From Panarea to the South Shetland Islands

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On the beaches of Panarea, the sand is dark brown and ground fine as sugar. It clings to your skin like moon dust. The water is cool but not cold, and clear as tap; as far out as you can swim you can see the round rocks and the finger-length fishes grazing the dark green growth at the bottom. I read that this is the cleanest water in the Mediterranean, and I believe it. After all, some of this is brand new water, percolating up between the rocks as volcanic thermal springs from below the sea bed. This is water nobody's touched before. Nobody's peed in it or washed their car in it or dumped their potato chip bags into it yet. Virgin water, pristine, not yet befouled by the humanity clinging the shores all around it, plying it with their tankers and hydrofoils and trashy pleasure boats.

Panarea is a tiny volcanic island, one of the seven Aeolian Islands strung off the northeast coast of Sicily. Two of them, Stromboli and Vulcano, are still mildly active volcanoes. From the outdoor bars in Panarea's miniature port you get a great view of Stromboli rising up out of the flat sea like a giant boil, blowing lazy black smoke rings into the sky every 10 minutes or so. For volcanic activity it has a very leisurely aspect, like a fat man smoking a thick cigar after dinner. From Panarea you can't see the lava these belches produce; big gouts of it roll down a channel on the far side of Stromboli, eventually easing themselves into the sea in wreaths of steam that shroud the island for most of the day.

Panarea, and the small archipelago of jagged rocks with colorful names like Basiluzzo and Dátilo that ring its harbor, are the only visible remains of a giant volcano that long ago collapsed. Large red lava boulders lie strewn about the landscape, signs of a violently active past. They're porous and so hollow that when you rap them with your knuckles they ring like stone gongs. Another volcanic gift is the rich soil; Panarea is paradisiacally lush and verdant, a speck of Eden crowded with gravid lemon trees, palms, great nimbus clouds of purple bougainvillea overhanging every surface, honeysuckle vines perfuming the air, giant aloes and cacti, ferns of prehistoric size, flowering shrubs of many bold hues, and something like heather, only its pillowed blossoms are bright crimson.

The island is less than four square kilometers?about 1.5 km wide by 2.5 km long. You could easily walk all the way around it in an hour or so, if so much of it were not impassably steep cliff faces and rock slides. All of its civilization is strung along the hillside above the small, terribly quaint harbor. This includes some few hundred houses, built square and thick and whitewashed, so that they dot the hill like sugarcubes; half a dozen hotels; a handful of shops and eateries for the tourists; and two small, pretty churches. There are no cars on the island, as the roads are little more than paved walking paths; people buzz around on motor scooters, and the few local taxis are converted golfcarts. Every local also has at least one small wooden boat down in the harbor, and maybe a couple more upturned in the garden behind the house.

The tourists have been coming to Panarea only since the 1960s, when some rich business types from Milan started to quietly develop it as their secret hideaway. Although everyone we talk to insists that the weather is quite nice for most of the year, the peak tourist season is only July and especially August, the month when all of Italy and much of the rest of the Europeans all, madly, go on vacation at the same time. In August, as one young man told us, the hordes overrun the narrow streets and choke the pocket piazzettas, and Panarea becomes "un' isola bruttissima" (a most ugly island).

At the end of May, however, we found it blissfully empty and peaceful. After lunch, in the heat of the midafternoon, the entire island drowses under those clouds of bougainvillea and honeysuckle canopies. The only creature stirring is an occasional lucertola, a small green lizard the size of your baby finger, scuttling across a hot stone wall, or a shiny black snake safely sunning itself in the middle of one of those untenanted paths, or the two roosters who stand out in their backyard gardens at either end of town and hurl competitive cockadoodles at each other the entire day, from first light to dark, with diminishing braggadocio as the long afternoon wears on. The afternoon is eternal, beatifically tranquil, hot, blue, serene; as one young lady puts it, on Panarea "non c'e tempo"?there is no time. Once in a great while a fisherman hawking his wares down in the harbor will break the silence with his old-fashioned cry of "Peeeeesce!" And one afternoon an assholic tour boat trundles into the harbor and lingers offshore with its motors running for five minutes while a guide on a criminally loud speaker harangues his clients with a monotone description of the island in Italian and then in German?after which the boat trundles away, none of them ever having set a toenail ashore.

