crossing as you can get on the way out. Nevertheless, the motion of the ocean takes some adjusting too, even with the drugs to stop any symptoms, and the dining room was distinctly quiet for the first day or so. And it was “payback time” on the way back, when we had a more “typical” crossing with Force 7 winds. Nevertheless, I can report that Bruce and I were present for every meal, even the ones where simple plates replaced a buffet and friction fabric replaced tablecloths. We rather made the most of being well fed by someone else for 10 days! Thankfully, once you get into the shelter of the Peninsula, the seas are calm like lakes and, for us, they were like mill ponds the whole time – beautiful and picturesque.
The days on journeys out and return were nicely punctuated by a programme of lectures from the guides, along with processes such as vacuuming our outer garments (to prevent any introduction of foreign plant species for example) and being issued with rubber boots to use for the landings, so, along with regular meals, they passed surprisingly easily. There were 21 different nationalities amongst our fellow passengers, with an age range of 13 to 85, so there was no end of interesting conversation to be found at meal times.
There were a couple of rather unexpected additions to our voyage: The first was a young Indian lady called Bhakti Sharma on board to make an attempt to secure the world record for swimming in the Southern Ocean. On our first day in the Peninsula, she made her attempt and, astonishingly, smashed the existing record by recording an amazing 41 minutes to swim 2.27km in waters of 1°C. How you can stay in waters of that temperature for that long, we will never understand, but she did! The conditions were perfect and she was cheered along by a penguin swimming alongside her at the start, but it did require two guides in zodiacs to watch two Leopard seals asleep on the ice to ensure they didn’t interrupt (not to be messed with) and the Plancius to clear a path through the floating sea ice in front of her! She was in the water for pretty much as long as is safe and was still (sort of) responding when she got out, but she had recovered enough that evening to come up to the dining room and take applause.
Not understanding how someone from Rajasthan, one of the warmest and driest parts of India, finds herself breaking such a record, I asked her and she explained that she is an open water swimmer who took on the challenge to swim in each ocean – and the Southern Ocean was her last. She had trained by having tons of ice poured into the small (just a few metres long) pool of a neighbour each day for a few days, along with lots of meditation. Incredible bravery – and for a great cause; she had used each ocean swim to raise funds to support the fortunes of girls born in her part of India where it is still not unheard of for female newborns to be left out to die. Find out more about her at her Facebook page. Meantime, she says she’s hung her swimming costume up for now…
The other surprise came on the last evening when a Dutch guy travelling on his own, who we had chatted to a few times over dinner, revealed himself to be the CEO of the company we were travelling with, Oceanwide Expeditions, travelling incognito with a semi-true cover story! Our fellow overlanders on the boat, Hannie and JP, a Dutch couple who we had met at the campsite in Ushuaia where we had both left our vehicles, had shared several nice evenings with the (unrecognised) CEO, taking a rare opportunity to speak Dutch again, and, before they had time to think, they had accepted an offer of a good deal on the next cruise. They turned around very quickly the day we returned to Ushuaia to rejoin the ship that afternoon for a further 18 days! It was a fabulous trip, but another 18 days, including 7 more in those seas… not for us. And we’ve got other things to see down here before the summer ends… Time to start heading northwards!
Here is a gallery of images from our visit to the lands in the far south: