Bulgarians at the back of beyond
Way back in the age of the Great Geographic Discoveries the Bulgarians would dream of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and yet look what happens now – the end of the 20th century saw the first Bulgarian antarctic expedition make for the continent surrounding the South Pole.
Four days after leaving Buenos Aires and being sea – borne.
We entered Punta Arenas, one of the seaports that are closest to the South Pole. One of the southernmost points of the world, at the very end of the boundary between the Pacific an the Atlantic, the port is sort of a Keeper of the Strait of Magellan. It is also the last port of call before a seafarer sets out for the realm of the eternal ice. And in the quiet waters of the straits that separate the archipelago of Terra Del Furego from the mainland of South America fishermen still make their day catching holdfuls of seafood to be sold as tasty delicacies all over the world.
The largest town in the sparsely populated Patagonia is a young one both literally and figuratively. One comes our of the port to meet lots of smiling and friendly faces bearing the typical Indian features. The beach and the wide streets swarm with happy children who make merry in a way that only Latin – Americans and kids are capable of. As everywhere in the world the circus is an amusing spectacle for everybody. An this proved valid here as well here “at the back of beyond” we watched elephants that strolled in the town square and did their tricks making the place look unusually picturesque. Just imagine elephants in these parts of the world and think of the local col-our!
Some 130 000 people reside here; the town is a cosy and quiet place, perhaps a little boring, but what could you expect from civilization’s last abode? In fact life here exceeded our preliminary expectations of the ‘world’s farthest point’ even for Patagonia.
So we took our last look of the green trees and the grass and got on a Spanish naval research ship called ‘Hesperides’, just departing on a three-month mission to Antarctica. She was a beauty and a real credit to the Spanish Royal Navy; built four years ago in Cartagena and equipped with the latest say of the navigation technology and research instruments needed for work in the hard polar conditions. The vessel got a bit overcrowded later when Spanish and other researchers also got on board. We had the pleasure of meeting the skeleton team of the ‘Juan Carlos Spanish antarctic base. Alberto, Pol, Juana, Carlos and Tomas gave us a heartfelt welcome and long before the end of our stay on the Island of Livingston they became our very good friends, pals we could always lean on.
So much for tourism! Antarctica was calling us but first we had to pass the Strait of Beagle. You will not find it in the big encyclopedic dictionaries, but in point of fact it is an extension to the Strait of Magellan. Words fail me to describe the beauty of those places, but I would venture the opinion that it is one of the World’s Wonders, at least for the people who have seen them. You pass through the Strait of Beagle and this is a unique experience, small wonder that lots of cameras began clicking, even old polar hands that had been here time and again before took pictures with admiration. The Cordilleras, described by Darwin towered magnificently high into the sky with their sharp 2500 meter peaks, as if rising straight out the immeasurable sea tract. It would interesting to know what the gr explorer and his party were thin while crossing the strait on board Beagle brig in early 19th century, time we had the privilege and pie; to watch with awe the splendor nature, happy to be part of its entity.
At last we were approaching the fins goal of our voyage.
The island of livings covers some 800 square kilometers being the second biggest of the S Shetland Islands after the Island of George, but no doubt — the most beautiful with its high summits and enormous glaciers. It is also the most thinly ‘populated’, only the Spanish base being there. That station was put up almost the same time when the Bulgarian houses were assembled in the summer sea son of the 1987-1988 period.
The Island of Livingston loomed before us through the fog with imposing snow-covered peaks. The h breath of Antarctica was everywhere; the strong wind and the chilling snow enveloped us. The ship was berthed in the Southern Bay where the Spanish station was to be found. Despite the stormy weather the enormous quantity of cargo and material had to be unloaded am; their handling began. The Spanish base with its redly painted structures looked quite comfortable and trim from th ship. That was all we could see for the moment, our own small houses had wait — they were at a place some for kilometers away from the Spanish station. Two inflatable ‘Zodiac’ motor boats, constantly beaten by the way that poured so much water over them started shuttling to and fro. Thank God for the special neoprene waterproof suits; they were our only defense again, catching pneumonia after taking a casual dipping into the freezing cold waters.
We were beginning to lose patience waiting for our turn that was to come once the Spanish took all their thing; ashore. Fidgety and nervous we lingered about clad in those frog-green an: chemical-warfare suits, that right then proved to be our shield against the frost and vapoury dampness. It was late at night when the wet and froze-bitten Spanish sailors came to tell us their job was done. We went out quickly and eagerly; the wind sprang upon us, literally hitting our bodies, delivering blows here and there. We had not expected kind treatment and caresses on its part, or from the Antarctic weather either, but that was not called for, or so we believed, thinking we deserved at least something of an ‘welcome’. Perhaps this ‘reception’ was one of the trials we had to undergo. Soused with icy water, we splish-splashed onto the beach below, the place we believed to be our own Bulgarian station was somewhere nearby. We the ‘landlords’, had come home at last.
