It wasn’t part of the original plan, but I met someone at the beginning of my trip who had worked out there and what he was describing to me sounded simply breathtaking. That was it, my mind was made up – I was going to Antarctica.
Up until the point I had decided to take the plunge, I assumed that Antarctica wasn’t really an accessible place to visit, let alone for a solo female traveller. I also thought that trips of a lifetime like this would book up months, if not years in advance. So when I contacted my travel agent to see what my options were, I was very pleasantly surprised.
G Adventures, the tour company I had used a number of times on my trip this past year, ran a few different cruises to the continent, and there was one place left on an expedition cruise, leaving Ushuaia on the day my trip was meant to finish… it was fate! The trip would set sail on the 21st of December and arrive back on the 3rd of January. What better way to celebrate Christmas and see in the New Year!
Hesitating for only a few seconds (the trip is quite understandably on the expensive side), I quickly decided that that was a problem for ‘future me’ to deal with and handed over my credit card details to my travel agent. I celebrated that night with my hostel roommates under the stars on a beach in Bali.
I spent the next 4 months working my way down South America, finally arriving in Ushuaia the day before we were due to set sail. I wandered the beautiful resort town, nicknamed the End of the World, getting more and more excited about what the next few weeks would bring.
My Incredible Antarctica Tour
We boarded the beautiful MS Expedition the following afternoon and began to familiarise ourselves with our home for the next two weeks. After a safety briefing, the captain welcomed us all on board with a glass of champagne and the expedition crew and staff introduced themselves. We were kitted out with our complimentary wind and waterproof parkas and we could all tell that this was the beginning of something very special.
The plan was to spend the next 2 days sailing the notorious Drake Passage – 500 miles of the world's roughest seas. We all prepared for the worst – passengers and crew alike swallowed enough seasickness medication to knock us out for the next 48 hours. We’d use this time to attend lectures held by the plethora of wildlife and nature experts on board. Then the funniest thing happened.. Except for a couple of big waves that shook the ship, we had the smoothest and fastest Drake crossing that most of the crew had ever experienced. We were on course to do our first Zodiac landing a day early – on Christmas Eve.
Crossing the final few miles of the Drake on Christmas Eve morning, we prepared for our afternoon landing by vacuuming clothes, bags and hats and disinfecting all walking boots and any equipment that we would take on land with us. Antarctica, although remote and extreme is vulnerable to invasive species inadvertently transported upon gear and clothing. We needed to make sure that we would leave it in exactly the same state that we found it in.
Boarding the Zodiac cruiser for the first time that afternoon, we landed on Turret Point in the South Shetlands. We came face to face with three species of penguin… Adelies, Gentoos and Chinstraps, a number of young elephant seals and countless giant Petrels soaring through the Southern skies. This was real – it was really happening. We celebrated the day with a wonderful dinner, Christmas caroling and a party in the Polar Bear Bar aboard the ship that evening.
There were a few of us on board who were particularly excited for Christmas Day – because weather permitting, later that evening, we would be setting up camp on Leith Island in Paradise Bay to spend a night under the stars.
The day was spent exploring Danco Island in the southern end of the Errera Channel and the Almirante Brown Base, an Argentine base used for scientific research purposes during the Summer. We also cruised around on the Zodiacs spotting many seals, penguins and beautifully formed icebergs that make you realise what a powerful force Mother Nature really is.
Following a wonderful Christmas BBQ out on deck later that evening, the campers headed to Leith Island. We set up our tents and took in the views. It was then that a few of us decided to make the most of it and sleep outside… which was one of the best decisions I have ever made. How many people can say they have been to Antarctica, let alone camped?! Summer in Antarctica means nearly 24 hours of sunlight. Just after midnight, the sun dips only slightly, blessing us with an hour or so of twilight before it rises again. It was truly spectacular.
Boxing Day morning we packed up our camping equipment and headed back to the boat by Zodiac.
We sailed through the Lemaire Channel and all of its breathtaking scenery. The beautiful snow capped mountains which lined the ship either side of us, towered more than 3000 feet high and a 1000 feet below. Afternoon Zodiac cruises around Petermann Island got us up close and personal with the most mind-blowing icebergs I could have ever imagined – nine tenths of which, are actually under the water's surface.
The name of the tour, the Quest for the Antarctic Circle, is exactly that – a quest. The itinerary of the tour is not fixed because it is so heavily reliant on the weather and wildlife conditions. Ice conditions mean it might be impossible to cross certain channels, migration patterns mean some animals won’t be around.
