January 2 - 15 2001 / Antarctica: Sky Water Ice Rock
Seeing the Nacre of the World, as well as the Falkland Islands, a Gateway to the Ice
In about three hours we will be flying to Santiago. I have seen several of the people we will be with, with their blue and white travel company tags on their bags, and a certain look. I am shy of them, as always in this particular circumstance. I have such a strong sense of myself--until I have to meet others who I perceive as being in my niche. All of the people on this tour have money--it's the most expensive trip we have ever taken--and doubtless most of them, if not all, are world travelers. People who would choose to go to Antarctica have self-selected into a very strange group. Their friends are incredulous--why aren't they going somewhere warm, tropical, sybaritic? Each person on this trip will have been doing what I have been doing--being smugly delighted (and often surprised) by the reactions of people who have been told our destination. Being sure that just about everybody knows where they are going. Many people I told actually had no idea I think where Antarctica IS. Or what there might be there to see, or to "do." One of my friends actually asked me what hotel we would be staying at. So anyway, everybody on this trip is secretly filled with pride to be so bold, so different, so venturesome. And I, who identify myself so much in that way--the main thing in my life is my venturesomeness, my slight bravery--must find my place with these others.
So pretty soon now I must become part of a group. Even though it's a group I naturally belong to, I guess, I am uneasy and skittish, shy, besieged. Still, I can't get to Antarctica by myself, so there is no help for it.
Four young boys have been playing soccer on the blue tile floor in the big open space in front of me here at the check-in area. Two kids have passed by on scooters. Two girls on roller skates. Amazingly, a man on a bicycle, possibly a policeman. There are palm trees outside, though it is a bit chilly.
The other passengers, what we can see of them, are a mixed bag. Mostly a bit older (and stuffier) than us--of course everybody is stuffier than us--but some younger I think. In spite of what John thinks, I do reserve judgment on them until I am in closer quarters.
But I don't want to write about them. I want to write about being in the plane in the night, thirty thousand feet over water I guess, and unable to sleep in the deep of the night. I raise the window shade. There in the velvet black nothing, I see something, I see constellations above the horizon, and below the horizon, strange quivering constellations, of lightning below the clouds. I look down upon this, safely above. Then I see a few constellations below the horizon, and as I look more closely, a few more, and I see that they are tiny towns, the lights of tiny towns, and here and there a larger group of yellow and white lights, a city, below in the darkness, most of its people sleeping, but the lights awake. The grids of sleeping streets are visible. Visible too are the traces of roads that lead away from them into the blackness--of forest? I don't know. The roads are discernible by the tiny clumpings of lights here and there, suggesting a direction. Between the clumps, it is black. I feel an awareness of the people down there, asleep, or wakeful as I am, or at work in joy or fear or mindlessness, or turning to one another in the darkness of the bed. I here, alone amid this crowd of travelers, above them yet connected. I see them, and they do not know it. They hear me in my flying machine, and I do not know it. Their feeble lights against the black!
As the sun slowly rises and we are given breakfast, I see a strange texture below--forest? water? clouds? or what? It turns out to be a solid rippled cloud cover, with ridges and eddies and swirls and troughs, a detailed landscape of vapor. Then we pass lower, and here are the Andes Mountains, a forbidding chocolate brown, quite desolate and empty of vegetation. Their valleys are filled with cottony clouds.
And then the landing in Santiago. Chile. It's very dry here, yellowish soil, dry-place trees, the drive into the city like so many others we have taken over the years. But in the traffic, an open truck pulls abreast of our bus, and I glance over to see it, looking as always for a glimpse of people in their dailiness. Three good-looking men are in it, and one catches my eye, and makes a gesture of appreciation, and a smile, which I can't help returning. He turns to his companions and says something and they all look and smile--I am sure something horribly rude, but I liked being noticed.
After a nap, we went bravely out, together for support, and changed money, bought water, and ice cream. Funny, and sobering, how very different you feel once you have some money in your pocket.
Later, in the afternoon, we are given the usual city tour. We went up a hill to see a big statue of the Virgin, where John saw a Chilean cat (of course someday I am going to mount my slide show called Cats of the World!). And then to a kind of place which I normally don't care much about, the museum of Precolumbian stuff. It was beautifully designed, with each object or group of objects lovingly displayed in a pool of light in darkened rooms.
