Known for centuries as Terra Incognita, Antarctica remains untamed and extreme. But it’s also the most hauntingly beautiful place in the world. Story and photos by Marie Le Fort
As a child I grew up looking at atlases and mentally following the footsteps of my dad as he trekked the Himalayas. As a geologist and alpinist, he flew there twice a year for 30 years, and after two-month missions he would come home with stunning slides that he’d project onto a large screen once our homework was done. I used to go to bed dreaming about this world of snow and ice, where thin air and high altitudes were void of human presence. I remember thinking that beyond those ice-capped peaks, the next thing you could set your eyes on was the moon. When I was a little girl, the Himalayas were my last frontier. But as I got older, the place became less dreamlike. I remember my dad being really upset about how “paid” expeditions would take inexperienced hikers up Everest and how they’d leave empty oxygen bottles behind; the Himalayas he knew were being soiled to a point of no return. In 1996, he left Nepal behind, said his time was over, and never went back.
Last spring, while my dad was fighting a double cancer, I saw a film at a planetarium about an expedition to Antarctica. It moved me to tears as it brought back visions of the Annapurna chain we had trekked around. I realized Antarctica was today’s Last Frontier and I decided to go there to pay tribute to my dad, not knowing whether he would make it through the year.
This past December, I flew into Buenos Aires from Sydney, where I was on assignment, joining another 200 guests from France (mainly), North America, mainland China, and Japan. From there we took a chartered flight to Ushuaia, Argentina—the most southern tip of South America—arriving during the “Patagonian Summer”: five degrees Celsius and rain that would turn into snow at night. At last, both feet (still) grounded on Patagonian soil, I boarded L'Austral ship from La Compagnie du Ponant with both fear and excitement. It seemed huge, with its six decks and 100 cabins, but this is the only way to cross Drake’s Passage and make it to Antarctica.
TOP: Coming out of the Lemaire Channel in the evening; CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: Gentoo and Adelie penguins walking in their own tracks; a Chinstrap Penguin nesting on Deception Island; Weddell seals near Petermann Island.
L'Austral ship exudes luxury—a crystal chandelier twinkles in the reception area, abstract artworks line the corridors, the restaurant features white tablecloths and sleek wine displays, and the spa and fitness area is as large and well-appointed as any on land. The 400-seat theatre—where we gathered during the day for expedition and safety briefs and wildlife conferences and lectures, and during the night for dance and musical performances—is clad in plush red velvet. My suite unfolded like a compact pied-à-terre with a private balcony, and everything had been carefully thought out, from L’Occitane amenities to crisp linens, iPhone docking stations, and carefully placed drawers and hooks. As a whole, everything suggested that the cruise would bring style to barren latitudes.
Outside, Ushuaia looked like a sleepy little town. There I grabbed a last piece of gear, checked emails, bought a few additional books and USB drives…just in case. It reminded me of Kathmandu, where all the alpinists would stock up on equipment. Ushuaia would be our first and last port of call on this cruise, as we would be at sea for 10 days and would come nowhere near any kind of port, village, or human activity. Except for a few scientific bases scattered around the continent (Antarctica is bigger in size than Europe), the polar land is void of inhabitants.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Port Lockroy, which became the first British base in Antarctica in 1944, now houses a museum and the continent’s sole post office; old gear and tools on Port Lockroy; a trio of Zodiacs coming to pick up guests after an excusion.
Dinner was served on board at around 8 p.m. as the ship left the harbour. With a hint of The Love Boat in the air, we crossed through the Beagle Channel thinking more about food and comfort than the extreme elements outside: There was champagne and whole roasted turkey, seared fish filets, French cheese platters, a dozen variety of pastries baked fresh each day…. “For now let them sing and dance; later on, conditions will become a lot harsher!” I remember one expedition guide saying.
