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Far Be It

By Mike Tidwell
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 8, 1998; Page E01


Journey to the Far
Side of the Earth

Last Eating House Before the Antarctic
A restaurant beckons visitors in Augusta, Australia.

The author approaches Cumberland Rock

The author approaches Australia's Cumberland Rock.
By Andrew Court

A replica of the U.S. Capitol Building the author left on Cumberland Rock

A three-inch replica of the U.S. Capitol that the author placed on the rock's highest point. Cape Leeuwin is visible in the background.
By Mike Tidwell

Get ready to jump, mate! Hurry! Get ready!"

My Australian guide, Andrew the lobster diver, is yelling at me. His voice reaches above the slap of waves breaking against a giant granite rock in the lower Indian Ocean. I cling to the bow of Andrew's beat-up 10-foot dinghy and brace myself for the leap onto the edge of this same rock. Above me, a colony of eight long-whiskered fur seals stares down with perplexed amusement.

Andrew guns the outboard motor and we begin an approach that puts us on an apparent collision course with the stony outcropping. "Here we go!" he yells. "Here we go!"

I've traveled a long, long way to put myself in this precarious position. I've been traveling almost nonstop, in fact, for 72 straight hours from the Washington area, stopping only to sleep. I've covered 12,018 miles, crossed 12 time zones and lost a whole Saturday to the international date line. I've traveled by plane, bus, taxi, rental car, fishing boat and now dinghy. I've traveled so far that I've run out of land. I've gone as far as I can go -- which was precisely my goal: to travel as close as possible to the exact other side of the planet from Washington, D.C. Cartographers know this as the "antipode" -- pronounced AN-teh-pode -- the global opposite of any given place. Provided I can get up on this slippery, steep-sided, barnacle-encrusted, seal-inhabited rock, I will have put myself as close to Washington's antipode as I possibly can.

If you dig a hole straight down from the U.S. Capitol you don't hit China. You hit a speck of water in the lower Indian Ocean. And this rock before me now, Cumberland Rock, just off the extreme southwestern tip of Australia, a rock named after a 19th-century ship that sank on a connecting reef, is certifiably the nearest land mass to the District's antipode. You can't get closer and still have solid ground under your feet.

If you're a burned-out Washington automaton, and you really, really, really, REALLY want to get away from beeping faxes and bimbo blather, this is where you come: Cumberland Rock, Australia. The end of the Earth. It's 100 feet long, 50 feet wide and extends maybe 30 feet above sea level.

But the hard part, I'm discovering, is actually getting onto the rock. The surrounding seas are famously tricky, littered with the corpses of dozens of sunken ships. Minding your timing, you must carefully ride a swell up to the edge of Cumberland Rock and then, in a split second, jump from your dinghy just before it begins a sliding descent back down the same swell, away from you. Andrew has somehow convinced me that I can do this, perhaps even without injury. And now it's almost time. "Steady, mate. Steady!" he yells above the surging water. "We're getting closer."

It's one last improbable step in a strange trip to a strange place. After the Mother of All Jet Lags, after the endless blur of miles, I'm finally here with a lobster diver as a guide on the underbelly of the globe with this huge chunk of granite just feet before me, getting closer. And closer.

"Now!" Andrew calls. "Now! Jump!" I brace myself and fling my body from the bow of the dinghy, a prayer on my lips.

What self-respecting armchair traveler, stuck too long in home port with a dyspeptic boss and absently spinning a globe, hasn't done the mental 180, imagining jamming a pencil through the globe and drifting off to wherever that pencil comes out, far, far away? It's the remote spot we all imagine where no one can possibly find us. We're too far gone.

My own antipode fantasy has always involved a warm tropical atoll where the women wear coconut bras and everyone eats conch steaks grilled over driftwood fires at sunset. So when the slightly batty editor of these pages decided that the antipode of Washington needed to be pinpointed and visited in the name journalistic ambition, I was all for it. The place might not live up to my fantasies, but I understood my geography well enough to know that it was summertime down there -- wherever it was -- because winter weather had set in up here. That was enough to get me going.

