We all have ‘the trip of a lifetime’ etched at the back of our brain that we just can’t wait to go on. For some, it’s getting lost in the Amazonian rainforest, for others watching the Great Migration in Kenya. For Olie, Lightfoot Travel’s Latin America and Antarctica specialist, it was exploring the White Continent: Antarctica. In December 2013, he embarked on his once-in-a-lifetime trip and gives us all the details…

From Chile to the White Continent:

Having travelled to Chile 10 times since my backpacking days, it is a country I love and know so well, it was about time I ventured beyond the southern tip of the country to Antarctica. Before doing so I thought it only fair to spend a few days at the superb Awasi Patagonia lodge which had just opened beside the Torres del Paine National Park, hiking to remote glaciers and seeing wildlife such as condors, fox and even a puma!

Being short on time, I took the ‘Fly & Cruise’ Antarctica voyage whereby I flew to and from the South Shetland Islands rather than travel by ship across the Drake Passage which takes two days each way.

So it all began with an early morning flight from Punta Arenas in Chilean Patagonia to St George Island in the South Shetlands where we met our ship the Ocean Nova. Early mornings are not my ideal but there was a very short weather window and I was happy to do anything to reach the White Continent! Once onboard the cosy Ocean Nova, we spent the next six days exploring the Antarctic Peninsula seeing the very best of this incredible destination. We weaved our way south from the likes of Brown Bluff and Erebus & Terror Gulf at the northern point of the peninsula after dipping the bow into the Weddell Sea, a tricky to reach area often clogged up by sea ice. Our early start from Chile was justified, allowing for this detour into the Weddell on the western side, it was noticeably cooler with a significant amount of sea ice to paddle up to.

Fun Antarctic activities

I signed up to the kayaking program which allowed a small number of us to head in the opposite direction to the zodiac boats, usually twice a day. Paddling in complete silence watching the odd penguin and lounging Leopard seals was an unforgettable experience, the silence occasionally broken by huge creaking icebergs. I found that it enhanced my experience of Antarctica tenfold. We would head off to a remote spot and end up on the beach with the zodiacs so we could get up close to the penguin colonies, etc. Kayaking may be seen as an adventurous activity, it is to a point and a certain level of fitness is required. However, it is suitable for most age groups. I experienced calm days for the most part and the kayaks are excellent, very difficult to capsize!

Travelling further south we anchored at Gourdin and Astrolabe Islands. Here I was able to complete one mission – to step foot on pristine snow, made possible as it was early December and one of the first expeditions of the season. We also encountered a colony of Adelie penguins, who are not too bothered by us humans, and I would sit myself down on the beach, camera at the ready as they waddled up to me and either went round me or jumped into the sea.

With so many unforgettable experiences, one day stands out for me as an absolute highlight. Anchored in Charlotte Bay and surrounded by huge snow-capped mountains, we paddled out to Portal Point by kayak whilst others took zodiacs to shore. We kayaked our way around a beautiful bay filled with huge icebergs and the odd seal lounging on flat pieces of sea ice. In the distance high up on a nearby snow bridge the other passengers had climbed up to a viewpoint of the bay we were in. Their photos of us were fantastic and now treasured possessions, us in our kayaks as red specks amongst the brilliant white landscape of icebergs and snowy peaks. A deck-top BBQ and a few beers overlooking the mentioned landscape in the late evening sunshine was an unbeatable end to the day.

A unique way to get up close to wildlife and icebergs: kayaking
A unique way to get up close to wildlife and icebergs: kayaking

Spectacular wildlife viewing and diving into Antarctic Waters

Throughout the trip I was lucky enough to see huge amounts of wildlife, colonies of Adelie and Gentoo penguins numbering some 3-4,000, many sea and shore birds, elephant, Weddell and leopard seals as well as plenty of whales. I saw some 40 humpback whales and a few fin whales, despite it being December, and very early whale season (February – March is even better) when they start returning to Antarctica to nurture their young in the rich feeding grounds.

Heading back up north over the next day or two we anchored at Deception Island, an island rich in history with remnants of an abandoned whaling station and research station. I couldn’t resist a touch hike up through the snow line to the top of Mount Pond for fabulous views of the island and the bay below. All the staff talk about the polar plunge being a rite of passage and being an active Caldera, the shallow waters at the beach are supposed to be thermally heated; they assured me it would be fine. Upon diving into the freeing-cold water, there was no thermal warmth at all, it was simply the coldest experience of my life!

The final excursion of the voyage took in Livingston Island, home to a Gentoo penguin colony, elephant and Weddell seals and yet another incredible backdrop of tumbling glaciers and towering mountains. Not a bad day at all, even better when humpback whales were spotted a couple of hundred metres from the ship; a couple of us jumped into a zodiac to get close enough to feel the spray from their blowholes. Brilliant last day!

The local residents welcome you
Local residents: penguins

Life aboard the Ocean Nova

Travelling on my own, I didn’t really know what to expect on-board and how friendly the mix of nationalities would be. There must have been at least 10 nationalities, all like-minded, intelligent travellers just delighted to be on the trip. There wasn’t a single moment in the bar/lounge or restaurant where I wasn’t invited to sit with a group of Belgians, Australians, Brits, etc. to chat about our day’s adventures. The overall experience was enhanced by the quality, knowledge and professionalism of all of the expedition staff on-board. They are expert mountaineers, historians, kayakers, photographers and scientists who love Antarctica and have been returning year after year, some for over 20 years.

This was undoubtedly the best trip of my life. I don’t think I can emphasise how much Antarctica blew away any expectations and made for the trip of a lifetime which I don’t think will ever be beaten! Just brilliant.

A once in a lifetime experience, there are few ships heading to Antarctica each season (November – March) so plan well in advance to get yourself on to the best ships and have your pick of the best cabins. My trip began and ended in Chile, however most will depart from Ushuaia in southern Argentina. You will find a variety of itineraries to Antarctica, there is the Classic Peninsula voyage which is similar to mine described above except you sail across the Drake Passage; an epic 18-21 day trip including the wildlife-rich Falklands Islands and South Georgia. Other variations include Crossing the Circle and heading into the Weddell Sea to visit the Emperor penguin colonies by helicopter!

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