Friday, November 7, 2008

Antarctica: Big, white and silent

ASTW Travel Writer of the Year 2007: Responsible Tourism

By GARY WALSH

THERE could be few acts more distasteful than disrupting a solemn graveside ritual, especially by calling loudly and belching. Then again, elephant seals - burping, gurgling, farting, mobile waterbeds that they are - aren't known for their decorum, and of all people the great Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton would probably excuse their behaviour.

We were standing in a whalers' cemetery on the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia, 100 or so people wrapped up against the chill, each cradling a tot of rum in a little plastic cup, about to toast Shackleton's memory. His fateful journey south, which resulted in an epic survival story after the destruction of his ship Endurance in the Antarctic ice, had begun here at the whaling station in Grytviken on December 5, 1914, and his life ended here on January 5, 1922, when “The Boss” had a massive heart attack on the eve of another expedition to the Antarctic.

It was a reverent moment until a bubbling sound like a misfiring outboard motor disturbed the sober atmosphere and everyone turned to a wide-eyed juvenile elephant seal poking his snout through the picket fence. He blurted and snuffled and generally made a nuisance of himself until the party broke up, proving yet again that the wildlife has retaken South Georgia.

From Christmas Eve 1904 until the end of commercial whaling in 1965, South Georgia was the biggest slaughterhouse on earth. The island's whaling stations processed an almost unfathomable 175,250 whales in six decades. In the peak season of 1925-26,1855 blue whales, 5709 fin whales, 236 humpbacks, 13 sei whales and 12 sperm whales were killed. Seals, too, were prized - an estimated 1.2 million fur seals were killed for their pelts and elephant seals were taken for the oil extracted from their blubber.

The day before our ship, the Akademik Ioffe, reached South Georgia we ran into an extraordinary field of cetaceans feeding on a rich supply of krill, as many as 18 blue whales as well as humpbacks, fins, leis, southern rights, a beaked whale and a minke. Some experts have suggested it was the biggest bounty of whales seen in one day since the end of the whaling era. In our four days in South Georgia's waters, however, not one whale was seen. Romantics like to think that the whales somehow sense that South Georgia was their killing field and choose to avoid the area.

Shackleton's story is intertwined with South Georgia's. When Endurance was finally crushed by pack ice on November 21, 1915, having been beset that January, Shackleton and his crew set up camp on the ice. In March 1916 they took to the water in three lifeboats and after seven days made landfall at Elephant Island. A week later Shackleton and five others set sail in the 6.9-metre James Caird and somehow managed to navigate 1300 kilometres of the world's wildest seas to reach South Georgia's bleak west coast.

It was an unspeakably awful journey, 16 days in a small boat, trying to catch snatches of sleep while wedged between blankets filled with unyielding rock ballast, skin rubbed raw from the chafing of clothes not changed for seven months – “supreme strife amid heaving waters”, as Shackleton put it in his memoirs.

The whaling stations that Shackleton knew meant salvation were on the opposite coast, so he and two colleagues, Frank Worsley and Frank Crean, set off to cross the savage, unmapped interior of South Georgia on foot. For 36 hours they trekked through snowfields and deeply crevassed glaciers, crossed frozen lakes, reached dead ends, took wrong turns and at one point leapt in the darkness half a kilometre down an ice cliff with no idea what awaited them at the bottom. Crean fell into a lake that now bears his name not long before Shackleton heard what he thought was a work signal from Stromness station.

“At 6.30am I thought I heard the sound of a steam-whistle,” Shackleton wrote. “I dared not be certain, but I knew that the men at the whaling-station would be called from their beds about that time. In intense excitement we watched the chronometer for seven o'clock, when the whalers would be summoned to work. Right to the minute the steam-whistle came to us, borne clearly on the wind over the intervening miles of rock and snow. Never had any one of us heard sweeter music.”

I first visited South Georgia six years ago, when it was possible to walk among the ruins of the buildings at Stromness and have your picture taken at the manager's house where Shackleton and his colleagues announced their arrival. Safety concerns, including the presence of asbestos, mean it is now closed to the public, who can only approach within 50 metres of the buildings on land or sea. (Recent research has shown that the manager's house was built after Shackleton's miraculous appearance, causing a rethink about which building it was that the three sailors arrived at.)

What is still possible, weather permitting, is a retracing of the final few hours of Shackleton's trek. After a steep initial ascent from Fortuna Bay it is easy walking across a saddle and past Tom Crean's lake to the point where the factory whistle was heard. Then it is a scramble down loose scree - rather than the frozen waterfall that Shackleton and his colleagues somehow descended - to the tussocky marshland that surrounds the old whaling station.

Vicious katabatic winds roaring off the island's glaciers made it impossible for us to make the walk this year, but six years ago I managed it, dodging aggressive fur seals on guard around Stromness's tumbledown buildings to come to the door of the (supposed) manager's house. As everywhere on South Georgia, the wildlife ruled. Inside one building a pair of doe-eyed elephant seals lay between winches and work tables, in another, fur seals peered from beneath metal beds. In every comer a seal seemed to have taken up residence, sheltered from the worst of the elements and generally undisturbed.

At Grytviken it is as if the whaling station has been subjected to a kind of industrial autopsy and then the body has been dressed for showing it to the relatives. Courtesy of a seven million pounds grant from the British Government the shells of the buildings have been removed in the past few years to reveal the boilers, engines, pipes, valves and other machinery of the oil extraction processes. There is, when you think about it, a synergy with the whaling era in the stripping down to the bare bones of the factory.

Grytviken is safe to wander through and it is richly evocative in a sanitised, museum- like way, but the stations at Stromness, Leith and Husvik have a more stark and truthful aspect to them, with their rattling iron walls, rusted machinery and half- submerged wharves, all displayed to the accompaniment of the plaintive cry of countless seals. What Grytviken does have is a human aspect the others lack. The station's excellent museum, which devotes a section to Shackleton, is run by South Georgia's only two permanent residents, Tim and Pauline Carr, who also look after the beautifully restored whalers' church. Visitors are encouraged to ring its bell, the peal of which echoes around Grytviken's natural amphitheatre.

