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March of the ... Oh, They're So Cute!

September 21, 2006 By:
Rita Charleston, JE Feature
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It was a long, long wait, but the time had finally come. The beautiful Norwegian ship -- the M/S Nordnorge -- was waiting for us, and soon we were on our way on what was called "The Journey of Discovery" to the world's last wilderness: Antarctica.

The Nordnorge, one of several ships of the Norwegian Coastal Voyage fleet, is a beauty -- with hand-rubbed wood throughout, a comfortable library offering many books on the continent we were about to explore, lounge areas, comfortable cabins, full-course meals of delicious food, and much, much more.

But none of the 196 people on board were here to admire the wood or read the books -- or even feast on the scrumptious food, though that was all quite welcome. No, we adventurers from around the world were gathered for the trip of a lifetime, which, for many of us, including me, had been a dream for years.

While sailing toward Antarctica -- described as the "coldest, highest, windiest, driest, most isolated and least populated of the continents" -- we listened to experts onboard describe it to us. We were told that one of the authors who wrote about it mentioned that "less than 100 years ago, the continent still awaited the sound of a human voice, the imprint of a human boot."

I thought a lot about that as we continued on to reach the historic Strait of Magellan and Punta Arenas in Chile, an almost Dickens-like city blending 19th-century elegance with modern life. We finally disembarked to join a tour of the Otway Penguin Colony.

Finally -- penguins! And I will say that none of us was disappointed as we watched the tiny black-and-white creatures waddle from shore to ocean.

And if we thought that was thrilling, the next day would be even more so, for it was time to round the infamous Cape Horn, where the Pacific, South Atlantic and Antarctic oceans converge.

One of the greatest graveyards for ships anywhere, Cape Horn has been a rite of passage for sailors the world over. We were told that, weather-permitting, we would be able to land. Unfortunately, a gale blew up, and we continued on our way.

It was now time to travel the Drake Passage, hundreds of miles of open ocean between the Horn and the tip of Antarctica. It was a fairly mild ride on the way down and then, there it was -- the sighting of our first iceberg!

Iceberg sizes differ. Some are as big as cathedrals; others are of an average size. Some seem white as snow; still others sport colors the likes of which you've probably never seen before, even in pictures. They are blue, blue-green -- electric blue.

Several more days of open ocean continue, but at no point does anyone get blasé about ice, which is just as well since 98 percent of the continent is covered in it.

Land, Ho!

Once land was finally reached, we spent five glorious days on "The White Continent," which is more than half the size of North America, seeing whales, elephant seals, Culvervile Island -- with its sculpture of icebergs, and the largest known colony of gentoo penguins in Antarctica.

And, like those mighty travelers before us, we were about to leave the imprint of our human boot in this place.

We bundled up in great, waterproof parkas, kindly provided by the coastal voyage crew, pulled on rubber boots (provided for each passenger) that are cleaned in special solutions both before and after our expedition, and headed off in small, motorized rubber boats. Their ample size allowed for approximately 10 passengers each, and permitted us to get close to icebergs and sunken ships.

Eventually, we reached land, some of which seemed blackened, literally covered in penguins. We were told not to approach them, and that if we were lucky, very lucky, they would approach us, many coming up for a closer look. Cameras were snapping away; still, photos don't do these darling creatures justice. Until you've seen them close-up, you have no idea what cute really is.

Unfortunately, the days went all too quickly and, having seen so many things most eyes have never seen, it became time to head back, sailing once again through Drake Passage, which this time greeted us with hurricane-force winds, and 30-foot to 40-foot waves. I think prior to this trip I might have been extremely sick just thinking about that, but because the ship was fitted with stabilizers -- and because I was riding such a high degree of excitement -- it didn't bother me in the least.

At the end of our trip, each passenger received a plaque stating his/her name, and certifying that each had "passed the rough cliff of Cape Horn ... following in the footsteps of the brave polar expeditionary that have reached the Antarctic Coastline."

Now framed, that plaque sits in a place of honor on my desk.

And if no one asks about it, I waste no time telling each and everyone all about my grand adventure, whether they want to hear about it or not!

For more information, log on to: www.coastalvoyage.com. Click on "Antarctica."

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