46° below: Explore the Subantarctic Islands this summer
Expand the 'travel local' mantra slightly and scratch your travel itch in the Subantarctic Islands. Your passport might be gathering dust, but ...
Looking to scratch that international travel itch? Check out this bucket-list adventure - a 30-day expedition cruise to Antarctica with Christchurch's own Heritage Expeditions.
There’s a blinding flash behind my eyelids immediately followed by an all over burning sensation as I hit the -1°C water. In the couple of strokes it takes to reach the ship and our thermally-insulated Expedition Leader Samuel Blanc, who’s waiting knee-deep in the Ross Sea at Cape Adare, the burning sensation gives way to a blanket coldness racing inwards and I’m grateful to see his industrial-gloved hand ready to help haul me out.
Alighting the stairs in a jacked up blur of adrenaline and deafening whoops, I’m wrapped in a fluffy towel when I reach the top, and high five my way along the ship’s deck to watch our chef’s impressive leaps (backwards flip and commando) from the top of the gangway. Neurons crackling and bristling with energy I can’t recall feeling this alive, even as the smile frozen on my face starts to ache.
When I can’t feel my feet on the steel deck, I pad down to the sauna on deck 2 where I’m greeted by a welcoming wall of heat and the burly smile of one of the Russian crew. Beside him a wad of birch tree branches sticks out of a bucket of scalding water like a twisted Addams Family bouquet. Grabbing the branches I begin flogging myself as I’ve seen in the movies as water flies wildly around the sauna prompting my companion to intervene and relieve me of the branches. Dipping them back in the water he holds them upright, gently shakes off the excess water and commences to beat me across the chest with them. The extremes of frigid water, dry heat and gentle lashing results in an eruption of gooseflesh as he motions me to turn around and works my back over. Inwardly cursing Hollywood for my Russian sauna etiquette faux pas I thank him for the beating, it only seems right, and offer to return the favour. Laughing, he holds up a hand to stop me and declines, no doubt recalling my earlier self flagellation. The only thing I beat is a hasty retreat back to my cabin.
We first meet our trusty expedition vessel Akademik Shokalskiy, a roguishly charming and sturdy Russian vessel built for polar research in 1984, now repurposed for adventure, when we board her in Bluff. Her ice-strengthened sea cred and Soviet-era nostalgic cool sets the scene for an authentic expedition, adding to the excitement of our adventure. Resplendent in blue and white with yellow cranes at the bow and stern, she will be more than our home for the next 30 days, sharing with us some of the most inaccessible and remote shores in the heart of Antarctica. Aptly named ‘In the Wake of Scott & Shackleton’, our expedition follows these heroic legends and offers a rare opportunity to explore the Ross Dependency, New Zealand’s claim on Antarctica, as well as Australia and New Zealand’s Subantarctic Islands which lie like scattered stepping stones to and from the Antarctica. These UNESCO World Heritage Sites, themselves irreplaceable ecosystems and fascinating destinations rich in history, offer their own special adventures.
I never thought I’d be so happy to be woken at 5am as I am when I hear Samuel’s voice crackling over the PA announcing our first iceberg. Excitedly filing into the bridge, we watch its silhouette slowly develop in the mist like a Polaroid picture in slack-jawed silence. As the floating apartment block-sized iceberg, stark white above the water and luminous blue below, nears we brave the Antarctic chill up on the Monkey Deck, the highest accessible point on ship, to get a better look. Its gnarly caves, layers, fissures and cracks signals the first in an endless procession of these silent monoliths, each uniquely cleaved and hued by nature, providing a dramatic, ever-changing backdrop to our journey. The same afternoon we celebrate the auspicious occasion of crossing the Antarctic Circle, surrounded by ice, with mulled wine under a brilliant blue sky. Reciting an oath pledging to protect all things Antarctica we earn the ‘mark of the penguin’ – stamped on our foreheads.
We spend our days weaving among perfectly lit tabular icebergs and smaller ice cathedrals of varying blues watching airborne penguins leap out of the water onto the ice while lone Leopard and Crabeater Seals raise their heads to watch our passage from private frozen islands as we shudder through ice floes. Lectures from the expedition team school us up on all things Antarctica while in the bridge, complete with delightfully anachronistic instrumentation straight out of Stranger Things, proves the place to be no matter the time of day courtesy of an open bridge policy. We are, of course, in the realm of 24-daylight where the mere minutes between sunset and sunrise stain the seascape and skies in preternatural oranges, pinks and reds. From here we watch pods of Antarctic Minke Whales, their small dorsal fins knifing through the deep blue water, Orca patrolling the ice edge, lounging seals, penguin-strewn ice floes and pass Emperors preparing to march.
