THE TIMES – March 24 2004
Ginny Dougary

This adventurer went to the Antarctic to fulfil a lifelong dream of experiencing the purity and isolation that enticed Scott and Shackleton. Here, in the first of two reports, we follow her diary as she learns the ways of penguins and has a close encounter with whales.

JANUARY 21: The British stiff upper lip is an admirable, indeed possibly a requisite, mechanism for those who wish to cope with the extreme rigours of the resting place and spiritual home of Captain Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton. But in my case, unfortunately, the upper lip stood no chance against the extreme wobbliness of the lower when I was first deposited on the great white continent of the south.
The noise was tremendous as the Russian cargo plane, an Ilyushin, reverse acceleration at full throttle, landed on the blue-ice runway marked out by a line of snow-weighted black rubbish bags. The plane screamed to a halt, its wide back opened out in two arcs and an extraordinary commotion ensued.

Large green drums were rolled down ramps to be caught, in what looked like an elaborate game, by teams of men and women, some adorned in brightly coloured comical hats, who harnessed themselves to the containers while seemingly racing one another to deliver their booty to a finishing line on the opposite side of the runway.

Elsewhere — standing, talking, gazing — were as many as 30 or 40 men, scattered across the turquoise ice. A Korean (could he be the same gentleman who had drunkenly dismantled parts of the stranded DC3 at the edge of the camp the previous year?) kept hurling himself on to the runway and sliding on his belly while whooping loudly. Half a dozen Skidoos — motorbikes on skis — thrummed on and off the ice, pulling sledges piled high with gear.

More and more people emerged from a point in the distance, walking down a long snow-path which appeared out of nowhere.

Here is Babs Powell, my favourite dancer from Pan’s People when Top of the Pops was a boarding-school highlight of the week. She is arm in arm with Rosie Stancer, who has just walked to the South Pole on her own and looks frighteningly thin, with scabs hanging off her lips and nose. Now comes a man on a throne of a wheelchair strapped on top of a sled: Mike McGrath, who has muscular dystrophy and who has, in walking upright a short distance to the Pole, achieved the equivalent of a double triathlon in an able-bodied man.

I stand on the edge of the ice, terrified that I’m going to slip over and bash my head. I feel fragile and raw, aware from the frenetic activity of the people around me that I will be expected to be self-sufficient in an environment where I am least equipped to be so. Camping, for goodness’ sake, in well-below-freezing conditions, with primitive lavatory facilities and no washing, where there could be katabatic winds — that accelerate downhill — which knock me down, and white-outs so dense that I may be uanble to see the tent next door, let alone walk to the dining tent. My confidence has been further undermined by a representative of the company that is allegedly looking after me — a bully and a boor, he turns out to be totally unrepresentative, but at this stage I don’t know that.

The skies are an intense, otherworldly powder-blue, and even the clouds look like no other clouds I’ve seen before. The nearby monochrome mountains of Patriot Hills, starkly black and white, give way to a blurry, soft-focus range and at the far end of the horseshoe become an electric navy and cream. Beyond, the lone and boundless snow stretches far away. Welcome to Antarctica. What the hell have I got myself into?

JANUARY 1, 2004: They say that whatever you’re doing at midnight on New Year’s Eve will dictate the direction of the rest of your year. I spend it working: writing about my fears now that I am actually on my way to Antarctica — a place I’ve dreamt of visiting for almost a decade.

Why on earth would you want to go there, some people ask. And, as the observation goes: if you need to ask the question, you will probably never understand the answer.

I am drawn to the stories of the impossible valour, the largeness of spirit, the gentle manners of the Edwardian polar explorers who “did not forget the please and thank you” even when they were on the point of death.

The challenge of getting there when it’s so damn difficult, either by boat or plane, appeals to me; its associations with danger and death make me suspect that there is nowhere else where you feel so bracingly alive. When I look at photographs of spectacular icebergs — the old, really turquoise ones — I feel a surge of awe and joy. They are like the most beautiful sculptures. How thrilling it would be — will be — to be on the water at their level, weaving in and out of them in a rubber dinghy.