The Milanese esthetic influence is very evident in Panarea's few handsful of shops, hotels and restaurants. It's a chic place, in an understated, batik-y sort of way, very much more tastefully subdued than the flashy gold-hoop-earringed and white-stretch-panted resorts favored by the louder, brighter Romans, like Capri or Punta Rossa. Ladies sashay the shadowed paths in those Polynesian-style patterned wraps that make nearly every woman's butt look positively edible. Instead of the teeth-grindingly cheesy Italian pop music you hear blaring over so much of the country (the Italians, so modish in so many other ways, remain pan-culturally tone deaf as producers and consumers of pop music), the outdoor restaurants play Les Negresses Vertes and Buddha Bar II on their excellent, super-expensive sound systems (which get cranked up on August nights for jetset discoing sotto le stelle). There seem to be only two kinds of humanity living and working on the island. There are the gnarled and sun-blackened fishermen and construction workers laboring on the rich folks' vacation cubes, and then there are the uniformly handsome, hip, golden youths who staff the Hotel Raya, the island's coolest hotel, a cluster of bungalow-like rooms and balconies that clambers up the hillside above the harbor. Most of these kids tell us they are from somewhere up north?Milan, or near Lake Como?here to work the tourist season and, I guess, just be awfully easy on the tourist eye.

Long before the Milanese, probably around 1400 BC, Panarea was home to neolithic tribes, one of which built a small village of round stone huts on an easily defended finger of land that crooks out into the clear water atop sheer cliffs. The foundations of the huts are still there, preserved through the hot, dry ages. Standing out among them one sun-burned morning, I watched a double-file of tiny black ants devouring the corpse of one of those finger-size lizards. They raced in and out of his gaping little mouth in that orderly insectoid way, the one file trooping in empty-pincered, the other rushing back to the hive with teensy scraps of lizard in their grips. They were moving incredibly fast, like watching a speeded-up film. It was dizzying. There was something almost frightening about their mindless, pitiless industry. I think if I'd been able to stand there under that blazing sun for an hour or so I might have seen them completely strip the thing down to its bones, they were working that fast. But I didn't stay to watch. I rushed off, down the rock-slided slopes to a little rocky cove, and threw myself into that virgin water, defiling it.


In the winter of 1819-'20 a young British naval officer did another kind of island-defiling, down near the Antarctic. I've been reading his journal in a book the full title of which is the suitably old-fashioned The Discovery of the South Shetland Islands: The Voyages of the Brig Williams, 1819-1820 and The Journal of Midshipman C. W. Poynter, edited by R. J. Campbell. It's published by the Hakluyt Society, the British nonprofit "inspired by and named after Richard Hakluyt (1552-1616), the famous collector and editor of narratives of voyages and travels and other documents relating to English interests overseas." For an annual fee (now $70 to U.S. members), you get a couple of hardcover books and a pamphlet or two that the society published that year. Nonmembers can buy the books at prohibitively high prices?the website lists The Discovery of the South Shetland Islands alone at £45, so membership is the way to go.

Midshipman Charles Poynter (born 1798) was aboard for the fourth journey the brig Williams made to the South Shetlands under Capt. William Smith, who'd discovered the islands?which lie 600 miles south of the Falklands, very near the Antarctic Peninsula?earlier in 1819. It's very curious to be reminded by this book that although men had speculated about the existence of an antarctic continent, or Terra Australis Incognita, as far back as the Greeks and Romans, it was only confirmed in the 19th century. When reports of Smith's voyages were published, some American newspapers ran claims that American sealers had already discovered the Shetlands, but editor Campbell says this was never documented.

Poynter's manuscript is the only known original document from Smith's voyages. Not a terrible lot goes on during the journey, which went from December 1819 into April 1820?it was no Drake's or Cook's voyage?but if you like reading sea journals (and I do, though I'm a total landlubber), there's a lot of closely observed detail that makes the icy night storms, the occasional gales and all that quite visceral.