Time proves irrelevant under a perpetual sun and every opportunity to get out and explore is taken, regardless of the time, as we juggle meals and sleep around our adventures. It’s all part of Heritage Expeditions’ first rule of exploration – remaining ‘rigidly flexible’. The weather can be temperamental here, so we take our opportunities when and where we find them. There is, of course, a certain thrill to walking on the ice at 3am in brilliant sunshine as we find out during our first triumphant steps on the frozen continent at Cape Adare. Large icebergs loom ahead of our destination – a flat stretch of land framed by snow-capped peaks and presided over by neighbouring giants Mount Sabine and Mount Minto. As our Zodiacs skip over the glassy water a gentle breeze carries the ripeness of Antarctica’s largest Adelie Penguin colony engulfing Carsten Borchgrevink’s Hut, Antarctica’s oldest.
Nothing quite prepares you for the full-on, all sensory assault of hundreds of thousands of penguins and their fluffy brown chicks. Its pungency hits you like a wave, a wave you can taste, and is accompanied by the endless squawks of neighbourhood disputes and hungry youngsters chasing parents demanding feeding. Confined to the beach by their numbers, we spot Borchgrevink’s Hut rippling, mirage-like, over the ocean of rowdy penguins and enjoy a perfect, minutes-long sunset and rise.
On Inexpressible Island, Adelie Penguins leap out of the water onto the ice on our arrival with a Chinstrap Penguin even jumping into our Zodiac to hitch a brief ride before returning to more familiar surrounds. Ice crunches underfoot as we walk to the site of the snow cave where Robert Falcon Scott’s Northern Party saw out a winter after being stranded and having to leg it more than 200 miles to Cape Evans. Along the way we stop to observe a group of Weddell Seals in repose – the vocal seals delight with their near 180-degree yawns which end in a brief chattering of impressive teeth as they lazily scratch mottled undersides with dexterous flippers. Hiking over the ridge of Harrowfield Hill (named after Heritage Expeditions’ recently retired lecturer Dr David Harrowfield) we could be anywhere in the world as we navigate large rocky outcrops and, far below, the white expanses of Priestley and Reeve’s Glaciers inch their way into the Ross Sea.
In Terra Nova Bay we’re invited to spend the afternoon at Italian research station Mario Zucchelli. Their first ship visitors in two years, our Italian hosts are as excited to meet us as we them and greet us on their wharf by a ladder, made just hours earlier, especially for our visit. Our enthusiastic hosts show us around their shipping container constructed summer research station, reminiscent of Christchurch’s former Re:Start container mall where they conduct oceanic, meteorological and geological studies surrounded by towering, ice-capped ridgelines. Tour complete, we join them in their mess hall where we sack out in front of an open fire and enjoy tales of life on the ice, indulging in the surreal experience of sipping Antarctica’s finest espresso and eating pizza with Italians in Antarctica.
Dreams are realised for many as we step inside the history-strewn, rustic huts of Scott and Shackleton. At Cape Evans, Scott’s second hut is resplendent in its meticulous preservation by the Antarctic Heritage Trust. Indeed, such is its condition you get the uneasy feeling Wilson, Ponting or Scott himself might swing open the door at any moment and catch you trespassing. Dog skeletons tethered to chains, remarkably preserved stacks of seal blubber and hay greeting us on the nose in the stables all stark reminders of the hardships endured by these heroic legends. Traversing the volcanic landscape at Cape Royds, we arrive at the bleached, silvery wood of Shackleton’s Hut crowded by jagged black rock and tucked under a frosted, smouldering Mt Erebus. It’s here I wander off for some inward reflection, find a rock with a view and bask in the quiet majesty. It’s a memorable moment to be sure, but as far as sheer delight goes it’s hard to top the tuxedoed Emperor Penguin who gatecrashes our on ice celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the first sighting of Antarctica. Torpedoing out of the water and belly sliding over the ice he stands to attention at our makeshift bar 77° south of the equator between Mount Erebus and Mount Discovery in an unforgettable ‘a penguin walks into a bar in Antarctica’ joke come to life. Our suave celebrity guest freely mingles and poses for photos, and, like all party animals, is the last to leave.
Cruising along the Ross Ice Shelf also gives us a taste of the previously unknown power of Antarctica as we trade the cosy comfort of the bridge for the -15˚C katabatic wind chill for a closer look at one of Mother Nature’s more inspired creations. Staring up at the giant white wall and along its endless sheer expanse, the air a-shimmer with ice crystals tingling my face where they land, I quickly realise no camera can ever capture this experience and lower my lens. Rousing me from from the Shelf’s hypnotic trance, the call of “Orca” sees us spend the next hour observing dozens of pods of Type C Orca (including females with calves) patrolling the Shelf’s edge. On the hunt for toothfish, we watch as they slam their tails on the water and dive below our ship, their unmistakable white markings visible below the surface as terrified penguins leap through the white-capped water and scrabble up floes half expecting David Attenborough to chime in at any moment with a classic narration.
Back at Cape Adare, post plunge, with the spiny backdrop of the Admiralty Mountains cutting into the skyline we charge glasses of Shackleton Whisky on the back deck in the happy/sad farewell akin to saying goodbye to a close friend you may never see again. I can feel Antarctica’s intimate, chilling embrace still running in my veins long after the great white continent fades in our wake.