I first went to Antarctica in 1968, for somewhat under a fortnight. In those days one could visit Antarctica only as a member of an official group, and the American ambassador in Canberra, a noble soul who would later give his life to a disease caught while working for an Episcopalian aid agency in Ethiopia, invited me to go with him, as a member of his party. He was also taking his twelve-year-old son, whom he hoped would become the youngest person ever to stand at the South Pole itself. I am forever grateful to this man, the sober and genial Bill Crook, through whom I was able to experience Antarctica in so profound a way that it recurred in my dreams for decades to come. In particular, the huge Transantarctic Mountains, complicated peaks and glaciers which start behind Cape Adare on the northern limit of the Ross Sea and run south across the continent, returned to me in sleep. Scott’s own beloved and much researched Royal Society Range, visible from the bases across McMurdo Sound, are just one part of this transcendent chain.
Another companion on the 1968 trip was a young US Air Force colonel named Alex Butterfield. We and Mr Crook and his son shared the giant landscapes and improbable, barely polluted vistas of Antarctica. Only at McMurdo Sound was there any garbage, including a litter of crashed aircraft piled up on the edge of the tide crack’s jumbled ice. While Antarctica seems apolitical, and was and still is managed, apparently fraternally, according to principles framed by the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, political realities foreshortened our 1968 journey a little. Nixon was elected President, and Bill Crook, a Democrat, needed to resign his position in Canberra, while Alex Butterfield would go to Nixon’s White House as deputy assistant to the President, and would have a not inestimable part in the Watergate scandal. When asked by the Senate Watergate Committee whether there were any recording devices in the White House, he said he had hoped he would not be asked that, but admitted there were tapes, and so, with a word, changed history and became a Republican Party pariah.
But none of this happened before the Crook group had experienced the bulk of Ross Island, that historic mass in McMurdo Sound which is cemented to the rest of Antarctica by the Ross Ice Shelf, an august shelf of ice the size of France. Nor before we had visited Scott’s two huts – one of them on the edge of the McMurdo Sound station – and Shackleton’s haunted Cape Royds hut, and lived beneath the midnight sun, and been to the South Pole on a plane which landed and took off on skids. And at that featureless, 10,000-feet-high South Pole, the younger Crook stood, suffering from mild altitude sickness; a sturdy lad though, who did not flinch in the glare of the polar plateau. We lined up around the striped barber’s pole which had been put in place during the International Geophysical Year (IGY), ten years before. In that decade, it had moved a little off ninety degrees south. The great ice sheet covering the Pole was always moving infinitesimally outwards down to the sea.
This trip augmented a tendency of mine to see Antarctica as another state of being. Nobody was a native of the place. Only in the past sixty or seventy years had a scatter of human myths become associated with it. But even in its massiveness it had made no tribe unto itself. It had provoked no native tongue, no rites, no art, no jingoism. Its landscapes existed without the permission of humanity. And everything I looked at, even the nullity of the pole, produced jolts of insomniac chemicals into my system. It was not landscape, it was not light. It was super-landscape, super-light, and it would not let you sleep.
In 1968, among all the science and bulldozers and energy of the McMurdo Sound station, no one seemed to be doing much for the huts of the ‘heroic age’. On the northern point of the bay in which McMurdo Sound station stood, unattended, Scott’s Hut Point hut, the Discovery hut. This hut had been used by Scott’s 1901-04 party, and been pressed into use again by Shackleton in 1908, and then once more during Scott’s journey to the Pole in 1910-12. During the First World War, Shackleton’s tragic Ross Sea party had sheltered in it as well. Symbolizing all this Antarctic peril undertaken willingly, a cross on the small hill above the hut commemorated Seaman Vince, one of Scott’s men, who perished of hypothermia in 1902.
Standing utterly unlocked in 1968, the hut was sunk in its old, ice-dried timbers in a bank of ice. There was accumulated ice inside sections of the hut as well, but also the remnants of Edwardian derring-do: boxes of Fry’s cocoa, preserved fruit, condiments, tins of Huntley & Palmers biscuits, items of harness, old magazines and fragments of newspapers. There was no organization taking responsibility for Scott’s huts at Hut Point and Cape Evans, or for Shackleton’s at Cape Royds.
