My most awe-inspiring trip was an unlikely voyage. I went to a place of ice and snow, yet I hate winter. I crossed the roughest sea passage in the world, yet I am someone who gets seasick as soon as a boat starts rolling. Perhaps the destination was made more special because of the hardships I endured to reach it. But I have yet to meet someone who has not been awestruck by the beauty and wilderness of Antarctica.

The year was 2005, and although I am sure there were other passenger ships exploring the same area at the same time, we did not see them during our four days cruising along the Antarctic Peninsula. Because of this isolation, I felt like a true explorer, seeing lands and wildlife that few people get to see, snapping pictures with my first digital camera, and sharing my excitement with other like-minded travellers.

“Gooood morning” chimed the cheerful voice of our expedition leader over the PA system. “It’s 6:45 and we are now entering the Lemaire Channel”. Quickly I jumped out of bed, threw on some clothes, grabbed my camera, and bounded up several flights of stairs to the top deck. From my perch, I admired steep cliffs and glaciers as the ship glided through the mirror-calm channel. By breakfast time, the waters were choked full of ice and icebergs the size of cathedrals towered in the distance. I am not normally a morning person, but who would want to sleep through such landscapes?

Antarctica feels like a last frontier because, aside from a few research stations, it contains no man-made structures. You roam freely for hours on snowy and rocky islands inhabited by penguins, seals, and seabirds, without seeing signs of civilization. There are no electrical poles, no fences, no boardwalks, and no placards warning you to “stay behind the rope”. Your footsteps are the first to break the fresh layer of snow. You can walk in any direction you want.

The only rule is that you must keep a distance and not touch the wildlife. When you are surrounded by hundreds of curious penguins however, it is just about impossible to remain five metres away from all of them simultaneously! They are clumsy and funny to watch on land, but torpedo-fast underwater.

Gentoo penguins on Petermann island, Antarctica

The landscapes of Antarctica are stunning in any weather, but when the sun comes out, they are glorious. The blue sky contrasts with snow of the purest white and grey rocky hills. The air is cool and clean. You can take off layers of clothing, but make sure you’re wearing both sunglasses and sunscreen, as an ozone hole forms over Antarctica during the austral summer.

Watching the penguins’ antics was the highlight for me, but we did and saw so much during our four days. We climbed a hill under fat wet snowflakes and slid down on our bum. We visited a Ukrainian Research Station. We hiked up the cinder cone of a collapsed volcano. We had a barbecue on deck. We saw petrified tree trunks and fossil ferns, proving that the continent of Antarctica lay in the tropics 30 millions years ago.

When we were not exploring islands on foot, we were motoring around in the zodiacs, coming within arm’s reach of leopard seals napping on ice floes, and glistening turquoise icebergs. One day we saw a humpback whale breach right next to our zodiac.

I feel privileged and grateful for having had these incredible and unique experiences while they are still possible.

On November 24, 2007, I learned that our ship M/S Explorer had sunk during an Antarctica voyage. All passengers escaped unharmed but the ship was lost forever. I cried that day. And although it may seem silly to cry for a boat, I am sure my shipmates would have understood.

(First published on the We Said Go Travel Gratitude Travel Writing Contest 2013.)

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