The maps published with articles on Antarctic in Sunday's and yesterday's paper incorrectly located Argentina's Marambio base. It is actually on an island off the tip of the peninsula extending toward South America.
It's 3 A.M. and broad daylight when the big cargo plane skids to a landing between buckets of fire on the frozen mud strip. Outside the world is either white or electric orange - the eternal snow and misty sky or 80 Argentine airmen capering up and down with joy in their flight suits.
The plane brings them their first mail and newspapers in a month, crates of fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, liquor, old friends and perhaps an ant or a fly or two to capture for pets. It brings the first third of 14 tons of construction gear, spare parts and scientific equipment this resupply mission is hauling down.
It also brings the men reassurance that in their lofty isolation on this windspread island tabletop, they are still rules of the iceberg sea below and not its prisoners.
Marambio is the largest of 14 Argentine outposts in a wedge-shaped section of the South Polar continent, and the only base anywhere in Antartica with a year-round landing strip for wheeled planes. Even this huge U.S. base at McMurdo on the other side of the continent has only sea access in the summer, when the snow is too slushy for ski-planes.
It is midsummer now, with temperatures ranging into the low 30s. The heavy hercules C-130 planes sometimes must wait to land until nightfall freezes the mud hard again. Even so, a spectular orange-and-gold sunset-cum-closet thing there is to night. By its comfortable glow, when the weather is good, the men off duty take solitary walks on the 4.8 by 9-miles island, hunting for fossils of ferns, sharks' teeth and warm-water seashells that tell of a very different past.
The life is hard, the simplest tasks in construction and daily maintenance becoming totally new situations in temperatures that in writer occasionally hover around 40 degrees below zero. Working hours are occupied with conducting weather observations and experiments, handling mail for outpost of five countries that dot the Antartic peninsula and constructing what may one day be a tourist resort.
In their orange outfits and black-and-white snow boots, the men move between the base's 11 buildings along ropes that guide them through the "white-outs" of blinding snowstorms. The cramped barrackets buildings are lashed to the earth with steel cables against winds that often hit 120 miles per hour. The buildings are spaces far enough apart to allow the wind to sweep away the snow instead of piling it into drifts. The distances also minimize the disaster potential of fire, a major hazzard where in its natural state is solid.
The eight-year-old base owes both its existence and most of its danger to the endless winds.Ten airmen have died in three separate helicopter crashes since September, their onshore death sites marked with wooden crosses. But the winds mean that the flat top of the figure-eight-shaped island, 120 feet above the sea, is bare earth and clear of snow the year around. It is the only site located so far in Antarctica that can be used as a reliable runway.
There is a sort of pride among the Argentines that their bases are not as comfortable as those of the United States, where there are rugs on the floors, bars and even women scientists at McMurdo.
Chopping ice to melt for water, they agreed, is the dreariest job, while cooking for so many is the most difficult. Pvt. Jacinto Peralat, chief cook, said he spends a lot of time on hours d'oeuvres and on delicate cookies and pastries. A susbtantial supply of both was on hand in the main officers' mess hall, decorated with handmade paper streamers, for the supply plane's arrival. On the tape deck were American show tunes, while in the television videotape file were American programs - Route 66, The Bionic Woman and Swat are among the favorites.
There is a small library, mostly of novels, occasional vintage movies and table games. Drawings and whittled figure abound for adornment, along with the fossils. Parts of prehistoric from a long-neck plesiosarus reptile from the cretaceous periods have been found in Antarctica, 75 million years old.
The men get around on foot or in snowcat tractors that can manage both the summer mud and the winter ice.
At the moment, the basic necessities is still going in. This flight brought a man to fix broken meat freezer, which is used generally to keep things warmer than the outside air. Orange are still going in. Fiberglass-and-metal are gradually replacing the originally wooden prefabs, and plans are final for the progression into an alternative stop-over base for further transpolar commercial flights.
A scientific center, a fully equipped hospital, water storage area, a broadcast radio station and a glassed-in recreation center with a view of the sea are mapped out and the foundations are being laid. There will soon be a helicopter hanger. The runway, extended to accommodate big jets, is to be paved with aluminum. When all is ready, there will be a 200-bed hotel and Antarctica may became a tourist atrrction.
It is all five to ten years in the future, and no one is willing to estimate the costs. But the work proceeds steadily, and there is a feeling of permanence about the place already.