The blizzard raged. The wind screamed. Ice lashed against the tent. Inside, sheltering from the storm, a huddle of near-numb campers in waterlogged clothes closed their eyes and thought of home.
Captain Scott painted a harrowing picture of camping in Antarctica. Unsurprising really: after crossing endless glaciers and ice-shelves to reach the South Pole in January 1912, every member of his ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition perished in their reindeer-skin sleeping bags on the return journey.
Just over 100 years on, I too was sleeping out on the White Continent. What had I got myself into?
It was too late to back out now though. Our vessel, the warm and cosy Ocean Diamond, was fast disappearing from view as the rigid-hulled Zodiac I was now aboard zipped across the iridescent water, bound for the pebbled shores of Rongé Island.
We’d had to abandon our original camping site, Paradise Harbour – a spot even more idyllic than its name suggests – due to impenetrable pack ice. Instead we were headed for this small island further along the Errera Channel, on the western coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. It was first explored by Belgian adventurer Adrien de Gerlache in the late 1890s; he named it after Madame de Rongé, who’d helped finance his voyage. As we landed, a group of perplexed gentoo penguins looked up as if wondering who had invited such a motley crew to join their slumber party.
It was time to set up camp. Sinking into the deep snow, I went in search of a secluded spot on the flat icy plain, eventually settling on a patch that overlooked towering ice shelves and a ripple-free inlet. Opposite stood the tall, pointy mountains of the Antarctic mainland.
My fellow campers were busy digging pits, wrestling with poles and erecting small green tents. I, too, got to work: stomping on the snow, rolling out my mat and unfolding an insulated sleeping bag encased within a waterproof bivouac sack. Like a few of my companions, I had decided to sacrifice the relative warmth and comfort of a tent for the prospect of sleeping out in the open. I wanted to be as close as possible to this wild and wonderful place, to lay my head down and gaze up at the endless sky.
After all, it wouldn’t be getting dark. Here, darkness takes a six-month summer holiday from September-March. However, it returns with a vengeance in April, when Antarctica is plunged into near-permanent blackness.
Suddenly a bang shattered the peace – and we turned to watch an avalanche career down a steep mountainside that, worryingly, wasn’t far away. The snow plummeted from the cliff’s edge like a ghostly waterfall. I looked at my guide, Kevin, uneasily. “Don’t worry,” he assured. “We’re perfectly safe. There’s no risk of avalanches or tsunamis.”
“Tsunamis?” I replied, somewhat startled.
“Yeah, they sometimes happen in Antarctica after glaciers calve and hit the water, creating huge waves.” Kevin was a good man to have around. He first camped in Antarctica ten years ago and has since spent more than 50 chilly nights on the ice. “It’s extraordinary,” he said. “The biggest problem we face is the wind – and people wanting to go back to the boat because they’re cold. That doesn’t happen too often though.”
Any trip to Antarctica is heavy on highlights but spending a night on ice is easily the most unique. Strictly limited to 60 people, it’s an experience that has a profound effect on those who brave the low temperatures. There’s been everything from marriage proposals to flashes of nudity, despite the cold (and its unfortunate effects). Mainly, though, camping offers a rare chance to spend a prolonged period ashore. Most land excursions only last a couple of hours.
It was a mild evening, by Antarctic standards at least, with temps a balmy -1°C. “The key is to stay dry and avoid exerting yourself,” explained Kevin. “If you sweat, it will freeze and lower your body temperature.” Some weren’t taking any chances. A pint-sized lady from Pennsylvania had come wearing eight layers and armed with a stash of heat pads that she kindly offered around.
I had something far more pressing on my mind. What happened when nature called? “Ah, you’ll need to visit Mr Yum Yum,” said Kevin, pointing to a lonely corner where a wall of packed snow had been built. Behind stood a small portable toilet – essentially a bin liner in a bucket – with an unsettling nickname that nobody could explain.
Mr Yum Yum had attracted a long queue. But the wall was so low that it only offered partial privacy. Men had to sit, or rather squat, to pee; even then it was still possible to continue a conversation with the person next in line.
