Of all the things I’d hoped would work well during my trip to Antarctica, the zip on my sleeping bag was one of them. Instead, there I was, curled tightly into myself on the floor of my tent in the middle of a large wedge iceberg, floating off Paradise Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula’s west coast.
Along with 10 other people, I had been chosen from a silent auction of 345 passengers onboard our expedition ship, MS Fridtjof Nansen, to disembark at 10.30pm and spend one night camping under the Antarctic sky. A small zodiac boat was to transport us from the ship to the landing site, where we had to select our pitch, flatten the area by stomping over it with our rubber boots (fluffy, deep snow does not a practical bed make), and set up camp for the night. Food and water are forbidden to avoid environmental impact and unsurprisingly, there is no toilet. Just a bucket not-so-conspicuously hidden behind a crudely constructed mound of snow, strictly for number-ones only. There is no defecating on Antarctica. Unless you’re lucky enough to be a penguin.
Which, actually, I sort of was. It is mandatory to camp in pairs, so as a solo traveller, I was paired with Lauren, a 30-something photojournalist from New York. “Here,” Lauren gestured as we plunged tent poles into the icy ground together. “I brought penguin onesies, but my friend wasn’t selected for camping, so it’s yours for the night, if you like.” We burst into laughter, quickly throwing the onesies over multiple layers of thermals and waterproofs. The sky never gets dark during the Antarctic summer of October to March (when all cruises take place), so we spent the next few hours marvelling at our surroundings – peaks of dark grey rock looming above icy, untouched glaciers which sank into the still, mirror-like water. A shared awe stunned us into a near silence, all except for the heaving and creaking of ice and the quiet chattering of a Gentoo penguin colony in the distance.
When sleep eventually beckoned at around 3am, I huddled next to Lauren for warmth, my unzipped sleeping bag draped over me. We were surprisingly comfortable, and the 0° air outside – separated from us only by the thin layer of our tent door – didn’t matter. I was curled up next to a complete stranger, dressed as a penguin, floating on an iceberg in the Antarctic wilderness. ‘If this isn’t the adventure of a lifetime I promised myself this year,’ I thought to myself, ‘I don’t know what is’.