For days, the ship ploughs south through grey waters. And then you feel the cold snap of the Antarctic Convergence, where the circumpolar current meets warmer northern waters, and everything changes again: wind, weather, temperature and wildlife.
Soon Antarctica throws out the welcome mat, as icebergs loom into view and expeditioners crowd the decks to view these mountains of the sea. As the Aurora Australis pushes further south, the unruly Southern Ocean is tamed by the weight of floating ice of all shapes and sizes and there comes a sense of peaceful, purposeful drift towards our goal.
Finally, after a week or more, there is a glimpse of the continent itself: if not its landmass, then the vast expanse of ice that extends from its shores all year round. The Aurora Australis greets Antarctica by pulling into a harbour or, more often, munching her way by ice-breaking into an ice-port where the ice becomes both dock and warehouse for loading and unloading personnel and cargo.
A year’s worth of stores are exchanged for rubbish and recycling. Diesel fuel, essential to the function of the station, and to preserving life for its inhabitants in a land devoid of wood and often bereft of sun, is pumped ashore by the tens of thousands of litres. Station staff greet, meet and farewell one another.
After what might be a two-week stay, the orange shape of the Aurora Australis pulls away from Antarctica. The new station crew have mixed feelings as she disappears over the horizon: relief at being left to get on with their work, mixed with the sudden weight of their extreme isolation. She leaves them behind in a monochrome world of ice, sky and water, and makes her determined way to civilisation with passengers who look forward to home after 15 or more months away.
A voyage to Antarctica, particularly on board the Aurora Australis, is unlike any other on earth, and those of us who have done it are a fortunate few.
Story and pictures: Melanie Van Twest
GP Melanie Van Twest was doctor on board an Aurora Australis voyage.