At first I walked by the strange object, which looked like a large perhaps necklace, of knotted fabric strands, by itself in a yellow case mounted on a wall. I was drawn by its simplicity, and how different it looked amid the pottery and other objects. I kept going back to it, and finally asked about it. It was, it turns out, an Incan accounting device with knots, different colors of yarns, some twisted around each other. Some of these devices, I was told, were used for taxes and accounting. Others, it seems, told stories, remembered poetry…being the keeper--the knower of this--was an inherited task. You inherited the job from your father. The thing is a stunning combination of the visual and the word--and the hand. Colors, forms, empty and filled spaces, numbers and lengths of yarns, a dab of red paint--these are the elements used to tell the stories and remember the poetry, and the events. The thing is arranged like a beautiful spiral seashell in its large and quiet glass case, arranged with respect and pleasure. Lucky the person who got to touch it, arrange its strands so carefully.
And also there is a case that shows the different kinds of fabric weaving. There are so many. How can there by so many ways to arrange two strands of thread??
How thrillingly clever humans are!
After a few hours’ sleep, we must get up at 3:45 to wait for the plane to, unimaginably, Stanley, in the Falkland Islands.
And we flew down the continent of South America. I saw what appeared to be open-pit mines, with terraces and unnaturally colored "lakes" at their centers--pink, orange, gray-green water. At first, in our flight, the land was uplifted in chocolate brown peaks, with some crustings of snow, then later cut deeply by eroded canyons. Rivers gleamed silver as the sun struck each in turn. They pierce the land like cuts bleeding silver.
Then we arrived at this distant land, this distant habitation, the Falkland Islands. Incongruously, tour buses meet our group--89 of us. The tour guides are a couple, she once an American, he an Aussie I think, or a Brit. They love their country. They take us to the tiny settlement, Stanley, of sixteen hundred souls, many of them fifth or sixth generation, or even more.
We go down the road from the tiny hotel in the rain to visit the museum. Its director stands on a chair to be better heard and explains to us about the museum, the building, its contents, which are simply to show the world who come (about sixty cruise ships a year, she says) that the Falkland Islanders existed before the 1982 "conflict" with the Argentinians (who invaded their land, planted land mines, killed their people, and were driven off by the British Army).
The museum is a loving show of the artifacts of this community. There is The Wedding Cake Stand, used by countless brides, a piece of social history, says the affectionate narrative on its sign. It’s now sporting a cake decorated amazingly with real frosting by the local woman whose special talent this is.
I begin to wonder about the small number of surnames, and speak to a Ms. nee Coutts [meaning Coutts was her maiden name], at the front desk. She says she is fifth generation here in the Falklands; her grandmother's father came over "from abroad" to be a sheepherder. We look at the telephone book to see the names. That's an old one, and that, she tells me. She explains how weddings are a community event: everybody goes in the street to see the bride, then there's the ceremony, and the reception, for the family and close friends, and then the wedding dance at night, open to the community. They aren't doing that as much, the wedding dance, she says, wistfully.
I tell her about the radio on Prince Edward Island, how each day deaths and other important community news are reported. Oh yes, she says, every day, after lunch, such things are on the radio, community notices, missing cats and the like. But it seems there’s a new person, from away, running the radio now. He’s been here for three months, and he doesn’t hew to the way it's been done for fifty years, and he’s doing things differently. He's not well-liked, she suggests. Not too popular, she says. Before they got their modern phone system, here in the Falklands, those living away from Stanley, on the sheep farms, were connected only by radio-telephone, which was quite public for anyone listening in. Especially the doctor’s call-in hour in the mornings, everybody listened to that, she tells me.
Finally at the end of the day we board our ship, the Caledonian Star. John and I are the first to come aboard. We are greeted by Bach on our cabin radio, and I am nearly overwhelmed.
Lifeboat drill, champagne, briefings, dinner, we depart, and the few brave lights of Stanley disappear behind the headland.
Tomorrow we are to see penguins, on some of the other parts of the Falklands.
All night long we were bounding along on the south Atlantic, in our ship the Caledonian Star. Since we are in a lower-deck cabin, the waves are actually leaping outside and just below our tiny porthole! It is as if we were seeing the ocean from a kayak!
We slept like contented angels in our snug cabin, narrow beds, rocking ship, humming engine, that green-gray water sloshing and rushing just outside our porthole.
In the morning we are at Saunders Island. The sand is pewter grey, and the beach is lined with penguins. They watch our zodiacs land, impassive but alert, watching us slyly. The number of penguins, and their presence, the sheer fact that they exist and we are here to see them, transfixes most people, who are unable to move beyond this fine sight for a time, even in the pelting rain.
