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Published: March 18th 2008
“Exploration is the physical expression of the intellectual passion. And I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore…” (Apsley Cherry-Garrard)
I celebrated the second anniversary of my leaving the rat-race of a City legal career by setting foot on the Antarctic continent for the first time.
I woke that morning to see land outside the porthole for the first time in six days. The cliffs of Cape Adare drifted in and out of sight through the mist and falling snow. On ice floes between the ship and the shore were gaggles of black dots, Adélie penguins come to check out the new arrivals. After breakfast - porridge was in big demand that morning - we eagerly donned layer upon layer of warm and waterproof clothing, and, Michelin-men-like, lined up to board the Zodiacs which were already lowered and waiting to take us ashore to Ridley Beach.
It was everything that I’d hoped for and more. True to every Antarctic nature programme, we were greeted by the curious inhabitants, tomboy-ish Adélies, unsure how close to approach, alternately marching and skating past us. Around us was
the remains of the 1911 Northern Expedition's hut and Borchgrevink's 1899 hut
the vast blanketed silence of a snowy day, and, for the first time, I began to get some inkling of this continent’s enormity. Goodness only knows when this little beach had last seen human life, yet, it had been the site of the first party to spend the winter in Antarctica, Carsten Borchgrevink’s British-financed, Norwegian/Lapp/Australian expedition 1899-1900, and it was theirs that was to be the first of the five explorers’ huts that we managed to visit.
As with the other huts under the management of the New Zealand’s Antarctic Heritage Trust, there are strict rules to be followed. Only three people, in addition to one of our guides (either Stephen Martin of the State Library of New South Wales or Dave Burkitt, a British Polar historian, both travelling with us), could be in the hut at any one time, and only forty people were allowed within a designated area around the hut in order to limit the potential for our visit to damage the hut and its environs. In addition, we had to brush our boots free of snow and dirt before we entered the hut; we were already learning to clean our boots in water and disinfectant
on disembarking and returning to the ship after each landing.
Each of the huts was very different, yet we seemed to visit them in order: not quite chronologically, although, with one exception, we did visit them in that order, but main sense of progression derived from the fact that each hut appeared to be a little more homely and attractive than its predecessor, until we reached the comparative luxury and space of Scott’s 1911 hut at Cape Evans.
Borchgrevink’s “living” hut was cosy, but “cosy” for four or five people at one time; perhaps less so for the ten that actually lived there over the winter. With those kind of numbers, cooped up in the endless dark of an Antarctic winter, tensions must have readily flared. In common with the other huts, old provisions containers lined part of the walls, odd items of clothing were scattered over the narrow bunk beds, and the odd quirk revealing a little of the humanity of these ten men could be found if you knew where to look: in this case, a curious ink drawing on the ceiling above an upper bunk. The inhabitants were still there; they had only stepped outside
for a while, the better to let us look around… or so it seemed.
Borchgrevink’s “stores” hut has largely disintegrated, helped by the fact that Borchgrevink himself had had it partly dismantled with a view to moving it to Coulman Island, but changed his mind before this was completed.
Next door is another crumbling ghost, the few remains of a hut built by the Northern Party of Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition in 1911. The team encountered a major storm shortly after they moved in. Although the hut survived, it was in ruins by the time a US party landed there in the mid-1950s and is now simply a small collection of barely upright planks.
Immediately outside Borchgrevink’s hut huddled a crèche of fledging Adélie chicks. Still hopeful of a returning parent - though the adults had almost certainly left for the winter - these guys, in various stages of moult from furry bibs’n’bloomers to a remaining Mohican, eyed us cautiously, but made no effort to move away. There’s a five-metre rule for Antarctic wildlife - or, some experts suggest, a ten-metre rule - to restrict the distance that we can approach penguins and seals. Although we were
each to experience many times when it was the wildlife that broke this rule, the Adélies tended to comply, except when they only spotted us too late to divert the course of their tummy-skids.
