By Joan Larsen
Looking back – not that far back really – I must have felt as we all do as we look at life ahead: someday, someday, I was going to capture my dream. A life of travel back then was not in the cards. . . but once my little family was grown and a little more money amassed, I was going to make it happen. I was going to the bottom of the earth – Antarctica.
I wasn’t quiet about my dream. The word was out and people remembered. One day a single phone call came in. . . and the direction of my life changed. Changed forever.
A friend from Washington DC had heard that the Argentine Navy’s polar supply vessel – heading to Antarctica for its yearly re-supply of its bases – was offering cabins for the first sixty people from around the world who wanted to go along for the ride. The cost – as things go – was minimal.
I had our own government check out the worthiness of the Argentine ship first and give me a document that said it was safe. . . and even more.
What did this mean then? To me, everything. Few ships were going down to The Ice in those early days . . . and none were offering passengers a stay at the major Argentine base for 3 weeks. . . and then to be picked up on the next trip down. No passengers on any ship – before or since – would be allow to wander free for as many hours as it took to offload the supplies needed by year-round scientists, hang out with 300,000 penguins at a time, take dogsled and Snowcat rides, go cross country skiing – if so inclined – as well. To this day, this is unheard of.
The two of us were in a dream world. And honestly, the dancing around our living room went on for days!
Picture us flying into Rio, spending time in Buenos Aires as well, laden with polar parkas in January. In Argentina, there is a reversal of seasons, and temps were over 100 degrees – and we actually saw eggs being fried on the sidewalk.
The locals took photos of us as well, looking like polar explorers who had lost our way.
Hours later, at the very foot of the Andes and the tip of South America, the temperatures had moderated considerably. The Argentine Navy’s Bahia Paraiso lay at anchor, waiting for the very fortunate passengers to embark.
The weather in Antarctica was so moderate that we actually came back with the glow of a tan, the continent more beautiful than could be believed, and – for memories – we might consider it our most exciting adventure.
It was difficult to leave to be honest. But as we once again anchored in Ushuaia, Argentina on our return trip, a double rainbow appeared over our stern. We knew we had been blessed!
The ship’s passengers had no idea that more adventures – the like of which we had ever heard of or seen – were still to come!!
In this little town – at the little tail end of the continent of South America – there was no clue on what was to unfold.
Passengers had been told to pack for the trip home in the hours before we docked – to be ready for an early morning flight. Strangers had become friends – and the last evening together was still young. Several dozen of us poured into a local pizza parlor, going so far as to rearrange the furniture to accommodate the size of the group.
We were only on our second or third swallow of beer when our shipmates rushed in with the news that we had NOT been told:
THERE WAS A REVOLUTION GOING ON IN ARGENTINA – an attempted coup developing up north – and foreigners must get out of the country immediately. The next sentence really threw us: a military jet was waiting for the passengers of our ship at the tiny airport – until 9:30 pm only – to fly us to Buenos Aires. OMG.
First, try to imagine the looks, the embarrassment, as our one Spanish-speaking friend tried to explain to the owner that, after rearranging his restaurant and ordering all of his pizzas, that we were not going to stay after all. Instead, dropping bills in our wake, we RAN back to the dock.
Suitcases were waiting in rows. Passengers were already getting into waiting buses. The first load of luggage had already been sent to the military jet that we could see waiting on the rather primitive landing strip across the channel.
All hearts were beating in triple time. We did not know what was to lie ahead for us.
We loaded onto the buses. And then we waited – and waited. Stepping off the bus for a breath of air, I still remember coming back into the bus and announcing: “ LOOK ACROSS THE CHANNEL AT THAT RUNWAY. COWS ARE WANDERING ACROSS IT, AND I REALLY DON’T THINK WE ARE GOING ANYWHERE!!”
Much later, we found out the truth in my words. The trip leader came onto the buses, suggesting we get back on the ship- sans luggage – for the night. We would now be waiting until daylight to go.
Psychologists would have had a field day over the gambit of words and body language that the effect of his words had. I don’t think anyone slept. We all knew there was a revolution afoot in Argentina – and we were heading to the heart of it.
Morning came. And with it a new military plane – with the “First Aero Brigade” painted on its fuselage – waiting to fly us to Buenos Aires.
Now came what we passengers called “the next story”: the pilot of the military plane said that only a plane that does not have a full load of fuel can take off and make it. Refueling must take place at the first town lying over the Andes – Rio Grande. We have to move quickly to get to that town before the airport closes at 3:30 pm daily.
To all of you who still can’t picture this – or realize that we did not know if we would be shot in Buenos Aires – I will just refrain from telling you the words used at this point.
The flight north: well, a bathroom stop was allowed at Rio Grande. Soldiers with rifles were inside the washrooms. At the various local airports, we saw men with pistols on their hips.
Three hours before our arrival in Buenos Aires, the good guys – the Army regulars – had surrounded the airport,
supposedly protecting it totally. We heard no word of this. At that time, the rebels were not ousted yet. It WAS suggested that those planning an extended trip to the famed Iguazu Falls – as we were, should play it safe and head home.
Everybody did. One revolution and its unspoken possibilities will never be forgotten by any of us on that military plane. It could have been much worse and we knew that. We see the aftermath of such things on every newscast.
Our many other amazing expeditions over the continent of Antarctica have always been full of adventure – but have come without moments of terror.
But somehow – somehow – the memories of that time forever remain.
Writer Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth. But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again. She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home.”