There is a certain breed of adventurers who cannot help but camp whenever they roam. Luckily for me, Polar Latitudes provides the opportunity on some of their departures to their more adventurous guests who want the opportunity to sleep out on the frozen land in subzero temperatures.
Camping is definitely not an excursion that everyone will want to partake in, but if you are looking for an "off the beaten path" adventure and some serious bragging rights, it could be for you. We started our excursion with a briefing on the ship going over what the timing for the day and the overnight would look like: We will have an early dinner so that we can zodiac out to the shore to set up and settle into camp before the evening temperatures drop and the sun starts to set. There are very specific rules that need to be complied with to make this a successful excursion:
1. Prior to departure, keep the fluids to a comfortable minimum. There is no going to the bathroom allowed on the continent. (There are emergency portable toilets provided for emergencies, but it is asked to please do your best to relieve yourself prior to departure and keep the fluids to a minimum until returning in the morning back to the boat.)
2. No food or drink is allowed to accompany you to the campsite, no midnight snacks, no flasks to warm the insides, just your many many layers and a bottle of water to keep you company.
3. Set up and breakdown of the campsite needs to be done in a manner that ultimately leaves no trace of your overnight spent there.
Our expedition team spent the on ship briefing going over these rules and showing us how we set up the tents and bivouac sacks that we will be sleeping in, ensuring that everyone in our group of 30 was adequately prepared for the adventure they were about to undertake. Those who were feeling that maybe they were in over their heads were given the option to hang back and offer their space to another participant.
Our group had our early meal and were sent on our way to shore for the evening. Everyone heavily layered in their long johns and cozy sleepwear. Before departing, I filled my water bottle with piping hot water to put inside my sleeping bag- a futile effort in trying to pre-warm my bed for the evening.
Earlier in the day - in preparation for this evenings events, our camp group had spent the afternoon shore excursion prepping our camping site. The expedition team demonstrated how to flatten out a snow camp for a tent or bivy and then sent us to work flattening out our own spaces and pitching tents as a team. Upon our evening return to camp, we laid out our camp mattresses to keep us elevated off the snow and unrolled our pillows and sleeping bags provided for the evening. With our temporary home set up, the ship's historian had us gather around while he recounted stories of polar explorers and Antarctic expeditions of the past.
From the camping area, we could see the Hebridean Sky, our warm home away from home, floating offshore shining its heavy spotlights around to keep an eye out for floating icebergs. In late February, Antarctica no longer experiences 24-hour daylight. Our night onshore was quite dark under a canvas of glittering stars. With no light pollution around it looked like the sky was twinkling in all directions as far as the eye could see. Throughout the night, the expedition team on shore with us took watch shifts keeping curious fur seals out of our encampment and making sure we were all comfortable. Needless to say, little sleep was achieved by anyone in the group due to general excitement and novelty of the situation, the cold temperatures and for many, unfamiliar sleeping arrangements.
Early in the morning, around 5:30 am, the expedition team roused us from our slumber and helped us pack up all of the camping gear to load back in the zodiacs. We all worked together to remove any trace of evidence that we had spent the night in the snow, then headed back to the ship for an early breakfast and a nap. The team had planned a morning of whale watching so that the campers in need of rest after their night out did not miss to much action while they rested up for the afternoon adventures.
Camping on the continent is an experience that hits each participant at a different time. For me, the excitement of spending a night on shore, like some of the first polar explorers (albeit in much more technical gear) was so exciting I barely slept. For others, it wasn't until we had returned to the ship and defrosted that they recognized what a unique opportunity it was that had just experienced. Camping may not be for all travelers, but if you are inclined to push yourself out of your comfort zone, this adventure will give you an unforgettable experience you can carry with you forever.