Our first landing on South Georgia this year was at Prion Island, home to a small population of the threatened Wandering Albatross. Neighbouring Albatross Island is now closed to visitors because of the fragility of its bird population, while Prion Island may soon also be off limits. In a contentious move, the South Georgia government, run from the Falkland Islands, plans to build a wooden boardwalk across the beach and up the gully that leads to the albatross nesting grounds.

The aim is to prevent erosion of the steep gully and to minimise disturbance to the wildlife - penguins and seals are also in profusion on the island - but critics fear its impact on several levels. They worry that it will encourage greater numbers to visit Prion Island, causing more pressure on the albatross population, and that it will disturb established penguin trails on the hillside. There is also concern about its visual effect. Many conservationists, including some who work for the adventure cruise companies, would prefer the island to close to visitors than to see the boardwalk constructed, as unpalatable a decision as that may be.

There is also discussion about a cull of fur seals on the island. Once hunted to the point where there were only a few hundred seals left around South Georgia, their numbers have now grown into the millions. Now the greater concern is for the wandering albatrosses, whose numbers, decimated by long-line fishing, are declining at a rate that may see them extinct within 40 years. While measures taken by the South Georgia government have seen seabird mortality decline to a negligible level in its waters, elsewhere the deaths continue at a horrifying rate.

In tightly controlled groups of 10 we staggered up the boggy gully, keeping a wary eye out for snarling fur seals who were well camouflaged in the tussock grasses. We were allowed 10 minutes at the top of the hill to watch the albatrosses in flight, displaying their plumage or just nesting on their eggs; at all times we were kept within the bounds of a small flagged area.

A rule adopted by all cruise companies requires visitors to get no closer than five metres to the wildlife, which is fine in theory and respected in practice. But nobody has told the animals. If you sit on a rock or lie on a beach, penguins, especially the inquisitive kings, will approach and check you out. They will peck at your clothes or tug at the straps of your daypack, or in the case of the king penguins, stride right up to you, look you up and down, and then decide you are entirely forgettable and wander off.

At Gold Harbour there were tens of thousands of gorgeous kings on the beach. They are tall, elegant and beautifully coloured, with charcoal bodies, golden necks and salmon-trimmed beaks, full of personality and with a call that sounds like one of those cheap children's birthday parry trumpets. Occasionally it's like watching a Three Stooges movie as they slap each other hard with their flippers, squabble and pratfall. And it's scarcely believable that their chicks, fat little bearskin hats with beaks, grow into these glorious creatures.

We farewelled South Georgia with an evening cruise along Drygalski Fjord, which was like passing through an Ansel Adams photograph. The scene was monochrome, apart from an almost imperceptible blue tint to the glaciers that leaned down into the water. Mountains disappeared into broken clouds, the near-total silence was all the more impressive for the sounds that were present - the bump of the ship's hull on chunks of ice and the pop of air bubbles bursting on their surface, the boom of glaciers cracking under the immense forces that push them towards the sea - and the sky always looked on the verge of breaking into an ecclesiastical burst of sunlight, like something you would see on the cover of an Old Testament. South Georgia, like its wildlife, is always showy and always memorable.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

About Hellbent For the Pole


About Hellbent For the Pole: "On 20 January 1958, Sir Vivian (then Dr) Fuchs and Sir Edmund Hillary met at the South Pole amid a worldwide blaze of controversy. It was the halfway point of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition’s crossing of the Frozen Continent — but Hillary and his ‘support’ team, driving modified Ferguson farm tractors, had made, inHillary’s words, a ‘hellbent’ dash to the Pole, pipping Fuchs and his team in their more sophisticated Sno-Cats.
Hellbent for the Pole is a behind the-scenes, often irreverent, insider’s account of the expedition by the
journalist covering for the New Zealand Press Association, The New Zealand Herald and The Daily Telegraph in London, and illustrated by manydramatic and historic photographs taken by the author. Most books recounting human exploits in Antarctica involve the concept of the hero. This book digsbeneath that outdated ‘stiff upper lip’ approach to tell it like it really was, warts and all."

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Of Ice and Men



As an irrepressibly inquisitive child, I would pore over maps of the great Southern land imagining infinitely white vistas, ice-encrusted shorelines and flocks of bizarre creatures engaged in all manner of noisy rituals.

Then this fledgling student of geography, in the grip of idleness, would often identify the most isolated and unlikely points on the globe, vowing one day to venture to these invariably far-flung and often wholly inhospitable lands. Antarctica's treacherous, spiny tendril was one such irresistible location.

Like the bristly tail of some giant, prehistoric sea creature, the Antarctic Peninsula thrusts out past the Antarctic Circle, lunging vainly toward its sibling, the Andes, across the infamous Drake Passage. As far as the Antarctic is concerned, the peninsula is the most densely populated location on the continent, sprinkled with vast research bases and minute outposts alike. At the height of the summer season, the human population numbers over 3,000 - not counting tourists. That figure shrinks to less than 1,000 during the intensely chilly winter.

Fast-forward thirty years and that misty dream becomes reality. I'm standing on the bow of a modern ice vessel watching hefty chunks of disintegrating pack ice thud against the hull as we pick our way gingerly through a narrow channel. Lonely groups of Adélie Penguins watch curiously as we inch past, while in the distance, a lone Leopard Seal dives for cover under the flow.

Having already traversed the waters from The Falkland Islands to South Georgia and penetrated the snoozing caldera of Deception Island, the Akedemik Sergey Vavilov and its seasoned crew prepare to make the perilous entry into the ever-diminishing confines of the frozen waterways amongst the Palmer Archipelago.

During the pre-dawn, Vavilov enters the relatively broad expanse of the Gerlache Strait and well before the first smell of morning coffee wafts up from the galley, we're perched around the bow, goggle eyed, as the snow-splattered peaks embracing the Lemaire Channel loom above us. This is the sort of vision that lasts to the grave - a manic chequerboard of ice chunks, too small to be called 'bergs' are arrayed out before us. Now at a virtual crawl, the Vavilov gently nudges them aside, the ice-strengthened steel bow ushering them delicately around the hull amidst muffled, squeaking protests.

After a suitably reinforcing breakfast we reached our southernmost point, Petermann Island, where a very basic survival hut erected by the Argentines in 1955 provides essential food, shelter and magazines for marooned explorers - handy to know if I miss the last zodiac home. A cross erected nearby bears witness to those who didn't make it. Apart from the curious hut, the little outpost plays host to the southernmost flock of breeding Gentoo Penguins while Sheathbills, Shags and the ever-opportunistic Skuas patrol nearby.

