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The end of the world is simply wonderful

King penguin colonies across the Antarctic can number in the tens of thousands and stretch off beaches up into surrounding hillsides. Photo: Contributed (John Gardiner)
King penguin colonies across the Antarctic can number in the tens of thousands and stretch off beaches up into surrounding hillsides. Photo: Contributed (John Gardiner) Contributed

TRAVELLING to the Antarctic is like travelling through some Lord of the Rings movie, or going to Valhalla.

It is totally awesome.

Icebergs six storeys high slowly glide out of the mist past your expedition ship, then the sun breaks through, and an explosion of paisley colour shows you a world that you struggle to believe is real.

Before you reach the endless realm of pack ice, seals and penguins - hundreds of them - swim beside your boat. The spouts of whales are everywhere. They swim and breach beside your ship.

On the Antarctic fringe, islands offer up vast colonies of king, gentoo, chinstrap and macaroni penguins, some colonies stretching endlessly off beaches and up steep mountainsides.

Tangled in among the penguin throng, other birds called skuas battle constantly, trying to steal precious eggs that penguins are prepared to defend with their lives.

PENGUIN PARADE: King penguins parade to a South Georgia beach after egg-minding duties. Photo: Contributed (John Gardiner)
PENGUIN PARADE: King penguins parade to a South Georgia beach after egg-minding duties. Photo: Contributed (John Gardiner) Contributed

On the front of the beach, sea lions and elephant seals patrol their patches on long stretches of volcanic black sand.

As your rubber zodiac boats crash into the beach, the big seals charge at you, flopping masses of snarling energy.

Brave expedition leaders flip off the zodiacs quickly. They rush forward shouting at the top of their voices, waving arms high, convincing the seals to back off and make a narrow path for us Antarctic visitors, allowing us to snake our way across the hectic, noisy battleground that is the beach.

Hovering above this frenetic mayhem are giant albatross, silently circling with 360-degree views of a land that is like no other on earth.

I journeyed to this magical world for three stunning weeks. My life is forever changed by the experience.

The Antarctic defies all attempts to describe its total beauty. For me, it is a classic example of how well the earth can heal itself, and how well nature can rebound and flourish when man is removed from the equation.

A chinstrap penguin surveys his pristine Antarctic world. Photo: Contributed (John Gardiner)
A chinstrap penguin surveys his pristine Antarctic world. Photo: Contributed (John Gardiner) Contributed

We are such a feral and destructive species, mankind.

We came within a bee's eyelash of destroying everything that is so wonderful about Antarctica. The seals, the whales, the penguins. Hardly any left when man abandoned his murderous ways in the big southern deep freeze. But the old sealing and whaling stations are still there. Rusting ruins now. Left just as the sealers and whalers knew them.

They thought they were coming back but, when the market for seal and whale oil evaporated in the mid-1900s, their raiding trips south ended. You can walk through the old Antarctic whaling stations now, see libraries where books remain on shelves, kitchens where pots and pans rust away - the old derelict buildings that once housed men, now home to thousands of penguins and seals.

My journey to the end of the earth started at the tip of South America, in Tierra del Fuego, near Cape Horn, in a place called Ushuaia (pronounced You-shwy-ia). Ushuaia is a destination in itself, a wonderland surrounded by high snow-covered mountains and glaciers that delightfully set the scene for the Antarctic weeks ahead.

John Gardiner walks out on to the Antarctic pack ice. His ship, the Plancius, was able to break its way free after experiments were conducted in the ice. Photo: Contributed
John Gardiner walks out on to the Antarctic pack ice. His ship, the Plancius, was able to break its way free after experiments were conducted in the ice. Photo: Contributed Contributed

After a week in Ushuaia, my Antarctic expedition boat, the Plancius, steamed out to the Falkland Islands. Don't mention the war. The British and the Argentinians are still not over it. The Argies claim the Falklands still, listing them as part of their Malvinas group.

The Brits on the Falklands will accept any world currency - but they refuse to take Argentinian pesos. The sensitivities of the 1982 war, when Argentina invaded the British-held Falkland Islands, are raw still. The Brits drove the Argies off, but the memories linger on.

Tens of thousands of Argentian mines remain on Falkland Island beaches. Signs and ropes prevent humans from wandering on to these innocent-looking pieces of

paradise. Penguins wander across the beaches, and are too small to trigger the mines, but cows sometimes wander on to the sands and, sadly, are blown to bits.

The Plancius expedition ship carefully picks its way through the Antarctic pack ice. Photo: Contributed (John Gardiner)
The Plancius expedition ship carefully picks its way through the Antarctic pack ice. Photo: Contributed (John Gardiner) Contributed

Old shipwrecks litter the Falklands. The Drake Passage is one of the wildest stretches of water in the world. Ships coming around Cape Horn often would be battered and pulverised. They would limp into the Falklands for repairs. Many were so badly damaged, they were just driven up on to beaches, and remain curious oddities today.

From the Falklands, we sailed down to South Georgia, to marvel at the island's wildlife. Every day in South Georgia you could be in the middle of a David Attenborough documentary.

It gets dark around midnight, and is light again around 2am. Day after day after day, thousands of fur seals, elephant seals, leopard seals, whales and penguins of many types surround and amuse. We were constantly on and off the zodiacs, making long land treks into paradise, visiting bays and coves where man seldom goes.

Then on down into mainland Antarctica. We parked our boat in the pack ice and walked off to explore this snowy wilderness. Then our little ice breaker smashed through the sheet ice as huge icebergs loomed all around us. We visited Antarctic research stations and talked with men and women working there.

Icebergs as high as four storey buildings constantly glide by Antarctic expedition boats. Photo: Contributed (John Gardiner)
Icebergs as high as four storey buildings constantly glide by Antarctic expedition boats. Photo: Contributed (John Gardiner) Contributed

They are isolated for months. They love visits from expedition boats, because we bring salads, fresh vegetables and fruit, rare treats for them.

A woman had a heart attack on our boat and we had to fly a special plane in from Chile to evacuate her and her husband from the Chilean Antarctic base, back to a hospital in Santiago.

This trip into the Antarctic was a constant adrenaline rush. When our journey was over, and I was flying home from Argentina to Sydney, I couldn't believe it had all happened. It seemed like some amazing, fantastic dream. It still does.

I've been bitten by the bug. I want to go again. What an amazing adventure.

How incredible were those early explorers. We do it with thermal clothing in heated boats, with all mod cons.

Early explorers, like Captain Cook and Ernest Shackleton, did it in open sail boats with fur clothing. They would have been constantly wet, always freezing.

The South Georgia settlement and abandoned whaling station of Grytviken, where Ernest Shackleton is buried. Photo: Contributed (John Gardiner)
The South Georgia settlement and abandoned whaling station of Grytviken, where Ernest Shackleton is buried. Photo: Contributed (John Gardiner) Contributed

Our hardened expedition leaders, polar veterans, marvel at these amazing men. They can only imagine how tough they must have been.

So, if you are thinking about going to the Antarctic - do it! Forget the cost - it is totally worth every cent.

Avoid the cruise boats, go on an expedition boat with a maximum passenger load of about 100. These get in and out of everywhere. There are restrictions on the bigger boats. You also get awesome amounts of time on the zodiacs and days and days of exploring on the land, and on ice.

We were lucky enough to visit Shackleton's grave and trek over parts of his journey.

I have to stop now, because this is so making me want to return to Antarctica. It is just bloody awesome!

Topics:  antarctica



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