A feeling for ice

Following a fine tradition, Ben Groundwater goes on expedition to a wilderness no longer so inaccessible.

Robert Falcon Scott knew the feeling. So did Sir Ernest Shackleton. Both Antarctic pioneers undertook brave missions in their quest for the South Pole and both had to deal with a similarly pressing issue: money. Or a lack of it.

Budgets were tight. The famed adventurers had to scrounge around London looking for benefactors, pay their crew next to nothing and live off the bare bones just to make their dreams of polar exploration come true.

Sounds familiar. Modern Antarctic adventurers - also known as tourists - have the same problem. Our polar journeys may not be as pioneering but they're certainly heavy on the wallet. You don't get to the world's least-visited continent without coughing up serious dough.

At least, that's what you'd think before boarding the MV Ushuaia. A former research vessel now used for tourism, the Ushuaia caters to the budget end of the scale; the sort of stripped-back Antarctic expeditions Scott and Shackleton would surely have approved of.

The ship is certainly not luxurious - this is an "expedition", after all, not a cruise. The rooms are basic, no-frills, mostly just bunks and a side table. The common areas are comfortable but far from plush. The three meals a day pumped out by the kitchen are satisfyingly filling but they're not gourmet.

None of that matters, though. What matters is what appears out of the ship's windows after three days at sea: blue, iceberg-flecked waters, gliding seabirds, endless penguin colonies and that huge expanse of unconquerable ice and snow.

Antarctica. It seems to materialise out of nowhere. One day we're steaming across the Drake Passage, a notoriously rough and seemingly endless patch of ocean, and the next morning it's like a white Christmas, with that first gaze out of the window at something amazing.

Huge glaciers make their groaning descent towards a watery grave; penguins stand to attention in rocky alcoves; the air is ice-cold and pure, not a hint of pollution. Incredible.


"Good morning, Antarcticos!"

Agustin, our expedition leader, sends out the wake-up call on the ship's PA system. Time to get up and explore. Pretty soon everyone is wrapped up against the biting cold, gathered on the ship's bow to take in the scene. "Wow," breathes Helena, a musician from Berlin who used an inheritance to pay for this trip. "You can't even imagine it."

There are nods from the other passengers: backpackers who have worked this trip into their year-long travel adventures, students who have saved every penny for years in order to be here, retirees spending the kids' inheritance on the journey of a lifetime.

Wendy, a Scot, peers over the side at the beautiful but menacing icebergs drifting past, the occasional block crushed with a shudder under the ship's bow. "Och," she says, shaking her head, "I would nae like a wee dook in there."

Her English husband, Wayne, grins. "I think she means she wouldn't want a swim."

Back in the common room, Agustin leads the morning briefing, explaining that we've officially entered Antarctic waters. We'll spend the next five days cruising the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula, the large finger of land that points towards southern Argentina, our embarkation point. Here, sheltered by a row of islands further west, we'll have glass-flat seas, barely a puff of wind ... and penguins. Thousands of penguins.

The first stop is Cuverville Island, on a beach of mud and moss. Just getting off the ship is an ordeal as passengers don pretty much every item of clothing in their possession, finishing it off with a waterproof shell, a life jacket and gumboots provided by the crew. It's not snap-freeze-your-face cold but it does warrant three pairs of socks. Maybe four. Passengers file down the ship's gangway and pile into Zodiacs, the rubber dinghies that will transport us to land.

That's where we have the first penguin encounter. There are thousands silently dotting the beach like pawns on a huge, muddy chessboard. Most ignore the rubberised invasion of their privacy. Some, however, allow curiosity to get the better of them and wander over to check us out, pecking gently at the legs of their strangely coloured intruders.

Helena the musician is still stunned. "Wow," she repeats, over and over again, as the penguins gather around to taste her trousers.

These penguins aren't playing by the rules. We've been told how it's supposed to work: maintain a five-metre gap at all times. No approaching the wildlife.

But the penguins don't care. Their approach starts with a curious look, a cocking of the head and a squint. Next, the wings go out and the waddle begins, like a drunk butler trying to serve drinks. The humans hold still, obeying the rules as the penguins flagrantly ignore them, breaking the five-metre barrier and continuing on to inspect the brightly coloured legs planted everywhere in the snow.