The return journey was interrupted with some leisurely zodiac cruising amongst the grounded icebergs off Pleneau Island. Seasoned by a stiff, sleety breeze, the scene is like a frozen graveyard - these doomed bergs aren't going anywhere. Arranged in totally random assortments, these guys are gathered here from all around the peninsula, their normal migration halted permanently by the shallow harbour. No two even vaguely alike, these forlorn sculpted slabs still exhibit their marvellous range of intense blue dictated by varying oxygen density. Our passage is often slowed by a thickening, smoky pane of ice forming before us and we are forced to bash our way through with oars as the lightweight zodiac displays its total lack of ice-breaking capability. Heads suddenly swivel and twitch as a timid female Leopard seal and pup suddenly appears, and just as mysteriously disappears, amongst the frosted icescape - a rare sight even for experienced expeditioners.

Next port of call is the recently refurbished, Port Lockroy on tiny Goudier Island. Abandoned by the British Antarctic Survey in 1962, the cute hut is chock full of artefacts from the mid 20th century's Antarctic expeditions and is now a heritage listed site. A radio room, a galley and a working post office where you can send a genuine Antarctic postcard and get your passport stamped. More like monks than caretakers, Dave and Nigel cheerfully answer questions while dispensing stamps and souvenirs at the most visited place on the peninsula.

Our final and most significant landfall is the Chilean mainland base of Gonzales Videla at Waterboat Point, where we set foot on Antarctica proper. I suspect our expedition leader, Julio, a burly Chilean himself, was trying to bolster his country's economy when I saw the vast array of souvenirs laid out for our inspection. The table quickly cleared and the contingent hastily withdrew to quantify their spoils. The location is so named because two typically foolhardy Englishmen wintered there in 1921-22 in an abandoned Whaler's boat. The boat itself, oozing history, was burnt by the Chileans as junk. The guano-coated base is completely overrun by incontinent Gentoo Penguins, all fiercely protected by the dozen or so military personnel who are quick to interdict if wandering visitors stray too close.

We salute the Chilean flag that flies above the ashes of the original water boat, knowing that this will be our last view of the Antarctic mainland. The aptly named Paradise Bay is the epitome of classic Antarctic Peninsula scenery. Deceptively tranquil waterways dotted with ice cakes and framed by snow-dusted cliffs, completely silent except for the occasional screech of a wheeling seabird.
I believe we all posses a photographic memory, and when I close my eyes and recall these evocative vistas in all their glory, I'm grateful for this small power of the mind. Occasionally I blow the dust off my weighty old atlas and childishly smile that certain knowing smile as my eyes pass along what were once simply maps but are now living, full colour diaries of adventure.

Sir Douglas Mawson

By Rick J. Smee

The blizzard eased and at last the long, harrowing nightmare seemed to be coming to an end. Suffering snow-blindness and severe malnutrition Douglas Mawson staggered toward the Antarctic Coast hopeful that his supply ship had waited beyond the appointed rendezvous. Three months of deprivation, hunger and hardship suffered in the most hazardous and enervating of conditions had reduced him to a mere skeleton of a man. He stood alone at one of the coldest and windiest places on earth and scanned the blue and white ocean for the ship that would take him to safety but all he saw was the SY Aurora sailing away toward the distant horizon.

Douglas Mawson was born in Yorkshire, England in 1882; his parents Robert and Margaret Mawson emigrated to Australia two years later. After completing high school Douglas passed the University of Sydney entrance examination at sixteen years of age and chose a three-year degree in mining engineering, graduating in 1902. Mawson made a geological survey of Vanuatu (New Hebrides) in 1903. A couple of years later he was appointed a lecturer at the University of Adelaide.

With famed English explorer Ernest Shackleton, Mawson left New Zealand on New Year’s day 1908 onboard the 300-ton barquentine Nimrod. Among the party was Mawson’s mentor, T.W. Edgeworth David, professor of geology at Sydney University. There was time for just one expedition before the long Antarctic winter closed in and Edgeworth David led a party of six which included Mawson to scale Mt. Erebus an active volcano which towers 3,974 metres above the ivory world. Mawson was spellbound by the amazing contrasts of fire and ice emanating from the volcano’s crater.

As soon as practicable Shackleton despatched two parties, one to the South (Geographic) Pole the other led by David and Mawson to the South (Magnetic) Pole, their first priority was to take magnetic observations at all suitable points and to make a geological survey of South Victoria Land. Mawson, David and Alistair Mackay set off on their 2030 kilometre trek on September 26, 1908. After a perilous journey they raised the Union Jack on January 15 1909 at the South magnetic Pole.

The return trek was even more trying, exhaustion, hunger and snowblindness plagued the party until they returned safely to the coast on February 5, 1909. Shackleton’s party was not so fortunate and after 128 days and a trek of 2736 kilometres they were forced to turn back just 180 kilometres short of their goal.

Shackleton returned to Britain where he was knighted, while the Australian contingent were given a rousing welcome back in their homeland. Before long Mawson was making plans and on December 2 1911 he left Hobart, Tasmania on board the M.Y. Aurora with a party of thirty men bound once again for the vast frozen wasteland that is Antarctica.

After encountering gale force winds and mountainous seas, a small group landed at Macquarie Island, 1.370 kilometres SSW of Hobart and established a scientific and radio base. Aurora headed south again on December 23, 1911 and before long she was edging cautiously through swirling mist and fog. Without warning a mighty iceberg rose silently out of the gloom. The eerie creaking of the old ship’s timbers and ropes were the only sounds as Aurora slipped through the black water. Approximately one mile long and half a mile wide, the iceberg was scoured with cracks, crevasses and caves. Every man aboard stared at the towering spectacle of mass and colour where every shade of blue gleamed with transcendent beauty and menace.

AuroraAurora sailed deeper into the frozen sea of pack ice before land was finally sighted on the sixth of January and two days later a small group put ashore at Commonwealth Bay. Mawson named the site of their proposed Winter Quarters, Cape Denison. Supplies were unloaded before the Aurora sailed away, she would return next summer. Toward the end of the month the main hut and workshop were nearing completion and on the thirtieth, the eighteen-man party were sleeping inside the hut. By early February 1912 the weather had deteriorated as hurricane-force blizzards screamed down from the high Antarctic ice plateau. The realisation that Mawson had chosen one of the windiest places on earth for the expedition’s base was not long in coming.