Back at my sleeping bag I sat down and gazed out at the big blue bergs that floated in the bay: abstract castles of ice perfectly smooth in places, scabrous in others.
The sun had set by 11pm but it wasn’t even remotely dark. Everything was still bathed in light but with the tint of twilight. At 11.30pm Kevin announced the start of ‘Quiet Time’ – designed not to disturb the nearby wildlife but also to encourage campers to truly take stock of their surroundings. Hushed conversations eventually subsided as people settled, disappearing into their tents and snuggling deep into their sleeping bags. Eyelids fell shut; sleep came.
Not for me though. My body desperately craved it following a thrilling day’s kayaking with the seals, penguins and icebergs of Danco Island, but I refused to give in.
Sleep seemed a waste of such precious never-to-be-repeated hours. I wanted to savour every second, to watch sun rise over Antarctica and the ever-changing colours of the sky.
Sitting up in my sleeping bag, I realised I was quite alone. Well, almost. At 1am, Penguin Patrol swooped into action: three gentoos waddled over to inspect the camp. Oblivious to the dozing occupants, they ventured close to the sleeping bags but soon retreated back to bed themselves.
The silence was absolute. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard nothing at all: no creaking of the boat, no hum of electricity, no passing cars or distant sirens, no conversations or ringing telephones, no wind or rustling trees.
Then the snoring started – loud groans rumbling from the neighbouring tent. I blocked it out by studying the intricacies of the continental cliffs, etched with crevices and deep gashes.
Dozing off at 2.30am, I was woken abruptly by the thunderous clap of a calving iceberg. Sitting bolt upright just in time, I stared wide-eyed as a chunk of ice the size of a car hit the water with such velocity I was convinced everyone would come rushing out of their tents. But nobody stirred. The snoring continued. The broken berg rocked back and forth before flipping completely.
As the temperature dropped and cold set in, I ached for sleep but there were still too many distractions. The roar of distant avalanches echoed around the bay, sending clouds of powder far and wide.
In a bid to keep the cold at bay I went for a walk, mindful of the loud crunch created by each footstep. I followed the shoreline, pausing to watch the Weddell seals sprawled on the snow like giant brown boulders. Seaweed swayed in the shallows; penguins chased each other through the glassy water, bounded ashore, landed on their gleaming bellies and skidded away.
I turned my back on the campsite so no sign of man compromised the scene. It was just me and the wilderness. The mountains of Brabant Island rose from the dark water; heavy fog hung at their bottoms so only the tops were visible – as though they were floating on clouds.
From close by I heard something I’d become quite accustomed to during my brief time in Antarctica – a whale releasing an almighty sigh as it surfaced for air. I spun around hoping to catch a glimpse, looking for any sign: a dorsal fin, the splash of a tale, even the ripples of ‘whale footprints’ lingering on the surface. Nothing. Had I imagined it? Had cold and fatigue brought on hallucinations? Troubled and exhausted, I stumbled back to my sleeping bag questioning my sanity.
The light was beginning to soften. Sunrise was approaching. Flocks of storm petrels and kelp gulls had taken to the sky, silhouetted against warm shades of lilac that slowly turned peachy, mixed with streaks of vanilla.
By 4am, the sun had risen completely. Again, I heard the same unmistakable sound and frantically scanned the channel for signs of a whale. The waters were calm with barely a ripple – until it appeared: a humpback slowly swimming north and spouting vapour high into the air.
Before long, others started to wake from their slumbers, rising to a new dawn in Antarctica. Sitting in the snow, the layered-up American lady grinned like a Cheshire cat despite no longer being able to feel her fingers.
Then the most unexpected and bittersweet sound of all: the Zodiacs returning to pick us up. Yawning campers emerged from their tents, stretching and rubbing their eyes. “Good morning,” called out the snorer from the next tent. “How was your night?”
I didn’t know where to begin.
The author travelled with Quark Expeditions, which offers a range of trips to Antarctica.
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