After an absence of six long years to check on our property… The condition of the houses proved rather ugly. There were heaps of panels in the one, its roof leaked, the other was a real mess: it was difficult to enter because of the mixed items of property piled inside; moreover there was a strong putrid smell of decay.
The reception committee turned out to be a group of penguins. The only living beings to welcome us, they addressed your humble servants with a mighty squawk, we believed it was intentionally enraptured. We were not, however, inclined to indulge in the niceties of protocol. The local denizens proved very curious though and walked us right up to the houses in order to see what happened. Or perhaps to understand who the newcomers were; perhaps we were going to spoil their tranquility. Later on one of the natives started to visit us regularly every day and we named him Gosho so as to distinguish him from the rest of the colony. We used to greet him loudly and he responded with merry squawks.
Meanwhile the ship had put out to sea and we were standing alone in front of the houses and the mounds of luggage and property we had brought. We were drenched, tired and frozen, yet charged with stubbornness and will to set things right, we started dragging and pulling the various items from the shore to the houses.
Happily before long the weather took pity upon our miserable souls. The wind died down and even the sun smiled at us. Our spirits rose despite the fatigue. We even started repairing the two dwellings that would so far remain uninhabitable, but the Bulgaria flag already flew high and flapped on the radio mast. We were gradually regaining our self-confidence and beginning to feel that our friends the penguins were giving us the big welcome!
While the repairs lasted we took shelter in tents that would have been wonderful for summer vacationing at Black Sea coast but here… God cares for the poor and wretched though and our shelter managed to survive two grand storms that would have seemed terrible at home but were something like childish games according local standards. Yet a hurricane wind blew the tents away to beach and the penguins.
The everyday working routine engulfed us; everybody dealt with so many things outside his own I specialty and professional skills. We turned into masons, builders, I carpenters, porters, technicians and dustmen; those were only par: of the callings we discovered we were capable of exercising. We did wonders with the scarce building materials we had brought; we had to readjust so many workable things left over from those who had assembled the houses. Yet the weather sympathized with our troubles and it was often that the sun kept on shining till 10 o’clock in the evening, warming the backs of those working on the roofs. At last the second house or rather hut was cleaned up and repaired completely: it made quite a nice carpenter’s shop. The piles of rubbish yielded some useful objects such as small jars of honey, a Bulgarian-made electric cooker in a good working condition, spades, nails, drills, kitchen utensils. The Bulgarian technical genius, or let us call it technically-mindedness, made some discarded and rusty radiators and gas containers work. A two-cycle ‘Sachs’ engine generator abandoned in the cold and wet came to live again with a cheerful roar. The dwelling got a new tin roof and as of that moment we could sip our tea calmly by the stove an take it easy — the roof was not going to leak any longer. The newly-made carpenters fixed also the beds and we triumphantly arranged them in the bedroom. At last we could leave the tents and come home… sweet new home.
The first to appraise our labour feats was our friend — Gosho the Penguin; he came along, strolled around the house and inspected! our new base with an important air.
Our research programme went along with the repair work. We had to carry out meteorologic observation: check the barometric pressure fluctuations, take down the changes in temperatures several times every 24 hours. We reached the conclusion that the weather kept on being bad irrespective of whether the pressure went n or down. On one of the very few sunny days the ozonometer readings surprised us: they showed that the ozone layer above our base, wich was normally at sea level, had values typical of a six-thousand-meter altitude.
Often blizzards fell upon us and even Gosho the Penguin mm away to hide somewhere in fear. The stormy winds gliding down the glacier, sometimes at a velocity of 140 km per hour, prevented us from moving from house to house. In fact we were totally isolated from the rest of the world. The structure would moan under the rushing pressure of the wind, would rattle like a stage coach, yet it was warm and cosy inside. We could meditate, read play chess or cards. We had a book by a Bulgarian author — Ivan Douichev was his name, the title was “The Saintly Man of Rila” and we enjoyed reading it very much; perhaps we compared the hero’s hermit life in seclusion to our own existence amidst the white loneness of Antarctica.
The visits we paid to our Spanish neighbors became true holidays for us in our uneasy daily routine. We went skiing to their station passing through the Johnson glacier; sometimes they came to collect us using their two boats. Chance had it that our two bases happened to be neighbors, but it helped us get the warm friendship of these wonderful people. We are never going to forget their assistance in our efforts to stand on our own legs in Antarctica, we were happy to have these fellows for neighbors and friends, to whom we could always turn for help. The visits we exchanged made us feel our two nations close; their representatives had met in that remote land, the White continent, and lived at a distance of only four kilometers from each other. They were seasoned polar hands, those Spanish, and they were pleasantly surprised to see how our two abandoned huts were transformed into a nice dwelling and a busy workshop. Well, those two could not compare to the luxuries of the Spanish base, but just like our neighbors had started from scratch six years ago. Now could only look up to their achievement — the modern technology they used and the light and roomy compartments, and have noble ambition to equal that. God, we dreamed of how Bulgarian station would look in a few years’ time!