Mawson had planned to utilise modern technology, in addition to radio he had brought a Vickers REP aircraft but howling gales and mechanical problems kept the plane on the ground. However it did perform some useful tasks on skis as an air-tractor, hauling loads of up to 370 kilos. During a lull in the weather Mawson, Madigan and Ninnis sledged south for nine kilometres where they dug an ice-shelter, which was supplied with food and equipment, brought in by sledging parties and the air-tractor, they named the place Aladdin's Cave.

The long dark Antarctic winter closed in and the little group settled down to await the spring, as blizzard after blizzard raged outside, the men grew impatient. Finally in November 1912 five expedition parties set out, Mawson had allocated the most dangerous task to his own group of Dr. Xavier Mertz a Swiss Mountaineer and ski champion, Lieutenant Belgrave E. S. Ninnis and himself. Eighteen Greenland Huskies would pull three sledges; their goal was to penetrate through frozen, unchartered territory as far east as possible. An inspiring legend of courage, endurance and survival would soon be engraved in the annals of Antarctic exploration.

In 1954 members of the first Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition landed on mainland Antarctica to commence work on its first station which was subsequently commissioned on 13 February 1954. In honour of the man who had devoted so much to Antarctic exploration and science it was appropriately named Mawson Station.

The 50th anniversary of Mawson Station this year is cause for celebration and quiet reflection. Australia Post has recognised the importance of the occasion by issuing a series of stamps and the Royal Australian Mint has produced a commemorative coin. Mawson continues to be at the cutting edge of Antarctic scientific research from global warming, ecology, microbiology and geology to immunological projects.

Sometimes mere words fail when such awesome beauty and majesty confront us but one thing is certain, Antarctica is a place like no other. It is the coldest, driest, windiest and highest of all the major landmasses on the planet. Its Transantarctic Mountains are 65 kilometres wide and 2,000 kilometres long while the highest peak, Vinson Massif in the Eternity Range of Western Antarctica rises to 5,140 metres. Antarctica is a lonely, wild and whimsical place. A place where days and nights are longer than anywhere else on earth. A place which has one of the greatest concentrations of wildlife on earth, it is a place where active volcanoes soar from the frozen, wind-swept plateau, it is also the fifth largest of all the continents and the least understood, it is indeed man’s last earthly frontier.

It seems probable that Captain James Cook and crew onboard HMS Resolution were the first to visit Antarctic waters in 1773. Cook wrote, ‘A strong gale attended by a thick fog, sleet and snow, which froze to the rigging as it fell and decorated the whole ship with icicles. Our ropes were like wire, our sails like plates of metal and the sheaves froze fast in the blocks, I have never seen so much ice.’

The Russian explorer Thaddeus von Bellinghausen first sighted the continent at 69 degrees south and 2 degrees west, on January 27, 1820. However early sealers and whalers were known to frequent the waters of the Antarctic Circle. Later such famous pioneers as Weddell, Palmer and Ross carved their names into history when they chartered the ocean around the South Pole. Today a new breed of adventurers is again coming to this majestic polar land. Luxury passenger liners such as Marco Polo cruise into waters first seen by Cook during the Antarctic summer, to provide unforgettable sightings of the mystery continent.

Adventure Associates of Sydney have regular adventure cruises from Australia, New Zealand, South America and South Africa in modern, well appointed Russian-built icebreakers and offers some of the most thrilling and meticulously organised tours of Antarctica available. Naturalists, lecturers, doctors and dedicated staff ensure that each expedition is not only an incomparable adventure but also a comfortable and thoroughly edifying one. One recent traveller with AA commented, “The trip was a dream come true, fulfilling a lifetime’s ambition. Every time we thought it could not get any better it did. There were many moments when we were speechless with wonder.”

To protect the Antarctic environment the Madrid Protocol was signed in 1991 in order to provide much-needed, comprehensive safeguards. After prolonged discussion and negotiation the joint efforts of France and Australia were successful in having mining banned indefinitely.

The scientific world has learned much about our fragile planet from Antarctica yet despite the many secrets already unlocked and ongoing scientific research, contemporary understanding of Antarctica might be compared to a small piece of pack-ice floating on a vast frozen sea. It is little wonder that those who live and work in the various stations dotted around the South Pole are filled with such enthusiasm and excitement. We have only just begun to learn about this awe-inspiring white land.

Such names as Amundsen, Scott, Shackleton and Mawson are synonymous with Antarctic exploration and thanks to the climate; elements of the past are still preserved. A visit to the superbly preserved hut of the Scott expedition of 1901-1904 reminds us of the Spartan facilities and hardships endured in the early days of Antarctic exploration. Companies like Adventure Associates who are totally dedicated to minimising the impact of each expedition, actively pursue a dedicated environmental policy, which follows to the letter, internationally agreed regulations.

Hardly able to stand and almost delirious from pain and malnutrition, Mawson couldn’t believe his luck as he watched the M.Y. Aurora sailing away. He staggered to the summit of an icy ridge where at long last, the winter quarters came into view. The main hut seemed to be surrounded by black rocks, probably exposed by melting snow and ice. Suddenly it seemed to Mawson that one of the rocks moved, he thought the end was near and then it waved.

A man began to run toward him. “My God! Which one are you?” gasped Frank Bickerton. Mawson later learnt that five men had been left behind at the hut, where full preparations had been made for them to winter and later search for Mawson’s missing party. Douglas Mawson had survived one of the most harrowing ordeals in the annals of human courage and survival. His legacy lives on with the magnificent work, which is carried out each and every day by the men and women of Mawson, Davis and Casey Stations, Antarctica.

The life and times of Douglas Mawson read like something from an adventure novel. The achievements of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (1911-1914) which he led were instrumental in establishing Australia’s commitment to scientific study in Antarctica. He located and chartered the South Magnetic Pole area and undertook the longest unsupported Antarctic sledge journey of nearly 3000 kilometres. Mawson was an early advocate of conservation and his untiring efforts led to the abolition of sealing. He also worked diligently for international control of all Antarctic wildlife and was light-years ahead of contemporary understanding in the scientific study of eco-systems. Sir Douglas Mawson received many awards during his lifetime, including a knighthood but possibly his greatest reward is in the burgeoning understanding and environmental protection of the last frontier.




