Epic Adventures

How to try every Antarctic adventure activity in a single trip

For many years, the best way to experience Antarctica on an expedition ship was to take a scenic zodiac cruise or to visit a landing site to put your foot on the Seventh Continent. These remain classic experiences – gliding past icebergs or leopard seals sleeping on an ice floe, or being overwhelmed by wildlife when walking to a penguin rookery. 

Today the majority of polar cruise ships offer the chance to experience Antarctica in other ways, such as kayaking through its bays or camping out in its snows. These adventure activities are booked as paid extras to the main cruise. But what if you want to try a taste of several activities rather than committing to just one thing?

Kayaking in Antarctica

Introducing the Antarctic Basecamp Adventure

At the end of 2023 I joined the Hondius expedition cruise ship on their Antarctic Basecamp Adventure. This trip is designed for those who really want to embrace adventure: alongside all the regular zodiac cruises and landings, it gives you the chance to try out four separate adventure activities. Alongside kayaking and camping, guests are also given a taste of snowshoeing and mountaineering – all of which are included in the base price of the cruise. As a keen explorer, recently back from an expedition to Everest Basecamp, I couldn’t wait to get on board.

Kayaking in Antarctica

Kayaking is without a doubt my favourite activity in Antarctica. Being at water level with no sound but the gentle splash of your paddles is such an intimate and magical experience. Everything is calm and then suddenly a group of penguins start porpoising around you and you’re grinning and laughing with the rest of your group. Penguins are already a delight when you see them on land, but for me, having them swim around you is one of the best wildlife encounters you can have anywhere in the world.

Kayaking at Portal Point

On the Hondius we went out in a group of 20. The sea kayaks themselves are twin seaters, so before we set out we were divided into pairs, and then got into zodiacs to take us onto the water from where we would start paddling. Anyone worried about getting into a kayak direct from a zodiac shouldn’t be – they’re incredibly stable. 

Kayaking selfie (without porpoising penguins)

And with that, off we paddled. We explored close to shore where there were sleeping Weddell seals on the snow, and gentoo penguins hopping in and out of the water. From there we headed towards an iceberg graveyard, accompanied by our honour guard of porpoising penguins. The gentle pace of the kayaks really allowed us to enjoy the colours and textures of the ice in a way that’s hard to replicate from a zodiac.

Camping in Antarctica

I knew what to anticipate with the kayaking, but spending a night camping out in the snow was a whole new ball game. This was going to be Antarctica unvarnished – away from the comforts of our ship to sleep in a bivvy bag in a snow hole we’d dig ourselves. 

Our Antarctic campsite

After our evening meal on board, we packed up our kit in dry bags and headed out in zodiacs to our campsite. The expedition team had already marked out where we’d sleep, and then pointed to our shovels and told us to start digging our snow holes and lay out our bivvy bags. 

When we were done, there wasn’t a lot of drifting slowly off to sleep. We all went to bed just before midnight, but there was just too much going on to be able to sleep. At first there was silence, then there was Weddell seal who started singing fifty yards away, accompanied at times by a chorus of penguins. Add the sounds of the ice cracking on the glaciers and just have an Antarctic lullaby where you strain to listen to every phrase rather than letting it send you off to sleep. 

Too excited to sleep

It also never got properly dark either, so I probably got just a couple of hours of sleep. Instead I spent most of the night looking up at the sky or propped up in my snow hole looking at the mountains and the snow. Even the ship had sailed some distance away and was a tiny dot on the horizon. I felt like I was peacefully alone on the planet.

Snowshoeing in Antarctica

Very sensibly, those of us camping weren’t allowed to sign up for any additional activities the following morning – we really did need to catch up on some sleep! But after a day of regular zodiac cruises and landings to recharge our batteries, we were ready to start exploring again: this time with snowshoes. 

Strapping on the snowshoes

I had never walked with snowshoes before, but apart from some initial trickiness getting them strapped onto my boots, I was amazed at how easily they allowed me to walk across the snow.

Walking on deep snow made easy

It sounds ridiculous, but during the early season in Antarctica there is an awful lot of snow. During landings the expedition team marks out places where it’s fine to walk, which is especially important to avoid penguin highways – the paths that penguins wear into the snow. Walking off the marked routes can mean sinking into the snow almost up to your knees – exhausting work.  

On snowshoes however, we were transformed. I won’t say we were graceful, but being able to skim across the snow without sinking meant we could roam further and more easily than on a regular landing. Unlike the other activities, there was no need to sign up in advance for them – we got instruction on using them when the ship was crossing the Drake Passage, and then the snowshoes were provided whenever we might get good use out of them. They were a great addition to the landings.

Mountaineering in Antarctica

There was one last activity to try on the Basecamp Adventure and it was another one that could be incorporated into a regular Antarctic landing: mountaineering. 

Roped up and ready to go

Two levels were on offer. For those with no prior experience who just wanted a simple taste there was the basic mountaineering using snowshoes. People with some mountaineering experience could opt for the more technical option, which involves crampons (and a little more pre-planning in that you had to bring your own boots that the crampons could fit). I went for the entry level experience, and didn’t regret it. 

Strapping on our snowshoes, we were roped into groups of six with our guide leading the way. Perhaps because of the snowshoes, my expectations were quite modest, but as soon as we began to head away from the landing site and up a snowy ridge, I was enchanted. 

Starting our ridge climb

It felt like something of a soft adventure, but the ropes reminded us that there was always a risk of crevasses, so safety always had to be paramount. We hiked uphill for about an hour and a half and with every step the views got more spectacular. It gave a similar feeling to the excitement of the camping: we felt like pioneers, with all of Antarctica before us. 

Beyond us, the technical mountaineers were able to climb steeper slopes and use their ice axes, but our group still got plenty of exercise. It felt like the best opportunity we’d had to walk off some of the feasting we’d been doing every night in the ship’s dining room. 

Experienced mountaineers on steeper slopes

When we crested the final ridge, not only could we look down on the bay where we had moored, but we could also look far inland to the endless snow. Our guide suggested that if we just kept going we needn’t stop until we reached the South Pole, before taking a group vote on whether we should turn back to the ship instead. Maybe next time.

A packed itinerary

When we sailed back across the Drake Passage at the end of the trip, I was grateful to have a couple of days to rest and process the voyage. I really needed it: the itinerary was absolutely packed. More than any other Antarctic trip I’ve been on, the Basecamp Adventure was all about early starts and long days to squeeze every possible experience out of the trip. 

Many activities – and still time for plenty of photography

This busy schedule might not be for those who want to relax and let Antarctica gently unwrap itself before them, but I absolutely loved it. The sheer variety of ways to experience Antarctica felt like I saw it from every conceivable angle. Adding a single adventure activity to a polar itinerary is a treat, but having the choice automatically built into the trip felt like being offered a special tasting menu at the best restaurant in town. 

When I disembarked at Ushuaia, I was tired but happy. But at least I had a long flight home to catch up on some rest – Antarctica is more than worth it.