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It’s the coldest, driest, windiest and most inhospitable place on earth. So why then, would anyone want to go to there?

The reasons people travel to Antarctica are as varied as the individual. For many, the frozen south conjures images of the heroic age of exploration and they go to satisfy a long-standing fascination. For others, it is the culmination of a lifetime of travel and their last grand adventure; and there are some, I suspect, who go because they are simply a little bit crazy.

Working as a crew member on board a converted Russian ice-breaker, I encountered all of these personalities during my time at sea. There was the bunch of young ‘climbers and divers’ – who were hell bent on pushing their personal boundaries by climbing virgin peaks and diving in freezing temperatures. Another group was determined to risk their lives and follow in the footsteps of the explorer Ernest Shackleton. Then there were the ones who were just content to experience the wonder of the pristine landscape.

Whatever their reasons, Antarctica does not disappoint. No matter how much you prepare yourself, it exceeds everyone’s expectations.

The notorious Drake Passage tests the mettle of even the bravest. Those not confined to their bunks by seasickness, sway like drunken sailors to the lecture room and to attend briefings by the ship’s naturalists and historians, or venture onto the bridge to watch the waves crash over the bow.

Eventually, the gale force winds and high seas subside, and slowly people begin to emerge from their cocoons. The adrenaline rises when the first iceberg is spotted and it is announced that the first landing on the continent will the following morning.

The mood is high as the gangway is lowered and the wild-eyed passengers make their way into the Zodiacs bouncing up and down in the waves. Wrapped in layers of clothing, they look like Michelin men, with the exception of their comical woolly hats.

Cruising amid icebergs the size of apartment blocks; humpback whales surface so close that you can smell their krill-breath and blubbery seals haul themselves up onto nearby ice floes. Ashore hundreds of thousands of penguins go about their business, oblivious to the alien creatures walking amongst them.

The sheer scale can be overwhelming, and some shed a tear at the realisation that their long-held dream has come true. Others stare in awe at the surreal surroundings. Cameras click continually, capturing just one more penguin or iceberg shot to add to the hundreds they have already taken.

The climbers and divers are the ones who intrigue me the most. Skinny dipping in the frozen waters and donning thick suits to dive into the icy depths to view creatures few have seen and are ever likely to see.

There is the engineer who cannot work out why there is so much fuss about the birdlife, until he ventures on deck and becomes mesmerized by the sight of a black-browed albatross dancing on the wind around the ship’s bow. Later in the bar he pens a poem about his love affair with the wind and the albatross.

The option to spend the night on the ice is taken up by an intrepid few, although the distant rumbling of cracking glacier ice and eternal daylight does not lend itself to sleep.

This is not five-star cruising – but our ship, the Polar Pioneer is a vessel with heart, and the passengers grow to love her and the protection she provides from the raw elements outside. They also learn to respect the proud Russian crew who spend most of their lives at sea and are experts at navigating the dangerous polar ice.

I am amazed at people’s ability to push themselves outside their personal comfort zone – but there is one thing they all have in common – the triumph of their own personal journey that fulfills them in ways they never imagined.

Kris Madden worked in Antarctica as part of the expedition crew aboard Aurora Expeditions Polar Pioneer. 

Which cruise is right for you?

  • Choosing the right operator and ship can make a huge difference to your experience. Ships range from 2000-passenger ocean liners to 50-passenger ice strengthened ‘expedition-style’ ships. The larger ships have all the luxuries of a floating hotel, while the smaller ships are generally comfortable but more basic. Choose the right vessel to suit your particular style and comfort level.
  • On smaller ships you are likely to have two to three Zodiac landings per day.  Larger ships do not make as many landings (some do not land at all) as there areas they can’t reach. Only 100 people are permitted to land in one place at one time.
  • The Antarctic Peninsula is known as ‘the banana belt’ of the continent and is generally not as cold as most people expect. Average temperatures range from -2C and +8 C, not much colder than a ski field.
  • During November and December, the spring pack ice is breaking up and penguins are courting and mating. In January, the temperatures are warmer with up to 20 hours of light daily, penguin eggs are hatching and the place is a hive of activity. In February, chicks are beginning to fledge and seals, orcas, humpback whales and minke whales abound.
  • Travelling with a member of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) will ensure any environmental impact from tourism is minimised.

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