The author is a Queensland-based journalist who is regularly published both in Australia and around the world.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Not a lot happens on South Georgia these days... thank goodness!

Travel about 2000 kilometres east from Tierra del Fuego, at the very tip of South America, and you might stumble on its precipitous and windswept shores. At 54 degrees S and 37 degrees W, South Georgia is about as remote as any place on earth could possibly be.


First sighted in 1675 by a hopelessly lost British merchant vessel, South Georgia didn't feature again until our beloved Captain James Cook stuck a flag in it on January 17, 1775. Tipped off by Cook's reports, sealers later arrived in their droves to liquidate the island's fur seal population, which they did in less than ten years.


Hurley's Photo of South GeorgiaNumerous intrepid and enterprising soles traversed its shores since then, including the famous antarctic explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton, whose arrival at Stromness after the loss of Endurance is the stuff of legend. With him on the outward voyage at least was his photographer, Frank Hurley, who snapped this vista (left).


My first vision of this harsh and foreboding land would have been almost identical to that of the first explorers. Standing on the bridge of the modern 6,000 tonne Akademik Sergey Vavilov, a converted Russian oceanographic vessel, I first saw its snow-encrusted spinal ridge pierce the thick bank of clouds that almost constantly shrouds the island's stark features.

Vavilov at AnchorThe Vavilov negotiates South Georgia's fjords »

Around almost every corner of the jagged coastline is another glacier. Huge creeping masses of metamorphic ice beating a slow-motion path to the sea, occasionally calving great deep blue chunks to form icebergs.

The ship skirted the northern edges and its islets, making for Cumberland Bay and King Edward Point, the nominal capital of South Georgia. Embedded deep in the sheltered fjord, the British garrison has been there ever since the brief Argentine occupation in 1982. Housed in sparkling new barracks at King Edward Point, they overlook the sprawling desolation of the abandoned whaling station of Grytviken just a few hundred metres away.


(c) Nigel Bonner« A sperm whale is cut apart on the Grytviken flencing plan (Nigel Bonner)

As recently as thirty years ago, this tranquil and splendid harbour would have been stained red for months on end as the mighty mammals were carved up for their flesh and blubber. The putrid stench of decaying meat, the acrid smoke from the many cookeries and the clamour and bustle of messy industry was the norm here for over fifty years.


Ruins of whaling stationWhale processing factory crumbles at Stromness »

After the last whales were dismembered and gutted on South Georgia in the mid 1960s, Grytviken, and the similar shore stations at Leith, Stromness and Husvik, were simply abandoned and left to crumble. Walking around the rusting and decaying ruins of these enormous factories is an unsettling experience. It's like Auschwitz for whales and I'm continually troubled by visions of the enormous carnage that must have occurred here and in the nearby seas.


King Penguins« King penguins stand guard on South Georgia's beaches

On the fringes, and often in the midst of this chaos, seals, penguins and numerous seabirds now congregate, oblivious of its dark history. Playful fur seal pups, now back in abundance, confront you in mock attack. Pods of enormous elephant seals loaf like great stinking, belching blubber-filled condoms, occasionally squirming for a better view of me as I walk cautiously past. These are the small ones, perhaps just a tonne apiece. The larger males, often three tonnes or more, have gone fishing for a few months.


An albatross enjoys a predator-free life »

Away from the ghostly iron and steel, South Georgia teams with wildlife, and this is its new attraction. Majestic albatross, hardy petrels and the crack Skua gulls all patrol the crisp air around the island, nesting in cacophonous masses on the tussock grass covered slopes and ledges. A recent census counted about thirty different breeding species and twice as many visiting species. The combined bird population of South Georgia numbers well into the millions.


Not to be overlooked are the six species of penguins, ranging from the abundant little Macaronis, through the regal Kings and cheeky Gentoos to the much rarer Adelie, Chinstraps and Rockhoppers. These lovable little creatures often formed honour guards for us when we went ashore in Zodiacs from the Vavilov, hooting and catcalling as we moved carefully amongst their rookeries.


South Georgia, once again replete through isolation and human inactivity, has all but returned to its former glory, marred only by man's untidy monuments to greed and cruelty.

Words and pictures by Roderick Eime

“Great God! This is an awful place!”



So said Captain Robert Falcon Scott, the day he arrived at the South Pole. The vivid tales of Mawson, Shackleton, Amundsen and Aspley Cherry-Garrard are characterised by their immense hardships, incredible deprivations and sheer triumph of will over appalling conditions on the world’s frozen continent.

Just why anybody would want to visit Antarctica, much less the South Pole, flies completely in the face of common sense, yet demand continues to rise and the necessarily limited number of tours are regularly sold out.

Nevertheless, Adventure Associates have managed to add extra departures and a fifth vessel to the fleet for the coming season.

Apart from our popular ship-based expeditions, Adventure Associates are now offering land expeditions deep inland - even as far as the South Pole itself!

Imagine flying across the huge frozen expanses, the stunning mountain vistas and the enormous glaciers just as Richard Byrd, Lincoln Ellsworth and Sir Hubert Wilkins would have done in the middle of the last century. Yet unlike these revered polar pioneers, you will actually land at the South Pole.

Other land options include camping with the Emperor Penguins and trekking around Patriot Hills. Those with a serious thirst for adventure can even join one of the 10- or 60-day ski expeditions that culminate in an arrival at the Geographic South Pole.

Whatever your Antarctic dream, Adventure Associates has the program for you!

For the Hell of it: the longest Antarctic flight on record

Australian journalist, David Burke, was aboard the first direct flight from Melbourne to the South Pole. Taking place in the still frigid month of September, it was to be anything but routine.

“Prepare for crash landing!”, comes pilot Fred Gallup’s voice over the crackly intercom. Despite Fred’s deliberately calm tone, the rest of us hunkered down in the minus 50-something degree fuselage, are already saying our prayers. The hydraulics in the nose gear are frozen, the radar is ‘out’, the cargo door won’t shut, the windscreen is smashed are our very last drop of fuel is about to go. Why did I ever say ‘yes’ to this mission?

