Daily Express, October 26, 2013

THE FINAL FRONTIER

The fabled Seventh Continent offers unrivalled rewards for those willing to go the extra mile, as DUNCAN CRAIG discovers on a kayak and cruise adventure

IT’S an incongruous shout given our surroundings, but no-one hesitates for a second. “Leopard, get your arms in.” We lift our paddles and hold our breath. A flash of mottled silver passes beneath our kayaks and then a large, menacing head with gaping jaws breaks the surface a few feet away. The dreaded leopard seal. It takes us in with the unhurried scrutiny of an apex predator, decides at length that no self-respecting penguins would be seen dead in so many layers, and slides back into the languid polar depths.

Not all the wildlife encounters during our six-day visit to Antarctica are quite so heart-stopping, but many are as close. Penguins porpoising through the waters around us like excitable Exocet missiles; humpback whales breaching so near we can smell the acrid stench of their misty ‘blows”; wave-skimming giant petrels darkening our bows. Visitors to the world’s last great wilderness are governed by a strict 5m proximity rule around wildlife; clearly no-one told the residents.

Such experiences are not easy to come by, of course. For much of the year the White Continent is as inhospitable as it is remote, a monochrome world of unfathomable cold and near-perpetual darkness, entombed in a belt of sea ice so sprawling it effectively doubles the land mass.

A monochrome world of unfathomable cold and near-perpetual darkness, entombed in a belt of sea ice so sprawling it effectively doubles the land mass

By contrast, the short Austral summer (November to March) is benign, particularly around the perimeter. Days are long and temperatures rarely lower than -5C are tempered by the crispness of the air; this is the world’s largest desert, after all.

There’s no escaping the geographical isolation, however. The Antarctic Peninsula, tapering towards Patagonia like the tail of a tadpole, is by far the most accessible point, yet it still takes me three flights and a two-day voyage to reach. Ships depart from the southern Patagonian settlement of Ushuaia, the self-styled “El Fin del Mundo” or end of the world. Cradled between the angular, snow-laden peaks of Tierra del Fuego and the glistening Beagle Channel, the town is part upmarket Alpine ski resort, part sleepy Cornish fishing port.

Standing in the arrivals queue at the town’s diminutive airport, I watch a squalling gale rocking our waiting transit bus like Seventies football hooligans. “Looks like we’re in for the Drake Shake rather than the Drake Lake,” says the camera-laden Canadian next to me with a glint in his eye. Ah yes, the Drake Passage, that notoriously binary body of water that lies between the tip of South America and Antarctica. Some days it’s a millpond but, mostly, a pitiless maelstrom.

If there’s a vessel you’d hand-pick for the job, it is the one waiting for us at the dock: the sapphire-hulled, 189-passenger Ocean Diamond, the most stable ship in the Quark Expeditions fleet. In the event, we’re relieved to find the Drake becalmed, the only real danger of motion sickness coming from the perpetual activity on board during our two sea days. Introductory talks; safety briefings; kit distribution; lectures.

This productive flurry is overseen by expedition leader Woody, a genial, British-born Australian with a seafarer’s love of a good yarn. With the possible exception of the heroically migratory Arctic tern, few creatures have journeyed more regularly between polar regions. We are to become accustomed to Woody’s excitable announcements of wildlife sightings over the tannoy. “If I say, ‘whale at two o’clock’,” he tells the schedule-dizzy attendees in a briefing on the second morning, “please don’t set your alarms.”

The Ocean Diamond, it quickly becomes clear, is a vessel more in the mould of French polar pioneer Jean-Baptiste Charcot than the more lauded Scott or Shackleton. With trademark Gallic flair, we learn during a talk by on-board historian Diane, he sailed in a ship laden with haut cuisine, fine champagne and even a marching band.

If I say ‘whale at two o’clock’, please don’t set your alarms

Our culinary delights, served on pressed white table cloths in the polished-wood comfort of the third-floor restaurant, include the likes of roast beef tenderloin and shrimp scampi del ray. This is invariably followed by a cocktail or two in the fourth-floor bar or a quiet hour in the serenity of the world’s largest floating polar library. Nightly films (with a polar theme, obviously) complete the creature comforts.

The sea days also allow us to get to know our fellow passengers. Most are over 40; many are from North America, Britain or Australasia; all have a tale to tell. The first evening I share a table with a group of Namibian birdwatchers, Don, a former US Air Force officer who has packed 150 countries into his 75 years, and a Boston-based computer expert fleeing a costly divorce (“the plaintiff” is his answer, when I ask who is minding his young daughter).

Plotting a course through the South Shetland Islands, we hit land on the third day. It’s not what I’m expecting; the polar opposite in fact. Sunshine on my face, warm volcanic pebbles underfoot and, towering above me, a flat-topped, ochre-hued escarpment that wouldn’t be out of place in a Utah desert. This is Brown Bluff, the rusty toenail on the tip of the peninsula and part of the less than two per cent of the continent not covered in perpetual ice.

The wildlife is archetypal Antarctica, however: 20,000 pairs of Adélie penguins massing on the shore in voluble ranks; watchful skuas patrolling the skies; and corpulent Weddell seals hauled out on the rocks. Many creatures, we note, are as ungainly on land as they are nimblee in their respective domains. Chief among them the giant petrel, which I witness gambolling clumsily after a “creche” of baby Adélies, enormous wings outstretched like a pantomime vampire.

The sun is seldom seen in these parts but when it does emerge, it’s with a luminosity that dazzles. Reflected rays flood the landscape, pushing back the parameters of both sky and horizon. Visibility is enhanced, senses heightened. As our Zodiac inflatable returns to the ship for a further group of passengers, I amble among the Adélie colony witnessing the “marvellously delicate tints of sky, cloud and ice” that so enchanted Scott more than a century ago.

