Getting to Antarctica was frightening by way of travel and imagination. What do you expect to find? In that terra incognita what unimagined frontier lay for the mind to conquer? How does one grasp vast emptiness, deafening silence and crushing isolation? And how warmly should you dress for the occasion? It was nearing the end of the summer season – should one pack a jersey? On some subconscious level I felt a lamb led to the slaughter. I looked at the rock-hard meat in the freezer, -19°C and tried to imagine a balmy summer’s day in this terrifying place. In my southernmost thoughts lay the unexplored, white – expansive and cold.
The flight from Johannesburg included an hour’s stopover in Cape Town and onward to Buenos Aires. It was here that the South African team met our travelling companions. They came from all over the world – Americans, Scandinavians, Canadians. We were the only nation that came from warmer climes and I felt even more apprehensive.
The city tour focused on Eva Peron’s life. In the banking district we stopped at the Casa Rosado – the Pink Palace, where Evita (and Madonna) addressed the crowd in the Plaza de Mayo. Mario my guide for the day pointed out the solid-looking banks. “There is no money, but at least we have the buildings.” The Casa Rosado contains the president’s offices and is freshly painted on the side facing the square. “Perhaps the next president will have the money to paint the other three sides.” Mario’s laconic comment.
One morning we left before dawn for the three-hour flight down the Atlantic coast to Ushuaia. This “port at the end of the world” is on the Beagle Channel in Tierra del Fuego. It is a small town which does surprisingly well from tourism. Its port is deep enough for luxury liners and both the “Marco Polo” and the “Amsterdam” were berthed during my stay.
Our ship by far a more modest affair was waiting at one end of the harbour. The “Lyubov Orlova” a Russian icebreaker, had been converted to carry fifty passengers. It would be home for the next two weeks. In all our travelling companions were from ten different countries including a honeymoon couple from Norway. We ranged in age from thirty-five to seventy-five. The two passions that bound us together were seeing Antarctica and our desire to run a marathon in unusual and pristine surroundings.
Kapitan Sergey Nestorov and his Russian crew of twenty-three were unlike the types we read about before the 1994 elections. These guys were friendly, professional and enjoyed rock music. Nestorov was approachable, knowledgeable and in complete control of his ship. He welcomed us onto the bridge and into the chart-room. He painstakingly explained the intricacies of navigation. Before leaving Ushuaia, Nestorov solemnly called a meeting where he explained the difficulties we shall have to face when crossing the thousand kilometres of ocean – the Drake Passage – that separates South America from the Antarctic Peninsula. The seas here have the reputation of being the most treacherous on the planet.
For now that was no one’s concern and it was a beautiful calm evening as the Orlova pushed out into the Beagle Channel. What lay ahead was churning and dark and unimaginable. Little did we comprehend what was waiting.