These are the words of Australian journalist and adventurer, David Burke, on the occasion of the first non-stop flight from Australia to the South Pole, in September 1964. Despite the considerable resources, technology and skill of the US Navy, Burke’s experience serves to remind us that one should never take anything for granted in the Antarctic. Burke takes up the story.

The brainchild of Rear Admiral Jim Reedy, commander of the US Navy’s support force, Operation Deep Freeze, the plan was to complete his series of the world’s last great inter-continental flights and, in the process, drop a parcel of mail at the South Pole to the people of Deep Freeze’s Amundsen-Scott Base.

Instead of landing at the pole, the mighty Hercules C-130 (dubbed Adelie) would then proceed to the US base at McMurdo – a trip calculated to cover some 7000 kilometres in just under 16 hours. The fuel load alone is over 30 tonnes, nearly half of the entire weight of the fully laden aircraft. I need not have worried: though we seem to swallow every last metre of Avalon’s strip before our gallant Herc lifted off.

With me was Dr Phil Law, the only other Australian, and then head of our Antarctic Division. The journey began at Avalon airfield just outside Melbourne and I remember being comforted by the enormous amount of fuel we were taking on board for this historic flight. The problem was that, in order to make what would be the longest Antarctic flight on record, we needed to take off about five tonnes overweight. I need not have worried, we lifted off on a very pleasant Victorian spring evening, proceeded out over Port Phillip Bay, across Bass Straight, over Tasmania and up into the clouds beyond.

Sleep was fitful amid the drone of the four huge turboprops and just after midnight we crossed the Magnetic South Pole, our first navigational objective. Phil and I stared for some time at the majestic blue-green aurora that coaxed us south. The sight both comforted and disturbed me at the same time, for the beauty of Antarctica is always underscored by an unpredictability that tests the most skilful pilots and navigators.

As we cross the Antarctic Coast, a dim sheet of white far below, I recall the heroic exploits of our celebrated explorers, Mawson and Wilkins, who pioneered exploration and flight on this incredibly harsh continent in impossibly fragile and inadequate machines. Despite our altitude of 8500 metres, the surface below is rapidly rising to meet us. Just 4000 metres now separates us from the ice below.

We approach the Pole without radar or tracking radio from the ground as all these systems have mysteriously failed. Instead, the Admiral, as cool as you like, informs Amundsen-Scott to build a bonfire! Despite the seemingly impossible request, a faint plume of black smoke begins to rise from the most southerly point on Earth.

Our drop of newspapers and letters takes place without incident, but I am reminded that the Admiral has just created two more records; the earliest and the coldest long distance Antarctic flight – it’s -620C outside! Far too cold to land, it was at this point things began to go ‘pear-shaped’. First the windscreen shattered. Fortunately the glass held in place, but it crazed like a car windscreen. Then the cargo doors with frozen seals would not close, so the cabin depressurised, forcing us to fly way lower across the 12,000ft peaks of the Trans-Antarctic Mountains than normal and burning extra fuel. The thrill of the flight was already wearing thin at this stage when an urgent radio report came through. “There’s a blizzard at McMurdo,” the Admiral informs us, “so we’re shooting for Byrd station.”

This may sound routine to the reader, but factor in the events just described, add the extra miles to Byrd and the situation changes enormously. Furthermore, my comfort is not enhanced when I see the chief mechanic rummaging for a Lockheed service manual that I notice is labelled “Landing Gear”! Crikey, what now?!

A tiny amount of moisture in the hydraulic fluid had frozen, seizing vital valves in the nose undercarriage. This means the nosewheel and all-important ski hangs limp and flaccid beneath the cockpit like a broken foot. Ever resourceful, the crew extract from the bowels of the aircraft an enormous chain and attach it to the afflicted leg. Like Volga boatmen we all tug and strain in unison to secure the wheel as best we can. The chain is locked off with a prayer.

No sooner had we donned our hardhats, strapped ourselves to immovable parts of the fuselage, than Fred’s voice came over the intercom again. “Hang on, we’re going in.” I vividly remember staring at the 16200 litre fuel tank, now bone dry, wondering what sort of deadly projectile it would become when we “went in.”

With the big Hercules at a ridiculous angle, nose way in the air, Fred brought the crippled aircraft in at just above stall speed, touching down with the main gear and dropping the nose at around 40 knots. The chain holds, thank heaven, and almost immediately the four engines cut out leaving us to shudder to a stop on the rough, ungroomed ice.

Despite the incredible drama, we are all elated as we exit the plane in -40 degree cold. Aviation history is made, by the seat of our pants, as it so often is.

I still smile when I read Phil’s notes on the flight. Not known for overstatement, Dr Law observes, “A memorable and historic flight … and one prosecuted with the highest competence.” Here, here!

For the record: 7110 kms Melbourne to Byrd via South Pole in 15 hrs 39 mins. - the greatest duration of any modern Antarctic flight.

The author, David Burke OAM, is a prolific author and historian. His quest to document and research Antarctic events has made him an explorer and adventurer in his own right. David has made six trips to Antarctica using both military and civilian transport. His first was by US Navy icebreaker in 1958 and his most recent was with Adventure Associates aboard the Kapitan Khlebnikov in 2002.

His most recent book is titled, Voyage to the End of the Earth (Envirobook, ISBN 0858811960) and includes detailed accounts of his own and others’ journeys to Antarctica.


Ice Age

Those who visit Antarctica are often following their heart and mind. But many find their soul.

Thinking of a great holiday usually brings a smile to your face, often a sigh as you remember special moments. It’s surely a sign of a truly remarkable destination then that remembering an adventure to Antarctica can reduce a group of people to tears. Tears of sheer joy thinking about the huge impact of the whole experience.

The thrill of venturing into the last real wilderness. Seeing wildlife in its natural state and loving the fact that they have not yet learnt to fear man. Absorbing the wonder of an almost untouched environment and knowing there are no barriers except those thrown up by nature and an automatic respect for the beauty that surrounds you. Having no crowds to deal with except the thousands of penguin chicks fledging their nests and heading for the icy waters.

Heady stuff, granted. Over the top? For some, maybe. But these are shared opinions of the 83 passengers aboard the MV Lyubov Orlova on our Adventure Associates expedition to Antarctica. Eleven days of pure magic and absolute peace. Words are just not enough to describe Antarctica’s appeal and its stark contrasts.

