Antarctica, the Wildest Place
By the time our ship turned for home, we'd come to know the great seabirds of the Southern Ocean, especially the tireless wandering albatross with their 12-foot wingspreads. We'd become fond of dog-faced crabeater seals, next to humans the most numerous large mammal on earth, and been amused by macaroni penguins whose eyes are accented by whimsical sprays of orange feathers.
We'd been awed by icebergs towering far higher than the ship's mast and by ice islands 60 miles long. Most of all, we'd learned to appreciate the unique beauty of immense scale and a black-and-white world.
Nevertheless, we'd only gently explored the fringes of Antarctica during its most clement weather, going ashore in the few places where wildlife is abundant. Through no fault of the Adventurer, we had not experienced the true nature of Antarctica any more than a Viking could have comprehended the entire North American continent after camping on Cape Cod for a week.
The Antarctica we didn't see, larger than the United States and Mexico combined, is the coldest, highest, driest, most forbidding place on earth. Inland temperatures fall to -130 degrees F. and 180 mph winds scour the ice. The average altitude is three times that of any other continent.
All but 2 percent of Antarctica is covered by an icecap so thick that mountain ranges the height of the Swiss Alps never even pierce its icy surface. Although 70 percent of all fresh water on earth is locked in its ice, Antarctica is the driest place in the world. Given these conditions, it's understandable why only about 1,500 people have the fortitude to spend the winter on this unforgiving continent.
Almost a century ago, Joseph Conrad took us on an unforgettable journey to the "Heart of Darkness," revealing the violence done to man by isolation and an unbearably harsh climate. The center of Antarctica, the Heart of Lightness, is even more wild and inhospitable. On the other hand, a journey along the periphery of Antarctica, on a stout ship with a knowledgeable crew, provides a fascinating contrast to the more well-worn paths around the world. In fact, it may be the trip of a lifetime.
Most trips to Antarctica leave from Ushuaia, Argentina, or Punta Arenas, Chile. For transportation to those points, call Aerolineas Argentinas: (800) 333-0276, Lan Chile: (800) 735-5526, or Ladeco: (800) 825-2332.
Among trip operators, Toronto-based Marine Expeditions: (800) 263-9147 provides excellent value at the lowest prices ($3,500 for an inside cabin; from $4,200 for a view; and the price includes airfare from Toronto, Montreal, New York, L.A. or Miami). Its fleet consists of three ships: Adventurer (155 passengers), Endeavor (92 passengers) and Spirit (50 passengers). They are warm, comfortable, and shipshape.
Mountain Travel/Sobek (from $5,300 without air): (800) 227-2384. Society Expeditions (from $4,900 without air): (800) 548-8669 also offer fine trips, as do a number of other operators.
Prices quoted by some of the other operators reach $15,000. By the way, because of the logistics of going ashore, I prefer ships with few passengers.
Trips are typically 15 to 21 days in duration. However, not all of those days are aboard ship. Read the brochure carefully to see what suits you best.
To fly to a permanent camp near the Ellsworth Range, and on to Vinson Massif and the Weddell Sea, contact Adventure Network International (44-494) 671-808.
Season: December-March (best, January, February)
Pretrip reading: The Crystal Desert by David G. Campbell (1992) Crossing Antarctica by Will Steger and Jon Bowermaster (1991); Scott and Amundsen, by Roland Huntford (1980) The Worst Journey in the World: Antarctica 1910-1913 by Apsley Cherry-Garrard.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication