Antarctica -- Why?

... Maybe because the timing was right.

Kay McCarte

The day I retired, in July,1995, I arrived home with the rest of my life ahead of me. In the mail that day was a brochure from the Vantage Travel Service, with whom my sisters and I had done extensive traveling. The box at the top of the brochure read: "Men wanted for hazardous journey."

This was an ad placed in the London Times, in 1907, by Sir Ernest Shackleton, to attract men to explore Antarctica. It certainly caught my eye.

The brochure went on to describe a 24-day luxury cruise, aboard Orient Lines Ship, Marco Polo, sailing from Punta Arenas, at the southernmost tip of Chile. Cruising through the Straits of Magellan, we would proceed to the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula where, ice and weather conditions permitting, we would make some "Landings."

The Marco Polo would then cruise for 6 days, through the Bellinghausen Sea, the Amundsen Sea, into the Ross Sea, where, again, weather and ice conditions permitting, we would make some more "Landings," one of which would be at McMurdo Station, the largest Scientific Base in Antarctica, and manned by scientists from the USA.

Leaving Antarctica, the Marco Polo would cruise the Southern Ocean into Lyttleton Harbor, Christchurch, New Zealand and we would return home from there.

On board there would be lectures by all kinds of scientists--ecologist, naturalist, biologist, anthropologist, ornithologist, historian, microbiologist--if nothing else, it certainly would be educational.

Leaving the brochure for my sisters to read, I put the idea in the back of my mind for a while. After a few days the subject came up and we batted it around. Betty's reaction was pretty predictable--Are you crazy? Be my guest. I'll have a vacation while you're gone. I'll drive you to the airport and pick you up.

But Margie, the most adventuresome of the three of us, and I discussed the pros and cons at great length. We were both retired so 24 days was no problem. Money--Did we want to spend that much on a trip? It was expensive but it was for 24 days and everything was included. Maybe we should wait, save some money and go next year. Who knows what next year will bring? Well, let's see if we can get a reservation. If we can't, then that will be that.

A call to Vantage Travel confirmed that, yes, the trip was filling up fast but there were 2 cabins in the category we requested. More discussion. Let's go for it. And we did.

Even though it was only July and we were not leaving until January, 1996, the thought of what to pack was often on our minds. It would be summer in Antarctica and the temperature would be in the 20-35 degree range (this compared to the -60 to -100 degree range in winter) so winter clothes would be in order.  

Margie is a skier and was fairly well-equipped with outdoor winter clothes. I, on the other hand, worked in a nice warm office and did not have much in clothes for the out-of-doors in winter. I had to stock up on turtlenecks, flannel shirts, silk longjohns and wool slacks. The ship would issue a red parka to everyone on board. About two weeks before we left we received a mailing telling us to be sure to bring waterproof pants and knee-high rubber boots. Then, of course, there would be the Captain's Cocktail Parties and Dinners. By this time Betty was really glad she was not going.  

The winter of 1995-1996 was something to remember. Storms continually buffeted the Northeast as we plowed, shoveled and sanded.  Logan Airport, it seemed, was closed as much as it was open.  What if???

January 10 - more snow - Airport closed.  January 11 - bright and sunny - Airport open. Again, the timing was right. Our plane for Greensboro took off about 20 minutes late and our connecting flight to Miami was held up for us. On our arrival in Miami we were met by representatives of the Orient Lines who helped us check our luggage and issued boarding passes.

We were to leave by Charter Plane, at 9:00 p.m., but five (5) passengers had not yet arrived. One girl arrived about 10:00 p.m., the other four (4) had not yet left Chicago (that storm closed Logan Airport on January 12). They never made the trip.

Finally, around 11:00 p.m., we were on our way to the Southern Hemisphere and our Big Adventure. Margie and I shared a middle row with a couple from Florida, Dixie and Lauren. Lauren is a Retired U.S. Army Colonel and they had lived and traveled in many places throughout the world. When we asked: "Why Antarctica?" Dixie told us they had told a grandson they had been to all the continents in the world and he informed them they had missed one -- Antarctica, so here they were.

After we took off dinner was served and then we slept through a movie. Wake-up call was about 6:00 a.m., for breakfast. At about 9:00 a.m. we landed in Santiago, Chile, to change crews and refuel the plane. About 1:00 p.m. we arrived in Punta Arenas, Chile. Most people have heard of Tierra del Fuego, which is at the southernmost tip of Argentina. Punta Arenas is at the southernmost tip of Chile.

Upon clearing Customs, we were taken by bus for a tour of the pretty town of Punta Arenas, with stops at an old Church, a Museum and a lovely park in the center of town. Originally a farming and grazing area, oil was discovered offshore which brought money and jobs to the area. The busses drove us up into the hills overlooking the harbor and from there we could see our ship, which had not yet docked. We were dropped off at a hotel where we could get something to eat and drink and they would let us know when they were ready for us to board.

We found out later that the Marco Polo had sailed from South America to the Falkland Islands, to the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula and then north to Punta Arenas. Upon arrival in the harbor, the Chilean authorities informed the Captain that they were sorry but they did not have a long enough dockage area for the 578 foot Marco Polo. After all, they had only known for six months that the Marco Polo would be docking that day.  

The Captain said he, too, was sorry but he would bring the Ship into the available dockage area with most of it extending into the harbor.  (Fortunately, the available dockage area was at the end of the pier.) He had disembarking and embarking passengers, and food, fuel and water to be loaded for the next trip.

The busses returned to the hotel to take us to the ship and then take the disembarking passengers to the Airport to the Charter Plane that had brought us down.

Upon boarding the Ship we found our assigned cabins, washed up and went to the Seven Seas Restaurant where we met our tablemates, Al and Mary, from Conway, Arkansas, Suzanne, from Glendale, Missouri, and Jim, from Smithtown, New York.

After dinner we found our way to the Ambassador Lounge where the Entertainment Staff and our Guest Lecturer, Sir Edmund Hillary, were introduced.  Sir Edmund Hillary, at age 74, is a big man, about 6'4'. For a famous explorer, he is rather quiet, perhaps retiring would be a good word. He told us he was happy to be with us to visit Antarctica again, but he did not like to give lectures, so he would just talk about some of his adventures throughout the world.

Chimes woke us about 8:20 a.m. and during breakfast there was an announcement that the fuel was slow in being delivered and we were free to leave the ship as long as we were back by noon. Departure would be at 2:00 p.m., so most of us took a walk around the dock area of Punta Arenas. At 2:00 p.m. fuel delivery was still ongoing and embarkation was delayed again. Then we had to wait for papers from the Chilean Authorities before we could leave.  Finally -- departure at 3:45 p.m.

To be continued -- More Next Month About the Marco Polo and all you never wanted to know about penguins.

Mar. 3, 2000

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