It was magical to wander around Ridley Beach. Usually at this time of year, I gather, it is a whiffy mess of guano, the natural product of a massive colony’s breeding season; this time, we had the benefit of several hours’ heavy snow to disguise the sight and smell. Now it was magical; silent of human-generated noise, we were left with only the chatter of the penguins and the occasional squawk of a skua or giant petrel, and only the by-now well-scattered travellers, the huts, wildlife and the occasional exposed rockface discoloured the monochromatic landscape around us. I watched some fully fledged Adélies trying out their porpoising and diving skills in a small, calm inlet. Others were practising their tummy-skating in little groups, zipping past me in an enviably efficient manner. Two of the wildlife experts on the trip witnessed a thousand or more young Adélies taking to the water en masse for the first time, the expanse of available shore seemingly irrelevant as every
bird wanted to leave from exactly the same point, even if it meant scrambling over their mates. I watched a dozen or more try to scrabble up a tiny ice floe, not big enough even for the first three or four already precariously perched on top. Half a dozen fat skuas lazily rested on the snow in conveniently close proximity to their supermarket. The surfeit of food was clearly apparent: I saw more than one penguin carcass that had barely been touched. A chick still in full junior furry plumage slumped disconsolately and alone beside our piled-up daypacks: to be so retarded in its fledging did not bode well for its survival.
I could have stayed there for hours… watching penguins busily going about their day, the changing patterns of the ice, and the sun as it dramatically emerged from the clouds… relishing my geographic and emotional distance from the rest of the world… energised by surroundings so free of man’s influence at the edge of this vast empty continent… but our skipper was keeping a close eye on the condition of the sea between the beach and the ship. Suddenly, the atmosphere was rent by several blasts of
the ship’s horn, a unique event in the experience of old-time Aurora travellers. Captain Gena had watched the ice floes being swept in by the current and was concerned that we might become marooned on the shore. These ice floes were more than the Zodiacs, even in expert hands, would be able to combat. In the course of the afternoon, the currents changed direction - presumably tide-driven - and the sea cleared again, but Gena could not have counted on that, and we could not have been left ashore without provisions for that length of time. As it was, several people were already heading back early. Even though the snow had now stopped and the sun slowly making an appearance through the clouds, it was still bitterly cold. Being our first trip ashore in Antarctica proper, people were not yet acclimatised or fully confident of the number and nature of layers that would be required when they had been “rugging up” on board first thing in the morning. So Gena had sounded the horn, and we scurried back to the beach where we’d landed a couple of hours earlier. One scientist, whom we would be dropping off at Macquarie Island
later in the trip, reluctantly tore herself away from a bizarre sight that she had just discovered: a single chinstrap penguin alone in a group of Adélies, yet apparently being accepted by the majority. We were escorted to the boats by a scuttling crowd of another hundred or more Adélies: we left as we had arrived, in numerous avian company.
Back on board, we continued to watch the ever-changing world around us: Adélies skedaddling over floes, and slipping into water so clear we could watch them swimming below us; rafts of ice bumping and scrunching against each other; Mount Minto’s peak gradually emerging from its cloudy veils, evocative for our expedition leader, Greg Mortimer, the first person to summit Antarctica’s highest peak twenty years ago; a lone leopard seal slumping through the deep snow across its ice floe, finally slithering into the water in search of an errant penguin.
That afternoon we would have the chance to see Cape Adare from a different angle, from above, courtesy of the two Steves and their choppers, respectively nicknamed “Red Baron” and “White Knight”. Landing on the hillside above Cape Adare was a curious experience. We were so high above the
bay that its unusual proliferation of icebergs looked like a scattering of Lego, and the ship a mere toy. It was like peering down from Mount Olympus. Here it was even colder than it had been on the beach first thing, and the reason was simple: snow clouds were gathering once again. Further flights were cancelled, and, while we were in no immediate danger, the priority was now to get those of us already up there back to the ship. Every passenger flight where there’s an intention to land is preceded by one or two flights to put emergency kit and provisions, and assisting staff in place. Waiting for the choppers, we eyed up the handwritten list on the side of the box labelled “emergency rations”, hopeful of a medicinal bottle of Scotch: no such luck. We’d have to wait until we returned to the ship. All credit to Aurora, on this as with every subsequent flight: we were all returned to the ship swiftly and in good order. But I still had my “usual”, rum-flavoured hot chocolate, on my return.
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