Just being here, on the expedition was a dream come true. Crossing the Drake in record time, seeing such spectacular wildlife was all a huge plus. But that morning, when our expedition leader announced we were on course to cross the Antarctic Circle around 08:45, my heart exploded.
Straight after breakfast, I grabbed my jacket and headed out to the bow of the ship. Like all others, when the announcement was made, we cheered and hugged and some of us cried – a huge item ticked off the bucket list. Something I never thought was possible was happening right at that very moment.
The moment we crossed the Antarctic Circle
I was also very much looking forward to our visit to Port Lockroy, where a small post office and museum is operated by the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust. It is currently manned by four very inspirational women. The museum is the abandoned British Base, Bransfield House, with many of the original artefacts on display. It was truly amazing to be in and around the belongings of those who stationed out in such extreme conditions.
Following our museum visit, we jumped back in a Zodiac to land on Neko Harbour, where we saw perfectly formed old whale bones and watched the wondrous Gentoo penguins waddle and toboggan their way through the penguin highways.
Next, we sailed past the beautiful tabular icebergs of the Antarctic Sound towards Kinnes Cove. Disembarking from the Zodiacs, we were greeted by what looked like thousands of Adelie penguins along the shoreline and up the hills as far as the eye could see. We were also lucky enough to see hundreds of gray chicks being shielded from the wind, nested between their parents feet. Scores of petrels, terns and blue-eyed shags carried by the wind above us.
Following lunch that day, we sailed south west to Brown Bluff, a volcano, with a pebble beach and surrounding reddish-brown rocks. I took a moment to appreciate the contrast of the mornings landscape in comparison. I had assumed this was a land covered in ice and snow – little did I realise how extreme the change in landscape could be. I attempted a steep hike up a cliff scattered with loose soil that just about covered the sheer ice underneath. I quickly lost count of how many times I fell over, scrambling upwards with my bare hands. I decided to call it quits a few steep meters from the top, dug my heels into the soil to keep balance and sat to enjoy the view.
The next day was our final day of landings in Antarctica and also the last day of the year. We dropped anchor near Half Moon Bay Island, where the Zodiacs dropped us off to explore. The island, home to thousands of Chinstrap penguins and their adorable gray chicks, also housed a lone Macaroni penguin which I was lucky enough to spot with the help of a wildlife telescope. The view around us was just phenomenal.
Later that afternoon, we headed to Deception Island – our final landing sight. Deception Island is the sight of an abandoned whaling station and the caldera of an active volcano. Steam was rising along the shoreline, and despite temperatures below zero, puddles of water rising to the surface on the bay was warm. We all prayed this was not going to be the ‘bang’ we were promised we were going to see the new year in with.
Remains of an abandoned whaling station, Whalers Bay
Reluctantly clambering back onto the Zodiac for the final time, we headed back to the ship to get ready to toast our wonderful journey and see in the new year.
At midnight, our Captain let off flares to see in the New Year, while crew and passengers gathered to sing along and cheer on deck. It was the perfect end to a perfect adventure.
We spent the next two days sailing the Drake Passage, back to Ushuaia. Unbelievably, once again, we had calm waters, which all of us with a hangover were thankful for. We attended more wonderful lectures held by the expedition staff – learning about the women in Antarctica, and more about the wildlife.
Due to the calm waters and kind winds, we were making good time on our journey back. Our Captain decided we would make a detour, and attempt to round Cape Horn – the waters of which are extremely hazardous, due to the strong winds and currents, large waves and icebergs. It’s also known as “The Sailors’ Graveyard”. It would also mean, we would cross from the Southern Ocean, into the Pacific and then the Atlantic. Three oceans! Again, all on board cheered. Another huge milestone for this already monumental journey.
Despite our detour, we managed to drop anchor back in Ushuaia, twelve hours ahead of schedule. Devastated to be back, we couldn’t bear to look out the windows at the colourful town past the marina.
Words cannot express how truly spectacular this journey was. It is the very definition of the experience of a lifetime, which I was lucky enough to share with some incredible people on board, who I now call my friends – the memories of which we will talk about forever.
About the Author
Chantelle is a travel junkie, who loves nature, wildlife, photography and food. Her favourite word (and feeling) is “Resfeber” – the restless race of the traveller's heart before the journey begins. Chantelle experienced her incredible Antarctica tour with G Adventures in December 2017 and is open to sharing her experiences from this past year to anyone who might be interested or have any questions. Find her on Instagram at Travelling Choy.