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August 20, 2001
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Cape Horn
The sun sets over Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America. (Erik Olsen/
A Cold, Faraway Place
Exploring a Lonely Antarctic Beach

By Erik Olsen

March 1 — It was 10:30 in the evening when we arrived in Antarctica, and the sky was still as bright as a summer day.

Actually, it was summer, January in the Southern Hemisphere. But rather than the comfortable climate of, say, Hawaii, it was a nasty 10 below.
     I was hitching a ride aboard the Chilean Navy frigate Aquiles, which was making a routine training mission to the southern continent, and I now sat in one of her clunky lifeboats bound for the Chilean base Arturo Prat on Greenwich Island, part of the South Shetland Archipelago lying off of the long arm of the Antarctic Peninsula.
     We landed on a rocky beach where a troop of Chinstrap penguins gazed at us curiously as we lumbered out of the boats. The flightless birds seemed to be just hanging out minding their own business, and didn’t appear particularly happy to see us.
Greenwich Island is part of the South Shetland Archipelago lying off of the long arm of the Antarctic Peninsula. ( Magellan Geographix)
There were about a dozen buildings on the base, flat uninspiring structures that reminded me of a suburban prefab office complex. There was also an assemblage of storage sheds painted a hideous day-glow orange that didn’t jive at all with the environment. I assume they were painted that way so they’d be easy to find in a storm.
     After a week of seafaring across Drake’s Passage — reputedly the roughest swatch of sea in the world — I found it an odd sensation to have my feet on solid ground again. At least I’d been able to fend off seasickness during the trip, which is more than I can say for about three-quarters of the other passengers, who were often found on the upper deck bent over the rail. They weren’t sightseeing.
     The area where we landed was all ice, rock and sea. The ground was carpeted in a pillowy red lichen that made an odd sighing noise under my feet. To the immediate north, a small Catholic shrine was perched on the top of a hill, used by the dozen or so people who live and work on the base. The island was very narrow here, just a quarter of a mile across.

The Penguin Graveyard
I walked to the other side of the island in a few minutes, and found a gravel beach where a small squad of penguins stood idly around like short French waiters.
     Scattered around on the beach were whole scores of penguin corpses, the little rib cages bleached white by the sun and cold. I could tell they were penguin bodies because their small velvety flippers had been left intact, even though the bones had been picked clean. I learned later that the penguins had been attacked by a fellow bird called the Antarctic Skua. A massive brown bird like an overgrown seagull, the skua is the only bird that regularly travels to the South Pole — even the penguins don’t dare go so far south.

The author explores the cold way, way down south. (Erik Olsen)
I walked down the beach alone for about a mile, but the cold became intolerable. Massive gusts of subzero wind swept down from the mountains and slammed into me like blows. I kept my head down and pressed on up the beach, unsure of what I was going to find. I came upon a herd of enormous elephant seals lying barking and belching like a group of fraternity brothers on Spring Break.
     Black clouds swarmed on the horizon and snow began to fall, so I quickly headed back to the base. Not long after, we were told a storm was coming that would make passage back to the Aquiles impossible, so we’d have to hurry. We’d been on the base for a good part of the day, and I’d hoped we’d be able to stay the night, but the captain of the Aquiles wanted everyone back aboard.

Looking for Life Jackets
We tumbled back into the lifeboats and were about a half a mile out when I realized something was missing.
     “Excuse me, sir?” I said to the sailor who stood in the bow. He was flapping his arms in a gesture that was either an effort to keep warm or some Chilean navigational technique. “Aren’t we supposed to be wearing life jackets?” My lips were frozen, and I wasn’t sure if the Spanish came out correctly.
     “Que?” he said.
     “I said, aren’t there supposed to be life jackets? For passengers?” He shrugged and I searched my memory to be sure that I had used the right words: chaleco salvavidas. Another sailor nearby scoffed, “Why do you need a life jacket? If you fall in this water, you only have about twenty-five seconds to live. We’d never get to you in time.” I saw a faint smile cross his lips as he exchanged glances with his buddy sitting across from him.
     Thankfully, we made it back to the Aquiles safe and sound. We slept soundly that night on board the ship and then spent another few days sailing around the islands, landing at another Chilean base and saying hello to the Russian research tam at Bellingshausen. The next week, we headed back to Cape Horn. It was very cold, but because I had so much travel still ahead of me, I was happy. Happy to have visited, and happy to be leaving this cold, faraway place.

Getting to Antartica

Not all trips to the Southern continent require hitching a ride on a Chilean Navy vessel. However, if that is your desire, the Chilean Navy has opened up trips on a sporadic basis. The best way to get on one of these is to visit the main ship pier in Punta Arenas, which is reachable by plane from Santiago on LanChile.
     The majority of ship-based tourist expeditions depart from and return to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. The trip across the Drake Passage can take up the first three days or more of a trip that usually lasts between 7 and 15 days.
     Most Antarctic tour outfits charter Russian-owned research vessels that have been converted for expeditions. Travelers should book with companies affiliated with the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, a member organization founded in 1991 to advocate, promote, and practice safe and environmentally responsible travel to the Antarctic.
     British-based Adventure Network International (call 44-1494-671-808 or fax 44-1494-671-725) flies Hercules C-130s from Punta Arenas to an ice runway at the Patriot Hills (80 degrees S 80 degrees W ) in the heart of Antarctica. From here, you fly two Twin Otter aircraft and a ski-equipped Cessna to reach the South Pole. If you’re less adventuresome you can fly in a Qantas jumbo jet over Antarctica from Australia without landing.
     Abercrombie and Kent (call 630-954-2944 or fax 630-572-1833) operates the 96-berth Explorer.
     One book on the area I highly recommend is Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing (Carroll & Graf, 1986). The book tells the true story of Ernest Shackleton, who set out on a transantarctic expedition in 1914 aboard the ship Endurance. Lansing’s account of how the ship was crushed and sank in the Weddell Sea and the epic tale of the expedition’s struggle to survive is a classic adventure.
— Erik Olsen
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