The wildlife at the poles is absolutely unforgettable. See polar bear, walrus, arctic fox, seals, whales, puffin, reindeer and musk ox in the north, and vast seal colonies, whale pods, albatross breeding islands and immense, raucous penguin rookeries in the south. The pristine landscape is truly awesome too, in scale, isolation and grandeur. The glimmering ice plains, majestic mountains and giant icebergs are sublimely beautiful, especially in the clear polar light – the light and air of polar regions is so pure you won't believe it, until you're breathing it in and looking over spectacular views out to a far, far horizon.
The brilliant, ice-capped Arctic and Antarctic islands are without summer shadow. In the ‘warmer’ months, light pervades all for twenty four hours a day and has a strange luminous clarity. Tricks of light and space are common at the poles, but it’s no mirage that the light has such immense lucidity; while the sun tightly circles above the horizon, the light is unencumbered by the particles of dust and pollution so pervasive elsewhere. Everything has a just-washed air, a sharpness that’s sometimes experienced after rain in more temperate climes. Bouncing off the ice through such clear sky in all directions, the light is dazzling, sometimes disorientating, but always beautiful.
As a consequence, everything can look up close sometimes, even at the same time you’re aware of its immense scale; mountains many kilometres away can be seen with such clarity it’s as if they’re within a stone’s throw. Such odd perceptions confirm the air’s purity – you’ll want to draw in lungs full of the stuff.
So, breathe deep and gaze out on some of the world’s most magnificent, pristine scenery, whichever direction you look. The light gives everything a divine, brilliant glow and you’ll see things as they truly are, unwrapped and undiffused. It’s awesome.
Silence is a presence, rather than an absence, in the polar regions, and to experience it away from the chatter of people or penguins or the groan of a calving glacier, to let your ears penetrate beyond the crackle of ice and the lap of the sea, is to hear something else. The great unknown to the far north and south was never considered void, though often appeared on maps as blank. “It has always been our ambition to get inside that white space ... so the space can no longer be a blank”, wrote Robert Falcon Scott of the Antarctic. Pre-trip, you might have a mind brimming with polar imagery, history and myth, but once you’ve been, their richness, and your understanding of them, intensifies. You’ll have a “feel for it”, and realise that some things cannot be captured by words or photographs, or by any representations beyond the real thing.
Some people who have a feel for the poles and a feel for words have tried to capture its essence, some more successfully than others. Two of the best to read are Australian Tom Griffiths and American Barry Lopez.
“To voyage towards Antarctica,” says writer and historian Tom Griffiths in the award-winning Slicing the Silence, “is to go beyond the boundary of one's biology towards a frightening and simplifying purity.” Your expedition ship and crew provide the basic needs of survival, and some pleasing comforts, but Griffiths also suggests you need stories for the trip: “Stories are privileged carriers of truth. Truth ... cannot easily be stated explicitly. It is not to be found in a chronicle of facts ... Story creates an atmosphere in which truth becomes discernible as a pattern.” And Antarctica has some of the best stories, which Griffiths elucidates in his book.
You’ll no doubt develop your own Antarctica stories too, see your own patterns, but you’ll also do well to carry Griffith’s book with you, and to read Shackleton’s diary, or Scott’s, or any other account of Antarctic exploration and ecology, before, during or after your trip. You’ll better understand the vast continent and the people who’ve encountered it and divine and devise your own true stories for this most magical of places.
This is Barry Lopez on the Arctic: "it has the classic lines of a desert landscape: spare, balanced, extended, and quiet". The Arctic has a significant body of literature and history to read, but perhaps Arctic Dreams: imagination and desire in a northern landscape, Barry Lopez’s seminal book on the Arctic, is the best. It is a scientific and poetic meditation on the polar landscape, its inhabitants and man’s experience within it. A re-defining work for the nature writing genre and the perfect book to read before, after or during your trip, Lopez elucidates in crystalline prose the nature and fascination of the Arctic, and its strange hold on our dreams and imagination. Arctic Dreams is a reverential, spot-on paean to the Arctic, one that we hope will never become a eulogy.