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End of the world: No hotels or civilisation
26/Jul/2015
To go on holiday to Antarctica, you have to really want to go on holiday to Antarctica. It does, after all, entail a journey to the end of the world.



First, you must travel to the world's southernmost city, Ushuaia, tucked at the very bottom of Argentina.



Then you are to brave two full days sailing the Drake Passage, a 1,046km crossing from the tip of South America to the Antarctic Peninsula, renowned as one of the world's stormiest.



But for the few who visit, it's like being part of a secret club; an elite that has experienced a part of our planet wholly unlike anywhere else.

And, far from being a barren white wasteland, I actually find Antarctica to be one of the world's richest landscapes.



Things get off to a good start with an unprecedentedly placid Drake Passage crossing. Aboard our vessel, the Sea Adventurer, the crew has prepared for typical Drake conditions by stuffing sick bags behind the hand rails lining the corridors.

New York Times journalist Russell Owen, who wrote extensively about Antarctic expeditions in the 1930s, called the Drake 'one vast, gale-swept wilderness of water'.

But our ship rolls only gently, allowing me to spend time out on deck - gaping at vast landless views, albatrosses circling, the frigid waves churning in our wake.

Sucking in the fresh, cold air, I can really feel the eerie-beautiful isolation of this most remote part of the globe.

Our very first morning at the Antarctic Peninsula instantly makes up for the 14,500km I've travelled to get here.



The wildlife is undoubtedly a highlight of any Antarctic expedition, and it's everywhere. From the deck of the Sea Adventurer, I see icebergs adrift with regiments of penguins lined up on top, hitching a ride; and still others porpoising (kind of like doing the butterfly stroke) closer to shore.

Our voyage enjoys a record five separate killer whale sightings; when the announcements come over the ship's Tannoy, you can hear every cabin door slamming as passengers pull on their coats and race outside to catch a glimpse.

On land, we see and smell penguins in their hundreds; pink streaks of digested krill stain the snow. They waddle clumsily along their self-trampled 'penguin highways', and I can't help laughing each time one falls flat on its face. (Which is often.)



But it's the scenery that really steals it for me. During our five days at the Peninsula, we can only explore the very tip of a frozen continent more than twice the size of Australia, and yet its untouched enormity still astounds.

Immaculate snow-coated mountains, hulking glaciers and frosted sea ice surrounds us, our ship the only man-made object in sight. It's a monochrome landscape so unspoiled, so natural, it can't help but look unnatural to our eyes.

This, you think, is what the world looks like without people. Antarctica isn't just something you see - it's a primal landscape that you feel.



We do, however, have more encounters with humans than you might expect. One day, we visit Port Lockroy, an old British Antarctic Survey research station preserved as a museum. For the summer months, a team of four volunteers mans this lonely outpost, isolated in its own harbour. (They certainly seem pleased to see us.)

The museum is a brilliant insight into the fascinating scientific curiosities of Antarctica and how much it can tell us about our planet, and a look at the lonesome lives of the nine scientists who lived here.

Tins of food left from the 1950s still line kitchen shelves I spot the faded labels of Marmite, Lyle's Golden Syrup and Cross & Blackwell breakfast roll. A recipe book lays open at a page on how to cook penguin. (Frowned upon these days, of course.)



In other rooms, pin-up girls are painted on walls, the work of the team's engineer Liz Taylor, Jane Mansfield and Doris Day all pictured in varying states of semi-naked repose.



Another day, we make a stop at Vernadsky Research Base - formerly the British station Faraday, where the hole in the Ozone layer was discovered.



The Ukrainians bought it from the Brits for a symbolic 1 in 1996. It's best feature, however, is left over from the British a pub lounge built from wood that was meant for a pier. (Well, you have to keep spirits up somehow.)



It's like stepping into a 1970s-style local, with old beer taps, bras hanging up behind the bar, a pool table and a dart board. Here, a ruddy-nosed Ukrainian happily sells us homemade vodka; I feel it loosening my legs a mere halfway down one shot.



The history of human endeavour maps our trip, with so many of Antarctica's islands and inlets named after early explorers who battled to be here. Wrapped up in our parkers and thermals, and warmed with layer-upon-layer of socks and gloves, you can barely imagine their varied miseries.



It's been 100 years since Sir Ernest Shackleton's ship, the Endurance, was crushed to pieces by Antarctic ice, forcing his men to camp out on floes for five months. Their survival seems impossible, but then in this most mysterious part of the world, you start to believe anything possible.
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