Neko Harbour, Argentina, Antarctica

How to be an Antarctic explorer

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By Emma Thomson
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This year marks the centenary of Ernest Shackleton’s expedition on board his ship Endurance to Antarctica. In an age when most people found a trip to Blackpool thrilling enough, he was setting off for Antarctica in a wooden schooner – not once, but four times. What bravery, madness and skills are required to explore Earth’s greatest southern wilderness? Emma Thomson boarded the Oceanwide Expedition-owned Ortelius for a ‘Basecamp Adventure’ to find out. 

After three days barreling through seesaw seas I made a key discovery that put a minor dent in my mission to be a Shackleton-esque explorer: I hated boats. Well, my stomach did.

Things had been ropey as we cruised out of Argentina’s Beagle Channel, but by the time we reached the foaming high seas of the Drake Passage – the 500 mile-wide channel separating South America from Antarctica – my sea legs were quivering columns that clung to my bunk bed like a monkey; the waves that washed our porthole windows meagre in comparison to the swells of nausea that rose in my throat.

Ernest Shackleton's Ship Endurance Trapped in Ice, AntarcticaShackleton’s ship, Endurance, trapped in ice

Still, when we reached the relative calm of the Antarctic Peninsula my belly settled a little and the sight of the snow-clad mountains reinvigorated my bravado.

Our motley crew of novice adventurers gathered in the theatre for our first lecture: penguin etiquette. Shackleton would have scoffed slightly – he and his crew ate most of flightless birds they encountered – but attitudes have understandably changed since 1914.

“Give them a five-metre berth and disinfect your boots every time you get on and off the ship, so we don’t spread potentially fatal diseases. Any questions?” finished our French expedition leader Delphine, scanning the crowd. A hand shot up at the front of the theatre. “How do you disengage a penguin?” asked the hand. We all craned to see Samer – a softly spoken computer analyst from St Louis, Missouri – slinking down in his seat as laughter erupted around the room. “Disengage?” Delphine echoed, perplexedly. “Er, I mean, what do you do if it approaches you?”  “Ah! That’s fine; just stay still and don’t touch.

Gentoo penguin and tourist, Antarctic Peninsula, ArgentinaGentoo penguin and tourist, by Emma Thomson

With the rules for penguin engagement clear, we embarked on a slightly more modern activity – kayaking. We were all quietly confident having had some prior experience, but out here a quick flip into the freezing water can be deadly. “Stay close to me at all times,” warned Louise our instructor.

Plugged into the small boats we started to wend our way through the bergs, their icy mass glowing beneath the water’s surface. “Wait for me,” called out Sam, a British Indian with a superb handlebar moustache. He powered his paddle into the water, but ripples from another kayak sent him rocking. “Whoaaaa!” he yelped, as he sploshed sideways into the waves. “Capsize!” yelled his cabin buddy. The zodiac on standby whizzed over, hauled him out of the water and sped him back to the ship to warm up. He was fine, but his moustache drooped sadly.

Kayaking, Port Lockroy, Antarctica, ArgentinaKayaking in Antarctica, by Emma Thomson

That night, Delphine decided the weather was good enough for us to camp wild on the snow. When the Endurance finally succumbed to the crushing weight of the ice that surrounded her, Shackleton and his men only had a few provisions and the fur gloves and chunky fishermen’s jumpers they wore to protect them from the elements. We, on the other hand, were given a roll mat, an inflatable Therm-a-Rest mattress, two sleeping bags, a cotton liner, and a waterproof cover each. But the wind still whistled around us and, as night fell, snowflakes began to fall from the sky. This was getting closer to following in the great man’s footsteps.

Finally came the mountaineering. Our beginner group hiked safely up the mist-covered mountain, but drama unfolded among the intermediates. Jorden – an Aussie from Perth – was peering over the side of a 40ft mint-blue crevasse when the ice gave way. Only the rope around his waist and a swing of his axe into the wall saved him from plummeting into the chasm. He dug his toes in, scrambled over the ledge and lay on the snow panting and shivering with nerves.

This glimpse into Shackleton’s beloved “frozen south” had given me even more respect for him and his team – surviving in Antarctica takes skills we’d never learn in a few days, but it had been the trip of a lifetime trying.

For more information about the 12-day Basecamp Adventure visit http://www.keadventure.com. To get there, Air Europa flies daily from London Gatwick to Buenos Aires via Madrid. Connecting flights from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia are offered by Aerolineas Argentinas.
Explore more of Argentina with the Rough Guide to Argentina. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.