Bob Bevan pulled on his thermals to go cruising – to Antarctica

It was all the fault of the former Chairman of Chesterfield Football Club and the Axa Sun Life Insurance Company. The former told me about his holiday and the latter paid up a policy I had long forgotten.

My Petal (I call her that because she drops off a lot) was a bit stunned as she rather favours some winter sun in January. But the promise of Club Class flights, a junior suite on the ship, a ski-style suntan and a stopover in Buenos Aires tipped the balance.

Our friends fell into two camps – the “hugely envious” and the “wouldn’t-go-if-you-paid me.” One, who had been before, had memories of the smell of penguin droppings for several months after.

Once Orient Lines get your money the tone changes. Our cruise became an Antarctic Expedition.

Apparently only one per cent of all tourists go there, probably because it is the coldest and windiest place on earth.
More Orient Lines letters kept arriving telling us to bring balaclavas, gloves, socks, wellies, waterproof trousers and long-johns. At least they give you a bright red parka badged up with “Antarctica 2001” to pose in down the golf club.

Then comes another letter asking you to confirm that you are self-sufficient and will not impede the progress of the expedition. Am I up to this? Wouldn’t the Canaries have been a better bet?

We spent 14 hours in our British Airways cradle seat (they have wonderful flat beds now) – more comfortable than the old ones – but still a tiring start. Orient Lines on shore in Buenos Aires were non-existent, as I shall later recount, but their sea-going colleagues were quite brilliant. 

Marco Polo, at 20,000 tons, is regarded as a medium-size cruise vessel. Externally she looks a little old-fashioned – nothing wrong in that – internally she looks brand new. So I was amazed to find out that she is the old Russian cruise liner Alexander Pushkin.

Built 35 years ago and with her original, but overhauled engines, she has been completely refitted. With her specially strengthened hull and deep draft of up to 8.5 metres she rides the sea well.

Even though we had exceptionally good weather for the area, there is still a lot of swell. Normally I would have to take those awful pills and endure the side effects, but recently I have befriended a herbalist who sold me some ginger capsules.

Either these worked a treat or I have acquired sea-legs for the first time in 50 years. All I know is that on a rough day, when the paper bags were put out, I sat through three meals.
Our Head Chef was a Welshman and a genius. The food in both the restaurant and the buffet alternative was beyond criticism. As were the 75 per cent Filipino crew, the entertainment and all the normal on board facilities.

Only half of the 850 passenger-capacity was taken up as there are strict internationally-agreed rules about landing in Antarctica. Just 100 are allowed off at a time and they are accompanied by hordes of experts who stay with you throughout.

Even the drivers of the Zodiacs (big rubber dinghies to you) have all lived and worked down there.  

After two days at sea the idea is to ease us in gently. We were to make two visits to the Falklands. I say “were” because the first call was cancelled because of the weather.

I don’t think, according to an on board spy, that we missed much. West Point is a Falkland Island inhabited by two people, Roddy and Lily Napier. The idea is that you get off, 100 at a time, trot across the island for half an hour, visit some rockhopper penguins and black-browed albatrosses, then come back via the farmhouse to have a piece of cake and a chipped mug of tea with the occupiers.

As the Napiers get $15 a head for this they must have been gutted to see us bounce on by.

It was our only bad day but it is possible that all landings could be called off  with the weather liable to sudden changes. You could even end up spending a few hours in a hut.

Next day we did step on to the Falklands in the capital Stanley – not Port Stanley as everyone seems desperate to call it.

 Quite what people see in the place is beyond me. The only trees are tourists and although brochures refer to a “ramshackle charm”, I can only agree with the first half of that description. My abiding memory is of rusting corrugated iron sheds.

Still, I did eat braised upland goose in the famous Upland Goose Hotel and met a local who was born and bred there. She said she was related to about a quarter of the 2,000 population, which said it all.

Next day the fun really starts. As it’s summer in the Southern Hemisphere and rarely dark, we soon started to see icebergs and began to realise we really were somewhere very special.

Icebergs are not just white; they can be a deep and unique blue. Apparently it all depends on how old the ice is. Some of these great floating islands are thousands, if not tens of thousands of years old.

You can listen to lectures from the experts and view documentaries on the televisions throughout the trip but we largely kept away from these - my Petal drops off enough. But now we did sit up and listen as we were about to land on Deception Island.

With its broken-ring shape the island is claimed to be one of the safest natural harbours anywhere in the world - until you realise that you are in a volcano. It erupted as recently as 1970 and the remains of the Chilean station are there for all to see.

It means that parts of the sea are warm and many hardy souls, including my Petal, climbed out of their thermals to reveal a bathing costume and went for a dip. Even I had a paddle but it was actually too hot!

“Plenty of pintado and cape petrels live here,” said the experts, “but you won’t see a penguin until tomorrow.” Inevitably half a dozen penguins did appear and we had our first experience of how unfazed by human contact they were.

We also became aware of how important it was not to wander away from the traffic-coned area prepared for us by the leaders. Even in summer the snow is deep and the likelihood of falling down a glacier is not be taken lightly. Even the highly visible bright red parkas might not save you.    

These experts were also the guardians of the international code of conduct for Antarctica visitors. No smoking, no litter, no walking in unmarked places, no undue noise, animals have right of way, no closer than five metres and definitely no touching, unless you never want to set foot in a Zodiac again. 
Why can’t all tourism be like that?

