Antarctica

  
  - darkometer rating:  6 -
 
AntarcticaThe most remote area on planet Earth, indeed a whole desolate continent  – and it's an especially deadly place too, as testified by the well-known stories of explorers who perished here, most notably Robert F. Scott, or barely survived. There are remnants of those early expedition efforts, plus a few other spots of interest to the dark tourist … but the main attraction is the extreme remoteness of "The Ice".  

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations>

  

More background info: Antarctica is the emptiest, harshest, most-extreme-in-any-sense environment there is on Earth. It's the coldest, windiest, driest, emptiest piece of land there is. There's no population other than scientists on temporary missions, no naturally occurring mammals (other than marine mammals in the surrounding seas) and hardly any other higher life on the ground at all, except penguins. It's an extremely inhospitable environment – most extremely so on the inland icecap, which is up to 4000m thick and by far the vastest on the planet (Greenland's is a distant second). Right in this white desert lies the South Pole – but it's not even the most remote spot here. That distinction (not counting all those areas where no human has even been) will rather have to go to Vostok, where Russia operates the most isolated research station anywhere on Earth.
 
Early explorers seeking to "conquer" the South Pole (well, go there once and return) risked their lives – and as is well known some did pay that ultimate price. The most well-known such case is of course the "Terra Nova" expedition in which the British "hero" explorer Robert Falcon Scott attempted to finally reach the Pole in 1911 (after earlier failed attempts by both himself, in 1901-1904, and others, such as Ernest Shackleton, in 1908).
 
Scott's 1910 to 1913 South Pole adventure ended in epic tragedy that's been the stuff of countless books and films, so only the briefest of accounts has to suffice here. After years of preparation, Scott and his crew set off from their base at Cape Evens on Ross Island near the Antarctic mainland in November 1911 for their long march to the Pole. The last group of five men finally did reach their destination on 17 January 1912 – only to find that they had been beaten to it by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, whose own expedition got there five weeks before and left a tent, a flag and a letter as evidence (cf. Oslo, Norway and Svalbard).
 
Defeated and deflated, the Scott group headed back, but as is all too well known, they never made it back to base. Bad weather, lack of supplies and dwindling mental as well as physical strength led to the well documented tragedy – captured in detail by Scott's own diary, which apparently he kept to the very last moment.
 
Before that, they had already lost one of their party, then another group member, Lawrence Oates sacrificed himself for the others by walking out into the blizzard that kept the remaining group pinned down. On leaving the tent he uttered those world famous words that even entered the English phraseological stock: " … I may be some time". He was never seen again. The other three died several days later in their tent only less than 12 miles from a supplies depot that could have saved them …
 
A search party found the three bodies the following November and buried them in their tent in the snow. This grave could thus not be a permanent one but has long since disappeared under snow/ice. It will eventually be released into the sea from below the Ross Ice Shelf …
 
Scott's expedition was later criticized as ill-prepared, bungled even, and indeed he had made several fatefully wrong decisions, e.g. relying on motorized sledges which proved more or less useless, as did the group's ponies. (In contrast, Amundsen relied on the tried-and-tested method of dog-drawn sledges – coldly calculating in the dogs themselves as food supplies for the explorers on the return trip from the Pole). It has to be said, however, that Scott was also just plain tragically unlucky. 
 
What remains of the legend in physical form that can be visited as a kind of dark tourism destination is a set of huts on Ross Island. Possibly the most isolated man-made dark tourism sight anywhere.
 
Scott's was, of course, not the only deadly tragedy, but remains the most prominent one in popular awareness. Out of the other explorers who perished here, on the other hand, some are buried in proper graves. And a few of these can also be visited – but they won't quite have the same aura …
 
In was only in the 1950s, especially with the aid of aircraft, that explorers returned to the Pole and eventually set up a permanent research station. Today, that's what happens here most: scientific research (e.g. into the "ozone hole" in the atmosphere above Antarctica). And these days, doing research here no longer involves the same kind of life-or-death gamble as it did in the early days of the explorers. Although, being in this kind of hostile environment is always a risk.
 