But first, of course, if you're going to find Washington's opposite, you have to figure out where Washington itself is. I chose the Capitol dome as my precise starting point, then called the National Geodetic Survey in Silver Spring, a federal agency whose raison d'etre is admirably unambiguous: location, location, location. NGS can readily give you the latitude and longitude of more than half a million places and features around the United States. In fact, David R. Doyle, senior geodesist at NGS, signs all his e-mails with his name, phone number and the exact latitude and longitude of his suburban office building (latitude 38-59-33 north, longitude 77-01-50 west).

As it happens, Doyle and a colleague clambered up to the very top of the Capitol dome in 1993 when the Statue of Freedom was brought down for renovation. There, with the aid of more than 10 different satellites, the geodesists took an ultra-precise reading of the Capitol's position on the planet, accurate to within five centimeters. Good enough for me, I say. The numbers are:

38 degrees 53 minutes 23.31643 seconds north latitude
77 degrees 00 minutes 32.61537 seconds west longitude

Using this data, Doyle then gave me the Capitol's antipodal position, calculated "through the Earth-mass center" using the North American Datum of 1983. The numbers are:

38 degrees 53 minutes 23.31643 seconds south latitude
102 degrees, 59 minutes, 27.38463 seconds east longitude

So I had my spot. But I was soon deflated to learn the antipode -- 12,507 miles away -- was in the middle of a big watery nowhere, way down in the lower Indian Ocean near a giant rend in the ocean floor called the Diamantina Fracture, 741.6 miles southwest of Australia. The sea here is seriously deep -- 15,912 feet, enough to fog anyone's face mask. Only a few wayward trawlers ply the area, seeking hapuka fish. The surrounding waters are known as some of the stormiest and loneliest anywhere in the world.

Why lonely? Because there's absolutely no land in the immediate neighborhood -- no islands, no reefs, no rocks, no coconut bras, no grilled conch. Just water. Not exactly fantasy material. It's just as well that I didn't have the two months necessary to drift out to the spot on a trawler.

So I began the hunt for the closest landfall to the antipode, a mission far too exacting for my local library atlas, I decided. I wanted precision. I didn't care how small it was or where it was -- an Antarctic cape, a raft of petrified lava, whatever -- if it was above sea level and it could support my weight, I wanted to go there.

So I did the only reasonable thing a man in my advanced state of agitation could do: I called the Central Intelligence Agency. I figured it had the best maps in the world. Heck, it probably had spies down near the Diamantina Fracture somewhere. But the post-Cold War CIA gave me a big blunt no-comment on what was clearly an innocent quest made in the name of citizen education and global understanding. What's the CIA hiding, anyway? I wondered. Is there a nuclear-war escape hatch from the Capitol dome straight down to the Fracture? Will congressmen eat hapuka once they get there?

But one mystery at a time. At the moment I was still adrift, cartographically speaking, looking for the nearest landfall to D.C.'s antipode. A friend suggested I call the State Department's Office of the Geographer. There a young and earnest aide named Leo Dillon consulted the department's maps and faxed me what he asserted were the winner and first runner-up of my grand search. The winner, he wrote -- and I was skeptical about this from the start -- was Cape Leeuwin, Australia, on the southwestern tip of the continent. The runner-up was the tiny French island of St. Paul, 1,368.4 miles west of the antipode in the middle-southern Indian Ocean.

The mention of St. Paul intrigued me. I checked my own atlas. The island was clearly farther away from D.C.'s antipode than the Australian mainland, but it was, it turned out, the closest island of any substantial size to the antipode. This restoked my simmering island fantasy enough to make me call the French Embassy in Washington for more details. Gary Dwor-frecaut, the embassy archivist, said the island was part of France's Southern and Antarctic Territories. It was extremely windy, had a moderate climate and a population of eight people.

Then Dwor-frecaut asked me a question: "Why is everyone suddenly interested in St. Paul Island, anyway? It's so obscure."

"Huh?" I said.

He explained that a couple of years back a downtown Washington attorney had called him and, like me, asked lots of questions about little St. Paul. The attorney's intention, apparently, was to quit his job, travel to the island farthest away from K Street and actually live there.

