Polar plans go on ice

An icy chill accompanied David Barnes' best day. But that was to be expected.

After six storm-tossed days crossing the Southern Ocean and the Ross Sea, the mood on board the Spirit of Enderby seemed to be one of ''will we ever see Antarctic land?''

Ice conditions had taken us down the centre of the Ross Sea, rather than cruising its western shore with views of the Transantarctic Mountains and although we'd had some spectacular days working through sea ice and watching whales, many of my shipmates were over it. On Tuesday morning, I awoke to the sight of land through the porthole.

We were passing Beaufort Island, a small snow-capped island 20km north of Ross Island. Rugging up in almost every item of clothing I possessed, I headed for the monkey deck, an exposed deck above the bridge. Ahead was the glacier-capped northern tip of Ross Island. We spent the morning cruising down the island's western coast, with Mt Erebus occasionally revealing itself.

To starboard, the seemingly endless chain of the Royal Society Range dominated the far side of McMurdo Sound. Our first landing on Antarctic terra firma was announced for after lunch. Our destination was Cape Royds, site of Shackleton's hut.

The nature of ''expedition cruising'' means that there are no guarantees about quite where you go, but if there was one thing I wanted to see more than anything it was the last evidence of the great explorer's time in the Antarctic. Keen to maximise my time there, I made sure I was near the front of the queue boarding the Zodiacs.

Unfortunately, our boat suffered a mechanical failure and we were left drifting until we could transfer to another boat, luckily in dead-flat sea conditions. Once ashore, we had to ascend an icy slope and then make a 25-minute trek across black volcanic rocks to our destination. As we crested a ridge, my first sight of the hut, with an ice-shrouded Back Door Bay behind, was a dream come true.

Second into the hut (where only eight people at a time are allowed), I soaked up the atmosphere and history. The restoration work by the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust means that the hut looks for all the world as though Shackleton walked out yesterday, rather than more than a century ago. As a whisky buff, I was pleased to see a case that had once held the famed McKinlay's whisky.

When I finally had to yield my place in the hut to another traveller, I was able to spend a couple of hours meandering around the area, observing the resident adelie penguins and absorbing the wonder of just being there. Sitting on a rock outcrop, I thought that the only thing that could have made the day better was if my wife Anne-Marie had been with me.

After being the last to leave and on the last Zodiac back to the ship, I sat in the bar nursing a dram and reflecting on my wonderful day. An announcement on the PA advised we'd be taking advantage of the good conditions and the long hours of daylight to visit Scott's Cape Evans hut that evening. The best day of my life was about to get even better.

- David Barnes is a keen tramper whose passion for wild places sometimes takes him beyond the New Zealand back country.

Tell us about your best day. Write to odt.features@odt.co.nz or ODT Features, PO Box 181 Dunedin. We ask correspondents not to nominate weddings or births - of course they were the best days.