Thursday, March 23, 2006

Jim Eagles: Let's heed call of the wild

Antarctica is an amazing place which exercises a huge fascination for New Zealanders, but it seems there are still a lot of question marks about going there.

People wonder: Is it safe? Will it be too rough getting there? Would we be better off going on a big boat or a small one? Is it better to go to the Ross Sea or the Antarctic Peninsula? How do we keep warm? And, ultimately: Is it environmentally responsible to go?

To answer the last question first, I'm a great believer in the positive power of travel to open minds, increase understanding, expose iniquity, grow appreciation of what a wonderful world we live in ... and spread a bit of wealth around.

I don't agree with boycotts of places like Myanmar. As far as I'm concerned, we do a lot more for the people suffering under the appalling military junta by witnessing it for ourselves, talking to locals and buying their services, than is ever achieved by staying away.

I don't agree, either, with the suggestion of some scientists and environmentalists that Antarctica is such a unique, fragile and unspoiled place that people should be shut out.

For one thing, if there is to be international support for continuing to preserve the Antarctic from exploitation - and that will inevitably become an issue - it will best be created by allowing people to see for themselves how special the place is.

For another thing, it was only when tourists started going there and seeing the environmental damage being caused by the various national bases that countries started cleaning up their acts.

But the question of how many tourists the Antarctic can sustain will have to be faced at some point, because numbers are expanding rapidly. United Nations Environmental Programme figures show that in the summer of 1995-96 only 9212 tourists went there.

By last season that had trebled to 27,324 and the number is expected to easily top 30,000 when the present season ends about now.

That growth will continue. In Ushuaia, at the bottom of South America, from where most Antarctic voyages begin, I was told 25 boats were going down there this season but that was expected to increase to 32 by next summer. And a few tourists get there by yacht and even by plane.

Still, for the moment the numbers are relatively small, cover only limited areas, are restricted to the short summer, and the operators have agreed among themselves not to overload any sites. The only time we saw another cruise ship its leader apologised for the intrusion and it turned tail and left. Judging by the trip I went on, the impact on the environment is minimal.

If you follow the rules for visitors laid down in the Antarctic Treaty protocol - which are basically common sense - I believe you can go with a clear conscience.

As to whether it is safe, nowhere is absolutely safe, but if you exercise normal prudence an Antarctic cruise is not particularly risky. The trickiest aspect is probably getting in and out of the Zodiacs that take you to shore, but even in relatively calm weather you'll have a couple of burly sailors to help.

On land it is a matter of being sensible where you walk, avoiding slippery or unstable slopes, and not getting too close to the likes of fur seals or skua nests, something the protocol requires anyway.

The trip down can be rough - although ours wasn't - but it's wonderful what seasick pills can achieve, and you can always lie on your bunk for the duration.

However, susceptibility to seasickness could be a determining factor in which trip you opt for.

I think a small ship like the one I went on, with just 50 passengers, is the best bet because you go ashore two or three times a day for two to three hours a time and can wander pretty freely.

A cruise on one of the bigger ships with 600 to 800 passengers may offer a lot less shore time but it will be a quicker and gentler ride and you will enjoy much greater luxury.

You can reduce your time at sea by leaving from Ushuaia because the voyage from there to the Antarctic Peninsula is much shorter than from, say, Hobart or Bluff to the Ross Sea.

I haven't been to the Ross Sea area but from talking to people who have, it does sound as though there's a much greater variety of wildlife on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Cold wasn't as big an issue as I had expected. The ships are comfortably warm so you can soon warm up if you do get chilled.

Obviously it can get cold outside, though while I was there it never really went much below zero, but the chill wind that blew much of the time certainly left my fingers and toes painfully cold a couple of times.

As all the operators will tell you the trick is to wear layers of clothing rather than one or two really thick items. Not only is that a more effective way of insulating yourself, it makes it easier to take clothes off if you warm up.

What I did take were a couple of Macpac Interwool tops, which were fantastic. Not only did they keep me amazingly warm they were also extremely light, comfortable and dressy enough to be worn at dinner.

Following the advice of World Expeditions' New Zealand manager Karen Phillips, my wife and I took a couple of pairs of rubber gloves to wear over our woollen gloves on zodiac trips and that proved a great idea.

We had to put up with jokes from other passengers about doing the dishes but we got the last laugh when our hands stayed warm and dry while their gloves got soaked.

We also bought a couple of Buffs - tubes of cloth you can wear round your neck and pull up into a balaclava when necessary - and they proved a good investment.

Add a polar fleece, parka, waterproof trousers, and so on, and the Antarctic cold - in summer - is nothing to get too worried about.

In any case, the ice, snow, cold weather and turbulent seas are all part of what make a trip to the Antarctic so exciting. Add in fascinating history, stunning scenery and wonderful wildlife and you have one of the most special travel destinations the world has to offer.

Sure, it's not cheap to go. But if you can scrape the money together it's a place not to be missed.

Don't leave it too long. Growth in tourist numbers, international bureaucracy, global warming and resource exploitation mean it may not stay so special for much longer.

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