I was stunned. Someone had actually done it. Fevered minds clearly think alike. Gary said he never got the lawyer's name and never heard from him again. Maybe he was one of the eight residents who now called the island home. I wanted to go find this starched-collar Crusoe, of course, but my own antipode quest didn't allow for such an elaborate detour. Consequently, I'm now doomed to forever imagine this guy eating my conch steaks over my driftwood fires, soiling my mythical paradise. Worst of all, he's an attorney.

But I digress. Back to the real search. Increasingly, clues were pointing toward southwestern Australia as the closest landfall to D.C.'s antipode. But I had trouble believing the actual spot would be part of the mainland. Surely there was some fragment of land or exposed reef or something offshore. I asked Dillon at the State Department if maybe his maps were missing something. "Maybe," he said. "But it'd have to be really small. The people who would know for sure are at NIMA. You should call NIMA."

The National Imagery and Mapping Agency. Finally, I was in the right hands. This federal agency, located in Fairfax, employs arguably the best mapmakers and map readers in the world. NIMA is the mapmaking arm of the U.S. military.

"They can't fight without us" is NIMA's informal motto. Even the CIA takes a back seat to NIMA in the map department. Civil and commercial aviators and mariners around the world routinely use NIMA maps and charts, either directly or indirectly, to navigate the planet.

I contacted Jim Ayres, NIMA's scientific adviser for hydrography, and described my problem. He gathered the most relevant and detailed maps in existence, including one borrowed from the Australian military, and went to work. A few days later I got a call.

"Cumberland Rock," Ayres said. "Cumberland Rock, Australia. That's where you've got to go." He'd done a careful search, he assured me, "swinging an arc" from the antipode until, just northwest of Cape Leeuwin, Australia -- two miles out to sea -- the arc touched an obscure dark speck labeled "rock" on his maps. No other piece of land of any kind in any direction was as close. It was exactly 1,190,811 meters -- about 740 miles -- east-northeast of Washington's antipode.

I asked Jim again if he was sure about his calculations. "Yes," he said. "But there's something you should probably know." He paused. "This spot looks a little dangerous. It's surrounded by lots of submerged reefs and other perils. It might be a very hard place to get to."

On my end of the phone, I blinked.

Then, almost apologetically, Ayres said, "I hope you have a successful trip."

It takes forever to fly to the other side of the world. The airplane ticket should read: infinite time required. Just flying from Washington to Los Angeles under normal circumstances is major stuff. But given where I'm headed, the L.A. leg is just the travel equivalent of cracking my knuckles.

After flying five hours to the West Coast, I have a hideous 10-hour layover, spent walking the airport halls looking for celebrities. (Score: Jean-Claude Van Damme.) Just past 9 p.m., an hour before my flight to Sydney, there's a special announcement. It's already late for me, past midnight Washington time, so I think I'm dreaming when the P.A. voice says that unusually fierce Pacific headwinds mean the Boeing 747 will need more fuel to cover the enormous distance to Sydney without running dry. A couple of dozen extremely smart passengers agree to take another flight, allowing more fuel to be carried. But I, a man on a mission, get on. The plane, its tanks full, finally takes off into very turbulent headwinds like a flying stick of dynamite. Sleep is out of the question, of course. At takeoff I'm quaking in my steerage-class seat.

Hours and hours later I'm still awake when we cross the international date line and 4 a.m. Saturday becomes 3 a.m. Sunday in the cold black air above the Pacific. (Another weekend shot to hell.) There's no use gauging time by sunsets and sunrises anymore -- much less setting my watch -- so I begin marking time by the length of the hair on my unshaven face. I've got a fine, grungy 30-hour growth and red, sleepless eyes and economy-class clothing when I finally stumble before the immigration officer at the Sydney airport. The plane was in the air 13 hours and 48 minutes.

I'm way down in Australia, but I still have a long way to go.

There's another layover in Sydney, then the interminable final five-hour flight to Perth on the west coast. More airplane food. More airplane air. More airplane babies crying. More worthless airplane Twinkie pillows.

I'm a danger to myself and others when I finally arrive in Perth. Somehow I hail a taxi and drop myself onto a hotel bed. I sleep for almost 24 hours straight.

I arise midmorning the next day to a sparkling, sun-blasted, youthful Australian city of skyscrapers where every 10th car has a surfboard strapped on top. I'm here! As advertised, it's summertime and everything's backward. People drive on the wrong side of the road and the steering wheel is on the right. I rent a car and I feel like I'm driving in a mirror. When I signal to turn, I switch on my windshield wipers instead. Every time.