I’m attracted to extremes and Antarctica, as the well-known litany goes, is the coldest, highest, driest, windiest continent in the world. Its minimalist canvas — huge expanses of white, with occasional lines etched across it — reminds me of certain American abstract canvases that I love. Where other people would say, “What’s the point? It’s a picture of nothing”, I always felt that the conscious absence of things was not the same as no thing. The purpose of the works was that they had been pared back and emptied; transformed into an act of visual meditation.

Even at quite a young age I would stand mesmerised, finding something suggestive and beguiling where others might merely see a blank. Abstract expressionism tends to polarise people: you either get it or you don’t — much, indeed, as do the polar regions. Antarctica is a clean slate at another level: a place so empty and pure, the only place in the world that is not owned by anyone, that you feel you might emerge from it cleansed in some odd way, or at least imbued with a fresh way of looking at your old life.

It is a metaphor, too. For Shackleton: “We all have our own White South.” For Thomas Pynchon: “You wait. Everyone has an Antarctic.” When my late mother was very ill, too ill for me to risk sailing to Antarctica as I had planned five years ago, it seemed to me synonymous with a merciful oblivion. When I felt trapped and constrained by work and domesticity, it represented the most desirably far-flung of escapes.
And here I am, on the opening day of the year, at midnight on a plane on the first leg of my journey, bound for Buenos Aires.

JANUARY 2: Emerging from the airport, the warmth feels as welcoming as an embrace. I’m staying in the Four Seasons, all luxe, volupté and not a little charme, either. I am stalked, however, by the spectre of Madonna. She stayed in the extremely elegant old palazzo in the grounds of the hotel in a suite opposite mine; the manicurist who comes to my room was also summoned by Madge and found Madame very haughty, judging by her rather good impersonation. And on a whirlwind tour, my favourite building is the presidential palace — delightfully pink — where Madonna was granted permission to sing to the people from the central balcony in her role as Evita.

When in Argentina, eat steak. And I do, with relish. I also have my last proper (full, not midget-length) bath for more than a month.

JANUARY 3: First travel trauma. My ticket from Buenos Aires’ local (as opposed to international) airport to Ushuaia — the end of the world, as it calls itself accurately if rather melodramatically — is not recognised, and I cannot understand why or even begin to make myself understood. A lovely family from Mexico City intervene, interpret and give me some local currency to make phone calls.

Ushuaia, when I do get there, is a cross between a cowboy frontier town, an out-of-season ski resort and a hippy mecca. It is also a former penal colony. The houses are brightly painted shacks with corrugated roofs, the backdrop is ice-capped, jagged mountains. A boy rides down the main street on a horse. Everywhere one looks there is a profusion of poppies and bleached peach lupins.

I stay at the unfortunately named Albatross hotel (very basic but clean, at least). My copolar correspondent, Jonathan Gornall, finds the combination of the Albatross and my Antarctic Russian cruise ship, the Orlova — or the It’s All Over for Dougary, as he likes to call it — absolutely bloody hilarious.

Solitary dinner in carrillo (grill, pronounced carri-jo) with gaucho theme. I end up joining a pilot and his wife for coffee. He has met Jennifer Murray — wife of Simon Murray, who this year, at 63, became the oldest man to walk to the South Pole — after her helicopter crash in Antarctica. He tells me that she was incredibly lucky to have escaped so lightly — something I am to hear many times in Patriot Hills.

JANUARY 4: Board “All Over” at 4pm, after interviewing Simon on his satellite phone. He seems far more concerned with how I am going to cope camping in Antarctica than with his own expedition woes. He and Pen Hadow make Patriot Hills sound like Cold Comfort Colditz; Martin Hartley, the photographer, makes it sound like Club Med-sur-snow. Have my own dark suspicions about which version will prove more accurate.

The ship is not in the first flush of youth; its “forward lounge” has the faded aura and mirrored ceiling of a Seventies bordello. My cabin is quite appealing, largely because I’m not having to share it with anyone.

