A voyage to Antarctica is like visiting another planet.

Tuesday, July 19

    A voyage to Antarctica is like visiting another planet. Located at the bottom of the world, it is a land all but untouched by man. So remote and desolate that less than .001 percent of the earth’s population has ever touched down here. And much like those distant stars in our solar system, conditions on the last continent are so harsh it is hardly inhabitable. Still, those rare humans who’ve had the privilege of visiting say the magnificence of Antarctica cannot be described. Like space travel, it must be experienced.

    Getting to earth’s final frontier is no small feat, and comes at a hefty cost. Yet, when one considers that it is a cool quarter million to ride on Sir Branson’s galactic shuttle, or that a round trip to Mars would take nearly two years, the price and perils of Antarctic travel suddenly sound reasonable. Indeed, this frozen landmass has long been on the bucket-list of many explorers who come to witness the beauty and power of unspoiled nature.

    While not quite as barren as the moon, there are no indigenous people, no governments. There’s not even a Starbucks (yet). Spanning almost 10 percent of our planet, it is half again as big as the United States. But with less permanent residents than Buford, Wyoming.

    Several countries do maintain research stations on the continent, which was designated as a protected preserve by the 1961 Antarctic Treaty. Ongoing experiments are conducted by a rotating population of some 4,000 scientists from 30 countries. NASA sends teams to find meteorites, easily seen on the white ice, and to study things like astronaut nutrition, as Antarctica’s climate has much in common with Mars. They’ve even tested robots here that later landed on the Red Planet.

    Still, there is abundant non-human life to be found here. The world’s richest marine ecosystem hosts a wealth of untamed wildlife — elephant seals, blue whales and 17 species of penguin among them. As author Jonathan Franzen wrote, “To see a king penguin in the wild…” is not only enough reason to make the journey but, “…reason enough to have been born on this planet.”

    Though 98% of Antarctica is frozen, it is, ironically, the world’s largest desert. Massive ice prisms and glass seas stretch beyond the horizon while dolerite pillars rise up from dry valleys that belong on the Moon. But unlike the moon, the water is drinkable. Tasting millennia-old fresh water is a treat not to be missed.

    The ride to get here is an adventure in itself. Most follow in the sea-steps of polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, embarking from an Argentine port town on ice-strengthened vessels. Though today’s ocean liners are much more luxurious, still this is no cruise. It’s an expedition. Travelers must brave the iceberg-riddled waters of the notoriously choppy Drake Passage, named for the English mariner who was blown into its gale-force grip.

    Shackleton fared far better, and the majority of tour companies make it to the Antarctic Peninsula with encouraging success. As Sir Ernest himself said, “Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.”

    So save your pennies and pack your courage. For those willing to brave a visit to the end of the earth, the rewards will be out of this world.

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