Feat in the freezer

Roy Masters rides the swell on a maiden voyage past giant icebergs and Shackleton's resting place.

My long-time fascination with the exploits of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton led me aboard the MV Plancius on a three-week journey to the Antarctic Peninsula, via the remote and windswept Falkland and South Georgia islands. Shackleton didn't reach the South Pole - his ship was trapped and crushed in the ice of the Weddell Sea - but he ranks as one of history's great leaders, returning to rescue his crew without the loss of a single man.

Among the Antarctic hero's greatest achievements on that ill-fated 1915 expedition was an incredible 15-day dash across the Southern Ocean in an open boat with five crew hammered by a hurricane, in constant danger of capsizing. I was keen to see a little of what he saw, not follow in his footsteps. Yet only eight days into my voyage, I, too, find myself tossed around in those same seas off South Georgia in a small open boat in a force-10 gale and a three-metre swell with nine terrified companions.

We land at Cooper Bay after breakfast, in overcast conditions but little wind, to see nesting macaroni penguins and the rare South Georgia pipit, Antarctica's only song bird. We're back on board our Zodiac (an XL-sized rubber ducky) and on our way to another beach to see elephant seals when the sky darkens suddenly and a strong wind blows up. Our driver turns us around quickly and heads back to the ship, anchored a few kilometres offshore, as the storm gathers with frightening and unpredictable speed.

We watch with a mixture of anxiety and admiration as the driver of a Zodiac ahead of us unloads his nervous passengers and - in a desperate acrobatic feat - shoves an aged and rotund passenger on to the ship's landing platform while executing his own reverse flip back into the Zodiac.

By the time we get close to the mothership, the wind has reached 90km/h and we're pitching and rolling too violently to tie up. Two ropes - forward and aft - must secure the Zodiac and the driver can't leave the rudder, which means the forward-most passenger must catch a rope flung seawards by a sailor on the ship. For 90 minutes, 10 of us huddle on the floor of the Zodiac, swamped by waves and lashed by sleet, shakily singing songs as our heroic driver and his fellow Russian sailors on the Plancius attempt to tie us alongside.

The ship changes position three times before we can edge alongside, riding the swell. A young Swiss banker on our boat secures the forward rope. Our driver points to me - at that moment I'm the closest one to the landing platform on the Plancius - and he urges me to leap across as the next wave crests. I clear the one-metre gap the instant before it becomes three metres and climb the ladder shakily.

I turn to see no one has followed. Part of the landing platform broke away as I leapt on to it, forcing the Zodiac back for another circuit in the mixmaster seas, my wife and friends on board. "I remember thinking: 'Thank God, one of us had got off to tell people at home,'" my wife tells me later but at the time I feel incredibly guilty that I'm safe and they're still at sea.

It's another 30 minutes before the last passenger in our Zodiac is hoisted on to the platform by the brute strength of bo'sun Victor.


Just as Shackleton had left his main party behind when he set out in the lifeboat James Caird to South Georgia, the storm leaves most of the Plancius's passengers stranded on the beach. Another Zodiac behind us on approach to the Plancius is swamped when it's ordered back to the beach. Several of its passengers are treated for hypothermia, crew members climbing into emergency sleeping bags to share precious body heat.

The Plancius weighs anchor and sails to the lee side of an island, positioning itself between the shelter of the winds and the beach where the main party is stranded. All 10 Zodiacs are employed for three hours to ferry about 80 people in calmer waters back to the ship. The tour company's motto has worked: "Hope for the best, prepare for the worst."

Lunch is served amid relief and some tears. A few expensive cameras have been ruined but no one is hurt. Though a few of the passengers direct their anger at the cruise director for allowing us to go ashore, possibly we have only ourselves to blame.

We had already missed one highly anticipated landing at Prion Island, where the wandering albatross nests, when the two-day journey from the Falklands to South Georgia was turned into three by a fierce storm.

Then a pre-breakfast excursion to Stromness, the abandoned whaling station on South Georgia to which Shackleton walked at the end of his historic journey, was cancelled because of force-seven winds.

Some of the "birders", as the loose collection of South African, American and German bird enthusiasts are called, had been agitating for more landings.

So had the "histories", the mainly Australian group interested in the early polar explorers.

We'd had only two landings on South Georgia, the expected highlight of the voyage. Our first landing is at Grytviken, an abandoned whaling station that now serves as the administrative headquarters of South Georgia with a permanent staff of six. This is where Shackleton is buried and it appeals to the histories and the birders. We stand around "the boss's" final resting place with a plastic cup of rum each to pour on his grave.

This cemetery must be one of the few in the world with a white picket fence and gate to keep out the fur seals, creatures that are surprisingly aggressive and unlovable in the wild. Fur seals and mean-looking leopard seals are the only Antarctic creatures that seem to be wary of humans. Giant elephant seals lie about in slothful piles and all breeds of penguins waddle about quite oblivious to delighted human onlookers with their huge lens appendages. Bird and seal co-exist peacefully on land; it's only in the water the penguin is prey.

Our second landing, at Salisbury Plain on the northern coast of South Georgia in the Bay of Isles, is in brilliant sunshine. Here we find a mass of 300,000 king penguins sharing the beach with yapping fur seals and giant skua birds trying to steal penguin eggs.