I am surprised to find myself in a gang of sorts already — all American. There is a Californian doctor whose regular house guests when he lived in Alaska were Ted Hughes and his son, drawn by the fishing; a lawyer; a foot specialist; an illustrator; and a Manhattan commercials director who reminds me of a (less dizzy) Grace from the TV series Will and Grace.

Sadly, she and I concur, there don’t seem to be any Wills on this boat — on which point we are both happy, a day or two later, to find ourselves proved quite wrong.

JANUARY 5: O woe! My first experience of sea-sickness crossing the notorious Drake’s Passage. It may be a Lake rather than a Shake, ie, relatively calm, but the lurching motion is horrible. Unable to walk in a straight line. Sweat profusely. Attempt to stagger along the corridor — plastic bags adorn the rails at convenient heaving distance — and crawl up the stairs to the main deck, which is like the Mary Celeste.

Retire for the day, like most of my hundred-odd fellow passengers, emerging at tea-time for an excellent Shackleton lecture in the bordello lounge, where many of us favour the velveteen pouffes at floor level (less queasy-making) over the circular banquettes. Note that no matter how many times I hear the Endurance story, in whatever form, I find it enthralling and moving.

JANUARY 6: First iceberg spotted just before lunch, looking ghostly in the mist. By the time we are sitting in the dining room, the sun has scorched through the fog to reveal dazzling blue water and more and more bergs, some quite monumental.

We are to have a landing to view a chinstrap penguin rookery at Half-Moon Island, and go through elaborate drill for embarking on Zodiac dinghies. First we have to tog up, which is a real palaver in Antarctic conditions, especially where water is involved: thermal leggings and top, layers of fleeces, thin socks and thick socks, level-four goggles or specs (to protect eyes from massive hole in ozone layer), wellies, waterproof trousers and jacket, inner gloves, waterproof outer gloves, spare gloves and socks in case of soaking which will then freeze, causing frostbite and loss of digits, rucksack with waterproof inner lining to carry camera, sunblock, lip block, etc, hat and neck tube . . . queue to get into Zodiac; turn key to show one has departed (turn back on return); avoid falling into Antarctic water (on previous trip several people did not); when disembarking into shallow water, legs must be pointed down towards fellow passengers but not thrust into their faces, and so on.
The first passengers off tread a path through the snow, and those of us who follow find that if we deviate from it we are liable to sink through the soft layers up to our knees. When this happens we have to turn round and fill each hole with snow to prevent penguins falling in and getting trapped.

Olle, our masterful Swedish expedition leader, has gone to great lengths to explain to his shipful of tourists that we must do everything we can to make a minimal impact on the environment. Here, for instance, the penguins rule: if you see one making towards you, remember that it has right of way.

The penguins are so humorous with their self-important, busy waddling. I love it when they trip over and then look round to check that no one noticed before resuming their ascent or descent along their penguin highway. High up in the rocks, we watch as the males steal pebbles from the females’ flinty nests and deposit them on other nests. Why? Seemingly just because they can. Olle tells us that a group of scientists placed bright-coloured stones on the nests and watched in amazement as the stones were transported all over the rookery.

Mike, a middle-aged American pilot with a cautious smile and melancholy eyes, lies down on the snow next to “the highway” for a full 30 minutes and is rewarded by having several penguins peck at the back of his head before leaning over and staring him straight in the face.

At dinner, “Grace” decides that our first real day in Antarctic waters deserves a celebratory toast and buys the gang a bottle of Moët. Afterwards we play Scrabble and my partner — a banker from Las Vegas — disappears to the bar, then goes crazy when I make a move without him, bellowing: “I CANNOT BELIEVE YOU DID THAT! HOW COULD YOU DO THAT? YOU JUST THREW THE POINT AWAY!”, resuming the tirade at regular intervals. As justification for this, he explains that he is a member of Mensa “which is both my blessing and my curse” — the curse obviously being having to deal with quotidian morons like myself.

