The definition of camping: A hotel without room service.
But camping? In Antarctica? We may have lost our minds.
After we signed up for our Gap Adventures Antarctic Cruise last summer, we were sent regular emails with updates on the trip, suggestions for packing, and an invitation to a forum to meet new members. There were also add-ons to the trip, like kayaking and camping.
When I read that last bit, I knew it had to be a misprint. Kayaking and camping in Antarctica? Only crazy people would do that.
Warren, on the other hand, read that and immediately signed us up for camping. He was thrilled at the prospect of sleeping at the end of the world, and I have to admit his enthusiasm was contagious. It is pretty easy to be excited about camping in Antarctica when you are wearing shorts and drinking cold beer, though.
Why would someone want to camp overnight on Antarctica when they have a nice warm bed on a ship? Well, for the same reasons we sold everything we owned to travel the world: confronting the fear that stands in front of our desires stretches our boundaries and expands our perspective on life. It isn’t always easy, but it is always worthwhile.
In reality, camping in Antarctica is difficult. (I know, big surprise there.) Because of the pristine condition of most of the continent and the treaty among tour operators in the area to leave nothing behind, they make it a policy not to bring any extras on land. And by “extras” I mean things most people would consider necessities to a camping trip.
- No campfires. First of all, there are no trees on Antarctica, which means no wood. Second, the wind blows really hard, and third, it would have to practically be a bonfire to generate enough heat to keep anyone warm enough to linger outside for songs and roasting marshmallows. And the most important reason is, of course, that we don’t want to disturb the landscape in any way.
- No food or drink. Our first thought was to bring a little something to toast to our adventures (and keep us warm), but the only beverage allowed is water. Again, there is a concerted effort to leave no trace behind, and it would be too easy for wrappers and containers to fly away in the wind or be swept away in the water or for animals to find our leftover food and get sick.
- No amateur trips. If a land trip through the Antarctic is tough for guys like Shackleton and Ross, you can imagine it is almost impossible for rank amateurs like us. The climate is harsh and can change in a blink of an eye, so an experienced Antarctic outdoorsman and a nearby ship in case of disaster is the only smart way to attempt an overnight stay at Hotel Antarctica.
Last, you must take into consideration the risks outlined in the 4-page legal waiver you must sign for this one night adventure.
(Seriously, what were we thinking?)
The night we went camping – after 3 days of missed opportunities due to weather and ice – we had an early dinner together. How do you have a casual dinner conversation with a group of people you don’t know before you embark on an adventure like this?
Well, you focus on the important things, like disasters. We jokingly discussed all the ways it could go wrong and how we could survive, like snuggling up with a seal to stay warm. It was nice to let off a little nervous energy this way and to get to know our fellow adventurers, who were quite a diverse group.
We then met in the mud room of the ship to get ready. The mud room is where all the passengers put on their waterproof pants and boots and load into the zodiac boats for our daily excursions, and it was eerily quiet to be in there with just 15 of us.
After we dressed, we picked up our sleeping bags and mats and loaded up into the boats. It was a quiet ride over as we all contemplated what we were about to do. This is when a stress-busting comment like “guys, what the hell where we thinking?” can get a big laugh.
The landing was a bit tricky because ice had moved in near the shore just since the scouting trip from the camping leader an hour before. As I said above, conditions can change quickly in Antarctica. We had to make a sort of leap off the front of the zodiac to get on land after hurling our bags to shore.
After we all came ashore our leader Matt recommended that we set up our tents on the other side of the point to get a bit of a break from the wind, so we set off in a single file line across the packed snow. I looked back to see the zodiac boats speeding away to the warm ship, and in their place a giant leopard seal bobbed up out of the water and swam along the shore watching us walk away.
You know it is going to be an interesting night when one of the last things you see before bed is a seal.
Editor’s Note: Did we have to cuddle with seals to stay warm? Drink penguin milk for nutrition? Click here to read part 2 to find out.