Those who took anything out of any of the huts could excuse themselves in the belief that they were merely saving a relic from gradual climatic destruction. Thus, glibly self-absolved, I approached an open tin of Huntley & Palmers hard-tack biscuit, the hard tack which soldiers from 1914 to 1918 ate in the trenches. I took two thirds of a biscuit as a souvenir. Antarctic explorers, including Scott and his doomed four, subsisted on a diet of this biscuit, often mixed with and softened by water and pemmican, that is, chunks of compacted, dried meat. These staples, hard tack and pemmican, proved an inadequate diet, and helped weaken the young Shackleton to the point that Scott sent him home from the 1901 expedition. Ultimately, the limitations of pemmican and hard tack would stop Shackleton ninety-seven miles from the Pole in 1909, and then destroy Scott himself in 1912.
The two thirds of a biscuit I took, hard to begin with when manufactured in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, had been near ossified by Antarctica’s perpetual freeze. So I brought it home with me as if it were more a fossil than a food, and displayed it, in a glass case.
It has only been as time went by that I, like other members of the general public, became educated by an increasing awareness of conservation. I began to feel Scott’s biscuit should be returned. I saw the 1985 television series, The Last Place on Earth, and the scenes of Scott’s big man, Petty Officer Taffy Evans, raving and howling in the wake of the sledge returning from the Pole, and dying in his tracks. For a second it was as if he was making a claim on my biscuit. But to whom to return the hard tack, and by what mechanism? I decided I would take it back to the hut myself, if ever I got to Antarctica again.
The resolve to return to Antarctica grew in me as I got older. Some friends went on a Russian ship from Ushaia in Argentina down to the Antarctic Peninsula. The Peninsula is the Antarctic continent’s tadpole tail, and has beautiful glaciers and hence beautiful mountains, and much subantarctic wildlife. But it is not beyond the Antarctic Circle, and is on the wrong side of Antarctica for anything to do with Scott. I decided last year I would try to go anyway. Ships commonly used in these excursions are ice-breaking or hull-strengthened Russian vessels chartered by American, Australian and other adventure-travel companies. These companies came up readily on the internet. I found that journeys from South America to the Peninsula and to South Georgia, the island on which Shackleton is buried, are largely booked up a year ahead, and it was only by accident that I discovered that journeys to the other side of Antarctica, to the area I felt I knew and from which I’d taken Scott’s biscuit – the Ross Sea, McMurdo Sound, Ross Island, the great volcano Erebus, the Transantarctic Mountains and the Ross Ice Shelf which was the path to the Pole – were also planned.
I found there was a berth available on the last trip for the summer season, throughout February, on an ice-breaker named the Kapitan Khlebnikov.
I fell for the Khlebnikov the first time I saw a picture of it. It had an honest look, as if one would not need to dress for dinner – indeed the sort of ship on which there would be a good, rowdy bar operating during Antarctic midnights, as well as ample deck-space upon which to stand alone, rugged-up, in awe and exaltation. It weighed 12,000 tons and its bows were blunt and potent for crushing fields of ice. Its high castle, in which the cabins were placed, would guarantee that on the way to and beyond the Antarctic convergence, the zone of turbulence where Antarctic waters meet the waters of temperate oceans, we would experience a testing roll. Six Zodiacs were lashed down on the flight deck to take us to shore, and two helicopters. Its eighty crew members abounded with Arctic and Antarctic experience. This stubby, twenty-year-old ice-breaker promised to deal with the great radial skirts of ice which gird Antarctica.
So I was still in a childlike state of excitement as we drove through the tunnel in the mountain south of Christchurch, in New Zealand’s South Island, and came down to Lyttelton, the exquisite, emerald, volcanic caldera which served Scott and Shackleton as their point of departure for the voyage south. Through a banal, corrugated iron fence at the bunkering wharf of Lyttelton we lugged our luggage with half smiles, like children entering a secret garden. Stepping over oil hoses, we climbed the stairs from the wharf to our ice-breaker. The air was filled with the shouts and talk of Russian seamen. A young ship’s doctor, a Tasmanian, helped us get our gear to our two-bunk cabin. It was all wonderful. We exclaimed. The en suite bathroom seemed a miraculous luxury in such a romantic, journeyman lump of steel as the Khlebnikov.
The first night and day at sea were benign. We met our sixty or so fellow passengers – Americans, Australians, British, Germans, a Belgian or two, New Zealanders and a solitary Canadian. A blessed company, we thought, and so it proved to be. We exclaimed about the quality of the food – we had presumed that we would be eating tough-guy style to match the expedition; that it would be borscht and herring. The choice of three menus astonished us, and seemed in comforting tension with the colder and colder seas, the icier and icier air, the polar memoirs we were all immersed in, and the unarguable Antarctic conditions into which we were being taken.