It is cold and dangerous, and yet warm and welcoming. Silent and white as snow one minute, then noisy and black as volcanic ash. Tranquil for onlookers but bustling with activity for the thousands of penguins, for example, almost ready to leave the nest at the end of the Antarctic summer.

It has a beauty that is immediately obvious; a photographer’s paradise for sure. And yet it has hidden delights; nature’s own little secrets just waiting to be discovered by those dedicated enough to make the trek and patient enough to sit and watch.

Watching a fat, fluffy, trusting chick waddling casually past when you sit on a rock? Or sitting stunned as 40-ton humpback whales come so close they wet you with their blowholes, and then perch upright in the water to get a better look eye-to-eye. Leopard seals toying with us probably looking for breakfast, darting and sliding from one side of our Zodiac (an inflatable boat) to the other and then following us back to the ship. The groan of a glacier just before the gun-shot crack as it calves away and plunges in the sea.

Antarctica? People asked, why on Earth would you want to go there? Isn’t it cold and just a lot of ice? Won’t your photos just be all white? Of course it’s freezing. In fact it gets so cold, when you pass south of 65 (that’s degrees latitude and about 30 degrees farther south than Adelaide), the air is the same temperature as the water. Snow falling on the sea forms an icy layer instead of melting. But come prepared with the right clothes and the weather is not an issue. Thermals, jumpers, jackets, gloves, hats, waterproof pants, rubber boots and a healthy sense of adventure and you’re set.

And yes, there’s a lot of ice, but it comes in the most amazing array of shapes, sizes and colours. Beautiful sculptures by the world’s most famous artist of all, nature herself. And a kaleidoscope of colours and textures. Pure white honeycomb with frosty edges, soft foam and marshmallow towers in muted pastels; glistening turquoise blue crystals, stalagtites dripping into water so clear you can easily see the minke whale rolling just metres away and the penguins porpoising in and out of the waves.

Well, at least there’s the polar bears to look at. Wrong. Despite popular belief, they are at the other end of the world. There are so many reasons for choosing Antarctica. Our Russian ice-strengthened ship carried 83 passengers from 20 different nations, from Ushuaia at the southern tip of Argentina to the great white continent. That’s 83 different reasons for a group of adventurers aged from 15 to 74; people willing to cross the dreaded Drake Passage, one of the roughest stretches of water in the world, to reach Antarctica.

Joy, from Scotland, heard stories as she grew up of her uncle who worked at a research station. She always dreamt of seeing the real thing for herself. For American Sherry, it’s the last continent to conquer. Michelle and Jeff from Canada are on their honeymoon. Young Tricia from the US tossed up between Africa and Antarctica, but her dad wasn’t ready to let her go on a safari.

Allessandro, an Italian father-to-be, wants to find his spirit and a place to feel at peace with the world. Lawrence, a Brazilian filmmaker, is gathering footage for wildlife documentaries. A travel agent from Holland is checking out the expeditions that are selling like wildfire.

Some see it as a way of one-upmanship. Not many people, after all, can say they have been to Antarctica. For others it is purely the ice or the wildlife. A Japanese film crew captures every moment for a TV travel channel and who knows why the large group of Japanese tourists chose Antarctica, but they are having the time of their lives. For Dot Miller, a 67-year-old self-confessed adventure junkie (and my mum) from Adelaide, it’s the fulfillment of a life-long dream. Reaching that one destination that will stand out for all time.

How does it compare with other holidays or pastimes like jumping out of planes? “There is no comparison,’’ she says. “This tops the lot by far. It’s much more than I ever expected. It’s hard to describe the feeling that overcomes you. It’s so peaceful. Even with the other passengers there’s still plenty of chances and room to be alone just to take in the quiet. There’s no rubbish, no signs, no graffiti. No need to check that you’re going in the right direction. I just can’t believe how lucky we are. It’s like a dream. I have to keep pinching myself to make sure I’m really here. I feel like I’ve gone to heaven.’’

And those feelings are echoed every day. Each person, regardless of their age, enjoys . . . no, LOVES it. Everyone seems to get something completely different out of their visit; their own special memory. It may be eye-balling a 40-ton whale, conquering a mountain, swimming in icy Antarctica, seeing snow for the first time, admiring the antics of penguins or recording new species of birds.

Some turn the trek into a tribute to those early explorers who first dared to cross Antarctica’s unknown spaces - a pilgrimage for Shackleton, Mawson, Scott, Amunsden and the like, even though our expedition is made from the safety and comfort of a ship with warm beds and gourmet meals. And yet there is one common thread - a passion for our new-found paradise.

Most people come expecting to conquer this last real wilderness. We leave knowing that no one truly can. The best you can hope for is to experience it. Antarctica really does have to be seen, and felt, to be believed.



Carolyne Jasinski writes and edits for the Adelaide Advertiser newspaper. She travelled with her mother on our Classic Antarctica expedition on board the MV Orlova – and apparently will never be the same again!

Ross Sea Reprise

By Thomas Keneally

I first went to Antarctica by plane as part of an American party in 1968. After vapouring on to everyone for over three decades about how startling, how cleansing, how life-transforming a place it is, I seized at last a chance to go again as an Antarctic tourist on the chartered Russian icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov, which would succeed in taking us as far South into the ice as a ship can go.

We left in February last year from the same port, Lyttleton, New Zealand, as the classic expeditions used to. The Southern Ocean was relatively kindly. Icebreakers roll side to side, not in the rather more complex rolling, yawing and pitching which causes sea sickness even in ocean liners. We had to learn quickly to walk leaning backwards or forward at angles which, when photographed, had comic appeal.

On the way south, we landed at two of New Zealand’s SubAntarctic islands, Enderby and Campbell Islands. These were not only remarkably atmospheric, but were marked by the extraordinary megaherb plants, which grow gigantically to absorb as much sunlight as possible.

Both islands had huge populations of seals, the bulls lolling on the beaches and in the undergrowth with their harems. Campbell, to the south, was the huge breeding ground for albatross, and climbing a saddle, we found ourselves amongst these giant, magnificent, roosting birds.

