The farthest regions of our globe have much in common, but couldn’t be more different as GARY WALSH explains.
IT was not so long ago that seeing the Arctic or the Antarctic was the domain only of explorers, adventurers and scientists. After all, it’s barely a century since the first explorers got to the North and South Poles. And in the Antarctic, in particular, tourism remains in its relative infancy.
Antarctic tourism really kicked into gear at the turn of this century, while tourism in the Arctic has been enjoyed since the mid- 1800s when the advent of railways made it much easier for large numbers of people to travel, even into what was then for most an unknown part of the world.
Their similarities are obvious – generally pristine and fragile environments, stunning scenery, wildlife in amazing profusion, lots of history – but the two regions also are enormously different in the experiences they present to travellers.
For a start, the Antarctic is much harder to get to than the Arctic, which inevitably means greater travel costs and, as a result, fewer travellers. Most tourists visit the Antarctic Peninsula, which is a two-day cruise from Ushuaia on the southern tip of Argentine Patagonia, although a smaller number fly to King George Island in the South Shetlands, where a polar research base is situated, and then cruise to the Peninsula, cutting the transit time considerably.
Travellers generally need to allow at least eight nights for a standard cruise – much longer if they join the classic cruises that add the Falkland Islands and South Georgia to the itinerary, which means the best part of three weeks on board.
Fewer still travel to the opposite side of the Antarctic continent, sailing from Hobart or New Zealand to the remote Ross Sea region, which means an even greater expense in terms of time and fares. The great payoff is a chance to visit some of the great historical sites of the Antarctic such as Mawson’s Hut.
Visitors to the Peninsula, and especially to South Georgia, will receive their benefits in terms of wildlife – hundreds of thousands of king penguins at places such as Salisbury Plain on South Georgia, seals and whales in stunning numbers – as well as a chance to explore some of the region’s dark whaling history and active research stations.
The scenery, of course, is also astonishing, from the frozen majesty of ‘Iceberg Alley’, the eerie volcanic beauty of Deception Island and the ice cliffs and fjords of the Antarctic continent to the green hills of South Georgia with reindeer herds thundering down their flanks – a nod, if ever there was one, to the shared history of the Polar Regions.
The reindeer are on South Georgia because Norwegian sealers and whalers early last century wanted both hunting opportunities and fresh meat. The animals thrived in the familiar climate to the point where they have had to be culled in recent years.
Scandinavian whalers were among the first to establish themselves in the sub-Antarctic, with their vessels – and themselves – perfectly acclimatised to the region. Whales and seals were hunted in staggering numbers, with whales virtually wiped out around South Georgia. Even today few whales are seen in this part of the South Atlantic, perhaps sensing this was once a slaughter ground.
To the north, tourists have the chance to visit far-flung indigenous communities in the deep Arctic, whereas in the Antarctic, the only human contact is with research scientists and rare characters such as those who man the Port Lockroy Post Office for the UK Government, or look after the museum at Grytviken in South Georgia.
The British-controlled Falkland Islands do provide some sub-Antarctic human warmth – quite literally in pubs in the capital Stanley that sell fish and chips and English beer, and on some of the outer islands where farmers welcome visitors to their properties for afternoon tea.
In the Arctic, penguins are swapped for polar bears – less frequently seen, of course, which makes their sighting all the more thrilling – and Arctic foxes, and the birdlife is especially prolific. Arctic travellers can cruise in five-star comfort through Alaska or join more adventurous journeys to places such as Svalbard, Greenland and Iceland.
In the north it is easier to travel closer to the pole, and so the endless daylight of the “Midnight Sun” is a phenomenon that is easily experienced, as are the Northern Lights. The most adventurous journey of all is to the geographic North Pole, which can only be reached by ice-breaker and with favourable weather conditions, but the Arctic can be enjoyed and explored in such disparate places as Russia, Norway, Greenland, Canada and Alaska.
May to August is generally the time for the Arctic, but Greenland and Svalbard have winter tourism seasons north of the Arctic Circle for especially hardy types. And this is can be seriously exotic travel – some places, such as Franz Josef Land at 81 degrees north, are so remote that they were discovered after the Antarctic.