Another full day was taken up going through the Lemaire Channel. On board is an Ice Master to assist the Captain. He goes up in the ship’s helicopter to assess the ice situation. Excitement builds as we await his return. Thumbs up. We can go through.

Slowly we are becoming aware of the incredible bravery of the people who first came down here at the end of the 19th century without all the safety aids we now take for granted.

Germans first discovered this Channel in 1873 but it was another 25 years before a Belgian sailed through and named it after an explorer from the Congo. Don't ask me why.

We gingerly sailed the seven miles up and then came back. It was immensely beautiful. Like taking a cruise ship through the Alps - apart from the storm petrels and the weddell, crabeater and leopard seals lazing on the ice floes.
Here too, you see whales. I only saw a fin but my Petal woke up to see a tail. Others were much luckier, or so they said.

We only had time for breakfast and a mid-morning beef tea before we landed at Port Lockroy. This is the first national station ever set up in Antarctica and we Brits did it. In 1943. Known as Base A it was a meteorological station and a look out, would you believe, for German ships. Not surprisingly none ever came by. I think it was a cunning ploy by a conscientious objector.

Although closed in 1962 it has been restored by the British Antarctica Heritage Trust. For a few months each year a couple of guys live down here and even operate a post office. It’s the only time I have ever sent myself a postcard.

Even more impressive we saw a baby penguin hatch from its egg. Not quite unique as there were 3,000 pairs of gentoo penguins here. Half of them waddled up and down the rocks to and from fishing duties. The other half were sitting on eggs, standing with their backs to the icy wind shielding their new born or fighting off the skuas eager for an easy victim.

We could see all this standing just a few feet away. I was turning into David Attenborough. But I bet he doesn’t get a seaman brushing the penguin guano off his boots every afternoon.

Paradise Island is well named and the harbour is so deep that the ship does not anchor. You sit on board as if in a revolving restaurant with the most wonderful views in the world.

Chilean air force and navy personnel man the station and the whole area has been taken over by penguins that nest even under the inhabited hut.

Here too is the one chance to walk on the actual Continent of Antarctica – bigger than Europe or Australia, if you didn’t know. Our Zodiac driver told us this on the way from the ship and was greeted by a lack of enthusiasm. “Not of interest to this boat obviously,” said the driver. “No,” said one of many elderly Americans. “We’re all incontinent.”

Half Moon Island was to be our last call. And it was the most memorable.
Chinstrap penguins are a good deal more aggressive than other breeds and the noise was quite deafening.

My Petal was getting close to the “end of holiday tears” that normally send me to the bar. This time I felt as moved. What a privilege it has been.

Yet it was not all over. We still had another day to sail on to Cape Horn and then up the coast to Ushuaia. Claimed to be the most southerly town in the world it is a real outpost with awful weather. But there are some nice restaurants and some excellent shops selling very acceptable souvenirs – not the usual rubbish.

A morning tour of the unspoilt Tierra del Fuego National Park whets the appetite to see more of Argentina. Did you know it’s the eighth biggest country in the world? Neither did I.

A charter flight back to Buenos Aires and an overnight is all part of the package. We were wise to choose the Sheraton especially as we were extending our stay. Back with temperatures in the nineties we were glad of its two pools. Some quite major hotels there do not have one. 

Opposite the Sheraton we found a moving memorial to all those who died 18 years ago in the Falklands War. It bought home to us that the grief conflicts bring are two-sided.

Yet we found no resentment. Buenos Aires is a great big, friendly, beautiful city. There is so much to do and see in and around that it is hard to understand why it is not a popular tourist destination.

I had been told that the steaks were the biggest and best in the world and they certainly are. And as my Petal is a former dancer with Pan’s People, I can tell you that the quality of the tango shows is high with a visit to Senor Tango’s a must.

When we flew home we decided, on the basis of just one visit, that it is now our second favourite city (after Sydney) and we would certainly go back.
But nothing can eclipse the memory of Antarctica. Even if you can’t afford it try and go – just once.


Orient Lines operate just one cruise a year to Antarctica and the Falklands departing UK December 29, 2001, and sailing from Buenos Aires. Prices start at £3,850 per person for 16 nights including flight from Ushuaia and one night’s hotel accommodation in Buenos Aires. You can get £850 credit if you want to make your own way by air. Equally you can upgrade to Club for a £2,900 supplement.
On January 9, 17, 25 and February 2 there are cruises to Antarctica only starting and ending in Ushuaia with hotel stopovers in Buenos Aires at both ends of the trip. Prices start at £3,250 for 13 nights.


Even though the brochure gives you the option to buy your own air ticket (as we did) we began to feel that Orient Lines ashore had a policy of treating independent travellers like pariahs.

I was paying more than all but one passenger on their ship, yet Orient Lines refused point blank to fix a transfer from airport to ship and put us in touch with a handling agent, Furlongs. They would not take a credit card over the telephone and insisted that I went to my travel agents to fax a photocopy of my card!

They charged $150 for the transfer - compared to a taxi fare of $38 or a Sheraton car at $43 - and left us to fend for ourselves at an unmanned cruise terminal for five hours.

Meanwhile other passengers from the same flight were met by Orient Lines reps and a coach and taken to the Sheraton for a few hours while the ship was being cleaned.

I have spoken to Orient Lines about this and they have reviewed their procedures and refunded our transfer fee. If you plan to travel independently insist on being properly met and taken to the ship.



Grumpy old goalies


Bob 'The Cat' Bevan