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Flying Over Antarctica

May 17, 1987|CAROLYN Z. GOLDMAN | Goldman is a Laguna Beach free-lance writer. and

My dream was about to come true.

I packed thermal underwear, added woolen socks, and boarded the Royal Viking Sea in Los Angeles. We sailed to Punta Arenas, Chile, in the Strait of Magellan, gateway to the South Pole.

I wanted to see some of the discoveries made up to 400 years ago by Ferdinand Magellan, Sir Francis Drake, Charles R. Darwin and Adm. Richard E. Byrd. But I'd have an advantage. I wouldn't be on a sailing vessel. I'd be flying over the Antarctic in a chartered plane with 57 other passengers. The added cost for each was $620.

Somewhere near this area, Darwin reported finding an ostrich nest containing 27 eggs, each one 11 times the size of a hen's egg.

I didn't see any sign of life, human or otherwise--not an ostrich, a penguin, a seal, not even a puffin.

Our ship slowly nosed its way through the barren, ice-covered Chilean fiords. Small islets loomed on every side, looking like unfinished jigsaw puzzles . . . pieces crumbling away from the mainland.

A Light Snowfall

The weather grew colder and colder, the ship maneuvering carefully between low, white-frosted hills. A light snowfall fell into the sea and onto the decks. Snowflakes drifted against the portholes of my stateroom.

I put on my thermals and a cap, and wondered if I'd need snowshoes on deck.

That night, about midnight, I awakened, aware that the ship had stopped. The captain had announced that we would be taking on Chilean pilots to guide us through the maze of islets into Punta Arenas, through the perilous strait where so many ships had foundered. We had passed a 25-year-old wreck still moldering away on a spit of land.

In the morning, when the ship's engines started up again, I went out to feel the icy air. The loudspeaker reported that the temperature was 30 degrees and would warm up to 37. The month was November, springtime in the Southern Hemisphere.

On deck, one of the passengers said, "This isn't really cold. A Russian scientist once measured the temperature at the pole at 80 degrees below zero."

On our port side was the frozen blue skeletal hand of the Mt. Wyndham Glacier, topped with a glove of soft snow reaching into the green sea, the southern end of the Andes range.

I considered a visit to King George Island where, every summer, the National Tourism Board of Chile operates the only guest house in Antarctica, a place of 20 rooms. At the moment, though, the ship felt very cozy. I reconsidered.

The scenery was magnificent. The Seno Glacier reached its bony arm into lapis lazuli water, a long strand of pearls draping across and dipping into a deep blue-tiled sauna.

Old Name in New Setting

Tracing our progress on the map, I saw intriguing names: Whaleboat Sound, Fury Harbor, Desolation Bay and Staten Island. At least there was one familiarname in this unfamiliar setting.

When we arrived at Punta Arenas Harbor, the 58 polar passengers were transferred by tender into town, then loaded onto a bus that took us to the airport, where we boarded the plane. We were embarking on our adventure, a triangular overflight. The longest leg was from Punta Arenas to the weather stations, then on to the Antarctic Peninsula and back to the ship.

From my comfortable window seat high above the Strait of Magellan, I listened as the commentator explained: "Below us is Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost point of the South American Continent." As he ticked off points of interest, a flight attendant passed among us with drinks.

We could see nothing of what our guide was referring to. A heavy cloud cover hid everything, including Beagle Channel (made famous by Darwin in his "Voyage of the Beagle"), and I was beginning to wonder if the flight would be aborted, together with my $620.

The Clouds Lifted

Suddenly the clouds lifted, and so did my spirits. My dream was coming true. I could see the frozen world beneath, with Cape Horn in the distance, 840 kilometers from the pole. Frosted mountain snow cones rose from the green-slush Antarctic waters.

"Below you see the Shetland Islands." Huge iced cupcakes seemed to be floating in the icy Drake Passage. I was flying toward the end of the world, above the circular, coldest, most arid continent.

Drake preceded Darwin by almost 2 1/2 centuries when he discovered Drake Passage. At the time Darwin traversed the strait, he thought that land connected South America with Antarctica. How could he have dreamed that there would be a race for the South Pole between Roald Amundsen and Robert F. Scott in 1911-12, with Amundsen winning by a month? That Scott, even with his Siberian ponies, would die in the attempt? Or that Byrd would one day fly over the Pole in an airplane?

As the cloud layer dispersed, the 11 Shetland Islands appeared, rising from the icy Drake Passage.

Antarctica showed its fantastic beauty. Snow-filled volcanic peaks pushed up from the rugged terrain, some reflecting into the icy ocean. Ice pinnacles towered above deep-blue water, like a swimming pool slide descending into a blue tub.

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