A Day in Antarctica
Forget ice-breakers and sled dogs; just fly to the Frozen South for a day trip, writes Raymond Preston
ON December 14 1911, Roald Amundsen raised the Norwegian flag on the South Pole. He needed months of strategic planning to achieve that goal - 100 years later, I spent one afternoon preparing for my one-day trip to the world's last great wilderness to celebrate the centenary.
This is not a trip for the unprepared or faint-hearted. I had to disclose my medical status and fitness prior to my booking being confirmed, and participants had to go to a safety briefing.
Now, thanks to The Mantis Collection, anyone who wants to can make a day trip to Antarctica, spend a day exploring and adventuring on the ice and then fly back to Cape Town in the evening.
The day before the flight, I presented myself at the offices of the Antarctica Logistics Company International in Cape Town to be instructed as to appropriate and suitable behaviour and etiquette in the extreme and possibly hazardous summer conditions of Antarctica.
My big surprise was discovering the diversity of individuals who had chosen to make this journey. I was prepared for the explorers, adventurers and extreme jocks - but not the family parties and older people. After our individual wardrobe inspections, we were each issued with Baffin boots and I was told how to protect my hands from the cold as the gloves I had thought warm enough were deemed too thin.
Early next morning, we boarded an Ilyushin 76TD, a seriously spartan supply plane with a Russian crew, for the flight of nearly six hours to the Novo ice runway near Novolazarevskaya, the Russian base in Dronning Maud Land.
On arrival, the ground temperature was -5° to -15°C, depending on the wind. We were not allowed off the plane until fully dressed in our polar clothing, sunscreen and sunglasses. At this point, we were sorted out into day-trippers like me and the eight-day visitors. We were ushered into modified 4x4 snow vehicles and hurtled off along the marked ice roads to our camps.
I inadvertently got mixed up with the longer-stay visitors and was taken to their first base camp, Whichaway Camp, on the edge of the Schirmacher Oasis. I was impressed with the tented accommodation, powered by solar energy and gas and run on strictly ecological lines, but notwithstanding the apparent luxury and comfort, you cannot forget you are out in an extraordinarily cold environment.
Returning to the day-trippers' camp, we were sorted in three fitness levels and taken on a hike to the Ice Waves. I chose the intermediate level, a 2½-hour trek with an extremely fit guide. At one stage, she stopped us and asked: "Listen, what can you hear?"
There is only one answer to that: "Nothing."
When I asked one of my companions how old she was, she said she was 85 and added: "I shouldn't be here, I should be dead."
However, she was managing more valiantly than I, struggling along with my camera equipment. At one stage I became so dehydrated that I knelt down to eat the snow.
Returning from the hike to the guest house, we passed through the Russian science base. I was surprised to see a woman in a T-shirt walking around the camp and asked if she did not feel the cold. She looked at me askance and replied: "I am Russian."
Back at the day-trippers' camp, we were served champagne cocktails and lunch. As the afternoon stretched into the endless day of the Polar Circle we were entertained by historian Rob Caskie talking about the race to be the first person to reach the South Pole, and by Vladimir, the Russian guest house manager, telling stories of life in Antarctica. We heard tales of everything from emperor penguins and ice grottos to Amundsen and his fellow explorer, Robert Falcon Scott.
Our time was cut short by an unexpected change in the weather.
We were rushed back to the Novo runway to take off into a blizzard, leaving nothing but footprints in the snow and taking home serious polar sunburn along with memories of the greatest day of perfect silence, pristine cleanliness and absolute beauty. - Preston was a guest of The Mantis Collection
IF YOU GO
"The Greatest Day" is a fully catered eight-hour visit to Antarctica. The 6500 euros (about R80000) price includes a return flight from Cape Town, tour guides, a hike to the ice waves, champagne cocktails, dinner and a lecture.
"Emperors and the South Pole" is an eight-day trip to Antarctica for 56000 euros, which includes a return flight from Cape Town, accommodation in the carbon-neutral Whichaway camp, various outdoor activities, a flight in the 18-seater Basler Turbo 67 to the South Pole, overnighting at the South Pole camp and a day visit to the Emperor-penguin colony.
The Greatest Day trip is being launched and promoted by The Mantis Collection www.mantiscollection.com and all booking enquiries should be made through the Mantis Reservations office, email: email@example.com and tel: +44 (0)800 1105930 toll free.