The afternoon I farewelled Antarctica, I sipped champagne on our French ship's deck in the sunshine, as six humpback whales breached just metres away. It was a moment of such stupid levels of beauty that it has taken me weeks to convince myself it actually happened. Weeks of staring, goggle-eyed, at photos. The spangled water spurting from the whales' spouts. The sun-skimmed water fringed by bright white ice cliffs. The chunky bergs bobbing there like moveable mountains. Enough rehashing and I've managed to convince myself that, yes, Antarctica really happened. No, it wasn't a dream. But it was, unquestionably, as surreal a travel experience as I've ever had.
The detachment from reality began the afternoon our luxurious, 108-cabin APT ship departed from Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, set at the very tip of Argentina. Having thrown back seasickness tablets before leaving dry land, many of my fellow passengers and I were already woozy when we boarded, hours before hitting the perilous Drake Passage in the middle of the night. I awoke that first morning with my head swimming, the convergence of the Atlantic, Pacific and Southern oceans rocking me into a stupor and turning my journey down to the dining room into a sort of drunken cakewalk. At breakfast, the six-metre waves slurping up against the tall glass windows left me feeling like I was peering inside an enormous washing machine.
Everything felt topsy-turvy. And so, despite a program of fascinating lectures by the naturalists on board, I scuttled back to my lavish cocoon of a cabin. I spent most of the next two days in a state of half-conscious abstraction, being rocked in and out of sleep by the waves rolling by my balcony doors and emptying my mind of quotidian concerns as I let the surreal experience take over. At certain points, room service was ordered, the healing power of gourmet burgers discovered. At others, it felt necessary to totter down the hall to the bridge which was, unusually, open to passengers 24 hours a day. There, I watched the whitecaps crash against the bow of the ship and listened to our charismatic captain Etienne Garcia announce zealously over the loudspeaker, "you must deserve your paradise!"
Indeed, like all great things in life, you must move through the pain to get to the gold in Antarctica. Eventually, the heaving and rolling abated and the Antarctic magic began to dribble through. Finn whales breaching by the side of the ship. Penguins shooting in and out of the water as they raced the ship, like oversized slippery bullets. The thrill of preparing for our first landing, gathering in the chic lounge bar wrapped in six layers of thermals, polar fleece, down and wind jackets, before venturing into the icy wilderness on our Zodiacs.
Having always believed myself to be a traveller impassioned by culture, I'd wondered whether this place of nothingness – this great white desert with no language, currency or permanent human population – would move me. But after taking my first crunchy steps on the continent at a place called Neko Harbour, I found my eyes unexpectedly welling up as I tiptoed through a "penguin creche". The dozens of fuzzy bodies waddling all around, the frosted whip of the wind against my face, the growl of the ice chunks as they slid past the shore. Even the smell of the penguin guano (poo, to you and me), a head-swimmingly rich scent reminiscent of rotten seafood and wet cigarettes, developed a certain romance. One of the naturalists told us the penguin chicks were being prepared to enter the ocean for the first time, where they'd spend the winter feeding. She pointed out how the mothers feed their infants a little before running away so the babies chase them, thus teaching them how to move less clumsily and fend for themselves. I spent the majority of those first 90 minutes on land rooted to one spot, entranced by this game of penguin catch.
Over dinner that evening, after our second outing to a British historic base called Port Lockroy where we had the bizarre experience of buying souvenirs from four women who were calling the port home for the Antarctic summer, my dining companions and I decided that the continent's abundance of nothing is, actually, quite something.
It's this nothingness, in fact, that a traveller can come to appreciate most on an Antarctic journey. It seems to create a mental spaciousness and freedom that's very difficult to find in other parts of the world, one that puts you right at the centre of things. During a morning Zodiac ride through an "iceberg garden", as our expedition leader called it, I fancied I could almost hear the wild, ancient conversation going on between the water, the wind and the ice. The ice that had once been water and would be water again; the wind that had shaped the ice into these gigantic abstract sculptures. There were icebergs that looked like waves, like combs, like nuclear mushroom clouds. There was a white iceberg with swirls of blue twisting through it, like a massive bubblegum paddle pop. One indigo beauty was the ruffled underside of a can-can skirt; others were draped with chubby white crabeater seals, stretching and waving from their frosty perches. "I'm not religious by any means, but this does make you feel closer to God," a fellow traveller whispered to me that morning.
That feeling of being close to the essence of things – to nature or God or the universe or whatever you want to call it – arose again at Wilhelmina Bay, where our Zodiacs pushed through chunks of ice as humpback whales curved through the water just metres away. And again at Deception Island where, inside the caldera of an active volcano, we walked down the fur seal-strewn beach past old whaling station ruins.
The feeling surfaced on board, too. One afternoon, a group of us took a dip in the on-deck swimming pool as we sailed through the Lemaire Channel, so photogenic it's been nicknamed Kodak Alley. Another we had an alfresco barbecue, drinking champagne in the sunshine as icebergs slipped by. The daily steam baths in the on-board hammam, the four-course meals and sommelier matched wines served in the dining room, the live cabaret and classical piano shows each evening – levels of luxury that only added to Antarctica's illusory charm.
It seemed only fitting, then, that for many of my fellow passengers Antarctica was not just another holiday, but a wish fulfilled. There were the brothers who told me they'd dreamt of Antarctica for 40 years before setting foot on the continent. There was the guy who told me he lost his dad a few years back, and that he and his stepmother had travelled to Antarctica to fulfil his dad's wish of doing so. Being part of the triumphant atmosphere out on the ice every day, as people accomplished one of their major life goals, provided tangible proof of that otherwise hackneyed refrain: we really can make our dreams come true.
That final evening, after hours of sundrenched whale watching, we watched the sky turn a pink I've only ever seen on the inside of a seashell as we ate dinner, just as we slipped past the last sliver of the Antarctic peninsula. We turned away for only a few moments of chocolate mousse inhalation, but by the time we'd turned back a dense fog had dropped down on the scene and poof! Just like that, just like a dream, Antarctica was gone.
Nina Karnikowski travelled as a guest of APT.
Air New Zealand flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Buenos Aires via Auckland. From there it's a three-and-a-half-hour flight to Ushuaia. See airnewzealand.com.au.
APT's 15-day Classic Antarctica tour starts from $16,490 per person. See aptouring.com.au.
FIVE SURREAL FACTS ABOUT ANTARCTICA
1. METALLICA PLAYED A CONCERT THERE
In 2013, the heavy metal band Metallica played for 120 people inside a small dome, in a show called "Freeze 'Em All". The audience listened on headphones rather than amplifiers, so they wouldn't upset the environment.
2. IT HASN'T RAINED FOR ALMOST TWO MILLION YEARS
Well, in the Dry Valleys region it hasn't. There's zero precipitation in this 4800 square kilometre Antarctic zone.
3. IT'S HOME TO CREATURES THAT CAN FREEZE AND SURVIVE
The Antarctic midge, Antarctica's only insect, can survive temperatures as low as minus 20 degrees Celsius. By losing up to 70 per cent of their water, they stop ice from forming inside their tissues.
4. BABIES HAVE BEEN BORN THERE
Ten of them, in fact. The first was in 1978, a boy named Emilio Marcos Palma, born to Argentinian parents as part of Argentina's attempt to stake their territorial claim over the continent.
5. IT'S THE WORLD'S BIGGEST DESERT
The Antarctic Polar Desert covers the Antarctic continent. At 14 million square kilometres, this makes it Earth's largest desert.