Tourism started at a minimal level in the late 1960s but only really got going following the collapse of the Soviet Union, after which Russia began to lease out some of its icebreakers to earn some tourist dollars. These icebreakers can get much deeper into Antarctic waters than merely ice-strengthened cruise ships. Such cruises, which mostly only go as far as the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, form the mainstay of Antarctica tourism. Only very few cruises make it to other parts of the Antarctic coast further south. Going to the South Pole itself, where there is a permanent US research base, is possible too for well-heeled tourists – in the form of a very exclusive fly-in, fly-out day-trip.
 
A more affordable and certainly most comfortable mode of tourism "to" the South Pole/Antarctica takes the form of mere fly-overs, i.e. only for a few aerial glimpses of this barren white wasteland.
 
In 1979, one such plane added the single biggest tragedy to Antarctica's record, namely when a New Zealand Air DC-10 crashed in bad weather on the flanks of Mt Erebus, near Ross Island, killing all 257 on board. After this accident, fly-overs were long suspended but were subsequently resumed in later years.
 
Mt Erebus itself is also interesting as it is the world's southernmost active volcano and has one of the world's very few long-lasting lava lakes. Allegedly, debris from the air crash is still regularly washed down from the mountain's flanks when the snow on them melts during the Antarctic summer.
 
Another, dormant, volcano on Ross Island is evocatively named "Mt Terror" (though this has nothing to do with any volcanic or other kind of real terror, but was taken from a ship's name, just like Erebus).
 
It has to be noted here as well that tourism in Antarctica is not unproblematic. Nature hangs in a very delicate balance in these extreme environments without the impact of a human presence added to it. Large numbers of tourists trampling over penguin rookery grounds are not something to be encouraged. Fortunately, the better operators at least try to follow restrictions "suggested" by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), in particular regarding a cap on the number of passengers on a ship and on any single land excursion.
 
 
What there is to see: The sight of this desolate and life-threatening middle-of-nowhere part of the world can as such be interpreted as a dark destination of sorts. It is, after all, a truly deadly environment … and also literally quite dead. The only life that Antarctica supports (outside the Antarctic waters) is lichens and penguins. There are also other sea birds, but these are mostly rather found on the islands around Antarctica proper. The endless inland icecap is completely dead. It is also the driest desert on Earth: despite all the ice and snow, there's hardly any precipitation. The harshest weather conditions that the planet has in store only add to the forbiddingness of this "lost" southern continent.
 
But the main question here is: can you actually go there as a tourist? Indeed you can, although, as you will imagine, it's neither easy nor cheap (see under access and costs). But it is possible, and Antarctica tourism is even thriving, albeit on a comparatively small scale.
 
Most tourism takes either the form of fly-overs – which means you can see the scenery from above but no particular places close up – or by cruise ships which can only penetrate as far as the Antarctic Peninsula. This curved needle of land juts out from the continent "pointing" towards the Atlantic Ocean, just off Cape Horn, the southern tip of South America. As it extends significantly beyond the southern arctic circle, in the summer it remains navigable for non-ice-breaker ships more than any other part of the continent. (For that reason, and simply because this bit is the closest to them, ports in Argentina and Chile are typical departure points for such trips).
 
These cruises, however, focus on wildlife (i.e. mainly penguins) and sheer scenery – not that there's anything at all wrong with that. But for those with the added special interest of dark tourism, such trips are far less rewarding than those few that make it further south, in particular all the way down to Ross Island, at the point where the sea gets closest to the inland mass of continental Antarctica (and the South Pole).
 
The reason this part of Antarctica is of more interest from a dark tourism perspective is that it's here that some historically dark spots are to be found, e.g. those related to the tragedy of the Scott expedition. In particular there are a number of more or less well preserved huts that were erected by Scott's crew and other early explorers.
 
The one visited by most people is Scott's "Discovery" Hut right next to Antarctica's largest research base, the USA's McMurdo Station. This is actually a small town of over a hundred buildings, and a rather incongruously busy and bustling place at that. So it may not easily converge with the expectations of all of Antarctica being just white emptiness. On the plus side, the station's presence makes for good accessibility (and facilities!).
 
The relative ease of access to the "Discovery" Scott hut cannot quite compensate for the fact that the atmosphere here is not overly authentic (too many visitors has also had the downside of "souveniring"). In any case, this hut was hardly used for accommodation but rather for storage, especially by later expeditions. There are a few interesting objects such as old provisions (some with still familiar labels), but overall the hut is rather bare. Somewhat off-puttingly there is said to be a strong smell of the vestiges of burnt seal blubber (a common fuel in those days).
 