We round Cape Disappointment, so named by Captain Cook when he discovered South Georgia was an island and not the vast southland he sought. And as we near Cooper Bay at the southern tip of South Georgia, the birders are anxious to see the pipit, a small brown bird found nowhere else. Though the forecast had warned of gale-force winds from the east late in the day, the sea is calm when the Plancius anchors. But in the Antarctic, you get what the weather gives. The gale comes in the morning and from the opposite direction.

Two days after the storm, when we sail past the South Orkneys and the cruise director indicates the weather is unsuitable for a landing, there are no dissenters.

A Falkland-South Georgia-Antarctic Peninsula voyage covers a huge distance, a 4000-nautical-mile (7400km) loop from the Argentine port of Ushuaia. In between a dozen scheduled landings, there are many hours on board: playing cards, listening to lectures from experts on wildlife and history, watching for whales, studying birds and icebergs with binoculars.

Our group whiles away long evenings with limerick competitions, a mock court case and readings from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Coleridge's poem is apt, from the early verses when an albatross crossed the stern of the ship, to ice "mast-high, floating by, as green as emerald" and our return to Ushuaia, which evokes comparisons with the English port from which the ancient mariner set out.

As we approach 60 degrees south we pass tabular, or table-top, icebergs as big as aircraft carriers, dwarfing the orca and minke whales that occasionally follow the ship. Sunset at 11pm has everyone reaching for their cameras to capture the Disneyland display of glorious apricots, blues and white.

We spend a perfect afternoon in a Zodiac cruising through scattered ice floes in Cierva Bay, on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula, near the spectacular Neumayer Channel, observed by a few well-fed leopard seals, each nearly 400 kilograms and stretched out lazily on its own small berg.

Here we find small but unmistakable evidence of glacial retreat. Our driver scoops up an unusual chunk of ice from the sea - crystal-clear with all oxygen crushed from it, like an enormous raw diamond. It's a block of metamorphic ice that for 100,000 years or more had been locked in the vast Antarctic ice shelf, now broken free, gathered up, taken aboard ship, chiselled into bite-size pieces and splashed respectfully with gin and tonic.

In the glistening white and impossibly turquoise landscape of the Antarctic waters, the overwhelming feeling is a sense of intrusion into a vast, still land of monumental physical forces.

Some of the beauty, however, is on a human scale. It is impossible to look at penguins without smiling or ascribing human qualities to them. They have not learnt to fear humans and are endearingly trusting. Visitors to colonies are asked to respect this by maintaining a distance of at least five metres. I add six more species to my penguin repertoire: the impossibly elegant king penguin, the pot-gutted gentoo, the comically angry-looking rockhopper, the little adelie, the flamboyant macaroni and the try-hard chinstrap. Whatever the species, the smell of a penguin colony is uniform - dead possum - and the racket is like thousands of kids blowing through comb and paper.

We're on the maiden voyage of the Plancius, a former Dutch research ship able to carry 110 passengers. There are a few teething problems, such as an intermittent public address system and uneven air-conditioning (and, strangely, no thermometer on board until a passenger finds one in her luggage) but the ship is sparkling clean, newly fitted-out and attended by unfailingly helpful cabin and hotel staff.

The meals, especially the fish, are superb - no mean feat considering there are 500 meals a day to prepare and on a couple of those heavy-weather days there are more smashed plates than a Greek wedding. Bar prices are reasonable: a bottle of decent white wine sells for €14 ($21.50), beer for €2.50.

And the captain wears slippers. It's reassuring when the ship's skipper stands on the bridge in comfy tartan slippers. A ship can have helicopters and high-tech stabilisers but if the captain stands there in gumboots and oilskins, I'm off.

Our only landing on the Antarctic continent is at Brown Bluff, an ice-capped, flat-topped extinct volcano on the peninsula's north-eastern tip. All other landings are at penguin colonies on islands off the peninsula.

The advantage of a relatively small ship and passenger list on an Antarctic voyage is the ability of everyone to go ashore at the same time - 100 passengers in 10 Zodiacs - compared with the routine on large cruise ships, where more than 1000 passengers have to wait to be ferried ashore and landings are restricted to 70 people at a time. The downside of a small ship is greater vulnerability to seasickness. However, our Dutch ship doctor dispenses very effective patches, unavailable in Australia, which we place behind the ear.

A voyage to Antarctica is an adventure of a lifetime, even though for an hour off Cape Disappointment, I wondered if it was the last of a lifetime.


Getting there

Qantas flies non-stop from Sydney to Buenos Aires (13 hours), then Aerolineas Argentinas to Ushuaia (3½ hours). The fare is about $3200 low-season return from Sydney and about $3267 from Melbourne, with passengers connecting in Sydney. There are lower fares but a more circuitous route with LAN Airlines. Australians don't require a visa for stays of up to 90 days but from December 28 a $US100 ($112) reciprocity fee is required of all Australians on arrival.

Sailing there

The author travelled on Oceanwide Expeditions's 19-day Antarctica Encompassed trip to Falkland and South Georgia islands and the Antarctic Peninsula from Ushuaia. It costs from $US9595 a person, triple share, or $US11,640, twin share. There are shorter 10- and 11-day trips to the Antarctic Peninsula from $US5980 and year-round expeditions to the Arctic, Antarctic, North Atlantic and mid-Atlantic islands. Phone 1300 720 000, see worldexpeditions.com.