The Last Frontier: Exploring Antarctica's Remote Landscapes
What's become a bucket-list destination for many is still a trek to get to.
There’s a reason Antarctica was the last continent to be discovered. It is the most hostile environment known to man. Though it is changing in profound and unpredictable ways, it remains the coldest, windiest, and driest place on earth, adverse to human life and, beyond the coasts, to life itself. Despite its inaccessibility, or because of it, Antarctica has become an increasingly popular destination in the age of bucket-list travel.
More than 50,000 tourists visited the continent last year. I was one of them. I convinced myself that it was necessary research for a book I am writing about the Belgica expedition, a nineteenth-century Antarctic voyage that went horribly awry. Most Antarctic travelers sail over the tumultuous Drake passage, between Cape Horn and the tip of the Antarctic peninsula. The 600-mile, two-day journey regularly inspires even the hardiest sailors to pay tribute to Neptune. Some seasoned polar travelers claim that sailing the Drake––and the seasickness that comes with it––is part of the experience, that it makes Antarctica feel even more distant and builds anticipation for the moment the southernmost continent emerges from behind a veil of fog. But this was one aspect of my subjects’ journey I was not particularly keen on replicating myself.
Thankfully, it’s now possible to fly over the Drake in just two hours. A few companies offer the service, but the first––and thus the most experienced––is Antarctica21, a Chilean outfit that operates out of Punta Arenas. I booked a week-long trip for early December through Open Sky Expeditions, a photography-centered boutique travel company run by my friend Alex Ros. Rather than spend the two days before my Antarctic adventure heaving over the railing into the Drake, I spent them with Alex in Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia, hiking and getting the hang of my new Leica M10 camera before its big Antarctic debut. From there we drove to Punta Arenas, where I hopped on a jet and met my 70 fellow excursionists. Two hours later, we landed at the Eduardo Frei research base on King George island and boarded a mid-sized luxury cruise ship called the Hebridean Sky.
The photographs that accompany this article are a chronicle of our journey to the breathtakingly picturesque Gerlache Strait, which, as it happens, was named after the captain of the Belgica. Before you ask, it never got that cold. It hovered around 32 degrees, which might seem like evidence of global warming but is, in fact, typical for the austral summer, and more or less in line with the temperatures recorded by the men of the Belgica.