Regarded as the best of Ross Island's historic explorers' huts, in contrast, is Scott's "Terra Nova" hut at Cape Evens a bit further north. There's no permanent research station here – but some cruises include "wet landings" by zodiac at this point.
 
At this hut you can get a real sense of the living conditions these early pioneers had to endure. Inside it's literally dark – and picturing the cramped conditions 25 men had to put up with in such limited space is reputed to be rather eerie. Some even say you can feel the presence of the ghosts of the deceased former occupants … although, of course, Scott's party only set off from here – never to return.
 
Real evidence of death is only provided by bleached dog skeletons outside the hut. But the place were Scott and his men died and were later buried by the search party was located on the ice shelf, which means it's long gone (into the ice en route to being eventually released into the ocean).
 
In lieu of a proper grave a cross was erected in 1913 in memory of the five men, closer to their base camp, namely on a small volcanic cone called Observation Hill, located south of what is now McMurdo Station. 
 
There's yet another explorers' hut of significance further north, at Cape Royds, namely Shackleton's "Nimrod" expedition hut, built in 1908. It's also reputed to have some ghostly aura – although of course not on the same level as Scott's Cape Evans hut with its associations with that explorer's great tragedy.
 
Ross Island is also home to one exceptional natural "hell hole": the permanent lava lake in the world's (currently) southern-most active volcano, Mt Erebus (also one of the world's biggest volcanoes). Most tourists will, however, have to be content with a view of the volcano from a distance.
 
Mt Erebus is also a dark site for another human tragedy that happened here. In fact it was the single biggest tragedy ever in Antarctica as far as the scale of loss of life is concerned: in 1979 a New Zealand Air tourist fly-over DC-10 plane crashed into the mountain. All 257 on board were killed. Another cross marks the site. In the Antarctic summer, debris from the crash is allegedly still released occasionally from the mountain's snow …
 
Across the sea opposite Ross Island, on mainland Antarctica proper, there are the famed Dry Valleys – an environmental anomaly of the highest order. These barren rocky stretches of land have not seen any precipitation in millions of years. The best-known of these dry valleys, Taylor's Valley, was first discovered by Robert F. Scott himself in 1903 – accidentally, when his party got lost in fog on one early exploration trip of the area.
 
Scott considered the place to be completely devoid of any life – and you'd have to be forgiven for presuming the same. Yet, there is life here, albeit invisible, namely inside the rocks, and only of microscopic size: some rocks harbour algae, bacteria and even an immensely remarkable species of minuscule worm. This creature can shut down its life functions for decades only to spring to life when there's a speck of moisture … and then shut down again. That's life as close as can be to being virtually the same as dead.
 
The Dry Valleys are also regarded as the environment that is the closest to be found anywhere on Earth to resemble the surface of Mars (where the existence of similarly extreme microscopic life forms are presumed to be a distant possibility) – hence NASA tested some of their Mars probe equipment right here. In other words: walking in the Dry Valleys is the closest thing to setting foot on another planet!
 
Another kind of at least grim-sounding anomaly within this highly anomalous region is the strange "Blood Falls" – where red-tinged water seeps out of a glacial tongue at one end of Taylor's Valley. Of course, the name is only metaphorical, though – in reality the coloration is these days attributed to iron oxide being washed out from an ancient hypersaline subglacial lake (where some strange microbes are also assumed to exist that live off iron and sulphates – which could provide clues as to what forms extraterrestrial life on Mars could have if there is any).
 
