Providing a sense of remoteness like nowhere else on the planet, the Great White Continent whisks you far from the everyday and completely immerses you in another world. Whether its sublime scenery, astonishing wildlife, captivating history, exhilarating activities or phenomenal photo ops you travel for, this startling destination ticks all the boxes and more.
Intrepid traveller Bernard Neal joined us aboard the Ocean Endeavour last year. Here he shares his unforgettable experiences of kayaking through the icy waters of Antarctica:
‘When a minke whale surfaces within fifteen metres of your kayak, you need to be ready for the gob-smacking awe of coming face-to-face with such overwhelming power and grace. I was lucky enough to have my camera close by as it rose to the surface and I’ve watched those 45 seconds of footage over and over again. Every time I replay it, my breath catches in disbelief at the freakish good luck of such a remarkably close encounter.
We first laid eyes on our minke whale during the fourth day of kayaking on our Intrepid Travel Antarctic expedition. Even before spotting it, kayaking here had already provided me with enough staggering visuals to surpass anything I’d witnessed on previous treks, hikes or holidays I’d taken. Kayaking got us up close and personal with a variety of seals, penguins and sea birds. Many of the seals were playful and inquisitive in nature, and appeared to delight in sliding, rolling and diving around us. There was an air of tranquillity, of unearthly silence, on those occasions when we stopped paddling miles away from the mothership and the motorised Zodiacs and simply listened to the quiet. Only, of course, it wasn’t really silent at all.
The lapping of the sea water against an iceberg. The squawks of gulls and terns. The gentle plop, plop, plop of a raft of penguins single-mindedly ‘porpoising’ their way back to shore; completely unconcerned with us all. And on several occasions, the muted thunder of an avalanche or a glacier calving and crashing into the sea. At other times we felt the intrinsic pleasure that comes with absorbing oneself in any rhythmic physical activity. We paddled our way around rocky shores shared with penguins and seals. Beneath towering cliffs that jutted directly out of the ocean, in front of glacier after glacier. Passed icebergs of the most unbelievable hues of turquoise, electric blue and emerald green.
There was a sense of camaraderie that enveloped our little sub-group, engaged in the same activity, away from the rest of the boat. We were the privileged few. We became a community within a community for the eleven days of our trip. It’s one of the lingering joys from the whole adventure – the connections I made.
We were amused by each other’s capacities and idiosyncrasies – like the unstoppable powerhouse paddler with more energy than the Duracell Bunny. The semi-professional photographer who knew a good shot when he saw one. The older amateur photographer (which may or may not have been me) whose stop-start-wait-start-again antics meant he was always at the rear of the flotilla. The married couple who delighted in everything they saw and did. The Aussie bloke who ran a dry and unmissable commentary. And of course, the two guides who became our parents, teachers and security guards.
As it turned out, we needed the multifaceted approach of these guides. During the last of our eight Antarctic kayaking sessions, our group was preyed on by a persistent and undeterred leopard seal.
We had seen many leopard seals over the previous sessions, mostly resting on icebergs, occasionally yawning and stretching. But this afternoon, as we circumnavigated Half Moon Island, we became more than a passing interest for this particular leopard seal. He came within a few feet of our kayaks several times, each time eye-balling us with teeth bared.
Our guides, Sharon and Keith, saw the potential danger early and had us come together to form a kind of loose raft. There wasn’t room for the leopard seal to come between us, but enough for each kayaker to continue paddling firmly and purposefully to get ourselves to safety. Sharon and Keith became whatever the kayaking version of a sheep-dog is, rounding us up and keeping us moving inexorably to our only beaching for the trip.
It was an exciting way to round off a magnificent eight sessions of kayaking, and it definitely provided a talking point around the dinner table that evening. But still, that minke whale...’
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