I head south toward tiny Augusta, Australia, the town nearest Cumberland Rock. It's just north of Cape Leeuwin, on the southwestern tip of the continent, 187 miles from Perth. Along the way I stop to watch fairy penguins wobble under the Indian Ocean sun, and I visit a vineyard just north of Augusta. Banish all thought of barren Australian desert here. The soil is rich, giving rise to vineyards and surrounding forests of giant, exotic eucalyptus trees.

I pull into Augusta, population 800, in late afternoon and head straight for a gravel road my maps say will take me up to an ocean overlook. I want to see Cumberland Rock. I'm dying to see Cumberland Rock. In my mind it's become famous, like the Roman Colosseum or the Eiffel Tower, after so many weeks of thinking about it and looking at it on maps. When I do see the rock, two miles out in a haze of afternoon light off a coast as beautiful as anything in Northern California, I'm simultaneously thrilled and horrified. At last, the farthest place in the world from Washington, D.C.! But there, too, is the crashing white foam of waves smashing the crag's steep edges on all sides.

There's no way I'll get up there, I'm sure.

Crestfallen, I drive back into Augusta. The town is composed basically of a bank, a grocery store, four churches, two restaurants, a few hotels, a liquor store, two gas stations and a fishmonger. If you blink, you miss it -- and I blink. Before turning around, though, I see a wooden sign shaped like a penguin that says "Last Eating House Before the Antarctic." It points left.

I dutifully flip on my windshield wipers and proceed to a cafe and bait shop owned by 45-year-old Wendy Ferris. I order fish and chips and tell Wendy why I've come. Her suddenly saucer eyes tell me I'm a madman to have traveled so far for such a frivolous reason. But soon she catches the odd contagion of my quest, telling me that Andrew at the hardware store dives for lobsters near Cumberland Rock and might be able to take me there.

Wendy says she had no idea Augusta was on the other side of the world from Washington. I ask her what comes to mind when she thinks of the U.S. capital. Her response is similar to that of everyone I ask in this town where the sea keeps things warm year-round and it never, ever snows: "Bloody freezing cold, I should think." I drive up to Augusta Hardware and Scuba Supplies and catch Andrew Court and his crew just returning from a day of lobster diving. They're around back, washing down equipment, storing wet suits and drinking Jim Beam and cola from cans. On the ground are two tubs full of monstrous west Australian rock lobsters weighing as much as 13 pounds each.

"Washington, D.C.?" Andrew bellows when I introduce myself. "Bloody freezing cold there, I should think." He bursts into laughter, then feigns sudden concern. "Are you having trouble walking around down here, mate? You're upside down, you know. Hang on tight!" More laughter. Another draw of bourbon.

Andrew, 32, a former Australian-rules football player, is the rugged, handsome skipper of the Lady Leeuwin, a 30-foot fishing and diving boat. When he's not taking tourists from Perth out whale-watching or fishing for pink snapper, he dives for rock lobster, mostly for his own table.

Andrew quickly gives me three reasons why I probably won't get up on Cumberland Rock. One, the wind and waves will prevent an approach. Two, the rock is steep, slippery and partially covered with barnacles that will slice flesh like razor blades. Three, the colony of eight New Zealand fur seals there might decide not to let anyone on their rock.

"But we can give it a shot, mate," he says. Then he adds: "As far as I know, no human being's ever been up that rock. You'd be the first. Why not? Be here tomorrow at 6 a.m."

I camp that night outside of Augusta in a eucalyptus forest carpeted with strange giant ferns. The horrifying screech of a kookaburra wakes me at 2 a.m. I step out of my tent to pee and find myself surrounded by more than a dozen large kangaroos munching away per their nocturnal habit. I go to sleep hoping none of them jumps on me.

At 6:30 the next morning, Andrew unmoors the Lady Leeuwin at Hamelin Bay, nine miles north of Cumberland Rock. A crew of four lobster divers and I pile in. A historical marker on the shore gets my attention. It details the maze of old shipwrecks strewn along this rocky coast. The wind is stiff, whipping up small whitecaps. It might be this way all day, Andrew tells me, clearly trying to reduce my hopes of making it onto the rock.

