Voyage into the ice

The ride is rough but Jordan Baker discovers a journey to the coolest continent is all that it's cracked up to be.

I climb the slope, sweating under countless layers and stumbling in my gumboots, aware of little but my feet for fear I'll slip on the lumpy snow, tumble down the cliff and have to be airlifted from the South Pole.

I might have abandoned the mission altogether, had I not been assured that if there was to be a highlight among all the highlights of my trip to Antarctica, it would be the view from the top of this hill.

I reach the top, look up and catch my breath. In front of me is a harbour, with cliffs and beaches and bays. But unlike the harbours I'm used to, it's frosted - dotted with powder-blue icebergs and surrounded by glaciers and white mountain peaks. An occasional roar breaks the silence as, beyond the skyline, part of a glacier crashes into the water. It's one of the most spectacular views I have ever seen.

That is the thing about Antarctica. It's full of surprises and constantly challenges expectations. I wonder, before I arrive, whether rocky scenery dominated by shades of white, pale blue and grey will get boring. It never does. Every day offers something new and spectacular. As the host on our cruise ship warns as we depart for the southern wilderness: "Put your camera away, because no photographs or words will be able to capture for the people back home what you are about to see."

Our South Pole adventure begins on a charter flight from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, a port town on the southernmost tip of Argentina's Terra del Fuego. Puccini's Nessun Dorma plays and champagne is served as the pilot flies over the Patagonian mountains. We have a day to browse the cowhide rugs in the town's shops before boarding what will be our home for the next six days, the Norwegian ship MV Fram.

"This is not the Love Boat," we're told in a briefing by the German purser, who is quickly nicknamed Peter Perfect, after we settle in our cabins. We should not expect a five-star cruise experience - there will be no room service, no live music. The evening entertainment will be auctions to raise money for albatross protection and amateur theatrics from the Filipino kitchen crew. On some mornings, announcements in English and German will wake us at seven. We're not here for luxury, he reminds us - we're here to see Antarctica.

Nevertheless, the Fram is comfortable. Most cabins have big windows, so travellers can prop themselves on their pillows and gaze at glaciers - or, if they choose, turn themselves around and watch Pirates Of The Caribbean on television. The Panorama Lounge on the top floor is decorated with Scandinavian elegance. Sturdy blue and yellow swivel chairs (which could be dizzying on a choppy crossing) surround the bar and throne-like recliners point towards tall glass windows. The lounge is the prime spot to read, watch the continent pass by and listen to the retro pop music popular with the bar staff.

At capacity, there can be 400 guests on MV Fram. It is one of the biggest ships touring Antarctica and, thanks to its size, offers a smoother, faster passage across the notoriously rough Drake Passage between Patagonia and Antarctica. The downside of this size is fewer shore trips and less time on shore than smaller ships can manage. Travellers on the Fram are typically retirees from the US or Germany. Many on my cruise are elderly, so an early arrival at the dinner buffet means a sea of grey hair from wall to wall. But those who linger late at the bar - despite, or perhaps lured by, the relentless 1970s disco music - find a much more eclectic crowd.

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On our cruise, there is a 31-year-old computer programmer from Ipswich, England, who is fulfilling his boyhood dream of visiting Antarctica. I sit with him in the lounge as the first ice-capped mountains appear on the horizon. "In all the years I dreamed of seeing Antarctica, I never imagined the Bee Gees would be playing in the background," he says. There is a sunny American divorcee, a family of three from Seattle who had travelled to every other continent and so decided to tackle the final frontier together and a frisky Greek gentleman with an eye for the ladies. "What do you do?" I ask one morning at breakfast, to make conversation. "I am a gynaecologist," he replies, pronouncing it with a soft G.

On the first night, we tentatively introduce ourselves to our fellow passengers. And then we see barely anyone for the next day-and-a-half, as we succumb to seasickness. The Drake Passage is the shortest crossing point to Antarctica and connects Cape Horn with Greenwich Island. It is rough and the waves have been known to break ships' windows. Many passengers retreat to their beds. The lecture program begins on the first day of the passage and is hosted by the onboard experts, who include a geologist, a biologist and an historian. Unfortunately, most passengers, including me, are too sick or woozy from seasickness medication to attend.

However, attendance is compulsory at a briefing on the rules that tourists must observe in Antarctica. The chief purser, Karin, explains that the cruise company, Hurtigruten, is a member of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, a voluntary body that manages the 33,000-odd tourists visiting the continent each year. She explains the strict rules for landings, including a ban on leaving anything behind. If any rubbish remains, even a plastic wrapper, the ship must go back to retrieve it. The ship's gumboots must be worn ashore to prevent the introduction of alien plant species, she says. All orders from crew must be obeyed, as the weather can change quickly. "You wouldn't last a day in the environment we're going to," she warns.

By lunch on the second day, we have arrived in sheltered waters. Those recovering from seasickness pour out of their cabins, ravenous and excited. It's time for our first "landing", at Half Moon Island.

We begin what will become a familiar routine. We wait for our group number to be called - there are eight groups, 36 people in each. Tourism regulations limit the number of people on land at any one time. When the group before ours is called, we "layer up". My wardrobe starts with three pairs of socks, then thermal leggings, canvas trousers and, finally, the mandatory waterproof pants that will stop me getting wet, and therefore very cold, during the landing. I pile on a singlet, a thermal top, a polar fleece, a scarf and a beanie. Last, I climb into the bright blue anorak we're given on arrival and pull on a red lifejacket. I'd expected to need more - Antarctica is surprisingly warm. On most landings, the temperature hovers about zero degrees. As the Americans point out, at this time of year it is colder in New York.