My Manhattan gal-pals inform me that his peculiar behaviour is par for the course back home; most American men are as angry as hell and don’t care who knows it.

JANUARY 7: Good weather has momentarily deserted us and a landing has to be cut short because of fears that winds may soon prevent us returning to the ship. This did happen last year at this same spot on Turret Point, King George Island, and six passengers had to huddle under a Zodiac for 21 hours before they were rescued.

I fall for one particular Adelie penguin that looks terribly lost and lonely and keeps swivelling round as though to say: “Oh, oh, where’s me mate?” Penguins, you see, are sociable creatures. I watch him, trying to put on a brave face, as he takes off as fast as he can to catch up with the other Adelies in the far distance, waddling too fast, falling over, scooting along on his belly until he finds his pal — and then off the two of them go: waddle, trip, sliding along.

The wallowing elephant seals lumber out of the water and give us baleful, accusatory looks.

Go to bed to the sound of Olle’s voice on the loudspeaker: “Come on deck to see the beauty of it all, the sun caressing the snowy peaks . . .”

JANUARY 8: . . . and wake up to the sound of Olle’s strangulated cockerel impersonation. “Cerkle derkle dooooooo!” Landing on a black volcanic Deception Island. Very dramatic but doesn’t feel Antarctic at all.

JANUARY 9: Best day so far, and hardly a penguin in sight. But oh, what glorious blue icebergs in Paradise Bay. I see castles, the Sydney Opera House, mating polar bears, the grandest of arches above pools of phosphorescent turquoise light. The sun glints on the water, there is a lone white yacht at the edge of the bay, the silence . . . well, actually it’s not silent because of all the camera and video activity. At times the whirring and clicking can seem like a Tourette’s affliction. The beauty is not being enjoyed and experienced here and now but for some time hence. Not trusting the mind’s eye to recreate the moment in private, the camera’s eye will collect evidence of paradise to be witnessed later by friends and family and neighbours.

But I appreciate the photographs that people are kind enough to send me when I get home much more than the ones I feel impelled to take myself. And anyway, who’s to say that setting these experiences down in words doesn’t reduce them. I make a note of seeing a group of penguins at the top of an iceberg: one slides gingerly down into the water, then — most tentatively — another and another until suddenly, whoosh! They ’re all tumbling over one another as they fall in, and it’s a glorious and hilarious sight. The grey, fluffy newborns with their touching mini-penguin forms, being fed while still in their shells. The unexpected elegance of the penguins’ movements once they are in the water. The furry, wrinkled faces of the seals as they gaze back at us with their round, solemn eyes. The words trigger the memories but also dilute them in some way, making them seem less real as they move from private to public domain.

In the afternoon, another landing. This one, Olle has announced in his deadpan mode, should bring out the inner child in us. We are to hike up a glacier, then fling ourselves down it (much like the penguins, but hopefully not into the water). Once again I am struck by the gusto and fitness of the over-sixties brigade. There are people in their eighties ascending the mountain, fleet as gazelles. I have to push myself to keep up. And there are at least four disabled passengers with sticks way ahead of me.

The climb is vertiginous, the views sensational, and there are far too many of us perched on a narrow rocky ledge. I am really scared — disliking heights and speed, let alone a combination of the two — but grit my teeth and set off on my behind down the run we have made. And I like it so much I do it again, albeit from the halfway mark — this time on my belly like my new penguin friends. Is it worrying that I have started walking like them too, stomach out, extending my arms stiff behind me for balance?

JANUARY 10: Visit the old British base of Port Lockroy, which has been charmingly restored (primary-coloured tongue and groove, red gingham curtains) by British Antarctic Survey. Find pile of old Woman’s Weekly with first short story by Barbara Cartland: “As gay as St Moritz!” reads the promo line. Penguins tend to their newborn chicks and kleptomaniac rituals on the steps of the hut.

