A voyage to the ends of the earth — with a butler always on hand
Two kinds of news come out of Antarctica: news of catastrophe and news of what used to be called “endeavour”. At Santiago airport, Chile, I met a young Norwegian, Christian Iversen Styve, who was carrying twice his body weight in kitbags. He was about to fly to Antarctica, ski to the South Pole and kite-ski back. It would take him 60 days. Two other men, an American and a Brit, Colin O’Brady and Lou Rudd, were separately attempting the first solo unassisted traverse of the continent, a journey of 1,500km. And as all these splendid ventures were happening, the stage on which they took place was being brutally reconfigured. Local air and ocean temperatures were soaring; glaciers were retreating; sea ice was vanishing at an unprecedented rate.
Meanwhile here we were: floating towards the same continent aboard a luxury liner, being fattened, massaged and cosseted like Kobe cattle. It was easy to feel the human project was approaching a moment of reckoning.
For medieval cartographers, Antarctica was Terra Australis Incognita: Unknown Southern Land. It remains the least-known continent on earth, but at any time during the summer cruising season, from November to March, as many as 50 tourist ships can be found plying its waters, with more than 50,000 tourists visiting the continent last year. Measuring 160 metres from stern to bow, our 17,000-ton ship is carrying 209 passengers. Our voyage in mid-November is her first of the new season. She was retrofitted last year as an ice-class vessel — though as her French captain, Vincent Taillard, explains, she is not an icebreaker, and therefore can’t risk being trapped by the sea ice we will encounter, as he puts it, “downstairs”.
Leaving from Punta Arenas, Chile, we’ll sail 800km east to the Falklands, before heading 950km south, via the notoriously emetic Drake Passage, to the Antarctic Peninsula, which extends talon-like from the frozen continent. It will be a journey of 2,400 nautical miles (4,445km) over 11 days. We all have our own vision in mind, I suppose. Mine has always been an infinity of dazzling white.
But the white is five days away. West Point, in the north-west of the Falklands archipelago, is an island of about 10 sq km, tenanted by a couple of British sheep farmers, Allen and Jacqui White, and a thousand sheep. We land aboard a succession of 12-person Zodiac inflatables — launched from the ship’s landing stage. Beyond a saddle of moorland is the spectacle that brings visitors here: a rookery dominated by black-browed albatrosses and rockhopper penguins. You hear such rookeries long before you see them, and smell them before you hear them. Where the sandstone cliff falls away to the ocean is a tiered city of birds — the penguins with their spiked yellow sidelocks shuffling between your feet; the albatrosses as big as spaniels, enthroned on their ancestral guano-nests; brown skuas eyeing untended eggs — all of them largely unperturbed by the line of happy bipeds in red parkas.
Outside Port Stanley, the Falklands’ capital, the wind is too high for our planned landing. As we shall find, among the things you get for your money on an Antarctic cruise are fog, wind and disappointment. Next day, on the Drake Passage, the 800km stretch of water between Cape Horn and the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, even the crew are not spared: “I find it — challenging,” says one of the smiling receptionists, her misery betrayed only by a trembling squint of nausea.
The ship extends 14ft stabiliser fins to reduce roll, but for 12 hours most of the passengers are bedridden. My stomach is a swinging bag of offal. “Marmalade and crackers” are the cure, apparently. I can hardly keep down the Cyclizine tablets my kindly butler, Prem, brings me. I say the ludicrous words out loud: “my butler”.
The vessel carries almost as many crew as passengers, a ratio that makes for near-aristocratic levels of service. If you happen to be unaccustomed to the devotions of a butler, you might find it disquieting to get back to your suite after a circuit of the deck to find that, say, the cheap T-shirt you sent for laundering has not only been fragrantly washed but returned to your wardrobe pressed and hangered in a plastic sleeve, or that — after a week at sea — your marginally browning banana has been replaced with a miraculously yellow one.
Among the crew are 28 expedition staff — naturalists, marine biologists, a historian and an anthropologist — led by a towering, ponytailed Bavarian geologist named Stefan Kredel. His voice, tannoyed into every cabin at 7am with the day’s itinerary, starts to assume the quality of a military reveille: “A wonderful good morning to you, ladies and gentlemen!”