The spot that was the prize in the race that Amundsen won and Scott so tragically lost in 1911/12 can possibly be regarded as a kind of dark destination too. I am obviously talking about the geographic South Pole itself – and seen that way, going there may be an extra attraction for the dark tourist. And it is indeed possible to go there as a tourist … if only just about:
 
Unless you belong to those few fit and crazy enough to make it overland on skis (or even motorbike – it really has been done!), this ultra-remote spot can regularly be reached on a day excursion by plane only (as offered as part of an exclusive Antarctica package by Adventure Network International). It allows for little more than a brief photo op by the pole marker and a visit to the research station, but still, you'd be one of only a very, very small circle of people who have ever stood at the Earth's most southerly spot. (The pole marker, by the way, has to be re-installed every year because the icecap moves ca. 10 m over the spot annually – so a whole string of older markers descend into the ice and into the horizon …)
 
The South Pole is no longer just an empty spot with nothing but the Pole-marker pole sticking out, just as Scott would have seen it (with an unwelcome Norwegian flag on top). Since the late 1950s the USA has been operating their Amundsen-Scott Station here, served by an icy airfield for ski-equipped special planes (and the flag these days is the stars-and-stripes). So, ironically, The South Pole is today actually one of the – technically – least inaccessible spots in the Antarctic inland (at least in summer).
 
There are other, much more truly desolate spots, such as the "inaccessibility pole" or Russia's Vostok station (above the legendary subglacial lake of the same name). This is where the coldest temperature ever was recorded – at nearly minus 90 degrees Celsius! Thus it's also known as the "pole of cold" or "cold pole". However, these places are completely out of reach of any kind of tourism (even for the super rich)
 
 
Location: at the southernmost end of the planet: the continent around the South Pole at 90 degrees south (and nominally zero West/East, i.e. the one spot where the east-west distinction no longer applies!).
  
The places of particular interest to the dark tourist are mostly on and near Ross Island on the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf at ca. 77 degrees 40' South and 167 degrees East. The closest lands of civilization north of this location are New Zealand and Australia/Tasmania.
 
 
Access and costs: extremely restricted and forbiddingly expensive.
 
Details: as you will have guessed, any kind of Antarctica tourism is extremely costly. But since there's no way of getting there independently (unless you happen to be a proper explorer yourself), there's no other option but to go for one of the pre-arranged packages on offer by various companies for often real serious prices:
 
Fly-overs (no use to the targeted dark tourist) may still be just about affordable … relatively speaking – though only the better seats in first and business class can guarantee adequate views, others have to rotate window seats and cheaper over-wing or even middle aisle economy seats are practically worthless (no point economizing in this case if it takes the whole point of the flight away!). Furthermore, such flights are not very frequently offered these days (by the Australian airline Qantas). So you can probably forget this option.
 
Entry-level prices for Antarctic ship cruises may also seem comparatively "affordable" (again, very relatively speaking), starting at something like 3500 USD. But most of such "cheap" cruises only dip into Antarctic waters for a just a little bit (if at all) and mostly stay out by the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula and the islands around Antarctica proper.
 
To actually get to the really good bits, especially from a dark perspective(!), you truly need to have a very fat wallet indeed. Think in the region of five figures. And even 10,000 USD is unlikely to get you to where you really want to go. So an estimate of something in the region of 20 or even up to as much as 40 grand is more what you're looking at.
 
Note also that cruise costs normally do not include flights to the departure points – and given the remoteness of even these points, this can also add significantly to the base costs!
 
Flying visits to Antarctica, i.e. by plane rather that sea, are by no means less expensive – on the contrary even: a seven-day package by Adventure Network International, including a flying excursion to the South Pole, costs just under 40,000 USD!
 
So make no mistake, "doing" Antarctica properly is absolutely luxury level tourism price-wise (though not really comfort-wise). But if you have this sort of money it is probably the ultimate destination to be aim for as a tourist on this planet … beyond that there's only "space tourism"! (Or a deep-sea expedition to see the wreck of the Titanic.)
 
Before you ask: no, I am not one of those lucky few who have been able to afford this kind of thing. So I'm only reporting from the research I've done. But, hell, would I like to go if I had the money!!! … did I mention I'm looking for sponsors?
 
So where to turn for more concrete information if you are not scared off by the costs? A few operators that have been recommended include Quark Expeditions, a veteran specialist in extreme itineraries, Adventure Associates is another; Heritage Expeditions also offer itineraries that include places described here. Other operators may also have suitable offers in their portfolio – when sifting through them, take care to keep a few important criteria in mind. First of all: make sure you use one that is an approved member of the IAATO, the body that looks after environmentally responsible travel in Antarctica.
 
In any case, it is absolutely vital that you start planning ahead at least a year in advance and shop around extensively. Some operators seem to just latch on to others, so do compare prices studiously and try to find the original.
 
