I have travelled a lot but one of my great desires has always been to visit Antarctica. The reasons that I have got to the age of 73 without doing so are mainly the cost and also the fact that I did not have any friends who wanted to do this. I could have gone alone but in that case I would have had to share a cabin and I am not the sort of person who would enjoy sharing a cabin with strangers. I could have booked a cabin just for myself but this would have meant that I had to pay almost double and the trip is expensive enough without doubling up the cost! However, last year I downsized and sold my house and found myself with spare money. At the same time, a friend of mine decided she would like to visit Antarctica so I whisked her off pretty sharpish to the local Trailfinders shop before she had a chance to change her mind! We have used Trailfinders in the past and I love that they are always so knowledgeable about all the destinations and that they can put together for you a package that reflects exactly what you want. So it was booked and my friend and I spent the next 6 months hunting out the best thermal underwear and clothing and debating the best gloves, hats etc to buy.
We flew out with British Airways (I have found them a rather disappointing airline lately and unfortunately this flight did not dispel this opinion). They didn’t have our vegetarian meal but did have a vegan one for us which was quite disgusting. The plane looked a little tired and not especially clean but hey ho we were off to Antarctica so we were really exciting. After 15.5 long hours we arrived in Buenos Aires and were staying at the Intercontinental Hotel on Moreno Street which was a lovely hotel and after a spot of lunch whilst our room was being prepared we then went onto the outside solarium area to cat nap whilst getting some sun. Later we walked down the Avenue 9th July which is the main thoroughfare and had some dinner in a little restaurant. We were so tired that we did not make the most of this vibrant city. In retrospect we should probably have added a few days here before our main trip. The next day we had a car take us to the airport for our flight to Ushuaia which took 3.5 hours. On arrival we were met by the G Adventures team on whose ship we were booked. They took us to our hotel, Las Hayas. This is where I began to panic! We had to show proof of COVID vaccinations and I suddenly had trouble opening the app. (Note to self: print these out beforehand in future!). After a lot of panicking I did manage to get into them and was able to show them. We then had to have a COVID test. We waited with bated breath for the result and were wondering what we would do if we tested positive. Having travelled so far that was not something we even wanted to think about. In fact, two people in our group did test positive. One of them had come from Australia with her brother and she had to isolate in the hotel and just wait for her brother to return 12 days later! Another woman tested positive and was quite hysterical about the fact she couldn’t board the ship. We had a night in the hotel (which is up the hillside and has wonderful views of Ushuaia and the port). Ushuaia is like a sweet Norwegian or Swiss town by the Port side, the houses are all chalet style and it is surrounded by snow capped mountains. There are lots of shops and a tiny little train (well, more of a tractor pulling an old train carriage) that takes you around to all the best view points.
The next day we started our adventure! We were taken to our ship, the MS Expedition. The tour we had booked was called the Quest for the Antarctic Circle and it was a 12 day tour. The ship was not one of the huge cruise liners, it held about 136 people plus crew but on our trip there were only 126 passengers. They ranged from age 22-84 and there were 14 different nationalities aboard. Our cabin was small but well equipped with a tiny shower and quite a lot of storage. We were on deck 3 which meant we had a window rather than a porthole and on arrival at our cabin we found our bright red G Adventures parka waiting for us on our bunks. This is such a warm parka as it has a padded lining which can be removed and although it is not going to win any fashion awards it was very welcome once we headed South. (You can take this home with you and I am looking forward to more snow in London soon so that I can make good use of it – even if I do look like I have got lost from a G Adventures excursion as it does have a rather large logo on it!) That night in the (enormous) lounge we met all the crew and the Expedition team. The G Adventures Expedition team are a very talented and enthusiastic lot. There was a geologist, a biologist, a bird expert, a mammal expert and a couple of others who were knowledgeable in other fields. We also did a lifeboat drill which was hilarious (but obviously very important) We were told that during the night we would be crossing the Drakes Passage and to expect rough seas. In fact, our departure was delayed because we got halfway down the Beagle Channel and someone became ill and they had to go back to Ushuaia. So when we woke the next morning we were all thinking “well that wasn’t too bad” until we were told we had made a return journey and weren’t in Drakes Passage yet! We had a lecture that morning (they did lectures every day whilst we were sailing, these were on the history of the area, the rock formations of the area, the wildlife, everything was covered and you could choose to attend or not. ) At lunch time (the restaurant was wonderful, a selection of dishes and staff that were really lovely and helpful) the ship began to rock.