Antarctica - Part 4

... all good times must come to an end.

Kay McCarte

By now we were so far South that it never got completely dark. As we headed for shore through the Ross Sea, everyone was ready to visit McMurdo Station, the largest U.S. Base in Antarctica, with a staff of about 1,000 to 2,000 people, depending on the time of the year. They also have a gift shop...but it wasn't to be reached. McMurdo Sound was completely iced in and the ice breaker which was to open the channel for the two large container ships bringing supplies and fuel, had broken down and it, too, was icebound.

Later that day it was announced that we would be passing the Ross Ice Shelf at about 2-2:30 a.m., so we would have a Parka Party from 2 - 4 a.m. When I said I wasn't too sure, our Vantage Leader said, "Oh, missing the Ross Ice Shelf would be like going to Egypt and missing the Sphinx."

So, dutifully, we set the alarm, put on warm pants, shirts and parkas and arrived on deck about 2:20 a.m. It was foggy, misty and cold and we could only see about 20 feet from the ship. I took a picture of Margie looking out at nothing. However, when I looked at my pictures, there was the Ice Shelf. At least the hot chocolate and pastries were good. (If I ever get to Egypt, I hope I have better luck with the Sphinx.)

An ice shelf is frozen water extending from the shore, in some cases for hundreds of miles. I don't know how far the Ross Ice Shelf extends but it is as high as 200 feet in some areas. There are many ice shelves around Antarctica, in fact, there is one on the other side of Antarctica, the Ronne Ice Shelf, named for the first woman to set foot on Antarctica.

We were able to make a landing at Cape Evans on Ross Island. Here the largest of the Historical Huts was built by Captain Robert Scott and his team in 1910. After wintering over, he with four others set out to be the first to reach the South Pole.    

There had been much debate over the best method to reach the South Pole. Captain Scott decided to use Manchurian ponies which, while small, could carry and pull more weight than dogs. The ponies, however, sank into the deep snow and the sweat caused by their exertion froze coating them with ice. Those that didn't die had to be killed and the men had to pull the sleds themselves.

The Amundsen party, on the other hand, had trained dogs to pull their sleds and were able to move much faster, enabling them to reach the South Pole a month before the Scott party.

Needless to say, Scott was devastated to find a letter from Amundsen at the South Pole. Very disappointed by their failure, they headed back to their camp only to be caught in a blizzard 11 miles from a supply depot and all 5 men perished.

Upon arrival at Cape Evans, a tender took us toward the shore where we transferred to a zodiak. They are very serious about protecting the area and the hut. Only 24 people are allowed on the shore at one time and only 12 at a time are allowed inside the hut.

It was an amazing experience to visit the galley with tins of food, including Coleman's Mustard and Heinz Ketchup, tins of biscuits and sugar, et al, preserved in the cold, dry air. We passed through the sleeping quarters, the laboratory with Scott's desk, the stable where the ill-fated Manchurian ponies were kept and by bins containing whale blubber and penguin eggs, everything as they left it 90 years ago. But there wasn't a penguin in sight.

The next day we were scheduled to land at Cape Royds where we would visit Amundsen's camp and meet the Adelie penguins, but, like McMurdo Sound, the area was all iced in and we were unable to land.

We cruised around while the small helicopter searched for landing sites. There were none, so it was decided to head back toward the Ross Ice Shelf. The gale force winds (Katabatic?) picked up as we headed toward the ice shelf but the sun glinting off the ice and icebergs was spectacular. We were really close to the ice shelf and our tablemate, Al, said he thought we were blown closer than the captain would have liked. We found out later that was true.

We were unable to make any more landings as it was now time to head for New Zealand and 4 more days "at sea." We were entertained with more lectures, movies and shows and I was very impressed with the demonstration on carving vegetables and fruits, especially the watermelon penguins.

A drawing for the chart which was posted in the lobby showing each day's progress was raffled off to aid 2 homes for Filipino children, sponsored by the ship's crew who were mostly Filipino. Our cabin number was drawn and Margie and I won it.

There was a "medical emergency" on board (there is a doctor and small infirmary) so we sailed "flat out" for Christchurch, NZ, arriving at 6 a.m. instead of 6 p.m., which gave us a full day to explore Lyttleton Harbor and Christchurch. One of the passengers had suffered a mild heart attack and was taken to the hospital but it was reported that he was doing well.

The next morning we said goodbye to all our new friends, disembarked at 8:00 a.m, flew to Auckland, NZ, flew to LA where we stayed overnight and then on to Boston. We found the Tuesday we had lost and were happy to be home again. It was the trip of a lifetime.

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