This will be a regular workday for the crew, and until they are through I'm just along for the ride. Soon we're out to sea, with Andrew and company scuba diving along reefs and coming up with some of the biggest lobsters I've ever seen. The men use special wire nooses for their quarry and have strapped to their ankles six-inch-long diving knives that make them look like pirates.

I stay on deck, scanning the Indian Ocean horizon for humpback whales migrating south to Antarctica for the summer. At least once per hour a small group of bottlenose dolphins swims past the boat.

The wind, meanwhile, doesn't let up. One experienced diver eventually gets seasick from all the bouncing. I judge it merciful that our view of Cumberland Rock is blocked all morning by a jag of coastline.

Reef after reef, the diving goes on and I get a little bored and impatient. I've traveled for more than three days and 12,000 miles -- halfway around the world -- and now a friendly group of lobster pirates with funny nooses is all that stands between me and my final destination. I put on a wet suit for the chilly water and begin snorkeling for lobsters myself -- without luck -- hoping to speed up the daily catch.

Suddenly, around 11 o'clock, something truly remarkable happens.

The wind disappears almost entirely. Andrew can't believe it. An hour passes. Still no wind. "I don't think it's coming back," he says. The crew starts whooping. The calm sea makes their work easier, more pleasant. "We haven't had a day like this in a month!" Andrew says. Then he turns to me.

"You have no idea how lucky you are. NO IDEA. You just might make it up onto your rock."

At 12:30, the lobster catch complete, we weigh anchor and head south. My impatience quickly turns to nervousness. Soon the rock is in view in the distance. Drawing closer, it looks like a fractured stone tortoise shell, sad and all alone at sea. Then, suddenly, I realize something's wrong. There's still white water foaming up around the rock's edges. The surrounding reef is causing a swell that generates turbulence even without wind. "It's still a lot better than usual," Andrew assures me.

We're almost there. Five hundred feet away, we drop anchor. Andrew and I and three other divers -- including Mailes, Andrew's first mate -- jump into the dinghy, which we'll use to make the final approach. All my senses are trained on the rock. Already we can see and hear the seals. Four are sunning themselves on a ledge above the water. Four more are in the water, swimming, heads popping up to inspect us. The rock looks much bigger up close, like a small island.

Four hundred feet. Three hundred feet. Two hundred. Andrew stops the dinghy. He and Mailes are scratching their chins, contemplating an approach strategy. The trick now is to find a place to climb up onto the rock, and neither seaman looks very happy. We circumnavigate it once, then again. The western side, facing the open sea, is thrashed by waves. The eastern side, where the seals are, is problematically steep. Then Andrew points to a small horizontal ledge five feet above the water on the eastern side.

"There," he says. "That's the only place. Watch the swell."

Every few minutes a big slow wave rolls in and rises up to the ledge's level. "I'll gun the dinghy up the next swell," Andrew says, "then you jump off the bow and onto the ledge."

I thought he was joking until first mate Mailes says, "Look, I'll go first." Mailes crouches on the bow while Andrew waits for the next swell. Then Andrew guns the outboard and we're riding up a slope of water. At the exact right moment, the only moment possible, Mailes jumps -- with extreme caution, legs spread, knees bent, his whole body hunkered forward. Then he lands. He doesn't fall. The sea doesn't wash him away. He grabs onto the rock and yells back to the dinghy, which is now sliding away: "It's no problem. It's not so slippery. Just be careful of the barnacles. They'll cut you to ribbons. Watch your timing. Don't fall."

Everyone in the dinghy turns to me. I've come all this distance -- and now the last 30 feet of the journey look like the longest leg by far. But I can't stop now. I swallow my worries. I climb onto the hull and Andrew waits for the next swell. Then he revs the motor and I have a moment of extreme fright.

But then I jump and -- I'm on the rock. It's over. I'm standing up, feeling a thick layer of barnacles under my wet-suit boots. I scramble up the rock to get away from the swell. The seals, 20 feet away, wrinkle their noses then slither into the water. I look down at the dinghy. Andrew and company are cheering and clapping their hands. My adrenaline subsides enough for me to savor, at last, my arrival.

