Monday, January 12, 2015

How to travel to Antarctica

Tuxedo chasing penguin on King Georg Island. All photos Creative Commons licensed: Gunnar Garfors.  

Name a continent. All of them have a human history going back thousands and thousands of years. Except for the only uninhabited one. Antarctica was first discovered around 1820, and the South Pole wasn't visited until December 14, 1911 when my fellow countryman Roald Amundsen skied in and narrowly beat British Robert Falcon Scott to it. Antarctica is still rather hard and costly to visit.

But. It. Is. Totally. Worth. It.

How to visit
Why the airport was closed for over a week. 
There are several ways to visit as a traveller, but only during their summer which occurs late October-mid March. I first tried a so-called air cruise in November. I was supposed to take a cruise ship there from Ushuaia, the world's southernmost city in Argentina, and fly back to South America five days later. To get from Oslo to Ushuaia can be a hassle. It took my over 30 hours to get there. Upon landing I was greeted by a phone call. It was the tour operator.

- A military cargo plane has crash-landed on the Antarctica airstrip and it is likely to be closed for at least a week. They have no heavy equipment top move it.

Bummer! The trip was in other words cancelled, and I had to spend a week in Argentina. Not that Argentina is a bad holiday destination, just not when I want to go elsewhere.

The second option is a full cruise. It will take 9-20 days, and you are not even guaranteed to set foot on land. Around a third of cruise passengers do not actually enter the continent, they only see it from their ship, according to the BBC.

You can of course also hire your own yacht or airplane, but those people likely to do so typically read Luxury Travel Magazine, not

I decided to go for yet another option, and returned to South America a month later. This time I would fly both ways and spend two days on the unexplored continent.

Finally there
From Punta Arenas in Chile. I arrived there an hour before the information meeting any traveller bound for Antarctica is required to undertake.

We were to leave four hours later. But there was heavy fog on King George Island, and not enough visibility for planes to be able to land. So the flights was cancelled.


And again.

And yet again.

I was starting to lose hope. Frequently checking the airport's webcamera didn't exactly help either. There was indeed fog. There was indeed no visibility. I was indeed frustrated.

Until the fourth day when I woke up by a 7 o'clock phone call.
Driving towards the Uruguayan base. 

- Please meet in the reception in an hour. Weather forecast looks good.

And it must have been. My group, which also counted two Russians and three Americans, was airborne a few hours later. In an old British Aerospace 146. We landed without problem two hours later. Zero degrees Celcius. Minus 20, with the chill factor taken into account.

Luxury no more
Stuck. Very stuck.
Antarctica does of course not have facilities for tourists, and I did not expect luxury or comfort. I was not positively surprised. We had to walk from the airstrip to the nearest research base, a Russian one, where we were offered instant coffee and chocolate snacks. People on a gourmet mission should bring own food. Actually, anyone should bring own food. We had 6 airplane meals during the two days in Antarctica. Yes, airplane meals, served on typical airplane trays even. After two days in storage, then microwave heated, not exactly a winning recipe. Awful! I would have brought my own food, had I had the faintest idea. Decent Chilean red wine compensated. Somewhat.

Next up was a peek into Chile's naval commando center where all ships in the area are monitored via satellite and radar. They have responsibility for any rescue operations in the area, and are of course manned 24/7. Their post office is not. It is open one hour a day, so time it carefully if you want a unique stamp on your postcards. It will cost 2USD a piece to send a card, letters are not accepted. And you have to bring your own postcards, none are sold here. Likelihood is however that you will get back home before your cards do.
Uruguayans to the rescue. 

- Logistics here are difficult. Expect that it will take 30 days before your cards aare delivered, the postal worker said.

But too stuck to pull out. 
Alejo Contreras Staeding, our very experienced guide, would take us to the Uruguayan base over a small snow-covered and roadless mountain in a bright yellow carrier, some sort of a bus on belts. He has skied to the South Pole and conquered Mount Vinson, the highest peak on the continent, 16 times. But even Alejo got stuck in the demanding summer conditions with rotten snow and hidden water lagoons. Half an hour of shovelling didn't help either. Our guide picked up his ancient Nokia phone. Battery life beats functionality here.

- Solidarity is very strong in Antarctica. Everybody helps everybody. The Uruguayians are on their way to pull us out, Alejo told me upon hanging up.
The Uruguayans gave us a lift to their base. 

Amazing penguins
An identical carrier, only red, was with us within an hour to give us a ride to the Uruguayan base. We were invited into their common room with a kitchen, a television corner as well as pool and table tennis tables. Our carrier was salvaged the next day, after 4 hours of shovelling.

Of course I cannot leave out the penguins. The funny, charming and trusting birds that will give you photo and selfie possibilities of dreams. Thousands of penguins live on Ardley Island, but you will also see 2-3 on random beaches around King George Island. If they don't make you smile, giggle or laugh, nothing will.

And the carrier was dug out the next day. 
Just be sure to also observe them in the water. I have never seen more able swimmers. And I am from Norway, where fish was practically invented.

Tour operators
You will have to go through a tour operator in order to visit Antarctica. The cheapest prices you can expect to find are as follows:

Air-cruises: 4,000 USD (5-9 days)
Cruises: 4,750 USD (8-20 days)
Return flights: 5,500 USD (1-9 days)

The world's southernmost church. 
But, you can still shop around for last minute deals. One option is to check the websites below, although you are unlikely to find cheap flights to Ushuaia if you order your cruise at the last minute. A better option is, given that you have time and feel like hanging out in Patagonia for a while (not a bad idea, by any means), to window shop at the tourist offices there. The less central ones tend to give bigger discounts. The companies are not happy about leaving any beds or cabins empty, so you can save 1,000-2,000 USD off the normal prices by just coincidentally being there and trying out your negotiating skills. Chances are of course that no cruise ships at all are available. 
It's secured well against wind bursts. 

And of course, your trip to Ushuaia or Punta Arenas and back, comes in addition.

Some tour operators

Or go straight to the airline, Aerovias DAP, the only one that flies scheduled flights from Punta Arenas to King George Island.

Collins Glacier. 

Fancy a swim?

Overlooking the Chilean and Russian bases on King George Island.

Don't break the law in Antarctica. Or you will be hung upside down for a week. 

No queue jumping, please.

Too cold to swim?

Sorry, just had to.

A big and dangerous skua. They are alleged to attack baby penguins. 

Dress like a penguin.

The airport at a distance. 

Cool "wheels".