Small groups of us are herded nicely past these penguins, farther onto the land. There are so many colors! We see King Penguins, who are fabulously elegant, with tangerine, pure white, pure black. We in our bright red parkas (given to us by the company) group at a polite distance from the pengies. The sea is green as jade, and its robust ribbons of kelp are a dark olive green; the bare hills are furred with a brilliant emerald green here and there, a blued piney green elsewhere. There is a grayish green low rosette with stout yellow ray-only flowers. The explorers and sealers and whalers ate it for its anti-scurvy effects.
I see brilliant lichens, at least five kinds and colors: acid yellow and orange and green, black, white, grey, some tiny fruticose of nile green. I see small puffball mushrooms. There are tiny dots of white flowers, little daisies vibrating in the wind.
Of which there is a lot, and a pelting rain almost like hail. I don't really care, I am encased in my waterproof stuff, and I am the farthest south I have ever been, and it's only water.
There is a field of black-browed albatross, a nesting group, on a rocky hillside near the ocean, and one couple has a large fluffy pearl-gray chick sitting on the mud nest, which is shaped like a squat volcano. One parent is at the nest; in a bit the other returns. There is nuzzling and grooming between the parents, and then the chick solicits feeding, by pecking the pinkish bill spot. Baby eats with relish.
Adult albatross are cruising all around, their enormous aerodynamically correct and therefore elegant wings outstretched, barely moving, just gliding. The green hillsides are dotted incongruously with sheep, formerly the source of income for the people of this place, but then came polypropelene. Now the sheep do little but eat. The islanders are trying to mount a market for mutton.
We see Magellanic pengies, their alert faces outlined in white. These are at the southern end of their range, and a good thing since they make burrows in the soil for their nests. Not much soil further south! The idea that there are sheep and penguins inhabiting the same landscape is exciting and delightful.
Also there are Rockhopper penguins, with smart adornments of yellow swept-back feathers about their faces. Some of our small party sit down on the thick grasses, and one of the braver pengies comes to investigate. It is not clear what he is looking for but he comes over to one's boots, one's hand, one's pant leg. Many pictures are taken. The penguins hop up and down the rocks and sport about in the surf, raise their wings and sweep them back as they trot through their community, to show they mean no mischief.
I find one of the naturalists, quite interested in everything as I am, and we enthuse over lichen and look closely at it; I lift a rock and find some beetles, about half an inch long black with a green metallic sheen. I am as excited by these beetles as I am by the penguins. In some ways they are more important.
On the beach there is a huge iron try pot [a pot in which to boil blubber to obtain the pure fat], and mounds of seal bones. There is a jawbone with a large dark canine tooth, maybe from a leopard seal, says one of the naturalists. All of this detritus is from when they killed and rendered thousands and thousand of seals, and penguins, a hundred or more years ago. One of the sailors from those olden days has carved his initials in a flat rock: H A. With serif [the tiny lines at the ends of letters], so you know immediately it is not of this time.
So this first morning passes quickly. I walk the beach slowly finding the tiny things, the numerous kinds of beautiful limpet shells. My clothing works well, I take pictures, and best of all, I am let to be alone and to do as I wish. Oh how I love the richness of small things!!
In the afternoon we visit another island, Carcass Island. Here we walk to a wide beach where there are more penguins, and a stunning variety of limpets! It is all I can do not to collect these for later identification. The biggest one must be four inches long by three inches by an inch and a half. There are ones with brown and white rays, a lovely deep rose one, there are keyhole and domed ones, some are creamy white, and others are dark brown, almost black, with the keyhole outlined in white. No one seems interested in them but me. For a while, a few precious moments, I am alone on the beach, all by myself, all by myself in the Falkland Islands, the farthest south in the world I have ever been.
We walk a long way, about three miles they say, and our way is green and thick with beautiful crisp low alpine-like vegetation. One man says, it's like a miniature rain forest, and we are giants walking above it. I love this, I love his vision. I find all kinds of things and do my usual trick of enthusing over them so that others will see and notice. I find a rosette with grey-green palmately-compound leaves [shaped like a hand], and furled white flowers, furled because it is overcast. It turns out it is scurvy grass! that they ate to save their lives! I eat a leaf, too, partly to try it and partly to honor their ingenuity and bravery. It certainly tastes right, it is tart like sheep sorrel. My tongue feels it, what they felt.