When the sun does emerge, it’s with a luminosity that dazzles. Reflected rays flood the landscape, pushing back the parameters of both sky and horizon

As one of 28 passengers signed up for the kayak programme, I have the option with every stop to take to the water. We exist as a class apart on board, with separate briefings and distinct camaraderie fostered by our quartet of instructors – gregarious Canadians Scott, Christine and Kevin, and taciturn Drew from Montana (picture John Cleese with a Wyatt Earp moustache).

We nickname the other passengers “yellow penguins” for their tendency to mass in the regulation Quark parkas waiting for Zodiac boardings. Wearing our red and black drysuits, their diagonal chest zips lending a pleasing Star Trek tone, we have queue-jumping rights, hopping in the first prepared inflatable of the day and towing our one and two-man craft out to an appropriate spot to decant.

Graham Passage, the following day’s anchorage, proves a peerless spot for my first kayak. Gone is the sunshine and wildlife, replaced by a melancholic tinge and misty stillness. Steering with foot-controlled rudders, we ease our way through a viscous sea encircled by glacial cliffs as sheer and gargantuan as a canyon’s walls. The all-encompassing silence is broken only by the gravel-shovelling sound of paddle through brash ice and an occasional reverberating crack like gunfire as an unseen chunk of ice calves into the ocean.

The vagaries of the sea ice, rather than any pre-ordained itinerary, dictate our route during the week. We’re only too happy to go with the floe, especially with every experience seemingly surpassing the last. There’s the mother and calf humpbacks which we encounter snoozing at the surface like hissing logs off Cuverville Island. Whispered radio calls are made and other kayakers and Zodiacs soundlessly join our ranks. Sensing the need for a show, the whales rouse themselves, glide back and forth in front of us then abruptly arch their backs and disappear. A momentary pause and then a synchronised double fluke follows, the twin-pronged tails silhouetted for an instant against the shore.

Sensing the need for a show, the whales rouse themselves, glide back and forth in front of us then abruptly arch their backs and disappear. A momentary pause and then a synchronised double fluke

Diminutive Wilson’s Storm Petrels prove equally enthralling the following day. The world’s smallest bird, their party trick is to dance on the water, toying with surface tension and enticing krill. Exploring the placid immensity of Neko Harbour we’re fortunate to paddle into a spot teeming with the minute crustaceans, and sit back as a dozen of these butterflies of the Antarctic flutter and frolic around us, oblivious to our presence.

The highlights are not all natural. We stop in at Port Lockroy, a metropolis in Antarctic terms with a brace of former research huts now operated as a museum and post office. This is one of the continent’s most popular spots, not least for the coveted Antarctica passport stamp on offer. As we approach the island site, ringed by peaks whose sun-lit tips protrude from above the clouds, perfect, six-pronged snowflakes begin to fall. Holding out gloved hands to catch these, a multiple-kayak crash ensues to widespread hilarity.

Regardless of the day’s excitement, we’re always eager to return to the Ocean Diamond. For the warming tea and delicate, sugary biscuits served in the bar; for the hot showers and air-conditioned comfort of our homely cabins; for the nightly debrief of the day’s highlights; and for the easy conviviality of like-minded people satisfying a lifelong urge. In true seafaring tradition, anecdotal inflation is the norm, exotic wildlife encounters morphing in size and proximity by the glass.

Returning from one morning kayak, we’re greeted with the news we’ve been dreading. The polar plunge has arrived. Too much talk has been exchanged on the subject, too many well-lubricated pledges given to back out now. We queue in a corridor by the third-deck gangway in various states of undress like rescued passengers from a stricken ship. We’re not fleeing the icy depths, however, but diving into them.

It’s the news we’ve been dreading – the polar plunge has arrived. Too much talk has been exchanged on the subject, too many well-lubricated pledges given, to back out now

“We’ve run out of towels, I’m afraid,” announces head waiter and ship joker Glen with mock sympathy. “Only these now,” he says, holding up a paper napkin. Our laughter is infused with apprehension and the sound of chattering teeth. The starboard deck is packed for the event, the sadistic watching the masochistic. A record third of passengers take the plunge, ranging from 20-somethings to rugged septuagenarians. Attached to the ship by a harness, we enter the water in various elaborate styles but all exit the same way – quickly.

A heart-in-mouth passage through the choking, iceberg-studded Lemaire Channel, which we’re invited to witness from the reassuring solemnity of the bridge, brings us to our final and southernmost spot, Pléneau Bay. Prevailing currents and a shallow ocean bed have conspired to turn this into an iceberg graveyard, a ghost city of gigantic frozen edifices, glowing aquamarine and sculpted into impossibly elaborate shapes by Antarctica’s flagellating katabatic winds.

Without the horsepower to avoid calving ice, myself and the fellow kayakers set off instead to explore the neighbouring island, a seal-rich haven of polished granite boulders acting like a natural harbour. Beyond, we can hear the breakers of the Southern Ocean. Kevin, our guide for the day, encourages us to paddle off and have a final few contemplative minutes alone, before calling us back to the Zodiac. “That’s your lot, ladies and gents. Time to go, I’m afraid.”

There’s a distinct lack of alacrity at this. Speaking for all, one lady leans over to me and whispers: “They can’t make us.”

THE KNOWLEDGE Quark Expeditions (0808 120 2333/www.quarkexpeditions.com) offers a 10-day Introduction to Antarctica (The White Continent) voyage from £4,930pp, full board. Price includes airport transfers and one night’s accommodation in Ushuaia before embarkation. Sea kayaking from £595pp.