Antarctica: Wild camping

"So you're volunteering for self-inflicted pain?" teases our waitress, Charlotte, aboard the Oceanwide Expedition-owned Ortelius. "Sure are!" we chime, as confidently as possible, as we kit up to spend a night sleeping on the Antarctic Peninsula.

By Emma Thomson
Published 29 Apr 2014, 12:37 BST, Updated 1 Jul 2021, 11:10 BST

No tent: just us and the elements – and, OK, a roll mat, an inflatable Therm-a-Rest mattress, two sleeping bags, a cotton liner, and a waterproof cover each.

"No number ones or twos allowed on land," warns our Argentinian camping guide, Pablo, "so empty your bladders." His mop of black hair flops from left to right as he waggles his finger at us.

Bladders dutifully drained, we climb down the side of the ship to the rigid-inflatable boats waiting to ferry us to the frozen land.

A ring of snow clouds obscures the mountains as we skim across the water — cradling our dry bags as carefully as newborns — towards Dorian Bay, a gently curved pebble beach on Wiencke Island that's home to a colony of bickering Gentoo penguins and Damoy Hut, former British Antarctic Survey base, still stocked with emergency provisions, but disused since the 1980s.

Immediately, we each set about carving out the perfect plot. The freshly fallen snow is shoveled into mounds to form windbreak walls, smoothed to form soft 'mattresses', and, elsewhere, patted down to stop it blowing in our faces.

Content with our pitches, we gather around Pablo in the fading light. "As you know, many of Antarctica's sites are named after expedition sponsors or participants," he says. "This island is named after Carl August Wiencke — a young sailor aboard the Belgica. It was sailing down the Gerlache Strait, when Wiencke, who had been clearing coal, was washed overboard by storm waves. His shipmates threw him a log attached to a line that he managed to catch and they raced to pull him in, but just as he was nearing their outstretched hands, his fingers became too numb and he let go. He was never seen again."

We thank Pablo for his cheery bedtime story and disperse to zip ourselves into our canvas cocoons.

We say our goodnights and I wriggle right down inside the sleeping bag to escape the gusting snow that pops and crackles against the outer tarpaulin. "It'll be impossible to sleep," I grumble inwardly, preparing for the long dark hours ahead.

After some time, it starts to get stuffy so I squirm northwards in search of fresh air. I pop my head into the open space and get a face full of snow that melts instantly on my hot cheeks and runs in icy rivulets down my neck. I wince at the wakeful water.

"I'll never be able to get back to sleep now," I huff, so I lie on my back, listening to the quiet babbling of the Gentoos and blink away the snowflakes that still fall from the hazy sky.

A few minutes later, Pablo's muffled voice echoes across the bay. "Good morning, campers! 5.45am; time to get up!" I'd slept the whole night. "Not so painful after all, Charlotte" I think to myself. Still, I can't wait to grasp that hot cup of tea waiting back on board.



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