I've wanted to visit Antarctica for years. I'm not sure why, except perhaps that it's the very end of the earth. And it looks so beautiful. I yearn to see magnificent icebergs and miles of pristine white snow. Of course I'd also love to see penguins, dolphins, seals and whales in their natural habitat.
Last October, a friend suggested I join her on a Russian polar research ship, on a special centenary voyage honouring one of the most incredible adventure stories of all time by retracing Sir Ernest Shackleton's famous Imperial Transantarctic Expedition on the Endurance. I didn't hesitate.
I shall be taking the same route as Sir Ernest Shackleton!
The trip is organized by a company called Ice Tracks Expeditions, which specializes in polar adventure travel, and our route, subject to weather conditions, will take us to the Falklands, South Georgia, the South Shetlands including Elephant Island, and on down to the Antarctic Peninsula itself.
Among my ninety-two fellow passengers will be ten descendants of the Endurance's crew. It'll be a trip of a lifetime for me, but even more so for them. Every place we visit will have a hugely special significance, knowing that their great uncle or great grandfather was there before them.
The amount of warm clothes that required packing, proved to be a challenge in itself!
Packing for my trip wasn't easy. Fleeces, jackets and hiking boots are bulky things. I needed layers; thermal underwear, base layers, mid-layers and outer layers. Gloves and hiking socks are bulky too. Even the headgear - a fur trapper hat, a woolly one and a couple of baseball caps, seemed to take up a lot of space. Then I needed a day rucksack, drinking water bottle, thermal cup, torch, and – most vital of all – the new digital camera I'd just bought specially for the trip, plus spare batteries and memory cards. In the end, I packed and repacked three times, upsizing to a larger suitcase each time.
Our ship Ushuaia Vavilov
Like Shackleton did, we departed from the port of Ushuaia at the southernmost tip of Argentina. Before we embarked, we were kept occupied with a day of 'off-roading', trekking by Land Rover across a Southern section of the Andes. Very Jeremy Clarkson!
The scenery was breathtaking!
The scenery was beautiful - mountains, lakes and forests, with wide clearings strewn with dead branches, caused by busy beavers. We took pictures of all the mountain peaks and glassy lakes, little knowing how much these images would pale into insignificance compared with what lay ahead of us.
Lake Escondido near Ushuaia in the Andes
Once aboard our ice-strengthened Russian research ship, the Akademik Sergei Vavilov, we headed south towards our first port of call, the Falklands. The Vavilov's owners are a well-thought-of company called One Ocean. The ship's crew is Russian – I loved the name of our grey-bearded skipper – Captain Beluga! The tour leaders were from all over the world. All of them with adventurous histories of their own and all cheerful, friendly and super efficient. Right from the start, I sensed we were in very safe hands.
Rare black-browed albatross
Having helped each other struggle into our bright-red waterproof outgarments, or 'wetskins', we were ready for our first excursion to shore. We descended the ship's companion ladder into zodiacs - inflatable dinghies which take twelve people at a time and within twenty or so minutes we were all ashore at West Point on West Falkland.
Unbelievably cute rockhopper penguins
There we trekked to find a massive 'rookery' of rare black-browed albatross and, equally rare, cute little rockhopper penguins, all nesting together harmoniously, if noisily, amongst the tussac (not tussock) grass.
Port Stanley Post Office
Next day's port of call was East Falkand, to Port Stanley, where it was strange to be so far away from home and yet be amongst friendly English voices, to pay for things with English money in the shops and pubs, and see red pillar boxes and phone boxes and cars driving on the left hand side of the road. With its colourful rooftops and grassy walkways, it's a much less bleak place than we saw portrayed on the news in the days of the Falklands War. The conflict still seems quite uppermost in the inhabitants' memories. It was a pretty bad time for them.
A colony of King Penguins
After a couple of days at sea, with a full programme of interesting lectures to keep us occupied, we arrived at the jagged, mountainous coastline of South Georgia. What a beautiful, rugged place. Our first Zodiac visit was to an enormous colony of king penguins and their chicks. It's a revelation.
Ever wondered what thousands of penguins look like?!
We hike a short distance to a grassy ridge behind the beach and suddenly we're looking down on a quarter of a million creatures, honking and hooting squeaking. Penguins as far as the eye can see. The chicks are so funny. They look like characters from a kid's TV show - big fluffy brown things; much bigger than the adults, either following a parent around in the hope of a nice gobbet of regurgitated lantern fish or milling around with the other kids looking at a bit of a loose end, waiting presumably for Mum and Dad to get back from their fishing trip. Sometimes they'd have a burst of energy and rush round knocking other kids over. We spent a good hour engrossed in watching them.