The second night introduced us to the circumpolar current, a definite but irregular line in the ocean, visible from space as a huge pleat. The colder Antarctic waters here begin their dive beneath the warmer waters from the northern oceans, and the zone is full of the turbulence and violence of this meeting. Wind howled and the ship rolled to angles of more than thirty-five degrees. The passengers might have been temporarily sick but were generally delighted by the experience. Many of them had been here before. Their memory of things was validated by wind and rough seas. They were returning to the most intense of their memories. They drank merrily, but were slightly awed to meet the ship’s officers, Captain Petr Golikov, the mates, the radio officer, the engineering officer, the two helicopter pilots. As the swell mounted, these were to be our guides to the underworld. In the morning, the expedition leader, Kate Adie, an American, greeted us by intercom with a resonating ‘Dobroe Utro! Good morning!’ She and the captain, in consultation, would determine where the Khlebnikov would take us. To celebrate our southern ocean initiation, the ship’s notice board sported the words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: ‘The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew, the furrow followed free, /We were the first that ever burst into that silent sea.’ Well, maybe not the first, but at least it felt like it when we stood on the flying bridge seeking ice, and Antarctica’s first scalding air numbed our faces.
Among our company was a Scot who was researching a book on the lesser-known Antarctic explorers, and five Australian scientists who were being accompanied to the Australian subantarctic island, Macquarie Island, to pursue research into the irregularities of the earth’s magnetic field, geology, marine biology, seals, penguins, albatrosses, etc. The presence of the scientists gave us tourists a sense of being part of a noble cause. We were also to pick up a group of four men, three New Zealanders and an Englishman, stuck by ice at Cape Adare, our first point of contact with the Antarctic coast. The drama of genuine Antarctic need augmented our long days.
The earliest icebergs we spotted were irregular in shape – eroded, conical, or else rather like ruined fortresses. But then large tabular bergs, higher than the ship, and some hundreds of metres long, appeared and displayed their water-level blue caverns. The first whales we met were orcas, and orcas and minke whales would accompany us the rest of our journey, with humpbacks and an occasional southern right whale thrown in. The populations seemed enthusiastic and numerous, but further north the whaling fleet of Japan, which had not signed the International Whaling Commission’s Charter, awaited their arrival.
The ship traversed and broke ice bars and then met solid banks of ice, and began to break it, growling, transferring seventy tons of ballast water back to the stern to raise the ship by the bows, then pumping it forward at great speed to bring the bows crashing down. I stood in the bows transfixed by the fracture of ice, the way it moved, its sundry, plastic varieties. And distantly, a mere ice blink, Cape Adare, the Transantarctic Mountains and the coast running westwards, began to show themselves. Cape Adare grew more and more massive throughout the day. We could see the tops of mountains fifty miles away, and all distance was foreshortened by the clarity of air, so that the chain of coast seemed not mere geology but the instantly legible manifesto of gods. Amid the mountains ran the broad all-altering hands of glaciers. Everything one had ever expected of the inhuman continent, all in a second’s glance!
Adare, a black volcanic cape at the western entrance to the Ross Sea, was the site of the landing of the first European, Carsten Borchgrevink, in 1895. Borchgrevink, a Norwegian who had settled in Australia as a schoolteacher, in 1899 had built the first hut of the Heroic Era there on unsuitable Cape Adare, a venue for vicious gravity-fed winds. The four men we were to collect, an Englishman and three New Zealanders, were working on the restoration of the hut, and the Khlebnikov was to take them off when we called there. We received instructions on how to visit the fragile hut – there are now protocols in place – and what our demeanour should be towards the some 4,000 Adélie penguins who lived on the strand beneath the high plug of granite – no sudden disturbing advances amongst the chicks of the rookery; photographs to be reflectively taken, not from a challenging human level, but from penguin level.
By mid-afternoon the captain had got the ship to work, slicing open areas in the ice, but we reached a point where there was nowhere for the ice we penetrated and cracked to go. We could see, beneath the huge black-and-white face of Adare, the fast ice with its necklace of brilliant but dominant icebergs. In the end, the helicopters went to get the men and their gear, and they were welcomed aboard, telling us how it had been camping in tents by Borchgrevink’s hut in 200-kilometre-per-hour gales. I mentioned that from my lay-perspective across the sea ice, it looked as if they were captives of the Erl King. ‘That’s how we bloody felt,’ they told me.
The fourth member of the group was, improbably, an urbane British heritage architect who genially confessed that at the height of their discomfort on the Cape, he had made a slighting remark about his life’s task having been to restore some of Britain’s finest buildings, and his having no interest in restoring garden sheds in Antarctica. To the New Zealanders, however, these Ross Sea huts of the heroic era were the garden sheds of the gods.
Captain Golikov assured us he would do his best to get us into Cape Adare on our way back north again.