Research for his latest novel took Anthony Horowitz deep into the Antarctic Circle to immerse himself in one of the last great wildernesses on earth.
That really was one of the most spectacular and exhilarating hours of my life. I’m writing about it immediately afterwards, in my cabin on Akademik Ioffe, because I worry that the memories of it will slip away like icebergs in the Antarctic dusk.
That’s the trouble with visiting this part of the world: sensory overload. The weather, the topography, the animal and bird life, the sea, the crack of the ice and the boom of glaciers as they disintegrate in front of your eyes, the intense cold… You take a thousand photographs and reach for a thousand superlatives and you’re still aware you’re never going to quite capture the experience.
We entered the Lemaire Channel shortly after breakfast and suddenly we were surrounded by brash ice, so tightly packed together that the surface seemed almost solid and we wondered how much farther we could go before we were trapped.
The edge of the Antarctic continent loomed over us, a wall of ice and rock that seemed to erupt out of the sea and vanish in the swirling mist and snow. Icebergs, glowing with that intense, electric blue, floated past, each more elaborately carved than the one before.
It is impossible for anything to live here and yet there they were: a pair of crabeater seals lying on the ice, a pod of penguins rocketing through the freezing water, a single petrel gliding mournfully overhead.
Only the day before, I had been in the water with them, paddling in a kayak towards Torgersen Island – as cold and desolate a place as it would be possible to imagine, home to an enormous colony of Adelie penguins who sit on the rocks, building nests and tending to their young, huddled against the snow.
That day, we saw elephant seals, each one three tons of bone and blubber. Skuas and albatrosses swooped over us, incredibly low (some of these birds fly for many years without ever touching land). Fragments of ice, perhaps centuries old, bobbed around us, as bright as diamonds. And we were actually in it, fighting our way through, still cold and damp despite six layers of protective clothing.
Or what about the day before that? We were in Marguerite Bay at 67 degrees latitude, deep in the Antarctic Circle. Very few people have been as far south as us. We saw humpback whales – two of them crossed in front of the ship and one even flipped over to show us its fluke. We visited an abandoned research station – stepping back into a perfectly preserved relic of the Fifties, complete with dried food, tins of beans, dog pens, sledge workshops, paperbacks and a framed picture of the Queen. Incredible to think that 10 people once lived here for two years at a time. Even more incredible to be able to share, briefly, their experience.
I came to Antarctica because it is the setting for Oblivion, the final part of The Power of Five, my fantasy adventure that climaxes with a battle at the very end of the world – and that certainly describes it. I suppose I could have watched Frozen Planet or read a few books but I felt a need to visit, to immerse myself in the reality of the last great wilderness on Earth.
How to get here? Antarctic tourism grew exponentially after 2000 although recently there has been a marked drop-off as a result of world recession. Even so, there are many companies offering polar marine experiences.
I chose the Akademik Ioffe, run by a Canadian outfit – One Ocean Expeditions. It’s a working research vessel and so not exactly what you’d call luxurious. My jaw hit the floor when I first saw my cabin and it didn’t have far to travel. There were two of us sharing and it was just as well we were close friends as we were about to get a whole lot closer. Of course, we could have paid more for a larger and more private room but that seemed to go against the spirit of the enterprise. Did Scott or Shackleton demand hot and cold running water and a chocolate on their pillow?
Actually, we got both and were perfectly comfortable. The food on board, prepared by a hard-working Russian staff, was good and we were fed four times a day – three meals plus tea and cake. The penguins, shivering out on the ice, would have envied us. The bar was open until midnight and as on any cruise, social groups quickly defined themselves by nationality, age and tolerance to alcohol. The One Ocean team was first rate – enthusiastic and knowledge-able but also very much part of the social scene.
The Ioffe is purpose-built with a reinforced hull for icebreaking. It works all the year round at both poles so it’s well maintained. It has excellent stabilisers – a godsend on the notoriously rough crossing over Drake’s Passage. And size matters. Expeditions are strictly regulated and it’s often the case that only 40 or 50 people can land at any one place at one time. The more people on board, the longer you’re going to have to wait.
Antarctic travel has to put safety first. You are exploring a region which is inhospitable at best and can be lethal… but you are doing it in safety and comfort. On the one hand you want adventure but, on the other, nobody can so much as stub a toe. Your conduct, on and off the ship, is closely monitored and it’s hard to escape the herd mentality – bear in mind that the majority of passengers are elderly and retired. Many were here because it was on their “bucket list”: a depressing thought.
The tannoy went off every morning at around seven o’clock with David, the expedition leader, inviting us to breakfast and further briefings. When at sea there were two or three lectures a day; most of them well-delivered and informative. When we reached land, there were expeditions in the morning and afternoon with everyone dressed in bright red wet gear and packed into Zodiac dinghies. You went where you were told – to the last square inch – and it’s worth remembering that all Antarctic exploration is dependent on the weather and the ice. Plans were changed or cancelled at the last moment… all part of the experience.
In an attempt to gain some measure of freedom, I joined the kayaking group, even though this added $750/£475 to the already quite hefty price of the cruise and we only went out six times. Three trips were cancelled due to bad weather. Even so, the entire trip came alive when I was on the ocean, part of the environment rather than just observing it, controlling my own destiny – at least to a certain extent. That was when I felt most like an explorer, when finally there was a sense of vulnerability with the iron grey water beneath me, the wind and the snow whipping at me, cold hands, cold feet, a sense of achievement. Paddling furiously through the brash ice in pursuit of a humpback whale was an experience I’ll never forget.
