Getting away from it all in Antarctica

The reception party for a Russian ice breaker cruise ship arriving in Antarctica Keystone Archive

A party of Swiss tourists is embarking on a vacation that may be the ultimate in getting away from it all - a winter break in the Antarctic summer.

This content was published on November 6, 2001 - 14:21

Antarctic cruises are by no means a new phenomenon, but as the organisers say, each trip is a unique expedition to a little-explored world where wind, weather and ice conditions play a significant role.

The trips offer a privileged look at nature in the raw, as retired British-born Swiss postmistress Joan Pralong can testify.

This will be Pralong's second visit to the Antarctic, a continent which has fascinated her since her student days at Newcastle University in northeast England. She became fascinated by glaciers, and after university went to live in Arolla, a Swiss mountain village in Canton Valais which is a base for glacier research.

Panorama and penguins

Many years on, after marrying a local man and bringing up a family, Pralong still lives in Arolla. She decided to see the Antarctic and its glaciers for herself following the death of her husband and, now in her mid-sixties, "before it was too late".

Like others who have made the same trip, Pralong prepared for her first visit by reading extensively about what lay in store. "But nothing can prepare one for the size of the place," she says. "It's enormous and very difficult to judge distances. You can see mountaintops 4,000 metres above sea level from a distance of 70 kilometres.

"Another thing that struck me was that while there are not many different sorts of animals, what they made up for in lack of variety was the sheer quantity - of penguins. The perpetual movement in a penguin rookery has to be seen to be believed."

Cruisin' Russian style

To get there, on a Russian ice-breaker converted into a cruise ship, Pralong and her fellow-passengers embarked in Hobart, Tasmania, and after seven days arrived in Antarctica.

They were able to penetrate the pack ice and land ashore as well as take helicopter trips from the ship, before returning to spend the night in comfort aboard - and to attend lectures by experts on the region.

It is, admits Pralong, a not inexpensive privilege to see the Antarctic from close-up. She believes - and hopes - that it will never fall victim to the effects of mass tourism.

"It's good to know that somewhere on this planet is a large zone which is left as natural as possible," she told swissinfo. "We must leave Antarctica to the penguins, and leave them the space to do their own thing."

by Richard Dawson

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