( Most of the staff on board were from the Philippines and they had a great talent for remembering everyone’s name after the first day.) By the end of the lunch serving the ship was lurching from side to side, so much so that some people were being sick, some had to be helped to their cabins by the staff and it became like bedlam. We all went to our cabins and it only got worse. I was sitting on my bunk watching my friend slide from one end of her bunk to the other. I was one of only about 5 people who didn’t get sick. The poor doctor on board (who looked about 14 years old!) was running from cabin to cabin frantically. Over the tannoy they said we should stay in our cabins and the staff would bring a sandwich dinner round for us. The waves were bashing against our window and it was so dramatic. Because I wasn’t sick I was a little bored and beginning to get cabin sickness from not being able to wander around. My friend slept continually from the medication she had taken. The storm lasted for about 36 hours and is supposedly very common as Drakes Passage is where lots of different wind and water currents meet. (There is actually never any thunder or lightning in Antarctica as it is too dry and supposedly, if you do see a rainbow it is inverted so that red is on the inside and not on the outside as is normal). After we had passed through the Passage the winds subsided and we were free to walk around the ship. I found a lovely cosy library where it was more peaceful than the lounge and I spent a lot of time in there with my kindle. Before our first shore excursion we had to go for a mandatory IAATO and Zodiac briefing about what to do in the boats that would take us to shore. We also had to take any stuff we were taking on shore down to be “Bio-security” checked. (To make sure we weren’t transferring any seeds etc to the Antarctic shore). It made me laugh that this actually consisted of having everything vacuumed by someone with a Henry vacuum cleaner! We had now entered Cristal Sound and the views from the ship were stunning. Blue tinged ice bergs floated past, the smaller ones sometimes had seals on them. We saw whales “blowing” in the distance and the snow capped mountains around us looked like a scene out of the film “Frozen”. It was very cold on deck and if you took your gloves off to take photos your fingers felt frozen in minutes. The next day we made our first landing on the Antarctic peninsular. We were called to the mud room (where our loaned boots were stored) and once we had donned said boots and walked through a type of sheep dip we boarded the Zodiac boats. We headed off to Detaille Island. There was an old Antarctic Survey Station there which was evacuated in 1959 and is kept exactly as it was when they had to evacuate it. In the kitchen were old tins of Huntley and Palmer biscuits and tins of Birds custard! The ground was very slippery and I would advise that if you have walking poles you take them with you. (I had actually rung G Adventures beforehand to ask if I should take them and was told they weren’t necessary- believe me they would have been very useful!) After a walk around the island (where penguins were totally unperturbed by our presence) we boarded the Zodiacs again and had a cruise around the icebergs to see the leopard seals and fur seals who were lazing on them. I found when I was on shore I didn’t feel too cold but once back on the deck of the ship I was freezing. To avoid this I decided to eat everything offered at the sumptuous mealtimes therefore, like the seals and whales, I might add blubber and keep myself warm! That afternoon we sailed down The Gullet and the views were a “wow” moment. We had another Zodiac cruise and the sun came out so much so that I got a bit of a tan on my face! (Warning: use sunscreen, the ozone factor in the Antarctic means you can burn far too easily). The next day we visited Bongrain Point at Pourquoi Par Island (named after an exploration ship from France). There were lots of fur seals here and they weren’t too happy about us being nearby. They barked a lot and raised their heads at us. Some of the penguins were moulting and because they can’t go into the water and feed at this time they look very fed up and forlorn. We saw a leopard seal patrolling the shore line waiting for any penguin who dared enter the water. After lunch we went to Horseshoe Island and this involved a long hike up a mountain. It was a hard slog but the views were stunning. The following day we were sailing through Neny Fjord and a pod of Orcas began to swim beside us. It was amazing, there was even a small calf with them. Later we boarded the Zodiacs and went to Stonington Island. There is another abandoned research station, in fact there are two, an American one and a British one and of course, more penguins and seals. Back on the ship we discovered the crew had formed a group “The Monkey Eating Eagles” and they played in the pub that was on the second deck. They were actually excellent and it was a fun night. There was even karaoke in the bar one night but we declined to attend that! The next day was just sailing so I attended a couple of lectures and passed the time in the library. The following day we did two shore visits, the first was to Danco Island and the ground here was very rocky and icy. There was a hike but I only made it to the first part where the penguins were nesting. Then later we went to Orne Harbour where, once ashore there was a huge zig zag path up the mountainside. It was hard work but I managed it and again the views were my reward. (I was missing that walking pole though!). The last day’s shore visit was to Port Lockroy where there is the remotest Post Office. This was one of the things that had piqued my interest in visiting Antarctica, I had seen it on a documentary once and really wanted to visit. Four ladies work there throughout the season and they have the Post office and an accommodation building (both look like corrugated huts) and they also have hundreds of penguins living around them. Supposedly the island was not populated by penguins until the Post office was built and then they all got curious and now there are loads of them! There is a museum about how it used to be and a shop where you can send a postcard to someone to see how long it will take to get there. (I sent 8 postcards to friends and family and am looking forward to seeing when they arrive!). Back on the ship we had a special surprise that afternoon , humpback whales were swimming alongside us and breaching right in front of the ship. It was an incredible sight and was almost like they were putting on a display for us. The next couple of days we were heading back to Ushuaia and I must admit it was a little boring as there was little to see and, although it wasn’t as bad as the outward passage, there was a lot of rocking and rolling on the ship (and I don’t mean by The Monkey Eating Eagles!).
So, to sum it up, I would recommend this trip to anyone. However, you should be prepared for bad sea conditions and also the itinerary is reliant on the weather so can change at any time. We had brilliant weather once we reached the peninsular but we heard of previous trips where they were sometimes unable to launch the Zodiacs and go ashore. It is totally surreal though and not a place you are likely to visit too often. It takes a while to get there but it is worth it in the end! (BUT PLEASE, TAKE A WALKING POLE!)