There are places and experiences it’s near impossible to fully prepare yourself for, no matter how hard you try. Antarctica is one of those places. Seeing it is one of those experiences. It’s not until you’re on a ship’s deck, gazing at a cathedral-sized iceberg standing sentry in the vast ocean, or you set your heavy rubber boots on to the rocky, hoarfrost-covered land of the southernmost continent, that you realise how little you really know.

For me, Antarctica was several things before I actually came face to face with her. She was a check mark on my to-do list, the seventh continent to visit. With her inhospitable terrain, she was an adventure to survive. She was also a mirror, a physical interpretation of a heart that had turned icy after news I received before I boarded my ship in Ushuaia.

I think it was when I saw that first glacier, majestic and almost impossibly large, being lapped by waves as we passed it with terns and petrels wheeling overhead, that I realised that I was truly on a voyage to a place that most people will never see. I was following in the footsteps (although in infinitely greater comfort) of navigators and explorers, fortune-seekers and risk-takers.

I didn’t feel worthy.

“Seeing it like this, you realise just how vast this wilderness is -- and it IS the last wilderness,” I wrote in my journal. “I think about the explorers who came here, even the whalers, and it’s a bit mind-blowing to think that we could attempt to tame this place.”

As we made our way through the sea ice to the first landing site, passengers huddled on the sidewalls of the Zodiac inflatable boats in matching bright yellow parkas, the sky was an ominous grey. Our boots had been cleaned to ensure that we didn’t bring any non-native particles on to land; our backpacks had been vacuumed for the same reason. The first steps on shore were tentative -- the idea of leaving behind as little trace as possible had been reinforced over and over on the ship and no-one wanted to be “that person.”

030 Chinstrap Penguin

Antarctic chinstrap penguins

But the sight of the first chinstrap penguin broke the metaphorical ice. We were here: we were actually standing on Antarctica. After a brief tour on shore (the ice was advancing; we needed to get back to the ship), our first excursion came to a close. But if there was any doubt as to the magic of that place, the visit by the humpback whale that glided through the steely waters a few metres away from our Zodiac dispelled it.

“The ice has a mind of its own,” I wrote that evening. “Icebergs and glaciers morphing and moving, sea ice spreading and retracting…there’s so much that’s hidden, yet it’s constantly being revealed. This land is more than Terra Incognito -- it’s Terra Enigma.”

There are many elements of Antarctica that are compelling: the vast, pristine swathes of white snow that are almost blinding; the raucous cacophony of a penguin colony gathered by the shore; the icebergs that jut from the waves like ancient ruins. But it’s the ice that’s the last word in Antarctica. We had two different landings abandoned because sea ice crowded the landing spots; our overnight camping excursion was scuttled because although we could land, there was no guarantee that we would be able to get back to the ship in the morning. I, for one, was willing to play it safe on that one.

Flexibility is perhaps the best thing you can pack for this particular adventure. Though some landings were scrapped, other opportunities presented themselves. We had a stellar, bluebird day near Cuverville Island with a colony of gentoo penguins; a hike up the mountain at Orne Harbor revealed tenacious chinstrap penguins and views that seemed to encompass more than 360 degrees.

The pod of some 65 orcas that escorted us out of the harbour wasn’t too shabby, either. Then there was the after-dinner excursion at Damoy Point. We boarded the Zodiacs at about 10pm and glided into the expanding twilight. The late hour didn’t bother the penguins. The curious ones waddled up to see what we were doing while their friends took turns slipping and sliding off the ice before jumping back up and repeating the process. It was a surreal experience, wandering over the snow while others were snug in their bed.

“I now know how people fall in love with Antarctica,” I wrote. “She dances that line between loving and hostile, dismissive and welcoming and everything in between. She makes you work to love her -- you have to earn it. But it’s all the more satisfying when you do.”

On the last night before we started back over the Drake Passage, I was sitting in the bar area, drinking Polish vodka with Miko, the marine biologist on board, to celebrate his birthday. I asked him if it ever got old, coming to Antarctica. He looked at me as if I was crazy to even contemplate such a thing.

It really was a silly question. I was already ensnared by Antarctica and plotting my return. I think I was hoping that perhaps it wasn’t as special as I thought it was, to save myself. But she remains in the back of my mind, tempting me to make the journey to the ice just one more time.

An Antarctic journey

By Katie Coakley

Katie Coakley is a freelance writer and occasional blogger based in Denver, Colorado. She’s eaten dinner on a portaledge in Wales, snorkelled through the North American and Eurasian continents in Iceland and ridden the Reunification Express through Vietnam and has lived to write the tale. Antarctica was the seventh continent she has visited. Her writing has appeared in various newspapers, magazines and online outlets. You can find more of her work on her website or follow her on Instagram.

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