Along with the meteorological and glacier observation we to do some geologic surveying as another part of our scientific programme We did not have motorsleds so we had to use skis, making rounds of the island in search of exposed rocks, the only sources of information about earth’s geologic history. We prepared carefully for every expedition, worked out in detail everything long in advance. Often we set off in sunny weather to be absorbed only several hours later into dense and sticky fog, white as milk. Enveloped in milky silence only the compass needle gave us the true direction. It was in such a manner that we covered all the igneous and sedimentary types of rock on Cape Hurd, believing they still kept lots of secrets about the geologic history Antarctica. Armed with pickaxes we unrolled the rocky ‘pages1 of this history. More than 100 million years ago warm seas had stood there instead of the icy desert and fiery molten lava had moved earth’s crust. The rock is a sort of a material document, still waiting for the scientists to interpret the secrets of the flora and fauna that had existed on these places millions of years ago.
And we did find something of great interest to science — fossilized pollen of some deciduous plant belonging to the Tertiary Period. We found the pollen in sedimentary rocks on Livingston. This discovery shatters the so far existing notions of the island’s geologic evolution. Scientists have far believed that the most recent sedimentary rocks there are about 65 or 70-million-year-old. While we found proof that their age hardly exceed 40 million years.
For thirty years now geologists of Britain, Spain, Argentina and Chile have been trying to find fossilized organisms so as to determine the age of the youngest sedimentary rock formations in that part of Antarctica. The Bulgarians needed considerably shorter period of time to come across the missing clue.
The fossil pollen that has been dated as far back as 400000 centuries ago came from a broad-leaved species that grew during, the Tertiary Period only. Forty million years ago the pollen ha; somehow got into alluvial soil to remain there to our day. In ti period of time Antarctica’s climate was warm. Dating the antarctic rock strata is very important for the geologists. Our case cal be compared with asserting that the pyramids were built during the Bronze age and then suddenly proving that they belonged to the times of the Pharaohs.
One day we found a penguin with a broken leg right on the shore and it was our friend Gosho. Naturally we rushed to help him: a friend in need is a friend indeed, as the old saying goes, Obviously Gosho had got the injury in a battle with a sea leopard or a leopard seal, as it is often called. He looked sad and fatigued and showed no fear, let himself be carried into the base, fee he would get all the attention he needed. The doctor was in his element and enthusiastically approached his first patient in Antarctica. All inspiration and care, he started arranging scalpels, syringes, gauzes, lints and bandages. The foot was set, a splint adjusted, everything was bandaged in the best traditions of surgery. The patient remained with us for a couple of days, immobile to rest, and then gratefully left to join his comrades at the beach.
In our area we enjoyed the company of three penguin species — the Adelie, the Antarctic and the Papua. Day and night two lazy Weddell Sea seals seemed to doze on the beach and only rarely took a walk or made for the ocean to get some ‘snack`. The skuas were our happiest companions though — they loved to finish up the leftovers of our Bulgarian canned food.
The idyll of the penguins was complete, the only thing to break its charm was the occasional leopard seal, bent on enriching its diet with some birdie delicacy.
The Bulgarian newcomers did their best to avoid whatever damage to the surrounding virgin nature. They burned up even the smallest quantity of garbage or carefully put it away in nylon bags,, ready to be transported to Chile in the holds of ‘Hesperides`. They even designed and arranged a protective zone for the antarctic moss and lichen and painstakingly fenced them in.
Early one morning the roar of a landing chopper woke us up. Still sleepy we ran down to the beach just in time to see many crates and people dressed in orange clothes puttering about. It turned out they were Argentinean geologists, who had i field mission in the area. Unconsciously we started straightening our clothes, arranging our long uncombed hair — there Argentinean girls in the group. Meanwhile they coolly started moving their bulky gear and pitched their seven tents qua base — the distance was not more than 20 meters. A little stream that ran down the glacier was announced a ‘demarcation line` and later we jokingly called it the Rezovska River in river at the Bulgarian-Turkish frontier. Soon afterwards our relations became friendly and cordial. We often had reason to mix: almost every day the Argentinean had the chance to visit our cosy house, get a warm drink and chat.
Then the time came to prepare the base for the approaching savage polar winter. We had to accept the two houses as our native home; three moments had already passed and we had done a lot of things. In fact we felt we could be proud of everything we would be leaving behind us in that continent – the remotest and cleanest place on Earth. We would leave the houses unlocked – to be used as shelter be everyone in need – this was a rule generally accepted in Antarctica. Actually the two huts were to wait for the next Bulgarian expedition, another party of polar explorers was to come as early as next year.