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A literary cruise to Antarctica

Travel Writing

This article was first published in the Times Online, on 4 May, 2005.

Sarah Anderson packed up her books again for a literary voyage south to Antarctica

Antarctica was somewhere I had been longing to visit for years and the journey began via a 24-hour flight from London via Madrid and Buenos Aires finally landing in Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego at the tip of Argentina, ‘the city of the end of the world’.

Much has changed since “unbroken beech-forests clothe the mountainside up as far as the line known as the upper tree level” (E.Lucas Bridges, Uttermost Part of the Earth, 1947); now there are practically no trees left and there are many differences since Bruce Chatwin wrote In Patagonia in 1977 when “The blue-faced inhabitants of this apparently childless town glared at strangers unkindly”.

It is now a thriving town with a population of more than 50,000 catering to the many expeditions to Antarctica which set off from Ushuaia. We stayed at the Hostal del Bosque ( from where we could walk to the truly delicious Kaupe ( – reputedly, and with good reason, the second-best restaurant in Argentina.

Our ship the Polar Pioneer, a Russian-built ice-breaker with a Russian crew and Australian staff (Aurora Expeditions, left the Beagle Channel at the start of this Shackleton Odyssey in the early evening; it was the middle of the night before we hit the Drake Passage which can be the roughest sea in the world.

“In a few moments, a heavier sea was raised than I had ever seen before, and as it was directly ahead, the little brig, which was no better than a bathing machine, plunged into it, and all the forward part of her was under water; the sea pouring in through the bow ports and hawse-hole and over the knight-heads, threatening to wash everything overboard (Richard Dana, Two Years Before the Mast). Many people failed to come to breakfast that first morning – but I did pretty well lurching from one side of the ship to the other – we were however told that these were not particularly rough seas.

I was disappointed that we didn’t see more whales: “What thrilled us most were not birds but whales. We saw humpbacks and minkes and bottlenoses, and one morning a large pod of killers came fluking past our ship” (Sara Wheeler, Terra Incognita, 1996). But during our days at sea standing on the ship’s bridge we did see the odd whale and many birds: storm petrels, grey petrels and diving petrels, black-browed albatross and finally a wandering albatross.

It was an exciting moment and I was tempted to agree with Robert Cushman Murphy: “I now belong to the higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the albatross” (Logbook for Grace, 1947). This huge bird with a wingspan of up to 11 feet can live for up to 60 years if it doesn’t become the victim of long-line fishing.

At dawn on the fourth day we reached the Antarctic Peninsula and cruised along the Lemaire Channel: “The black twin peaks of Cape Renard form the dramatic entrance to Lemaire Channel, a four-mile passage through the towering white walls between Booth Island and Mount Cloos on the peninsula. Where the channel narrows to less than a half mile, the snow masses are reflected in the black mirror of the glassy surface – glassy because protected from the wind in an ice canyon, which is surely one of the loveliest places I have ever seen” (Peter Matthiessen, Ends of the Earth, 2003).

We scrambled down the gangplank into waiting Zodiacs for the first shore landing of the trip, we had over 20 in total, and landed in Port Circumcision a small cove on Peterman Island which has the southernmost colony of Gentoo penguins. My agility was hampered by layers and layers of clothing and judging when to leap into the Zodiac in a sea with a big swell became quite an art, but there were always Russian sailors on hand to grab any falterers.

Later that day we had a magical trip in a Zodiac cruising among icebergs of intense colours and gothic shapes, landing on an ice-flow and watching leopard-seals. But perhaps the best moment of all was when it began to snow and the Zodiac engine was turned off and we just sat there absorbing the vastness, the silence and the solitude:

 “And now there came both mist and snow,

And it grew wondrous cold:

And ice, mast high, came floating by,

As green as emerald”

(Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner).

According to Stephen J. Pyne in The Ice (2003) there are over 80 different types of ice but without an expert it was difficult to tell the difference between bergy bits, growlers, frazil ice and vuggy ice. But “Icebergs are blue. At their bluest, they are the colour of David Hockney swimming pools, Californian blue, neon blue, Daz blue-whiteness blue, sometimes even indigo” (Jenny Diski, Skating to Antarctica, 1997). I even saw a dark-green almost black one.

We landed on the Antarctic continent at Paradise Harbour, visited the British post office at Port Lockroy and then headed north via Deception Island towards Elephant Island. It is notoriously difficult to make a landing there and we failed, but were able to see this inhospitable looking place where Shackleton’s men spent several months under the leadership of Frank Wild. The crossing between Elephant Island and South Georgia was rough but just thinking of Shackleton and his five companions was salutary.

“I believe it to be this. A man on such an expedition lives so close to nature, in whom he realises a giant force which is visibly, before his eyes, carving out the world” (Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World, 1922). Nine from our group of 54 followed Shackleton’s footsteps across South Georgia jumping crevasses and contending with blizzards. The rest of us went to the old whaling station at Grytviken where Shackleton is buried and at several landings on South Georgia saw some of the mass of wildlife: fur seals, elephant seals – chinstrap, king and gentoo penguins.

Penguin-watching could become a real addiction: “I sit among the penguins and they peer and inch forward with a voracious curiosity … I’ve fallen in love with their trust” (Nikki Gemmell, Shiver, 1997). Prion Island where wandering albatrosses nest, was the last place we were able to land on South Georgia and we then set sail for the Falkland Islands but by then I could already empathise with Shackleton: “The longing for the Ice, the sadness of departure … it is as if I cannot after all bear to leave this bleak waste of ice, glaciers, cold and toil” (South, 1919).