While the crew are mostly Filipinos, the passengers and expedition staff are Americans, Canadians and Australians, with a scattering of South Americans and Europeans. When asked what has brought them here, the usual answer is that Antarctica is their “last continent” — a bucket-list item. The middle-aged scion of a Paraguayan shrimping dynasty says he’s visited 134 countries and wants to bag 150 before he dies. A young American political staffer and her husband are here to recover after the midterms — and to see her last continent. Two retired widows booked before their husbands’ deaths, and a widower from Sheffield did so in the raw aftermath of his wife’s. “I shed a tear or two at the penguin colony,” he says. “But you have to keep going. You just have to keep going.”
Finding your sea legs is partly a matter of reconciling yourself to the appalling loneliness of the open sea. If Antarctica has a threshold, it is the Antarctic Convergence, a natural boundary that rings the continent, lying between 50 and 60 degrees south, where cool surface water from the Antarctic meets the warmer water of the subantarctic, generating an abundance of krill, the bedrock species of virtually all Antarctic animal life. The sea is suddenly alive with birds. I spend the morning on deck with the resident “birdologist”, the former RSPB media officer Chris Harbard, watching the birds that ride our slipstream, black-browed and wandering albatrosses, prions, fulmars and petrels. One radio-tracked wandering albatross, Harbard tells me, flew 1,700km in 24 hours. “If I could come back as any creature it would be a wandering albatross,” he says. “I love travelling — and they mate for life.”
A silky opalescence has come to the light, and there’s a new quietness among the passengers, the kind of hush that falls on people when they enter a place of worship.
We know we’ve arrived when, the next morning, the first iceberg is reported to starboard. It sits a mile off, with a certain vigilant quality, a paper cut-out 100 metres wide and shaped like a half-sunken clog. On seeing their first iceberg, the Antarctic adventurers in Ursula K Le Guin’s story Sur “saluted it with Veuve Clicquot”. Gin will do.
By mid-afternoon we’ve reached Half Moon Island in the South Shetlands, which lie at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The ship’s stabilisers are retracted and as the fog clears we see the white some of us have imagined all our lives. Downstairs.
Overnight we enter the Gerlache Strait, a 150km-long channel between the Antarctic Peninsula and the glaciated mountain islands of the Palmer Archipelago. By 3.30am it is already fairly light and I go and sit in the observation lounge at the front of the ship as the sun breaks over the peninsula to our east and we float southward between 400-metre snowy ridges. As the colours quietly intensify, two humpback whales breach far to port and I emit a reflexive yelp of joy. We don’t see a cloud all day, and there is scarcely a breeze. While temperatures inland can dip below —70C in winter, during our voyage it will rarely be colder than 1C.
I came for the promise of white, but as the morning goes on, it’s the blues that are conspicuous, particularly the icebergs, their ancient glacier ice compressed until air bubbles are forced out and only this singular cyan is visible. Blue, not white, is the colour of transcendence, as Renaissance artists knew, but being a creature of my time and place, what I think of is the raspberry-flavoured Slush Puppies they used to sell on Southsea Pier.
There’s not much for the newcomer, passing through in his ignorance, to do but look, and keep looking, opening your eyes wider and wider, as if by doing so you will suddenly comprehend something definitive. This is what you pay for, I think: not just the chance to set foot in the place, to tick it off, but to absorb it in satiated, protected leisure.
Walking on snow for the first time, at Cuverville Island, we follow a trail of red flags set out by the expedition staff. They lead to a gentoo penguin colony with its molasses-and-anchovy odour and its soiled snow and hullabaloo. I bridle slightly at the feeling of being led about on toddler reins, but better this than to find yourself slithering into a concealed crevasse — and the flags are also there to prevent us from going too close to the colony and disturbing the birds.
Recrossing the Antarctic Convergence feels like awakening from the most beautiful dream. I think of O’Brady and Rudd, making their way solo across the continent, and part of me envies them.