(this is an extract from a guest post I recently contributed to the Quark Expedition blog – check it out here, along with photographs, travel tips and experiences from other Quark passengers, crew and operational staff).
A travel adventure to Antarctica is often described as ‘the trip of a lifetime’ and the cost, distance and effort to get there keep it well and truly off the beaten track. I had always dreamed of joining the small number of travellers who set foot on the world’s southernmost continent and I recently asked myself the question ‘what was I waiting for?’ Not having a satisfactory answer was the catalyst in me boarding the Ocean Diamond with Quark Expeditions at the end of last year.
Describing Antarctica with mere words does not do it justice. It is a continent like no other where the silence is deafening, where you can be alone without feeling lonely, and you live completely in the moment because the sensory overload you are experiencing leaves no room for reflections on the past or plans for the future. It is like stepping onto another planet. It is a continent that plays by its own rules.
Whilst there is nothing that can prepare you for how you will feel when you first set eyes on Antarctica, there are some things you can do to help make the most of the unique opportunity you have to see this special part of the world.
1. Disconnect to reconnect
For those who need to stay in touch with the outside world, there is internet access on board the Ocean Diamond. But taking the opportunity to switch off from daily life and live in an expedition bubble can both energising and therapeutic. I had a Kindle loaded with books I didn’t read, an iPad with movies I didn’t watch, a TV in my cabin I didn’t turn on and an opportunity to access email that I ignored. I disconnected from the cyber world to reconnect with the real world. I forgot the past, ignored the future and embraced the moment. I redirected my energy from a daily routine to three weeks of spontaneity. And I never felt more alive and energised.
2. Sit still
There are days that you will feel like you are part of a wildlife documentary and feel overwhelmed by the scenes in front of you. The best way to observe the school-yard antics of penguins and their entertaining behaviour is to sit still and watch. It resembles a soap opera with mothers feeding new-born chicks, penguins collecting (or stealing) rocks as they build their nests, the bullies of the colony stamping their authority on those around them and some endearing and affectionate moments between the others. And like any soap opera, the next episode is often predictable. When a skua flew in, stole an egg from a nesting Gentoo penguin and remained in the colony at Neko Harbour, we felt the drama was just beginning – and we were right. What followed was a struggle symbolic of the Antarctic food chain as the skua harassed a new mother, stole both of her chicks and swallowed them whole in front of her.
3. Replace disappointment with anticipation
The natural reaction to an abandoned landing or a change in the itinerary is disappointment. But remember that some of the most magical moments happen when things don’t go to plan. Replace that feeling of disappointment with the anticipation of the unplanned highlight that may just be around the corner, and embrace the excitement and unpredictability of expedition travel. Our final day in South Georgia began with the disappointment of two abandoned landings, but ended with an unplanned zodiac cruise being added to our itinerary. The Drygalski Fjord became a stage upon which Antarctic terns performed a spectacular dance around our zodiac, flying to a symphony only they could hear. The sighting of our first Weddell Seal, more commonly found in Antarctica, felt like a changing of the guard, symbolic of what lay ahead. And being surrounded by snow-capped mountains and glaciers introduced to us a feeling of being small, insignificant, but incredible lucky to be where we were. It was a feeling we would experience again and again.
4. Dress for the weather instead of worrying about it
The most common (and irritating) question on our voyage was ‘what will the weather be like tomorrow?’ The best answer from our expedition leader, Woody, was “I have consulted the Weather Committee and we concur there will, most definitely, be weather”. Instead of worrying about what the weather may or may not do, make sure you have packed the layers necessary to cope with different possibilities and rapid changes in conditions. Remember the old saying ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing’. And don’t forget your sunglasses and sunscreen. Bonus tip: the reflection of polarised sunglasses make a great photography subject for other passengers!
(photograph by Merv Colton @ www.moglander.com)
5. Embrace the boredom
For the many people who lead busy lives with a packed daily routine, the thought of a full day at sea triggers the question “will I be bored?” Embrace the boredom and you will find there are simply not enough hours in the day. Passengers reacted differently to our days at sea: some retired to their room to read or sleep, board games were in high demand and the polar library had many visitors. Photographers spent time outside on deck, returning inside occasionally to back up photos and review what they had captured. The Bridge had many visitors and lectures were well attended. We all had different interests but we all had the same opportunity to spend time enjoying them – a treat I don’t find myself with as often as I’d like back home.
6. Challenge yourself
Be inspired by the continent that plays by its own rules and step outside your comfort zone. You are already being adventurous by heading to this vast continent, so why not take it a step further? This may include a challenging hike, the polar plunge or simply joining a table at dinner with people you would not normally socialise with. Deception Island was the location of the Polar Plunge on our expedition and a third of the passengers decided to take on the challenge, with the first and last plunger being over the age of seventy. I wasn’t sure if it was the allure of the icy water or the deception of the sun that attracted so many adventurous souls, but I didn’t hear anyone who regretted their decision. We were all buzzing for hours after running into the sea and being hit with what felt like an electric shock radiating from our toes to the end of the hair on our heads! There is no better way to feel alive than escaping your comfort zone.
7. Start at the end
Most landings include the opportunity to enjoy a hike to a penguin colony or the top of a hill to enjoy spectacular panoramic views. Resist the temptation to constantly stop along the way and head to the ‘pot of gold at the end of the rainbow’ first. Slowly making your way back through the highlights you passed on the way will help you make the most of your time on land – because there will never be enough time on land!
8. Photographers – bring a laptop
If you have a keen interest in photography, a laptop is great way to not only back up photos, but improve your images along the way. I’ve only been shooting with a DSLR for less than three years and I’m a very keen amateur with a lot to learn. This trip felt like a practical photography workshop where I was able to learn from more experienced photographers on board and at the same time, share my passion with like-minded individuals. Having my laptop let me spend time on the ship critically reviewing my images, get advice from others, identify what I was doing wrong and use the wealth of available wildlife and landscape subjects to try again!
9. Don’t judge a book by its cover
An Antarctica expedition cruise attracts people from all walks of life and you may be surprised who you end up connecting with. Remember, strangers are just new friends you haven’t yet met. I regularly explore the world as a solo traveller and this expedition was a great opportunity to be alone without feeling lonely. I felt invigorated with the realisation that I was sharing a special experience with like-minded people from all walks of life. It reminded me why I love travelling so much, that it eliminates the differences that would normally prevent our paths from crossing and instead creates a bond cemented by a common hunger for exploration and adventure.
10. And finally…
If you are going to enjoy the incredible and irresistible desserts on offer in the restaurant, bring a larger pair of trousers!
Have you been to Antarctica? Do you have any tips to add?
(I travelled through the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Antarctica for three weeks in Dec 2012 – Jan 2013 with Quark Expeditions. Subscribe for email updates if you are interested in reading new travel and photography posts as they are published)