No matter the time, night or day, we were always allowed outside on the viewing decks, and while it all looked calm and quiet at first, I knew that Cape Horn and the Furious Fifties awaited just a few degrees south. Seeing the sea shaping up to form foamy crests and swells, I suddenly realised why Antarctica is almost exclusively described using superlatives: You need to brave the extremities with humility to catch a first glimpse of it, starting with the extreme violence of the Drake Passage—a sailor’s worst nightmare—which creates a wall around the white continent. Surrounded by polar waters (four or five degrees colder than the waters around Ushuaia) and intense winds that circle around with nothing to stop them (at this latitude, south of Australia and Africa, there is nothing but sea), Antarctica is secluded from the rest of the globe. With 98 percent of its surface covered with a layer of ice with an average thickness of 1.6 km, it is the world’s largest icecap and freshwater reserve. Untouched, Antarctica is a miracle.
FROM TOP: an arch-shaped iceberg near Port Charcot; Deception Island welcomes a colony of 100,000 Chinstrap Penguins.
After 36 hours at sea, we finally spotted land. As human beings (packed like sardines on the upper deck), we wanted to believe in a land, a piece of tangible ground. But there is nothing like this: Antarctica is a white line that runs along the horizon. An imprint of the cold. Steeped in silence, its image oscillated between the roll of the boat and the impulses of the roaring wind. Most often, we looked at it from afar since we were only allowed to disembark once or twice a day, depending on the weather conditions and the accessibility of islands or land (ice fields are everywhere and the boat couldn’t get anywhere near them). My first hours in Antarctica were like discovering a new language, experiencing the feeling of being lost in translation between the Earth and space, as if on another planet.
Everyday, our route varied depending on the quantity of ice and icebergs that we bumped into. The weather, too, constantly changed: We’d go from braving intense snow and blinding winds to sunbathing on the deck of the ship an hour later; or after an immaculate dawn with crystal clear skies, grey clouds would move in and turn the day dark. Getting four seasons in one day was definitely common. The first four days, we disembarked on islands to walk around penguins colonies and spot Weddell seals and sea lions. Sometimes we’d be surrounded by hundreds, thousands even, of penguins; since they have no predators on land save for the leopard seal, they weren’t the least bit intimated by our presence. It was very rare that we actually saw the soil, since it was covered in rocks, snow, slush, or ice depending on the landing spot. Accompanied by our expedition guides, we trekked up small, inactive volcanoes and got close to glaciers. The guides—scientists and experts on polar life—were essential, constantly pointing out rare phenomenon or stressing the fragility of the ecosystem. They offered insights of the different natures of ice, pointed out the presence of rare bacteria under our feet, and told us about the birds’ breeding seasons. On a cruise like this, there is what you see and then there is the Unknown—the guides provided a window onto the latter.
We were never able to go off exploring on our own without a guide, but the thrill of hearing nothing else than the wind rushing and the penguins squawking, ice cracking and icebergs rolling upside down, was enough to make our day. I loved not seeing any human presence other than my fellow shipmates; it was thrilling to walk on a barren continent where, most of the time, our footsteps were the first this season. But however intense the excursions, the best viewing point remained the boat, where we could track whales and cruise around icebergs, discover mountain ranges and spy on penguins.
As we began our trip back to Ushuaia after eight days aboard L’Austral, I realized how much I had become accustomed to seeing icebergs drifting alongside the ship. They inhabited the region like hundreds of evil spirits (or kami as the Japanese say), bending and widening into arches, and stretching—almost striding—toward sharp peaks. I had gone to Antarctica to discover nuances of white, but instead found glazes of faded blue, pale pink, and bright yellow, all unfolding in shades of grey. Antarctica was limitless, more than I could fathom.
Back home, I opened the atlas to trace our route and show it to my dad. “You really went to the one of the borders of the world,” he said to me. “In my days, I went to the highest altitudes; you went to the furthest southern latitudes.” I nodded. “Was it as quiet and noisy as the Himalayas?” he then asked. “Yes,” I told him, “no human-made sounds, only the intense noise of the elements: waves crashing, wind howling, ice cracking, and the gushing breaths of the whales.” He smiled, and so did I.
During all austral summers (late November to early March), L'Austral de Compagnie du Ponant sails in the waters around the Antarctic Peninsula. For more information, see ponant.com.