This year I have been reflecting on some of my greatest adventures.
We are celebrating 10 years filming our TV travel series Places We Go, and this has sparked a great deal of nostalgia. I can’t help but cast my mind back to our very first year of filming, and one of the trips that totally changed my life.
When I learned that Peregrine Adventures is also celebrating a birthday this year – 40 years for them – it seemed like an opportune time to share my experience. I was lucky enough to be on board one of Peregrine’s expedition ships to the final frontier; Antarctica. The experience turned into a one-hour special in our very first series.
Let me preface this by sharing that I have just watched the episode for the first time since I wrote it, and it has brought up all the emotion I felt when I was there; and left me aching to return.
Antarctica is magical place you’ll never get over. It truly humbles even the most discerning traveler.
I’m still not sure I can find the words to express how it made me feel; perhaps silenced. For me, it is Mother Nature on her grandest scale, and she left me utterly speechless.
It’s a place you simply must go and experience for yourself.
Peregrine Adventures is well-known for its love of exploring our planet’s greatest wilderness, and mixed with their expert guides on board, I knew we were in for a treat. But nothing could have prepared me for the reality.
The sea voyage to Antarctica took two days, departing from Ushuaia, Argentina. We made our way through the Beagle Channel, around the notorious Cape Horn, through the Drake Passage and onto the South Shetland Islands and before reaching the continent of Antarctica.
I will never forget navigating the high seas around Cape Horn. From the bow of the ship, I felt as if I was face to face with Mother Nature herself. It was as though she had scripted a wild ride for more impact, whipping up a Category Ten storm with albatross flying alongside us.
“Legend has it that the albatross are the spirits of sailors who have lost their lives at sea, ushering us through for a safe passage” smiled our expedition guide Dutch. He had a twinkle in his eye and I knew this was the stuff of dreams for him too.
Over the next couple of weeks Dutch shared his love for Antarctica with all the hundred passengers on board. Together with our captain, we were masterfully navigated through those high seas and changing conditions to get the very best out of our trip.
“It’s the nature of operating down here, it’s about weather and the wind and waves… Mother Nature tells us what we are going to do”, Dutch explained.
Finally arriving at land just before dusk on our third day at sea, we spotted our very first icebergs and after donning our polar-proof layers, we were able to disembark the ship and pile into zodiac boats for our first exploration.
Bobbing up and down in the icy water, we came face to face with enormous pieces of ice; some were the size of buildings; creaking and cracking as they rolled in the ocean, illuminated in every shade of white and blue I could imagine.
“Welcome to Antarctica” Dutch whispered.
We all sat and listened in silence. I contemplated not only how resilient the wildlife must be to live here, but how on earth those early explorers like Sir Ernest Shackleton and Sir Douglas Mawson possibly survived out here.
In stark contrast, we made our way back onto the ship to the warmth of our cabins, and were treated to fine food and hospitality.
Over the next week or so, the highlights were too many to mention. Here I was alongside a ship full of passengers who were all living out their individual dreams – including Polar Medalist (and St Kilda Brownlow Medalist) Neil Roberts who spent a year working at the Australian Base at Mawson’s Huts decades earlier. He had brought his son Michael to share the experience of walking on the ice together.
“It’s deeply ingrained in your body, I can’t get it out. I can dream about it at home, or hear a piece of music, and it sparks off a memory that is so real. It’s a place that is so impactful” reflected Neil.
Over the week, we cruised our way along the Antarctic Peninsula. Every day a new adventure unfolded, with opportunities to zip out on our zodiacs and walk on the ice. Often surrounded by hundreds of Gentoo or Adelie penguins, it was like another world. Even to sit and contemplate the harsh life of a penguin, was mind-boggling.
The wildlife was in abundance – from penguins, to elephant seals, sea lions, and of course the whales. Frolicking in the waters right up alongside our ship, the sight of them almost became a daily treat.
One of my most memorable moments was when I paddled in a sea kayak. As we first hit the water, I remember noticing the light ricocheting off the snow-capped mountains around us, and reflecting on the water.
We’d only been paddling for a few minutes when two minke whales literally came right up to us as though they were playing with us, circling our boats. We all grouped up together (safety in numbers!) and then came along two humpback whales, joining our party.
As you can imagine, we all just sat in total silence. How would I ever put this into words?
To experience Antarctica is a privilege.
It’s easy to get swept away in the beauty of the place, but we were often reminded of how harsh the environment was. As we walked on Petermann Island, a cross stood out in the landscape, marking the place where three British explorers perished after falling through sea ice while attempting to climb a nearby mountain range in 1982.
As we walked along the ice, my mind constantly wandered to those that had lived and worked in such a place. It was fascinating to visit Port Lockroy, home to a base of the British Antarctic Survey that was running a research program on penguins, and also housed a small museum.
It was also the place where we had the opportunity to camp on the ice under the stars! It was an experience that made me feel even closer to what Antarctica is. I relished in the fact that it was freezing, and to be looking up in the middle of the night to see the solar system on show, surrounded by nothing but water and ice, was a memory that will stay with me for a lifetime.
One of the funniest moments came when we were dared to strip down to our swimmers and plunge into the icy Antarctica waters ourselves… Of course, this ‘invigorating dip’ is not for everyone but I was a little bit curious just how cold the water would be…. and I managed to convince Marcos, one of the team from the Argentinian Almirante Brown Base at Paradise Point, to try it out with me.
Needless to say, my heart was in my mouth and it took some convincing to plunge down into the icy water. By the time we managed to do it, my feet felt like they had snap frozen, and we stayed only long enough for the obligatory photo. However such a unique memory will definitely last with me forever.
While the backdrop is without doubt one of the most dramatic in the world, it was the passion of the guides and staff on board the ship that genuinely bought the adventure alive for me. They dedicate their lives to sharing such incredible wilderness areas, and their expertise was phenomenal. From talks on board the ship about the environment and what is happening to Antarctica, to informing us where we were going the next day and why. And the fact that the captain’s bridge was always being open for us made us feel part of the action, day or night.
As we left the peninsula, I stood out on the bow of the ship, wishing for just one more day to take in this final frontier. A place that will forever be etched in my heart. And sure enough, the albatross joined me. Gliding effortlessly with the wind. The seas were calm.
What has your greatest adventure been? Tell us in the comments!