Cruise Antarctica: Voyaging south from the city of Ushuaia

For more than 20 years, or as long as I've made travel writing my profession, I have wanted to go to Antarctica. I've longed to see untouched polar landscapes with my own eyes and mingle with its curiously unaffected wildlife. I find its heroic tales of triumph, tragedy and survival – by Amundsen, Scott and Shackleton – utterly mesmerising and inspiring.

Despite my desires, the thought of crossing Drake Passage – one of the roughest  bodies of water in the world, separating South America's Tierra del Fuego archipelago from the Antarctic Peninsula – fills me with dread.

So when an opportunity arises to sail on board the Chimu Adventures-chartered Ocean Atlantic, a 140-metre-long polar cruise vessel that was once a floating casino in Russia's Far East, I know I have to block out my fear. I also instinctively know I will fail miserably.

During the weeks leading up to the cruise, my excitement at seeing Antarctica first-hand is tempered by imaginings of clinging on for dear life as a savage cold front sweeps across the Southern Ocean, turning the Drake Passage into the "Drake shake".

I load up with enough motion sickness medication to arouse the suspicions of the DEA, and then listen intently as the ship's Russian doctor outlines a course of action that includes abstaining from alcohol – this just moments after we had toasted our impending voyage with a glass of champagne.

Hailstones pepper the decks as our Quebecois cruise director, Sam Gagnon, projects an image illustrating our route overlaid with swirls of colour. "Blue and green are good, purple and red are bad," he explains, waving a hand over the weather chart. "We're going to wait for these purple and red bits to pass so that, hopefully, we'll have only blues and greens ahead."

I swallow my first batch of pills soon after we leave Ushuaia, and again early next morning. When I peer out my cabin's port-hole window, I'm surprised to see land. Cape Horn, the Americas' most southerly point, is somewhere distant to the west of our ship. Unfortunately, it means the worst is still ahead.

As the swelling ocean steadily builds, I grow increasingly apprehensive. I nibble conservatively at the lunch buffet and joke about afternoon tea cakes predictably resurfacing. To fill in time, I browse through the books in the library and wander from floor to floor, familiarising myself with the ship's layout as it gently sways from side to side. I talk to strangers and attend lectures about seabirds and whales, then wander out on deck to search for wildlife, all the while waiting for that inevitable queasy feeling to rear its ugly head.

We move into our second day and I begin to think that my sea legs may indeed be sprouting. Polar photography, geology and glaciology are covered during more informative lectures and we're briefed on Zodiac landings and biosecurity constraints. Late in the morning, Gagnon announces a sudden drop in water temperatures over the ship's PA system.

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"We are now officially in Antarctica," he declares.

The further south we sail, the more the weather settles. Albatross and petrels glide behind us and an Antarctic fur seal pilots us south, pirouetting through the water. Wispy plumes spouting skywards from the ocean signal whales in the distance.

As rain squalls ball around us at the end of the day, the snow-covered sea cliffs of Smith Island, the most westerly of the volcanic South Shetland archipelago off the Antarctic Peninsula's northern tip, appear beneath a fiery ring of clouds.

Soon I'll be fulfilling a lifelong wish, with my dignity intact.

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traveller.com.au/antarctica

antarctica.gov.au

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Chimu Adventures has a selection of Antarctic ships and itineraries to suit all interests and budgets. See chimuadventures.com

Mark Daffey travelled to Antarctica courtesy of Chimu Adventures.

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