I’d always thought I was an Africa girl, through-and-through. I loved the warmth, the wildlife, the people, so much so that I decamped to Zambia for two years, running a tiny little bush camp. But this was until I was lucky enough to spend three weeks on an expedition ship, visiting the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the unimaginably beautiful Antarctic Peninsular.
My fiancé had been twice before. Each time he had been entranced, utterly captivated, and was determined that I should see it. And so it was that we found ourselves, aboard the M/V Plancius and heading down the Beagle channel and into open sea, first stop Falkland Islands.
Did you know that the Falkland Islands are made up of 778 individual islands? No, nor did I – but they are, and each has its own character. Obviously we didn’t visit them all but our first stop was on Carcass Island. Here, in bright sunshine, we saw our first penguins – smart little Gentoos, nesting high up on the slopes and occasionally waddling down to the sea for a splash around. Our visit to Stanley the next day was a revelation. Barely larger than Burford, with brightly coloured houses, this was like walking into an English village in the 1950s. Apart from it had a Waitrose. We learned about the Falklands Conflict, visited the memorial and the museum, tiny yet extremely moving. We saw handwritten notes from teenage Argentinian conscripts, pleading with the Falkland Islanders for food. They were never refused. Walking along the litter-free streets in the sunshine, bright yellow gorse bushes on each side, it was hard to believe what happened here for 74 days back in 1982.
Our next stop was South Georgia. Made famous by Ernest Shackleton who, when his ship became ice-bound and eventually crushed by the merciless Antarctic ice, he and three companions, leaving the rest of their party on Elephant Island, sailed across the notorious Drake Passage to find help. His words on reaching the Grytviken Whaling station (after trekking for 36 straight hours across South Georgia’s ice-capped mountains) are legendary; “Do you not know me, Sir? My name is Shackleton. Ernest Shackleton.” Here we walked amongst fur seals, enormous elephant seals, and landed on a beach with 750,000 breeding pairs of King penguins. Not to mention the chicks, little fluffy brown balls scampering everywhere. There were penguins as far as the eye could see, and it was a joy to just sit and watch as they interacted, gave their ecstatic displays, fed their chicks and waddled down the beach to surf into the waves and go hunting.
From South Georgia we had three days at sea, followed by, amongst others, albatross, Antarctic terns, skuas and giant petrels. The wandering albatross is the largest, with a three-metre wingspan, and has a delicate technique of dipping a wing tip into the water to turn. We were lucky enough to have three humpback whales come and investigate the ship, breaching, fluking and blowing mere metres from us.
We started to see icebergs on the third day, enormous blue-white floating palaces, dotted with penguins or seals taking a break from the water. A stop at Paulet Island gave us the mind-blowing sight of 1.5 million pairs of breeding Adelie penguins. If Kings are the most stylish penguin, then Adelies must be the most comical. They make their nests on bare rock (on snow the eggs would freeze) and, using stones, create a little mound on which to incubate. Problem is, Adelies are kleptomaniacs. Time and again we would watch as an Adelie would sidle up slowly to another nest, reach down, take a stone in its beak and then run like fury back to its own nest, being pursued by the furious theftee. Once said stone was deposited, it would start again, with some nests being burgled from both sides.
The highlight of the trip for me was our zodiac cruise in Neko Bay. In the brightest sunlight, we embarked on our ten-man zodiacs and cruised amongst the bergs. The light was impossibly bright, the snow radiating from the surrounding mountains, and we drifted up close to icebergs, four-fifths of their body below the surface and coloured the brightest blue from the water. Penguins darted under the boats as we glided through, porpoising to check their surroundings before disappearing again below the water. Each side of us, the Antarctic mountains stretched into the sky, and occasionally a crack and a thunderous roar signalled that more ice had “calved” and fallen into the water, creating brand new icebergs. We cruised past a happy Weddell seal, fat and replete on his iceberg, and, unbelievably, singing. Not dissimilar to whalesong, these clicks, trills and chirps carry far across the water, communicating both presence and territory.
Leaving Antarctica, we travelled first through the Neumayer Channel, flanked on both sides by mountains blanketed in the whitest snow, dodging icebergs and at times forging a path through brash ice, the ship echoing with the crashes and bangs on the hull. From there the Gerlache Strait guided us to open sea, accompanied by a pod of orcas and a fin whale, the second largest after the blue whale.
There’s something about the bottom of the world that really gets under your skin. Maybe it’s the utter silence as the ship glides through mountains that shine in the sun. Maybe it’s the fact that it is utterly, utterly pristine. Or it could be that the animals found there really do have no fear of humans…because they have nothing to fear from them. There can’t be many better experiences than having an Adelie penguin come up and peck at your boot, or a juvenile elephant seal snuggle up against your thigh, relishing the warmth. It’s a land of contrasts, of staggering beauty, incomparable wildness. Long may it remain that way.