There is a rosette like a tiny geranium, called, unprettily, pig-vine. Its fruit is on a separate stalk, like a raceme [a spray shape] of tiny deep red cranberries. There is heather, with tiny red berries. There is something called a tiny fern, looking fernlike but I can't believe it really is, but I guess it is.
There is tussock grass, that they came close to in their miserable ships and took for trees, hungry as they were for an elevation of anything other than icebergs. The Magellanic penguins build burrows that lead into the peaty ground under the tussock grass, and they ease themselves in as we approach. We peer into one, and there is a penguin peering cautiously back.
A tussock bird, a rich brown, lands nearly on my foot.
At the end of the afternoon, we have walked over hill and dale, the ocean at our side, the penguins our observers, to a small holding, where the family invites us to tea and an enormous spread of treats. All eighty-nine and some of us pile in to the house, steaming up the windows and drinking tea and eating cookies. Outside the house, there are piles of boots and sneakers, and inside, a pile of red parkas and more boots. Granny is in the kitchen doing the dishes. She has no one but her son and daughter-in-law.
To my delight I spot a lovely pine green spider in a large and fragrant hedge outside the house. I'm attracted by the delicious scent as well as the insects. One of the spiders has caught several things, for it is a rich hunting ground.
The collection of buildings on each island, usually the home of just one family, is called a "settlement." I understand that several of these families are at the end of the line, with no children remaining here. After them, there will be no one here. Then the tourist ships will come and tell about the family that used to live here, and we will look at their abandoned home and barn and shed. Images of these spare homes will stay in memory. Distant, but present.
I overhear our hotel manager speaking with the man of the house. And what else do you need? Carrots--do you have any carrots? the householder asks. Sure, the reply. So--carrots and books, is that it?
After we are all on board, I see a zodiac depart. With books, and carrots.
We lay at anchor all night just off Westpoint Island, and in the morning, now at ease with our zodiac travel, went a short distance to shore.
We walk with the naturalist Karen (who is very like me, with excellent story-telling techniques and a fine fund of general and specific knowledge, and thus almost puts me off, but not quite--when she is launching into something I could do, I wander a bit away so as to not feel threatened). The landscape is beautiful, appearing very plain, with low undulations and rocky outcrops crowning low hills, and of course the vegetation is all low and full of tiny rosettes. It reminds us a bit of the summits of high White Mountains.
There is an interesting and lovely plant, amazingly similar to a kind we had seen very high in the Atacama Desert. It grows in rounded mounds, looking as if it is covering a rock, when in fact if you step on it is like a firm cushion. In fact it is not a moss or lichen but a wonderful flowering plant, composed of a single layer of tiny rosettes of pointed leaves, and its flowers are tiny white affairs, all lying low, laying low, to avoid the cold and the wind of this extreme place.
On a raggedy fence post, there’s a line of Long-tailed Meadowlarks, also called Military Bird on account of its brilliant vest, the color of the inside of a blood orange.
The party arrive at a headland, Devil's Nose, which is covered with nesting black-browed albatross. Hundreds, thousands of them. Many of us pick cautiously through the lumpy tussock grass forest to get even closer to the birds. There are Rockhopper pengies, too, with their jaunty yellow side-feathers sticking out from each side of their heads, like pencils stuck in their hairdos.
I sit on a rock about eighteen inches from a nesting albatross, who gazes at me serenely. Her black and white plumage invites touch, but of course I would not dare. Her beak is a soft creamy color, with a rosy flush at its tip. The texture of the bill is like ivory, deeply organic, glowing as if illuminated from within. The line of black above her eye gives her a look of great elegance and, somehow, an air of mystery, of aloofness. A kind of majestic confidence.
John sits quietly on a rock, just near what he took to be an abandoned nest, one of those squat volcanoes of mud and fiber. An albatross approaches. They are, actually, quite large and their beaks are powerful, and we have been told to keep our distance from them. So John moves away--and the albatross sits on the 'abandoned’ nest, less than a yard away.
The albatross mate for life, and breed every other year, because they have only one egg and it takes nearly a year from hatching to fledging--over a year--and everything for the future of the flock depends upon the success of each pair of parents. Albatrosses live to be as old as humans. What do they do, that whole long lifetime? What have they seen? What do they remember?
