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The Untouched Landscapes of Antarctica

By Graham Boynton
5/5/2013 7:15:15 AM

Does Africa seem tame to you, with its conga lines of safari vehicles and camps with crystal chandeliers? Do you long for that frisson of the infinite? Then Antarctica is the place for you-immense, unowned, unspoiled, and populated by some of the world's most enchanting (and brutal) creatures. Just the spot, reports Graham Boynton, to feel truly unbound.

As far as some historians can determine, the first man to set foot on Antarctica was French explorer Jules-Sébastien-César Dumont d'Urville, in 1840. Its Deception Island, whose black volcanic sands conceal hot springs, is favored by chinstrap penguins, which come here to breed-and can dive in Antarctic waters to depths of up to 230 feet.

Proximity to perfect harmony. That was what I believed I was seeking as I hauled myself up the steep, icy slope that was the spine of Danco Island. The sun was shining brightly out of a clear blue sky, the first blue sky I had seen since the start of my Antarctic cruise a few days earlier, and a blanket of snow covered the land from horizon to horizon. Nothing moved. Far below was a rookery of gentoo penguins that I had passed on my way up, but their squabbling presence was already a memory.

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Having managed to escape the company of my 66 fellow travelers, I was hoping to find a few moments of solitude to take in the enormity of the landscape. I have traveled the world, but I had never been anywhere like this. I found a ledge and looked across the azure waters toward the Antarctic Peninsula. In the middle distance was the Ocean Nova, the tiny ship that had brought us here, made even tinier by this vast landscape. The words of American explorer Admiral Richard E. Byrd came to mind: "This is the way the world will look to the last man when it dies."

Danco Island lies at the southern end of the Errera Channel, off the Danco Coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. The sea was as still as a pond, and the icebergs, some the size of buildings, seemed to hang suspended. It was, of course, an illusion, for this was sea ice and glacier ice on the move.

My reverie was interrupted by the distant voice of our expedition leader, Laurie Dexter. It was time to rejoin the ship, and I trudged reluctantly in the direction of the others. Instead of tiptoeing down the snowy slope that I had climbed so carefully, I threw caution to the wind and slid on my backside, coming down at a ferocious speed.

That rush of exhilaration, and the laughter of my fellow passengers waiting at the foot of the slope, broke the spell, but it would return again in the days to come.

Just before my trip, I'd had lunch with Sara Wheeler, whose book Terra Incognita is required reading for any wannabe Antarctica­phile. She had warned me that this would be a profound, even life-changing, experience. "It is a metaphysical landscape," Sara said of Antarctica. "In an increasingly grubby world it has been romanticized to fulfill a human need for sanctuary. I think all that comes from its unspoiled status-the only place on the planet not tied down by ownership, laws, a human population. It is beyond all that, and greater than it."

She was right, for here all the tawdry transactions of our modern urban lives are made meaningless. For a brief moment on Danco Island, I believed I had found sanctuary.

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Every traveler to the Antarctic is warned that getting there is taxing. In fact, the sea journey is called the Drake Tax, for all one must pay in fear and fortitude to cross the notorious Drake Passage. This 500-mile stretch between the tip of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula has some of the roughest seas on the planet, containing as it does the unimpeded flow of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, which carries a huge volume of water-about 600 times the flow of the Amazon River-through the passage. With winds raging at more than 65 miles per hour, it is nature at its wildest and most unpredictable.

It had taken two nights and two full days for us to cross from Ushuaia in Argentina to the South Shetland Islands, which have been claimed at various times by Great Britain, Argentina, and Chile but are shared peaceably, for exploration purposes, by all 50 countries that have signed the Antarctic Treaty, which in 1959 established the continent as a scientific preserve. The Ocean Nova had bounced and pitched and yawed relentlessly. Even though we were tabbed up with promethazine anti-nausea pills and covered with ­scopolamine patches, we all teetered on the edge of seasickness. The public areas were lined with paper vomit bags-tucked into the handrails, behind the bar, beside the sofas in the lounge. Taking a meal in the dining room was risky, for every so often you'd be thrown out of your chair by a violent pitch or yaw that sent dishes and everything else flying. In the mornings, those who actually emerged from their cabins had the haunted, hollow-eyed, exhausted look one tends to associate with Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton, and the other suffering explorers of the Antarctic's Heroic Age a century ago.

Researchers flock to twenty-first-century Antarctica to study everything from the planet's geologic history to global warming to, yes, penguins-like these on Deception Island. There are more than 12 million chinstraps (named for the thin black line under their chin) in the Antarctic region.

But we did get there in one piece, and on that first calm morning 48 hours after we'd pushed off from Ushuaia, we awoke to the sight of gigantic icebergs on the horizon and a sea as flat as a pancake. I could see the color coming back to the faces of my fellow travelers and hear the conversation levels returning to their previous intensity.

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We were a diverse crowd: doctors, lawyers, university professors, a best-selling novelist, a Belgian aristocrat, and a number of solo-traveling women. Our guides, too, were an impressive array. Laurie Dexter was a hard-core explorer who had made 110 trips to the Antarctic and once crossed the Arctic on skis, a journey that took him three months. Colin Bates, the marine biologist, was a professor at the University of British Columbia and an expert on climate change in the Antarctic. John Harrison, the historian, was a Cambridge-educated author and lecturer who had made some 41 trips to the Antarctic.

I was curious to learn firsthand why this vast, inhospitable continent-a continent of which the most doomed of explorers, Scott, rather succinctly said, "Great God! This is an awful place"-had become a magnet that many people can't help returning to again and again. Yes, it is one of the last pristine wildernesses, covering five million square miles-one and a half times the size of the United States-and holding three-quarters of the world's freshwater. It is a gigantic ice desert that is the highest, driest, windiest, emptiest, coldest place on earth, and it represents ninety percent of the planet's ice.

It is also home to some of the world's most enchanting, revolting, and brutal creatures. Witness gentoo penguins waddling in unison from rookery to water's edge like fussy old men with their pajamas pants around their ankles-enchanting. Witness elephant seals lying side by side like giant greasy slugs as the dominant male yawns to reveal a bright-pink palate-revolting. And witness a leopard seal beating a gentoo on the ice until its body is inside out and ready to eat-brutal.

The fact is, now that swaths of the African bush have been overrun by four-wheel-drive vehicles and air-conditioned bush lodges with Wi-Fi, Antarctica appeals as one of the last really wild empty places left for adventure travel.

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