I had imagined my trip to Antarctica dozens of times but I’d never pictured myself sunbathing there, let alone going for a swim.
Yet here I was, plunging into the icy ocean (after a few seconds in zero-degree temperatures, the water really starts to bite) and then drying off on a pebbly beach in the sunshine.
Just a few yards away, a group of chinstrap penguins popped out of the water and were pottering around on the shore, totally unfazed by my swimming exploits. What an amateur, they were probably thinking to themselves.
Going with the floe: Sarah makes a splash in the icy waters surrounding Half Moon Island during her 16-day Antarctic cruise
It was day four of my 16-day Antarctic cruise with Norwegian cruise operator Hurtigruten and I felt as if I’d landed on another planet.
There is an incredible otherworldly feeling about Antarctica: the epic black-and-white landscape; the vast sense of space and sky; the glaciers and icebergs, which look as if they are lit from inside by a bright-blue fire; and the ice-topped ocean, which any moment could be disturbed by the whoosh of a whale spouting.
It is truly like nothing else on Earth.
My journey had begun several hundred miles north, in the windswept Chilean town of Punta Arenas, where we boarded our ship prior to sailing through the famous Magellan Strait and Beagle Channel.
To embark on this kind of trip is to follow in the footsteps of famed explorers of the past: Darwin, Shackleton, Scott, Magellan.
Landing at the fabled Cape Horn, graveyard to more than 800 ships, we felt as if we were teetering on the very edge of the Earth. After 36 hours crossing the 500-mile wide Drake Passage, we woke up to find all the colour had been sucked from the world.
Spectacular setting: When the passengers weren’t hiking or cruising in little Zodiac dinghies (left), time was spent on board (right) either eating or going out on deck to watch whales, penguins and icebergs float past
This was Half Moon Island, the site of the first of our many encounters with penguins – and my icy swim.
From here we travelled to Deception Island, a stunning volcano caldera five miles across, and then, on the 105th anniversary of Amundsen’s arrival at the South Pole, we arrived in Neko Harbour and set foot on the Antarctic continental plate for the first time.
Shaking it off: A chinstrap penguin surveys the scene
It’s a stunning place, with panoramic views of snow-topped mountains surrounding a flat, grey sea that reflected the snowy peaks.
Each day the views and experiences became more incredible: hiking to the squawks of hundreds of gentoo penguins and the rumble and crash of a nearby glacier; walking on clear-blue ice that would disappear in a day; spotting fat leopard seals sunning themselves on the snow; and watching a pod of killer whales feed by the ship as we drifted across a wide stretch of water called the Lemaire Channel, which is guarded by two towering peaks.
When we weren’t hiking or cruising in little Zodiac dinghies, time was spent on board either eating – our ship, the MS Midnatsol, has an excellent restaurant – listening to the fascinating talks from the expedition team (our trip included one from maritime campaigner Lewis Pugh), or going out on deck to watch whales, penguins and icebergs float past (and taking hundreds more photos).
With views like that, this was one cruise ship that had no need to provide additional entertainment.
Sorting through the 3,000 pictures I took on the trip, however, might take some time…
Hurtigruten (hurtigruten.co.uk) runs year-round adventure trips to Antarctica and surrounding areas including Chile, Argentina, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands.
A 15-day Adventure To The Chilean Fjords and Antarctica, departing November 7, costs from £4,402pp, including transfers from Santiago to Punta Arenas.
British Airways (ba.com) offers return flights from Heathrow to Santiago from £949.