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Travel Story by Ian Reynolds

  An Introduction to the Frozen Continent
Antarctica
 


Iceberg at sunset

Why Antarctica?

Who could fail to be inspired by the Antarctic adventures of Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton and their tales of derring-do. Reading about their epic expeditions in their quest to be the first to reach the South Pole sowed a seed in my mind but it would be years before my dream became a reality.


The polar explorers

A brief history about three of the most famous polar explorers may give you some indication as to why the frozen continent has long been a source of fascination for me.

The Norwegian, Captain Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole first on 15 December 1911. Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his four men arrived 33 days later and then lost their lives in their struggle to return to base camp. Scott’s account of the journey lives on in his evocative diaries.

Scott’s final diary entry, on 29 March 1912, read: “We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.”

Despite his death, Scott became a hero back home, and his diary a bestseller. Amundsen found his victory eclipsed by the tragic story of his rival.

Another of my heroes is Sir Ernest Shackleton. He was not well trained for the Antarctic and never achieved his aims but remains one of Britain’s most famous and respected explorers. However, his skill as a leader of men is beyond doubt. The epic survival of the crew of Endurance is a testament to this.

His ship Endurance left South Georgia in December 1914 for the Antarctic but was crushed by the pack ice. After making an incredible journey across the ice and open seas Shackleton and his crew eventually reached Elephant Island. Here, he and five others set out in an open boat, the James Caird, to get help. They finally landed in South Georgia, some 800 miles away, in May 1916. Against all odds Shackleton led his men to safety without the loss of one life.

In the face of some of the harshest conditions on the planet these men and their companions showed great tenacity, indomitable spirit and courage in an attempt to achieve their aims. Not all of them succeeded but they left behind a wealth of information describing their experiences.

This era of polar exploration is popularly known as the ‘Heroic Age’.

"Scott for scientific method, Amundsen for speed and efficiency but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton." (Raymond Priestly)


What is Antarctica?

Antarctica is one of the most extreme destinations in the world and is the fifth largest of the seven continents. Over 90% of its area is covered by ice, which is more than three miles thick in places. It is completely surrounded by the Southern Ocean, half of which freezes in winter.

Antarctica is a vast inhospitable wilderness and its scale is hard to comprehend. Mountains and gigantic icebergs dominate its landscape. It is often exposed to extreme weather conditions and is high, windy and extremely cold.

There is no indigenous human population and no life forms at all except around the coast.

With it being the most isolated continent the logistics of getting there are not easy. However, those who make the long journey south are usually lucky enough to see a wealth of unique aquatic animal life. The schedule for a journey here is determined by the ever-changing ice and weather conditions.

Tourism

Tourism is still in its infancy in Antarctica but has grown significantly in the last decade. Tourists are unable to visit in the winter for obvious reasons. Ship access is impossible due to the pack ice extending 1000km around the continent. In addition there is almost 24 hours of darkness each day and temperatures drop to -80 or 90°C.

It is inevitable that summer is a much more pleasant time to visit with the tourist season running from October until the end of March. The peak months are December and January, which coincides with warmer weather and up to 20 hours of daylight each day. This period sees the largest influx of tourists when penguins are hatching eggs and feeding chicks.

Zodiacs, inflatable outboard-powered boats, are used to transport tourists ashore or to take trips amongst the icebergs and watch the marine animal life. On land you can walk around, look at the scientific bases, take some photographs or video clips.


Getting there and away

It is not cheap to visit Antarctica and one must be prepared for the harsh climate and the time it takes to get there.

One way to see the continent is to take an overflight. These are suitable for those who don’t have the time but the money. These flights do not actually land but offer spectacular views of the mountains, glaciers and icebergs.

The best way to visit the region is to go on an Antarctic cruise where you get the opportunity to set foot on terra firma. There are different packages available and these vary according to the amount of time spent at sea, the ship facilities and where it departs from. An important factor in your choice of cruise should be the number of passengers that the ship caters for. This can be anywhere between 38 and 400 but more than 150 is ridiculous. The IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) guidelines state that no more than 100 people should visit a site at any one time.

Antarctica is unique in that it is the only continent with no nations. The Antarctic Treaty governs the actions of people in Antarctica. A visa to visit it is not necessary but you will need to take your passport.


Click on photo to enlarge


Icebergs galore  Gliding silently past  An Antarctic sunset


E-mail: ian@deaftravel.co.uk
Date Submitted:
19 Aug 2006


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