Nip, nip. Not very tasty.

Penguins are fascinating, in spite of their penchant for trouser chewing. Some stand silently in groups, shoulders hunched, eyes squinted against the Antarctic wind. Others crow loudly into the cold morning air. Some waddle about aimlessly in their roly-poly way. Younger ones, compelled by instinct, practise building nests for breeding seasons to come. Older ones, going through the trauma of moulting their feathers, stand silently, miserably, staring at rock walls as their old coats flutter away on the breeze. They look so sad, you want to give them a hug - only that would break the five-metre rule.

I'm not the only one contemplating stuffing one into my rucksack. Every other member of the group is eyeing them with love-struck grins, eyes with a slight twinkle of surely-no-one-will-notice. But the crew would. They're trained for this sort of thing. As Valeska, an on-board geologist who has worked at both the penguin-loaded South Pole and the bear-heavy North Pole, says: "In the north, it's the crew's job to protect the passengers from the wildlife. In the south, we protect the wildlife from the passengers."

The next morning is a landmark event: a visit to Neko Harbour, our first official footsteps on the continent proper. There's a buzz in the group. This is Antarctica, the real deal, the stuff of hardcore exploration. And yet here we are in our ship-issued welly boots, picking our way over the huge whale bones strewn across the beach, trying to obey the five-metre rule as penguins arrive from all sides.

In the distance, there's a crack like a gunshot. "It's a glacier," Philipp, one of our guides, says. He points across the bay to the huge cascade of ice hanging precariously over the water, giant chunks breaking off every few minutes and crashing into the sea, sending shockwaves across the flat surface. It's slightly unnerving, these constant explosions on an otherwise silent day. During the next few days we'll continue with our landings, although with tweaks: a cruise in the ship through the Lemaire Channel, a beautiful passage of water hemmed in by snow-covered mountains; a walk around the penguin colony on Petermann Island; a cruise in the Zodiacs through the icebergs in Paradise Bay, getting up close to beautiful blocks of floating doom. There'll even be a visit to a working research base, Ukraine's Vernadsky Station, although that will be remembered more for the scientists' homemade vodka than the research.

And there'll be time for one last goodbye to the penguins, those loveable, football-shaped rascals. As we board for the last time, a realisation dawns, the same one Scott and Shackleton must have had: it really doesn't matter what your accommodation looks like, whether you're here on a budget or paying a motza, enjoying the mod-cons or surviving on the basics. Antarctica will always be the same.

The writer was a guest of Chimu Adventures.

Trip notes

Getting there

Aerolineas Argentinas flies from Sydney to Buenos Aires from about $1700 return, with connections to Ushuaia in the south from about $400 return. (02) 9234 9000. www.aerolineas.com.ar.

Cruising there

Chimu Adventures runs an 11-day 'Images of Antarctica' expedition aboard the MV Ushuaia, with berths from $3499 a person, twin-share. The price includes accommodation, all meals, daily lectures and briefings and all landing expeditions. 1300 678 909. chimuadventures.com.au.

Five essentials

1 Seasickness tablets. The Drake Passage is notoriously violent, with the Southern Ocean being funnelled into the small space between the Antarctic Peninsula and South America. It usually takes three days to cross, so take precautions, even if you don't usually suffer from seasickness.

2 Extra memory cards. It's like setting a travel budget — think about how many photos you think you'll take and then double it. Maybe triple it. This is scenery the likes of which you'll probably never see again and penguins are endlessly interesting. You never want to run out of memory card space.

3 Layers. No need to lash out on Everest-ready expedition clothing. All you need is a waterproof shell — jacket and trousers — and plenty of layers underneath. Opt for thermal trousers and top, then as many T-shirts, jumpers and fleeces as you can fit on without looking like the Michelin Man.

4 Sunglasses. On cloudy days, these won't be necessary but when the sun reflects off the huge sheets of ice and snow, you won't be able to survive without them. It's even worth packing a second pair in case you lose the first.

5 A pack of cards. There is plenty of downtime when crossing the Drake Passage and no shortage of people keen to pass it. Cards are the international language of entertainment.