Last Word with David McGonigal, polar expedition leader & travel writer

David McGonigal has been a travel writer and photographer almost all his working life. In 1995 he went to Antarctica to write an article for a newspaper. He has been back every year since, working as an expedition leader for the past 15 years.

When did you get your start in the travel industry?
In the mists of time, I used my law degree to write a You and the Law series for a motorcycle magazine. That job evolved into a four-year (1975-79) series of travel articles about riding a motorcycle (a Yamaha RD350) around the world. When I got home I was a travel writer.

What is it you love about working in travel?
What work? As a friend said, “How come my holidays are identical to David’s job?” That, of course, ignores the long hours in the office, often with jetlag, facing rolling deadlines and a blank computer screen. But travelling with a purpose, then chronicling those travels, is the most rewarding job imaginable.

When did you start leaning towards adventure travel?
Always. My parents took my brother and me into the outback on school holidays. Adventure can be more comfortable these days but there’s still the frisson of uncertainty about the elements and the environment you’re travelling through. Push hard and there are days when you fret you might die but these will be the most intense experiences in retrospect.

How many times have you travelled to the Antarctic?
I’ve been to Antarctica about 120 times and up to the Arctic about 30 times. Antarctica enriches my soul on every single voyage.

What are your top three experiences on your Antarctic trips?
Three? Can I provide a shortlist of 300? On most holidays you hope for a memory you’ll remember forever – in Antarctica they come through at three or four each day. In February I asked the captain to put our ship, the Akademik Ioffe, alongside fast ice south of the Antarctic Circle. While the hotel staff set up a bar on the ice, we took the passengers for a walk to an iceberg stuck in the sea ice like an almond in toffee. Under a blue sky it was completely otherworldly. Two days later, a feeding humpback burst out of the water so close to my Zodiac full
of passengers that its expanded throat brushed the boat’s side. And walking into Shackleton’s Cape Royds hut was a cherished pilgrimage.

What are the things that surprise people on their first visit to Antarctica?
The sense of space, penguin curiosity, the ethereal beauty of the ice and the blue within icebergs.

You live in Sydney – which three places do you love showing off to international visitors?
The Spit to Manly walk doesn’t feel like you are in a big city and shows the beauty of the Harbour. I fly – and a flight up Vector One from Cronulla to Palm Beach reveals Sydney in all its glory. And we’ve just moved near Bondi Beach so we feel like privileged visitors there, too.

What are your favourite restaurants to take guests to in Sydney?
Quay is the perfect location (when there’s no cruise ship in) and Peter Gilmore is a culinary genius. I really enjoy the wow factor of the view (and very good food) at Shangri-La Hotel’s Altitude Restaurant. And our new local, Bondi Icebergs isn’t too shabby either.

Which places in the world would you love to visit that you haven’t been to before?
At the top of the list is visiting the mountain gorillas of Rwanda – and I’m going there later this year. Having ridden my motorcycle on Antarctica, my adventure fantasy is to ride a motorcycle into Timbuktu, Mali.

What tips do you have for people planning an Antarctic trip?
People pack for the Antarctic cold when they should pack for the sea: good wet weather gear, including thick Gore-Tex gloves, is essential. And book the longer voyage that includes South Georgia Island – the profusion of wildlife is beyond belief.

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