We stand on some rocks just to the side of a penguin highway to the sea below. Six Rockhoppers hop down the rocks directly at my feet. Plop, plop, plop, I hear their webbed feet land on each rock one at a time as they go. The rocks are a bit muddy and slippery, and several of them fall thunk on their penguin behinds.
The tussock grass looks just like any other grass tussock, except very much larger. The base of it is so large that penguins--the Magellanic kind that nest underground—can make their burrows within, and other birds live in it too. The tussocks grow very close together, and so for us large creatures to negotiate it is somewhat difficult. At foot level there are little valleys among it, but the vase of grass blades cascades in such a way that you can’t see your feet. Between the pedestals of grass are sometimes high ridges where two of them meet, and we must lift our feet high to climb over these. The early ones described this grass as being over their heads, but none of this is, although some of it is at shoulder height.
Eventually most of our number venture into the tussock forest to get close to the nesting birds. There’s a line of people helping each other through the grass. Oh, there’s a big drop-off, just to my right—be careful! Here, let me give you a hand over that. Careful! This rock is very slippery. Is that a better way? OK, I’m standing to the LEFT of a big water-hole, so go in front of me.
The tussocked hillside is covered now in humans and birds. Everybody is very pleased with themselves and the black-browed albatrosses.
Ralph Lee Hopkins, the photographer who is photographing for the new company brochure, is beside himself with pleasure. I'm in heaven! he exclaims as he photographs albatross in a line up the rise of the Devils Nose. He coos and hums to the birds as he makes pictures of them, trying to get them to turn their heads. I’m communicating with them, he tells me. It makes me feel closer to them. Ralph is obviously filled with the spirit as he does his work, and does it as a sacrament.
The birds are mostly not afraid of us. They appear so innocent and trusting. This is vastly appealing. It’s like the unquestioning acceptance of babies. It's a gift we are given, the trust of these birds, unlike among humans except tiny infants and one's most intimate lover or friends.
We return to the ship, have a lecture on the geology of the Falklands in which we learn that this land mass was once a part of Africa, the time of Gondwanaland. All of it—Antarctica, Falklands, part of India, the east coast of South America--all this was once a part of Africa. There are rocks in each which show this. Our lecturer has one which he picked up on our bus ride into the hotel at Stanley. He shows it, and I am excited by it, this hand-sized piece of physical evidence for concepts so large.
In the afternoon a bunch of us go on a four-mile hike up hill and down dale, on New Island, a tiny "settlement" of one family, which has built a dock for us landers. Our zodiacs are greeted by a line of penguins on the beach. They hesitate a bit, then walk to the water, splash in, and swim as if propelled out of a cannon, immensely competent in their proper element, accompanied by cries of amazement and delight from us awkward humans.
We keep a brisk pace over springy ground, springy with the crisp "alpine” growth. The hills are painted with orange, dark red, many greens, like a huge quilt. The heat and sunshine amaze everybody. The ship’s doctor, who accompanied us on our long walk, said that in eleven trips to Antarctica, he has seen more of the Falklands this time than in all the rest put together.
The Brown Skua bird is voraciously carnivorous, and his middens are everywhere, of bones and feathers, skulls, and especially wings, which he seems not to like eating, but leaves strewn about, pairs of wings still connected but sadly lifeless.
Under a rock, deep in their burrow, Prion birds can be heard vocalizing, as the guide describes it dryly. I prefer to say, calling. Some of us gather around the rock to listen to this mysterious underground song.
We come in due course to a cliff down at the bottom of which are hundreds of fur seals. They call to each other and to the air. They cavort in pods in the water just off shore, rolling and twisting around each other, standing on their heads with hind flippers crossed, undulating, splashing. Some jump off the rocks, swim like rockets under water for thirty feet, and leap out. They hurl themselves out like slippery seeds popped out of a watermelon. Others lie quietly on the rocks. I watch through binoculars. Young ones keep their distance from a large male. There is a certain amount of tooth-baring and roaring.
We sit in the sun and watch them for a long time. Fur seals have many times more soft underhairs to each coarse guard hair than other animals, and this is what made them so valuable to hunters. They also boiled them for oil. It seems it took about fourteen Rockhopper penguins to make one gallon of oil. I don’t know how many fur seals you had to boil down for a gallon. This kind of information is nearly impossible to understand. But even in the very earliest days of this exploitation, there were those who questioned it and understood that care needed to be taken not to destroy the source. These voices were not heeded. And so there are still not a lot of fur seals.