Poynter sometimes reminds you what a technical challenge sea travel still represented 200 years ago. I found this bit interesting:

"Before leaving Valparayso we obtained the loan of a Barometer and Thermometer from the Merchant Ship Thais?Some of the quicksilver having been accidentally spilt, Captain Robson before delivery admitted more in doing which a portion of air had crept into the Tube?After its being fixed we observed it constantly stood at 28 7/10 and upon examination discovered it required a greater supply of Silver?At first we were puzzled how to effect this, the air contained in the Tube preventing the entrance of the Mercury?After some time, at the suggestion of Dr. Young, by immersing the Tube in scalding hot Water and then in the Fire, whereby the air became Totally expelled, the Silver was seen rushing in and thereby the Tube presently filled?The heating of the Glass must be done by degrees or it is liable to fly and much patience [is] required to keep the instrument in an upright position, the aperture for the admittance of the Mercury being so very confined. This operation was taken in hand by Dr. Young himself who displayed no common share of precision..."

The midshipman also notes what may be the first, if not the only, instance on record of sailors turning down strong drink:

"The following being Christmas day and having fair Weather without the least appearance of a change, our People were indulged with Two Gallons of Liquor extra and in the evening we managed to muster a Fiddler among the crew who proved himself a very tolerable scraper?For the first and in all probability the last time in my life I witnessed the refusal of Grog by our crew en masse?In the course of the afternoon their becoming noisy and quarrelsome induced us to mix an extra Jorum as a Night cap?When offered [to them] they all to a Man refused it, [and] said [that] the Officers wished to make them drunk and they would 'be damned if they would be so'?Soon however they changed their Minds and the result wound up the pleasures of the day..."

It's a side issue, and anachronistic of me to dwell on it, but one of the most striking aspects of Poynter's notes is the recurring accounts of callous and mindless slaughtering of the wildlife the Williams' crew encounters. For instance, this tragic run-in with a horde of peaceable and probably curious penguins, followed directly by the brutalizing of a "sea elephant" [sea lion]:

"It would appear incredible was I even to give a rough calculation of the Multitude of Penguins I met on landing, however within bounds I might be induced to curb my opinion; suffice it to add our progress was completely arrested by these Gentlemen who with the most determined obstinacy disputed our right to proceed and it was not until great slaughter had been committed and an opening forced through them with Lances, Seal clubs &c we were enabled to further our research...

"While engaged in this business and fighting our way thro' the Islanders we perceived the Whale boat pulling towards us from the Main who on joining detailed the unfortunate particulars of one of the Crew having had his hand dreadfully lacerated by a Sea Elephant, who while attacked, by throwing himself over backwards, contrived to seize the poor fellow, and it was not until three very severe blows were given [that] he relinquished his hold?Had the Animal been less exhausted he must have taken it off..."

On another occasion: "While proceeding along shore we fell in with a Shoal of Sea Elephants asleep?who on waking were evidently so unused to the sight of Man as to eye us with an air of indifference, but on being attacked with Lances &c betrayed their astonishment in a most audible bellow ?Several being killed, were stripped of their blubber, which being junked up, together with a few Seals and Penguins which had been picked up was taken on board..."

Poynter also writes of sea birds who "paid us a visit and were so far from being shy as to allow themselves to be struck with pieces of wood &c from the brig." Ow. You see enough of this in Poynter's notes, and it's absolutely no surprise to read this sad little line in Campbell's introduction:

"The news of Smith's discovery spread rapidly and within three years the fur seals had been virtually exterminated."

Mentioning the introduction reminds me: Poynter's journal, which is all of 70 pages in the 232-page book, is excellently bracketed and contexted with lots of historical essays, biographies, contemporary writings about the Antarctic region and explanations of various seagoing technicalities. For example, I now know where the nautical term "knots" comes from: In Poynter's day, they literally gauged their speed in lengths of knotted rope that played out behind the ship as it progressed through the water. I don't know why I never knew that, but I'm glad I know it now.

I love the Hakluyt Society. Next is the other book I just received from them: Pieter van den Broecke's Journal of Voyages to Cape Verde, Guinea and Angola (1605-1612). I can't wait.


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