Freezing time at the end of the Earth

Hiking in Paradise bay
Hiking in Paradise bay

At a time when economies thrive on arms industries and hopeless wars wage over resources, it’s refreshing to be in a place that belongs to no one.

The world’s seventh continent, a frozen desert loaded with hostile superlatives, has no army, no government and no land up for plunder.

Holding our planet in the palm of its icy hand, Antarctica influences climate and weather patterns worldwide. Clearly, there’s no question who’s boss.

But attempts are underway to tame the wild beast - or at least make it more accessible.

My journey to the fabled land that’s claimed the lives of so many brave explorers, takes just two hours - a fraction of the time it took Scott or Amundsen.

One Ocean Expeditions are one of a handful of operators offering tourists the option to fly into King George Island, a research base 120km off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, thus avoiding a two-day voyage across the tempestuous Drake Passage.

Weather permitting, it’s a breeze - although that doesn’t mean our 11-night voyage will be a leisurely, diluted affair.

Getting off the beaten track sounds like a tautology in a place as remote as Antarctica, but the truth is - wilderness is getting busier.

IAATO, the body monitoring tourism in Antarctica, estimates 43,885 tourists for the 2016/17 season, a 12% rise on last year. Currently, 52 vessels operate, although that number too is set to increase.

Their reports also suggest that of the 180 authorised landing sites available, 25 are significantly more popular.

Our aim is to explore the western side of the Peninsula, tackling the unpredictable Weddell Sea, where fewer vessels go. To ease ourselves into the adventure, we first skirt the eastern edge of the continent, following a classic route.

“Would you like to go to paradise?” asks our expedition leader, Aaron, rhetorically, as we enter the appropriately named bay.

Snow-wrapped mountain peaks ripple in the wake of our zodiac boat, as we slice through perfect reflections, where ice floes play the role of clouds floating in a cerulean sky.

Beneath a beaming sun, frozen sculptures melt like candle wax until gossamer smooth, and glistening slopes framing the inlet are a swirl of kaleidoscopic refractions.

For the past few weeks, this ‘Antarctic Riviera’ has been drenched in sunshine; a pattern consistent with the last decade, according to one naturalist on board.

Perhaps it’s too crude a deduction to interpret it as climate change, but there are signs to suggest disturbed equilibrium. Long chains of salps (pea-shaped organisms encased in a gelatinous body) ribbon below the surface; their presence indicates a rise in water temperature and dictates a crash in the population of krill - the bedrock of all marine life.

Weaving between our zodiacs and trails of brash ice in the inky black waters of Orne Harbour, humpbacks lunge feed at such close proximity, I gulp and gag at blasts of their fishy, putrid breath.

Arcing above us on the Antarctic continent proper, a ridgeline of slate spires knife the sky, top tier housing for a colony of rock scrambling chinstrap penguins.

Reaching them requires a steep, sweaty climb, although thick snow stymies my ascent. Metres away, my calf-high companions make it look effortlessly easy as they waddle purposefully along hewn out ‘penguin highways’, returning from a fishing trip, to feed their newborn chicks.

Yet, eking out an existence in this mercurial environment is thwarted with rigours.

Nowhere is this desolation more felt than at Deception Island, the caldera of an active volcano in the South Shetland Island archipelago, at the tip of the Peninsula.

The last eruption occurred in 1970, at Telefon Bay, where a steep-sided valley rips through the colour-drained basalt landscape, stained white with zebra stripes of ice.

A listless crabeater seal languishes at the bottom, the only sign of any recent life. Some distance from the water, his unfortunate presence leaves us baffled, and as rage-swollen black clouds belligerently hurl spears of hail in our direction, we retreat to avoid a similar fate.

It’s rare to see any other vessels on a polar voyage, so meticulously orchestrated are the itineraries, but icebergs currently choking the Lemaire Channel, further south, mean many are navigating the same waters.

To avoid them, our expedition leader selects some atypical landing sites. Carrying less than 100 passengers, our ship, the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, has access to places off limits to bigger liners; and an experienced crew can navigate zodiacs into landing spots others wouldn’t dare attempt.

Our voyage, incorporating a visit to the Falkland Islands, offers a chance to see seven species of penguin - but one type was always going to be an outside bet.

A colony of emperors lives south of Snow Hill Island in the Weddell Sea, but impenetrable ice scuppers our hopes of the exploring the Peninsula’s tricky west coast.

Instead, we drift through the Antarctic Sound, passing a graveyard of sky-scraping tabular icebergs in solemn procession as they gradually turn and tumble, becoming part of the swelling ocean once again.

Reaching the Falklands requires skirting the Drake Passage for a day or two, although our solid Russian research vessel can easily handle boisterous waves.

More than a body of water, the Drake is a rite of passage; experiencing it is fundamental to appreciating wilderness at the end of the earth.

In the Falklands, amid tussocks, honeysuckle and lupins, we encounter more avian beauties, our eyes torn between sea and sky.

Squabbling rockhopper penguins pelt through the surf at New Island, while graceful black-browed albatross swoosh from clifftop runways, balancing on blustering winds with sangfroid.

According to members of American science and educational foundation Oceanites, who have been conducting a penguin census during our voyage, we’ve clocked up a whopping 1,208,664 birds.

But not one single emperor.

Next time.

Besides, in a shrinking world, it’s reassuring to know some doors remain closed. We’ll just have to wonder and imagine what greatness lies beyond.