Antarctica, the earth’s southernmost continent. As a kid learning about the world, I used to wonder what life in Antarctica could be. I only imagined Antarctica to be freezing cold, full of penguins and only accessed by scientists. Nowadays more and more tourists are able to visit this polar region. One of these tourists is Nora, a professional photographer from Malaysia. The Antarctica experience takes you through Nora’s journey and gives an insight into what’s it’s like to visit this remote part of the world.
Having been to Svalbard, Norway which is as close to the North Pole (Arctic) as I could get. I was curious about the South Pole. Go “Bipolar,” they say… Travel to all 7 continents, they say.. and so I went. I had to have my Antarctica Experience.
Before embarking on my Antarctica trip, I had mixed reactions from people. Most were like.. Won’t it be too cold there? You’ll freeze to death!! Others were confused… What’s in Antarctica? Isn’t it just snow and more snow? Who goes to Antarctica? Most people go to New York, Paris, London etc. And of course, some thought it was an amazing trip not to be missed.. a journey of a lifetime!
With numerous operators organizing trips to Antarctica, and the increasing number of people going on these trips, can these adventurers really be that crazy?
My trip to the Falkland Islands a year ago taught me not to bring too many clothing items. Coming from a country with an all-year warm climate like Malaysia, I thought I would need many layers of clothes to keep warm. That trip helped me prepare well for my Antarctica experience. Being in the cold isn’t something we Malaysians are used to. Even with all the traveling I do, I still long for the warmth of home.
The Antarctica Experience: Getting There
Antarctica is exceptionally remote, and to get there is an adventure in itself. You need to decide which part of the continent to visit, and whether to go by air or by sea. About 98% of visitors approach Antarctica via the tip of South America to the Antarctic Peninsula as this is the quickest and most accessible route. That’s exactly what I did. From Malaysia, I flew to Ushuaia, Argentina where I boarded the ship to Antarctica.
It really takes time to get there. I traveled with a group of friends. We flew from Kuala Lumpur via Doha. It took us three flight connections, an overnight stay in Buenos Aires, then another flight with a total of about 46 hours before reaching the town of Ushuaia, the Southernmost city in the world.
We were on the ship for the whole journey, sort of like a cruise, with the exception of when we went out on excursions or camping. Our ship had top notch facilities with a comfortable hotel room and excellent food.
If you’re like me and get easily seasick, read up on the “Drake Passage”. Even if you don’t get seasick, check out some youtube videos on it. You really need to know what you’re getting yourself into.
Basically, the Drake Passage is a notorious stretch of water we crossed in order to get to Antarctica from Ushuaia. The passage is only ~800km wide (the shortest crossing from Antarctica to the other continents), and connects the waters of the Pacific Ocean in the West, to the South Atlantic Ocean in the East. It is known to be one of the roughest waters in the world, with ~ 30% of voyages experiencing rough weather. We were told that it can also be surprisingly placid too, at which time it has been called ‘The Drake Lake’, but I don’t believe that…yet.
I survived the Drake Passage, both ways. First, there were times where at dinner, everything was rocking and rolling, and sliding everywhere, we had to choose either to cling to our plates or the dining table, which was bolted down (depending on what your priorities are – food? or life?). It was fun. We called it “Adventure Dining”.
Come to think of it, I’m glad we did the Drake Passage. It wasn’t as bad as we thought it would be (maybe we were just lucky?). Regardless, it was certainly a ‘price’ well worth paying. Just make sure you have really good seasickness remedies on hand. We had these patches you could wear behind your ear, and that worked like magic.
Visiting Antarctica is expensive. But I noticed after the trip while roaming the streets of Ushuaia that it can be cheaper if you’re willing to risk being on standby for a couple of days to get last minute deals. This is easier if you’re traveling solo or as a couple, or a very small group, depending on what is available at the time.
November is generally the cheapest time to go while January being the peak travel period has higher prices.
The Antarctica Experience: What To Bring
In terms of what to pack for Antarctica, different travel operators provide various types of gear/kit in their packages. In my case, we have been provided with a complete set of expedition gear to use while on the excursions. So ultimately we didn’t have to bring much outerwear.
Bear in mind, it was January and we had to travel through Buenos Aires (its summer there, with temperatures around 35°C), and Ushuaia which was not as warm,( around 9°C).
So, pack for warm weather, depending on how long you plan to stay in Buenos Aires. I’d say since we have come this far with that loooong flight//transfers/transits etc. You might as well make the best of it. Travel at least to some more places in the region before or after the trip.
Since all outerwear were provided on loan by the operator, we only needed a thermal layer, and mid layer, gloves, socks, and whatever we needed to wear on the ship. Note that we only received the expedition gear once we boarded the ship, so we didn’t need to bring any outerwear to wear in Ushuaia.
With the amazing scenery and an experience of a lifetime, you can’t NOT bring a camera. At least to document everything. Ideally, I’d also suggest bringing both zoom lenses (for wildlife) and wide angle lenses (for the landscape). In cold temperatures, batteries don’t last very long, so, stock up on batteries as well.
The Antarctica Experience: Halal Food
I wasn’t too sure of the food options during the trip and was prepared to have seafood, fish or vegetarian meals. So when the Executive Chef came to our table, introduced himself (he is from Bosnia, and a Muslim), and told us that the meat and chicken were halal, and cooked separately from the non-halal items, we were so happy. He even made an effort to cook Malaysian dishes for us.
The Antarctica Experience: What it’s really like
The biggest misconception of Antarctica is that it’s freezing cold all the time. Most people go to the Antarctic Peninsula during the southern “summer” between November and March. The average temperatures there range from around -2°C in November to around 1°C in February during the peak of summer. I think the coldest it got when I was there was around -2°C, which is not that cold if you compare it to, say, winter in New York.
One of the perks of Antartica is its diverse wildlife! January is the best time to enjoy this. We saw:
Penguins – Gentoo, Adelie & Chinstrap Penguins
Whales – Minke, Humpback, Orca
Seals – Weddell, Crabeater, Leopard, Elephant & Fur Seal
So many different types of birds, I lost count.
Aside from seeing all the wildlife, camping in the snow was the highlight of my trip. I wasn’t really sure what I got myself into until we were actually on the camping island and digging up the snow. Each person was equipped with a bivvy sack, a sleeping mat, a sleeping bag & a sleeping bag liner. Everyone dug up a hole the size of the bivvy sack, around 1ft deep, and this shields you from the wind. The magical thing for me was the sunset. Orange, pink, yellow, purple, blue. The snow-covered mountains reflected in the calm waters. This was one of the best sunsets I have ever seen.