For the dark tourist, the most crucial criterion has to be whether Ross Island is included. Next what are the landing options? Zodiacs, hovercraft, helicopters – the wider the range the better. One other general piece of standard advice is: the smaller the number of passengers on any one ship the better – but that will most likely naturally be the case for those itineraries that go this far south (where the big standard cruise ships cannot reach anyway).
 
The ultimate and legendary vessel of Antarctic cruises, the massive Russian "Kapitan Khlebnikov" icebreaker, the first to even circumnavigate all of Antarctica, has recently been returned to its original job of keeping Russia's northern Siberian coast passages navigable and escorting commercial vessels there. The last tourist trips to Antarctica on this classic icebreaker, Quark's crown jewel as it were, including its (predictably exorbitantly expensive) very final "End of an Era" one-month voyage took place in the 2011/2012 season. .
 
Whether another comparable icebreaker of this calibre will in the future fill the gap that the "Kapitan" left remains to be seen.
 
 
Time required: a cruise/expedition of the sort that it could take in the specific dark spots described above, i.e. Ross, would be in the region of two to four weeks long. In theory, it wouldn’t need to take that long to get to Ross Island and to see those spots, but you won't have a say in what else will be included the package – unless you were to organize your own expedition. Weather can also have an impact on travel time – esp. for flying. It's not uncommon for planes being grounded by severe weather for two weeks or so. So some flexibility is therefore required.
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: Most cruises, and flights, depart from either Argentina or Chile, so these would be the most natural combinations, though these two countries' dark sites are of rather a different nature to Antarctica's.
 
The same is true for South Africa which in theory could also serve as a departure point, though I've not seen any such cruises offered. And the one flying trip to Antarctica from Cape Town that I am aware of (see under non-dark combinations) does not include Ross.
 
New Zealand was the departure point for Scott's "Terra Nova" expedition – and some cruises with an emphasis on early explorers' heritage sites also sail from there – or from Australia/Tasmania. This is mainly so because these countries are simply geographically the closest to the Ross Sea. New Zealand's dark sites, unlike those in South America/South Africa, are also somewhat more in line with Antarctica's.
 
A particular dark destination that is often even part of (or occasionally the departure point for) some wider Antarctic cruises is the Falkland Islands. However, it is doubtful whether you'd have the time for exploring these remote islands' own dark sites when buying the cruise package add-on group flight to the islands (from Chile). To make for the necessary time you'd need to go earlier, or stay longer, independently, which would of course only further drive the costs up.
 
Finally, another destination on some Antarctic cruises can also count as an independently dark site in its own right: South Georgia's Grytviken whaling station, now a ghost town, with rusting remains of the island's grim 20th century whaling industry (i.e. whale extermination), plus, as a particularly prized tourist spot: the grave of Ernest Shackleton!
 
 
Combinations with other non-dark destinations: Most of the ca. 30,000 tourists who visit Antarctica annually (even if only just – namely to the Antarctic Peninsula) do so in order to see rather non-dark attractions: the unique wildlife and a scenery of undoubtedly spectacular beauty. Some cruises focus more on wildlife than others, but practically all options will include some penguin spotting at least … and the scenery will be all around you in any case. Needless to say, a mere fly-over will only give you a distant view of the scenery and no chance to spot any wildlife.
 
Astonishingly, quite a proportion of Antarctica cruise passengers on the larger ships (that resemble more the typical Mediterranean or Caribbean floating hotel and casino type of vessel) never even leave the comfort of their ship to go ashore anywhere. Sad but apparently true.  
 
Further afield: of course, any of those countries where Antarctica trips depart from (in particular Ushuaia in Argentina, or Chile, Australia/Tasmania and New Zealand) have plenty of other non-dark things to offer too.
 
According to coolantarctica.com, sometimes Port Elizabeth or Cape Town in South Africa are used as departure points for Antarctica cruises, but I've only been able to track down a fly-in offer (with White Desert) from Cape Town that combines adventure activities, emperor penguin watching and accommodation in a special luxury tented camp (with prices to match!). They even offer a combination trip with an African bush safari, jokingly dubbed "the hardest trip to pack for" (hardest to pay for, more like, unless you happen to be rich enough – they charge 33,500 EUR per head for this 12-day extravaganza!).
  
  
  
  
  

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