Access & Resources: Tripping the White Continent

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, March 1995

Access & Resources: Tripping the White Continent
By Miles Harvey

Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, highest, driest, loneliest, and arguably deadliest continent on earth. Thus, only about 8,000 visitors brave their way each year to one of the earth's wildest last gems. Because the region's fragile ecosystem has begun to feel even the effects of light traffic, however, the Antarctica Project, a nonprofit conservation group based in Washington, D.C., urges travelers to book trips only with members of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operations (206-854-7541), whose members abide by internationally agreed-upon, eco-friendly rules of travel.

Getting There
Unless you own a large yacht or an icebreaker, don't count on going solo to the big ice cap. And depending on your tour, you may need to fly to embarkation points in South America, New Zealand, or Australia.

Tours from South America generally begin in Ushuaia, Argentina, or Punta Arenas, Chile. Three air carriers -- Aerolínas Argentinas (800-333-0276), Ladeco (800-825-2332), and Lan Chile (800-735-5526) -- provide service to Ushuaia or Punta Arenas from Miami for about $1,500. Tours out of Australia depart from Hobart. Tickets from Los Angeles on Qantas (800-277-4500) and Air New Zealand (800-262-1234) begin at about $1,700. For New Zealand - based trips, you'll depart from either Auckland or Christchurch. Qantas, Air New Zealand, and United have flights from Los Angeles to these cities for about $1,500.

Coastal Regions
If you have a yen for boat trips that include good company, lectures by naturalists, and a stop or two at penguin rookeries, tour operators run just such trips along the coast of Antarctica. Mountain Travel - Sobek (800-227-2384), the operators that hosted Edward Hoagland, as well as Abercrombie & Kent International (800-323-7308) and Society Expeditions (800-790-2033), offer South America - based tours that cruise the pristine islands surrounding the Antarctic Peninsula. Depending on the length of the trip (ten to 21 days), the type of accommodations (modest to deluxe cabins with shared baths), and the time of year (peak season is January and February), such trips cost from $3,000 to $14,000 per person.

In addition to offering packages based in South America, two U.S. firms -- Quark Expeditions (800-356-5699) and Zegrahm Expeditions (800-628-8747) -- also provide tours that embark from Australia and New Zealand. These trips visit the Ross Sea side of the continent, home to yellow-eyed, royal, and snare's crested penguins, as well as hooker sea lions and whales. Prices range from $6,000 to $16,000.

The Interior
Antarctica's vast interior is also the world's biggest desert. England-based Adventure Network International (44-494-671-808), the only tour organization that operates in the interior, flies clients from Punta Arenas to a permanent base camp near the Ellsworth Range. From there, ANI provides flights to Vinson Massif, the continent's highest mountain (16,863 feet), and the Weddell Sea area for a ten-day camping trip during the emperor penguin mating season.Prices range from $10,000 to $30,000 per person.

Bring long underwear made of polypropylene or a polyester like Capilene, and a waterproof jacket and pants. For boat tours, it's essential to pack waterproof, unlined rubber boots that go midcalf or higher. Binoculars and sunglasses are also a good idea. Since Antarctica is one place Wal-Mart hasn't conquered yet, bring plenty of film.

The Crystal Desert: Summers in Antarctica, by David G. Campbell (Houghton Mifflin, $10.95), is a marvelous firsthand account of Antarctic wildlife, social life, and politics. For a page-turner, pick up Crossing Antarc tica, by Will Steger and Jon Bowermaster (Dell, $5.99), a chronicle of the first dogsled journey across the continent. The recently published Antarctica: A Guide to Wildlife, by Tony Soper (Bradt Publications, $19.95), is a first-rate field guide that includes some travel information.

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