Of all the things to do in Hobart, you probably haven’t thought of sailing to Antarctica. Antarctica and Tasmania have had a long and intimate association. It was from Hobart that Roald Amudsen and Douglas Mawson’s expeditions launched from. Hobart is also home to the Aurora Australis, the icebreaker that takes scientists there every summer, the French research vessel L’Astrolabe and IMAS, centre of excellence for Marine and Antarctic research. Some long-awaited good news has just been released: travellers will be able to travel from Hobart to Antarctica in comfort.
Hobart to Antarctica
Chimu Adventures will have the only departures that will delight ice-mad travellers and history buffs.
For those of us who live in Australia, the best thing about this trip is there’s no need for long-haul international flights to South America. And there’s the opportunity to cruise to Antarctica via Macquarie Island, which is as interesting as Antarctica itself.
Macquarie Island is part of Tasmanian territory and a World Heritage site. It is 1546km south of Hobart and about halfway between New Zealand and Antarctica.
Most of the time, passengers onboard landing craft arriving at its shores cannot see the beach for the penguins. There are thousands of penguins awaiting the arrival of the eco-explorers.
Some maintain their distance but others escort people up the beach while shooing away others penguins.
King penguin escort
When I landed there, I sat on a rock to admire the setting. My private King escort pecked at my boots encouraging me to go on.
King penguins have restocked their rookeries on Macquarie Island despite grim reminders of the slaughtering that once took place here.
Three huge rusting cauldrons mark the early site of a fat-rendering and processing plant where 4000 penguins a day were pressure-steamed – alive.
Penguins weren’t the only ones hunted. Seals and elephant seals were almost exterminated for their valuable fur and blubber. Between 1820 and 1830 their numbers were reduced by 70 percent.
Today, penguins cruise freely among the rusting hulks and use the ovens as a refuge from the weather.
Seals sun themselves and shed their moulting coats, unafraid of humans. We keep an eye on a leopard seal that pretends to be asleep.
Macquarie Island Wonder
As Antarctic explorer, Douglas Mawson once said: “This little island is one of the wonder spots of the world.”
The place is wild, windy and wet. It’s home to diverse colonies of about four million penguins and 100,000 seals.
Albatrosses, petrels, skuas and Antarctic terns come to breed here, despite introduced predators such as the cats (brought to the island by sealers).
Rats, rabbits and mice were also introduced and are still present, although skuas keep the numbers down.
At the time I was there, the main show was both a giant rookery of riotous King penguins holding eggs between their feet and about 100 Royal penguins descending a ridge to forage in the ocean.
These birds are exceptionally cute. They look like short-sighted professors with long yellow “eyebrows” protruding from their heads.
Their close relatives, the Rockhoppers, also abound and can be seen hopping from rock to rock to reach the surf. They are so unafraid and inquisitive that they come very close to our cameras, making for foolproof shots.
UNESCO Biosphere Reserve
This speck of land, just 34 kilometres long and five kilometres wide was recognised for its ecological importance by the Tasmanian government.
In 1933 the island was declared a wildlife sanctuary. In 1972, Macquarie island was designated a state reserve and in 1977 became a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
And what about Antarctica itself? The beauty of it all will leave you breathless. Icebergs come in fantastical shapes, amongst which the Zodiacs travel.
Landing on the continental shelf and finding Mawson’s Hut on Commonwealth Bay (in the eastern sector of the Australian Antarctic Territory), about 3000km south of Hobart, is a bonus of nature and history.
It’s this history that Australia works hard to preserve.
The Hut, where 13 men lived, is constantly under threat from the encroaching ice and spends most of its time in an icy embrace that threatens to crush it.
Fortunately, there are major ongoing efforts to save it, including roof repairs, removal of the internal ice, broken timber replacement and restoring the everyday paraphernalia the explorers left behind.
Photographer Frank Hurley’s equipment stands in the dark room where he processed his photos.
The beds have their occupants’ initials carved on them and the coal-fed black stove still stands as if ready to be fired up one more time.
The feeling was eerie and calm, at least when I was there on a warm, sunny Christmas Day… but things can be ferociously and savagely rough in winter.
So many perished there in the past, so many still spend winters holed up in the new base.
This is a trip of a lifetime. Grab the opportunity and go if you can.
For more information go here.