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Travel: The last great wilderness

Antarctica is the world’s last great wilderness and of course it should be preserved. But that doesn’t mean we can’t visit it

By Sara Wheeler   March 2011

I once camped on the frozen sea in the lee of Mount Erebus, one of Antarctica’s active volcanoes. I was in the middle of a seven-month journey around the continent, researching a book. The skies were diaphanous, frosting the Transantarctic Mountains with pinks and blues. Lying in my sleeping bag, I heard seals calling to one another under the ice. And then, suddenly, Antarctica shut down. Winds hurtled down from the South Pole, battering the glacier tongues and tossing walls of snow into the air. The storm lasted for two days, the view from the tent a chaotic swirl of opaque white. But when it ended, the wind had scoured the foothills of Erebus, revealing polished ice stuck fast to the rock below the crevasse fields. A thin band of apricot and petrol-blue hung over the mountains and the pallid sun shed a watery light over thousands of miles of ice. I could have been in the silent corner of savannah where man first stood upright.

Antarctica was an uplifting experience—the most uplifting of my life. The only unowned continent (as well as the highest, the driest and a battalion of other superlatives), it represents hope. No wars, no toxic spills, no dictators: this is what could have been, and what still could be, if we have hope. I found that the absence of clutter—the absence of everything—helped me reflect on what was most important. The continent was a spiritual power station.

I often hear it said that we must preserve the polar regions by halting tourism. But a ban entails control. Who would be in charge? Seven countries claim a slice of Antarctic territory—including Britain—but these claims are disputed. And none of them is recognised by the Antarctic Treaty, which came into force 50 years ago this June. A complex set of supranational agreements, the treaty made the continent a scientific preserve and prohibited military operations (it was the first arms-control settlement of the cold war). Banning entry stands against everything that Antarctica represents. It belongs to all of us.

That said, only a boor would deny the importance of preserving the last great wilderness. And it is being preserved. Mining is forbidden, and the continent’s several dozen scientific bases are models of waste disposal. I once stood in front of a row of bins at America’s McMurdo research station having a breakdown trying to dispose of a tube of Pringles. The lid had to go in Plastic, the paper wrapped round the cardboard tube had to be peeled off and put in Printed Paper, the tube itself went in Thin Cardboard, the foil inner lid in Foil, the metal rim at the bottom in Light Metal, and the remaining Pringles, accidentally contaminated with fuel, in Food Waste.

Tourism, too, is rigorously policed: cruise ships are obliged to carry environmental observers approved by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. And you will have to hop on a cruise ship if you want to visit the continent. You can’t get there any other way. The shortest holidays take about eight days round-trip from the southern tip of Argentina or Chile. Longer trips depart from New Zealand, and the Rolls Royce-type tours circumnavigate the continent in about three weeks. Vessels carry between 45 and 280 clients and it is not cheap—prices range from £3,000 to over £20,000. Be prepared to get cold. The lowest temperature I experienced was minus 40 degrees centigrade, and with windchill it plunged to minus 82 degrees. When I threw a mug of boiling water in the air outside, the liquid froze before it landed.

Go, if you can. You won’t regret it. Antarctica has a lot to teach us. In the words of Ernest Shackleton, the polar explorer’s polar explorer: “It is the last great journey left to man.” I don’t think there is any danger of us mucking up Antarctica any time soon. The continent is huge, occupying one tenth of the earth’s land surface (5.4m square miles), but shore visits are concentrated at fewer than 35 sites, and the entire history of human occupation in the Antarctic has produced less pollution than New York City in a single 21st-century day.

One evening of my trip I crawled around the ice caves beneath the Erebus Glacier Tongue. The arabesques of ice looked like carvings in the slender windows of a mosque, and through them light fell, diffused through glimmering purple caverns. If the polar landscapes are canvases, they were conceived by a mind raised above the troubles which afflict the human spirit.

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