I turn toward the open sea and I feel, quite intensely, the geography of my situation. All of Australia is behind me. The vast Indian Ocean is before me. I'm as far from Washington, D.C., as I can possibly be on solid land. Beneath my feet, below the crust, the mantle, the earth's core, more mantle, more crust, are my home, my wife, my child. Both the North Pole and the South Pole are closer to Washington than this rock is. Tierra del Fuego and Upper Siberia are closer than this rock. The only way to be farther from Washington and have solid ground under your feet is to be on the moon.

I explore the rock, walking toward its western tip. At the center, I find a hidden miniature canyon with a pool of calm seawater at the bottom. It's full of reef crabs and abalone. I enter the canyon and am surrounded completely by stone walls, with only the blue sky above me, the sound of the outer surf gone. I scramble out and then up to the highest point of the rock, on the westernmost tip, facing the ocean. There I place a memento of my visit: a three-inch-wide marble carving of the U.S. Capitol purchased at Union Station, on the other side of the world, just before my trip.

Then I just stand there, at the highest point, and relish my moment. It's not Everest, but it's something. All the local fishermen say no human being's ever been on this rock, meaning no human being's ever been so far from D.C. I like Washington, but for a moment, with a faint breeze in my face and the sound of seals behind me, I feel like I never want to leave this place. I've traveled to the end of the Earth, and the feeling is of another world entirely. Better than any fantasy I've had.

For the moment, I'm really here: far, far from home.

Mike Tidwell, author of "Amazon Stranger: A Rainforest Chief Battles Big Oil," last wrote for Travel about spending Christmas in the Colombian Andes.

Map of author's route to Cumberland Rock

Details: Journey to the Far Side

Step 1: Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles
Distance: 2,288 miles
Time: 5 hours 15 minutes
Notes: The long flight across America has never seemed so trivial. I have the first of 11 airplane/airport meals the trip will require.

Step 2: L.A. Airport Layover
Time: 10 hours
Notes: Layovers don't get much worse than this. I walk 10 miles of airport corridors. Celeb sighting: Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Step 3: L.A. to Sydney
Distance: 7,483 miles
Time: 13 hours 48 minutes
Notes: The longest night in aviation history. Four movies, three meals, one snack. I begin gauging time by the length of the whiskers on my unshaven face. I walk the aisles to stave off leg cramps, then return to my cell: 33A, window, nonsmoking.

Step 4: Sydney Immigration and Layover
Time: 2 hours
Notes: I present myself to immigration with whiskers, red eyes and clothes straight from steerage-class hell. Somehow I'm allowed to enter the country, perhaps because the appearance of having a criminal record has always been a plus in Australia's past. Incredibly, I'm all the way "down under" yet still a full continent away from my destination.

Step 5: Sydney to Perth
Distance: 2,041 miles
Time: 4 hours 50 minutes
Notes: The vast outback passes below and I couldn't care less. More airplane food. More airplane air. My neck should be in a cast. I'm no longer sure of who I am or where I'm going.

Step 6: Recovery in Perth
Time: 24 hours
Notes: Somehow I hail a taxi and make it into a hotel bed. I sleep from 11 a.m. Sunday till 9:45 a.m. Monday. Perth is one of the most isolated cities in the world, with the vast, empty Indian Ocean to the west and the vast, empty outback to the east. The city is closer to Indonesia than to Sydney.

Step 7: Perth to Augusta
Distance: 187 miles
Time: 6 hours
Notes: Two-lane coastal roads make for slow driving, but the scenery is spectacular. I catch my first sight of Cumberland Rock, two miles offshore.

Step 8: Augusta to Cumberland Rock
Distance: 19 miles
Time: 7 hours
Notes: I board a 30-foot fishing boat at Hamelin Bay. Finally, at 1 p.m., we board a 10-foot aluminum dinghy for the final approach.

Step 9: Arrival on Cumberland Rock
Notes: One giant leap and . . . touchdown. At last! The end of the Earth. The only way to be farther from Washington and have solid ground under your feet is to be on the moon.

Miles: 12,018
Air time: 23 hours 53 minutes
Total Time: 72 hours 53 minutes

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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