Living the Dream in the ‘Big Dead Place’

The adventure begins

Big Dead Place — the best selling book by Nicholas Johnson — paints a daunting picture of the largely unvisited, Seventh Continent. This harsh environment has to be the most remote place on earth. It boasts the lowest temperature ever recorded and some of the most relentless winds. The opportunity to visit Antarctica only opens up for a few precious months in each year.

So when a friend proposed an adventure to this frozen world, I didn’t hesitate. Having pulled together every piece of winter clothing in my closet (just five items — I am Australian, after all), I jumped a plane to South America, and the adventure began.

It was a hop, skip and a jump through Patagonia to make it to the most southerly city in the world — Ushuaia; the port city from which the Ortelius, my Russian made ship was due to depart.

I met my fellow passengers and boarded the ship ready to brave the unforgiving Drake Passage. Ten-metre swells are not uncommon in the Drake, however the sea gods were kind to us, and the calm weather allowed us to make record time south.

The first sight was like a clichéd movie scene

The first sight of Antarctica was like a clichéd movie scene, when time slows down and you stare dumbfounded in awe. And it was spectacular. Glistening snow-covered mountains bathed in the extended evening twilight greeted our ship as we sailed ever forward to our destination.

I have tried countless times to explain the feeling of that first moment — and all the moments that followed. And there was a lot of time to stare in the 22 hours of sunlight each day.

The best description I can give is that Antarctica is like a campfire — it is mesmerising, and you can’t stop staring at it. If you wanted to get someone’s attention you would have to break their fixated gaze at the continent before engaging them in conversation. That is the power of this very special place.

It is possible to get sick of penguins

It quickly became apparent that Nicholas Johnson’s Big Dead Place has a very misleading title. Every time we landed on the mainland there were penguins everywhere. Swimming around the ship and strewn across the snow haphazardly. Penguins are hilarious, with their raucous calls and fights over pebbles for nests, and they had all of us in stitches for the first few days.

And then, everyone got sick of them. Don’t get me wrong, everyone was still loving the journey, but the comment, “If I see another bloody penguin…” was uttered more than a few times.

Day-to-day, the trip’s highlights started piling up. There was the polar plunge (yes, we went swimming in the freezing water), chasing humpback whales in the zodiacs and climbing an active volcano in the snow. The quirkiness of the ship’s crew and companionship of the other guests ensured there was never a dull moment. In fact the 10-day expedition was exhausting, as there was always something to do in the 22 hours of sunlight per day. Antarctica truly delivered as a remote travel destination.

It’s not as cold as you may think

And the negatives? Well there weren’t any. It wasn’t nearly as cold as I had imagined, the ship’s living conditions were very pleasant and the cost — well, it was money well spent.

My final moments onboard were much less glorified than the previous nine days. Waking up in a hung-over haze from the night before, I scrambled to throw all my things back into my bag and make it to the mess deck in time to grab an apple off a tray the waiter was taking back to the kitchens.


Walking down the gangplank back onto the Ushuaian pier, the ship’s guests were all smiles. Having all accomplished a life goal, there was an ineffable feeling of contentment mixed with the sadness of saying goodbye to new friends. But alas, that is the life of a traveller.

A special thanks to Young Pioneer Tours and The Monsoon Diaries for putting the trip together.


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