It was also the only exercise I got. I had been expecting three-hour hikes across the ice but these never materialised. With all the eating and the long days at sea – it took us four days to reach our first stop – there was a danger I’d end up with as much blubber as an elephant seal.
If there were times when I felt disappointed by my time on Akademik Ioffe – that it was too tame with too much time at sea – it was because I had set my sights too high. But that tourism exists at all in the Antarctic is astonishing and overall the experience was memorable, even life-changing.
The visit to the Lemaire Channel alone would have made it worthwhile and standing on the deck at midnight, watching the sun come as close as it could to setting in a sky infused with shades of pink and grey like one of Turner’s more wistful paintings, a few cormorants circling the ship and the knowledge that only a handful of people had ever come to this harsh, magnificent landscape, how could I feel anything but privileged?
Oblivion will come out at the end of the year. I couldn’t have written it if I hadn’t come here. David Attenborough is a genius but even he is no substitute for the real thing.
Fly to Buenos Aires from London with British Airways (0844 493 0787;ba.com) from around £775 and on to Ushuaia, which takes around three hours, with Aerolineas Argentinas (aerolineas.com) from around £400. I stayed the first night at the excellent Faena Hotel(faenahotelanduniverse.com), in the exclusive (and safe) Puerto Madero area. In Ushuaia, I stayed at the Albatross Hotel(albatrosshotel.com) – clean and basic.
Bailey Robinson (01488 689777; baileyrobinson.com) offers a 10-night Antarctic Peninsula cruise on the Akademic Ioffe from £7,555 per person, sharing a twin cabin, including full board, all activities and all flights, plus two nights in Buenos Aires and one in Ushuaia all with breakfast.
One Ocean Expeditions (001 351 962 721836;oneoceanexpeditions.com) has a selection of Arctic expeditions; you can also visit South Georgia and the Falklands and they hope to introduce more challenging voyages in 2012. The next Antarctic Peninsula Adventure, aboard the Akademik Ioffe, departs on February 24-March 5, with another departing on March 5-March 15; there are two more next year, March 3-13 and March 13-23. Its sister ship, the Akademik Sergy Vavilov, also has departures this March.
CHOOSING YOUR CRUISE
Choosing the right ship is crucial. A bigger, more luxurious boat may give you a more comfortable trip but you’ll spend less time on the ice and won’t get so close to the wildlife. Russian research vessels are the best equipped and have decent stabilisers and reinforced hulls to get you through the pack ice.
WHAT TO PACK
Wet weather gear and gumboots are provided; you don’t really need expensive hiking shoes or walking poles and you can hire binoculars. All that’s really important is an assortment of thermal underwear – merino wool is best – plus good hiking socks. Salopettes and ski goggles or sunglasses are also useful. It’s best to dress in layers which helps to regulate your temperature. On-board life is informal. Forget the black tie. In fact, forget the tie. Jeans, jerseys and trainers are fine, plus maybe one smart shirt for the captain’s dinner on the last night.
WHEN TO GO
The Antarctic season lasts from November to March and offers 22 hours of sunlight at its peak. When you go will very much dictate what you will see. In November, for example, penguins and seabirds are mating. Expect amazing courtship rituals, pristine ice, spring flowers in South Georgia or the Falklands. December and January are when the penguin chicks are hatching. The weather is warmer, the light more spectacular. Seals abound. There will be less pack ice, giving you greater access. The end of the summer is best for whale watching but the penguin colonies begin to empty as the parents abandon their chicks and head back to sea.
THE INSIDE TRACK
- Whenever you travel, always remember that weather and ice conditions will change any plans you may have had, often at the very last minute. Cruise itineraries are at the very best wishful thinking.
- Passengers are required to complete a medical information form which must be submitted well in advance of departure.
The Drake Passage can be rough and some sort of sea sickness remedy is recommended. Many passengers appeared at breakfast with circular plasters attached to their necks. These were Scopoderm TTS patches and are said to be highly effective (available on prescription). Stugeron tablets are also good but both of these remedies give you a dry mouth and may also knock you out. There are alternative cures too. Elastic bands with pressure points on the wrist may have no scientific basis but seemed to work for some.
FOOD AND DRINK
Meals on board are large and frequent, starting with a hot breakfast served at 7.30am. There are no seat assignments. You quickly learn who you like and who you want to avoid. Lunch and dinner begin with soups which, though different colours, taste much the same. They are not served in rough weather. There is always a meat dish, a fish dish and a vegetarian alternative. Desserts but no cheese. Wine is extra – the ship carries a mainly Argentinian selection which won’t win awards but does the trick. Tea is served in the bar at 4.30pm. There’s also a happy hour at 6.30pm with daily themed cocktails; drinks are served until midnight.
One Ocean recommends $10/£6 per person per day, the money to be divided between their own staff, the cleaners, waiters and crew. Given how hard they work (and how little they’re paid) this seems reasonable enough.
WHAT TO AVOID
- Do not set your expectations too high. You are a not terribly welcome but tolerated guest in the Antarctic. You will see wonders but your every step will be guided.
- Don’t travel on your own unless you are quite happy to share a cramped cabin with a complete stranger.
- Don’t think you can make your own way to the ship. The new International Security Regulations, require passengers to board altogether, accompanied by the One Ocean Expeditions’ representative.
DID YOU KNOW?
The Antarctic holds the record for the lowest temperature ever recorded :
-128F ( -89.6C)