When our group is called, we waddle down to level two and pull on gumboots. Then we join the queue for the Polar Cirkels - small boats that ferry eight people at a time to the landing site. After a five-minute trip, I climb down some portable stairs and onto Antarctica.

Half Moon Island is two kilometres long. The crew has used orange cones to mark a distance of about 200 metres, which we're allowed to explore and stands guard to make sure we don't wander beyond the boundary.

We're under strict instructions to stay at least five metres away from penguins and 20 metres from seals (though by the end of the trip, these distances are largely ignored). The ground is grey and rocky. There's snow on the surrounding mountain tops and an old wooden whaling boat on the beach. We spend an hour watching dozens of chubby chinstrap penguins standing on the rocks like sentinels. We smell their pungent, nostril-frying guano for the first time. We're struck by the harshness of the environment and the isolation. It's an unremarkable landing compared with the ones that follow but at the time, we're breathless with awe.

The next morning, I awake to sparkling pale-blue glaciers rising to snow-capped mountains along a channel. The water is still and clear and clouds hover just below the mountain tops. We're in the famously beautiful Gerlache Strait, named for the leader of a Belgian expedition rather than for the German whalers who discovered the area first. We visit Cuverville Island, home to a massive - and very smelly - population of gentoo penguins, whose adolescent offspring are in the process of losing their baby fur and learning to swim. They're fearless, as they have no land predators. Between swimming lessons, some wander up to the visitors and peck their trousers.

Back onboard we watch large icebergs in the shape of a cruise ship, a cave mouth and a loaf of sliced bread bobbing in the water. This is a sight best appreciated, my travelling companions and I decide, from the open-air spa bath at the bow of the ship. We toast Mawson, Shackleton and Amundsen as we sit in the steamy bubbles and sip champagne. The view of Neko Harbour on the third landing is, as promised, the highlight of the trip. It's the only landing on the continent itself - the rest are all islands - and the point at which "club seven" can claim they have visited all seven continents.

The fittest among us climb to the top of a hill, where we gaze at the harbour, speechless with wonder. The ship's crew makes a point of making the climb, too. Even for regular visitors to Antarctica, it's not a sight to be missed.

After the elderly tourists have been ferried back to the Fram, the young ones strip to their board shorts and take a numbingly cold dip in Antarctic waters. "Our nerve endings froze as soon as we got in," says one. "We couldn't feel anything." It takes an hour in the sauna to thaw them out and about 24 hours for the rush to fade.

The next landing is on Petermann Island, where we watch open-mouthed as a hungry fur seal catches and kills seven penguins.

That afternoon, we visit the British post of Port Lockroy, the "shopping mall" of Antarctica, where there is a little shop, a tiny museum recreating the life of the early explorers and the only post office in Antarctica. Profits go to conserving historic huts. We poke around the recreated kitchen with its canned food and old-fashioned stove, feeling glad we're about to be ferried back to a comfortable ship for a buffet dinner.

The next day we wander around the old whaling station at Deception Island, the volcanic caldera where MV Fram got stuck in 2007. And, in the final landing of the trip, we sip coffee with the hospitable Polish scientists at Arctowski research station and watch the heroic scientists protect the tourists from a frisky fur seal by clapping stones together in imitation of their call.

In the early hours of the fifth day, the seasickness returns - we're back in the Drake Passage and on our way home. Passengers have their sea legs by this stage and fewer people are sick. This gives us the chance to attend lectures on climate change, wildlife and one called "Ice is Nice". The lecture program stopped once shore trips began, as too many people would miss them.

I wish I'd learned about the history of whaling, for example, before visiting Deception Island, rather than after. And I wish I'd better understood the impact of climate change on the continent. Barely a month before we leave, there were media reports of the first clear evidence that Antarctica is warming, like the rest of the southern hemisphere. Scientists had shown that temperatures on the continent's surface rose by an average of half a degree over the past 50 years. But I heard no mention of the issue on the boat, save the solitary lecture at the end of the journey and my own conversation with the boat's earnest young biologist.

There are many who argue that it's too risky to allow large numbers of tourists to traipse across the world's last great wilderness.

I can't help feeling that the price for allowing operators to make money out of Antarctica should be a responsibility to turn the tourists into advocates for conservation.

We're all sorry when the ship pulls into Ushuaia. We're still exhilarated by what we've seen. We agree, over group emails flying from all ends of the Earth, that it is one of the great trips of our lives.

Jordan Baker travelled courtesy of MyPlanet and LAN Airlines.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

LAN Airlines has regular flights from Sydney to Buenos Aires via Santiago, Chile, and Auckland; Melbourne passengers fly Qantas to Sydney. Fares from $799 from Sydney and $899 from Melbourne. Qantas flies non-stop from Sydney to Buenos Aires for the same fare; Melbourne passengers fly Qantas to Sydney. (Fares are low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne, excluding tax.)

Cruising there

MyPlanet has a 12-day Antarctic Peninsula tour, with six days at sea, from $7650 a person, twin share, including a return flight from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, transfers, meals, landings, guides and lectures. There are four sailings in November and December this year and three in January-February 2010. Phone 1800 221 712 or see myplanetaustralia.com.au.

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