On a globe, Antarctica lurks at the very bottom and almost disappears off the face of the earth. An inconvenient axis pierces its heart and hinders the view. This part of the world wasn't on my radar till I began reading about Amundsen and Scott's race to the South Pole exactly a century ago, saw the incredibly beautiful photos of friends who had returned from the Antarctic Peninsula and came across BBC's compelling Frozen Planet series.
The fabulous and formidable continent, stepped into the forefront of my mind and I began to figure out how to get there. Before long my friend Rita and I flew to Buenos Aires, then south to Ushuaia where we boarded Abbercrombie and Kent's ship, Le Boreal, and sailed over the tempestuous Drake Passage towards the Antarctic Peninsula.
The Antarctic Peninsula
Antarctica is larger than Europe and the South Pole is in the heart of the high, flat plateau where the average temperature is -40Â°C. We came nowhere near it. Our trip was about the exploration of the beguiling islands and landscapes of the peninsula. Antarctica was connected to South America before it drifted south, and the mountains on its north-western edge are the continuation of the Andes. Standing on the deck of the ship, it was a surreal sensation, sailing between the mountain peaks.
It had been thrilling to spot our first iceberg, and soon after, they became moving images. Some had been carved by the winds with dramatic holes and flues, others chiselled by the underwater currents and then flipped over to reveal incredibly beautiful curves and stripes.
The icebergs keep calving off the enormous ice fields of the continent and then drift north till they eventually melt. From our cabin and the various viewing decks on the ship we began spotting penguins, seals and birds on top of the icebergs.
Sailing on the zodiacs
After two days of sailing on the Drake Passage, we reached the Antarctic Peninsula. The expert ornithologist, marine biologist, geologist, climatologist, historian and photographer on board had conducted lively, informative lectures and we got to know "the seventh continent" a lot better. We all knew that there are no Polar Bears in the Antarctic just as there are no penguins in the Arctic, but I learned for the first time that the shrimp-like krill, eaten by whales, seals, penguins and fish are the most abundant species on earth by weight, and they live on diatoms and algae, found on the under-surface of the sea ice.
Every morning and afternoon, we would bundle into our layers, (although the temperature was mostly a balmy 1Â°C, the wind could be piercingly cold) and step into the smaller zodiacs, which would take us ashore where we'd walk amid hundreds of thousands of penguins (Adelies, Gentoos and Chinstraps), busy building their rocky nests, brooding eggs, feeding chicks and warding off the predatory birds. They were completely relaxed around us and relentlessly went about arguing with their neighbours. The Weddell and Crabeater seals lounged about nonchalantly; I mistook one for a rock and almost stepped into its mouth. A few times we had the chance to climb the mountains, and the views were truly spectacular, with the penguin colonies below, icebergs in the water and continent's snowy fields as far as the eyes could see. It was a great knowing that this enormous, pristine land has been unmarred by mankind since it was created.
When to go: December to February -- the Antarctic summer with average -3 to 3Â°C temperature.
How to get there: Abbercrombie & Kent organise tours to the Antarctic peninsula aboard the ship Le Boreal. www.abbercrombiekent.co.uk
How long is the trip? My trip from London and back was two-week long, but there is a longer, three-week trip where the ship sails to the Falklands and to South Georgia Island before arriving at the Antarctic Peninsula.