In the evening the BAS chaps come to shower and barbecue on the deck of the Orlova while the Russian staff dance to Dancing Queen. Much later, around midnight, there is a wonderful blaze of pinks and blues on the horizon: the icebergs look as though they have been brushed with mercury.

JANUARY 11: It has been agreed that Kara, the whale expert, will take me on a private Zodiac cruise on which there will be no quips or clicks or whirrs or shrieks, and no sound of revving engines. Finally, just tranquillity as we float and reflect.

I’m not even all that interested in the wildlife, but you can’t help but respond when you see a crab-eating seal sunbathing on an iceberg. We hear a whoosh in the distance which Kara thinks may be another seal breathing. Then we see the spume rising not far from the surface of the water, and seconds later another arc of spume alongside. So there are two! We make our way towards them and as we get close, Kara exclaims: “Oh my God! They’re humpbacks and they ’re sleeping. I have never, ever seen this before.” We are now very close indeed. White-ish stripes glow under the water and the heads are crusted with barnacles. Not having done my whale homework, I’m wondering if what is visible — sort of log-like shapes with a fin — is the extent of their size. “Oh no, humpbacks are immense,” Kara says. “Maybe 45 to 50ft long.” This is both thrilling and terrifying to hear. We seem to be in a dream with no will of our own. We’re drifting dangerously close to them now but neither of us wants to turn on the engine and wake them. It feels weirdly as if we’re sharing their bed; the gentle sound of their intermittent breathing is soothing. They are less frightening because they seem to be unaware of our presence.

Before we actually collide, Kara comes to and, as quietly as she can, revs the engine. The whales react immediately but we are able to follow them and keep at a sensible distance.

All is calm again until one of the pair makes a circular motion and it swiftly dawns on us that he is coming straight towards us. Kara is jumping up and down with excitement. Five years of studying whales and she has never been this close, at this level, to a large whale.

Humpbacks don’t attack unless they are in a mating or a feeding frenzy, she says, and this one doesn’t appear to be in any kind of frenzy. Nor is he likely to overturn our little Zodiac because whales have good spatial awareness. They don’t bang into icebergs, for instance. But the closer it comes, the more aware I am that if the dinghy capsized and we were trapped underneath it, our lifejackets would automatically inflate and we ’d drown.

But just at this moment, I don’t care. Kara starts banging the rim of the Zodiac, and I follow suit. The other whale is staying away but this one now circles us — Oh my God, he is actually alongside us. We could reach out and touch him. With one flip of his magnificent tail, he could . . .

The adrenalin is absolutely pumping. He circles us again and then disappears. Now we are really alarmed. What if he were? . . . Could he be? . . .

Kara sees it first, the blue whiteness of the sides of his belly; the white flecked with grey under the tail; the whole great, beautiful being of him gliding right under us.

We are both euphoric and overwhelmed when we finally return to the shore. I am being asked to keep this extraordinary experience to myself, in case other passengers are put out.

The staff, however, all know. Brendon, a fellow whale worshipper, lends me his arm to steady me as I step out of the Zodiac and grins beatifically: “Welcome to my church,” he says.

JANUARY 12-14: Not surprisingly, after that the rest of the cruise was unremarkable. At night Kara kept dreaming about the humpbacks and didn’t even bother to go on deck when the waters were teeming with them, as though she were afraid of cluttering the purity of our encounter with other images.

Some hours after dinner on the final Sunday, I go up to the deck by myself and take in the last white, ghostly form of Antarctica. The winds that will make the return crossing of Drake’s Passage such a nightmare — Perfect Storm waves bucking our ship around like a child’s plaything — are already picking up. The dining-room chairs are strapped down, the white tablecloths dripping wet to prevent plates and cutlery falling off — to no avail. The Orlova turns into the Mary Celeste once again, and then we are back in Ushuaia.

Later that day I fly to Punta Arenas on the tip of Chilean Patagonia, where I am to wait — and wait — for the go-ahead to take off for Patriot Hills and the mainland of Antarctica.

Ginny Dougary was a guest of Quark Expeditions. Tel: 01494 464080