I should say now that the Zodiac vessels we travelled ashore in were large and seemed to offer little challenge to the spirited septuagenarians who made a portion of the passengers. Passengers’ ages ranged from the twenties to a robust English 85-year-old widow. Many passengers had made earlier trips to Antarctica, either from New Zealand, or to the Antarctic Peninsula via southern Argentina.

Icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov (Roderick Eime)

We had an experienced staff of scientists and adventurers, as well, and were carrying a number of young Australian scientists whom we were to drop off on Macquarie Island on the way home. Meals were informally eaten without the fixed seating of stuffier ships, and south of Campbell, conversation was lively as we kept an eye out for Our First Iceberg.

When it came, it was an older pyramid-like iceberg, rather smaller than the huge tabular icebergs we would soon encounter, but like a first child, it was photographed from every angle. Similarly, our first brash ice, as we entered Antarctica’s skirt of ice, and our first pod of whales. Whales - orcas, minkes, humpbacks and southern right became so plentiful that on the bridge, where we passengers were welcome except during storms or difficult ice circumstances, no sooner would a pod of whales be announced ahead of us than someone would spot another on the port or starboard.

Adelie penguins and seals populated the ice floes we sailed through, and ahead, in such clear air that one could see to the limits of visibility, the huge coast of Antarctica from Cape Adare westwards, the coastal mountains and glaciers, and the Trans-Antarctic mountains rose out of the sea. The landscape in Antarctica is really super-landscape. First of all, there is the extraordinary clarity of the air, which makes a glacier or a mountain fifty kilometres distant look as if it is only morning stroll away. Similarly, the great volcano, Mount Erebus, fuming away above its huge ice-slopes, looks like it could be scaled in a morning, whereas it takes expert climbers three days to ascend. As well as that, Antarctica is so un-marked by humanity. It’s landscape is so massive that no one race, no culture, religion or language has owned it. It is, in the best sense of the word, No Man’s Land.

All landings, whether by helicopter or by Zodiac, were dependent on weather and ice conditions. What surprised me were the lengths to which the Russian captain and the American expedition leader would go to compensate us for landings which proved impossible. For example, a huge glittering array of ice and icebergs held Cape Adare in its grip, and to make up for the fact we could not land there, the captain took us looking for the world’s then largest iceberg, C-19, 200 kilometres long and some seventy to eighty kilometres across. When we encountered it in the Ross Sea, it stretched to the north-western and south-eastern horizons and towered above the icebreaker. So a champagne party was arranged atop the iceberg, and we were all lifted onto it, this world unto itself, by helicopter.

Ice-breaking is an hypnotically engrossing exercise, particularly if viewed from the ship’s bows on a sunny day. And our first landing on the Antarctic mainland came after visits to a number of extraordinary ice tongues, extensions of glaciers, jutting forward into the sea.

We came ashore at Terra Nova Bay where, with the massive mountains behind them, the Italians have a highly sophisticated research base, which they leave in winter but control from Italy by computer, so that much of its research continues unattended. We were then able to fly through the coastal mountains of Victoria Land and into the Dry Valleys, where glaciers end in great walls, leaving a grandly desolate bare terrain. This area offers so much information on the history of earth and sea, the condition of the Antarctic icecap in the past and future. One of these valleys is named after the Australian geologist Professor McKelvey, our geology lecturer aboard, who has spent a lifetime on the issues raised by the region - we nicknamed him the “Rock God”. He was our guide to issues of global warming and its impact both on the ice and on coastal civilisation everywhere.

Scotts Hut at Cape Evans (Wikimedia)

On the other side of McMurdo Sound, we visited the atmospheric and poignant huts of Shackleton at Cape Royds and Scott at Cape Evans. Since there was now 24-hour daylight, we journeyed to Scott’s hut on a cold, still, Antarctic evening, when the light and the overcast, created extraordinary contrasts between the volcanic soil and the ice and snow. Many Scott enthusiasts thought it was the best experience of the journey, and no one said they were wrong. For in all these Antarctic huts, there are boxes of biscuit and tins of cocoa, there are stoves, magazines, books, pieces of dog and pony harness all left behind on the day the men of the classic Antarctic expeditions had to run for the ship which would take them home.

My mind was tickled by a number of Antarctic propositions of which I had not thought before. One is that the water in icebergs is older then human civilisation, coming from snow dropped five to ten thousand years ago on the polar plateau, whereas the sea ice is mainly one-year old. And the other is that Antarctica is the only continent where the first human habitations are still standing.

C-19, helped by other giant bergs we saw, had trapped ice in McMurdo Sound. As we approached McMurdo base, we met two American Coast Guard icebreakers trying to make a path for a tanker to unload fuel for the Antarctic winter. The icebreaking here was loud and spectacular. No sooner were we through a stretch, than we could see the first plastic layer of ice re-forming either side of us and in our wake. We had to fly ashore in the helicopters to visit the extensive scientific installations at McMurdo. Now run by a scientific administration, rather than as in 1968, by the U.S. Navy, McMurdo ships out all its waste and garbage, and so do all other stations. So, by the way, do ships such as the Kapitan Khlebnikov.

There is a dazzling range of research going at McMurdo and in the nearby New Zealand base, Scott. One of the most arresting issues is the ozone layer hole, which at the time of our visit had shrunk, giving momentary hopes that we were behaving ourselves environmentally. Sadly, I believe this decline in size proved merely temporary. Some of us climbed Observatory Hill, where the cross erected to Scott’s memory stands against the giant bulk of Erebus. Looking south, we saw the France-sized Ross Ice Shelf on which Scott had died on the way back from the Pole and across the Sound, the Royal Society Range.

Coming north again, we visited and crouched amongst the Adélie penguins, chicks and adults, at the colony on Franklin Island, but spectacular Cape Adare was still icebound. All the way we had encountered the most exceptional combinations of icebergs, blue caves eroded by seawater at their base. Indeed, at Adare, safe in ice, we were able to watch the great continuous floes heaving around with the swell, as seals slept soundly all around, and penguins went about their age-old, Charlie Chaplin-esque business.

Heavy seas stopped us landing at Macquarie Island too, and there was quite a drama getting our young scientists ashore in the Zodiacs. But at Lusitania Bay, the king penguins came out in thousands to see us, surrounding the ship, conversing and calling in their piercing voices.

I loved the Khlebnikov, the experience of growling our way through the ice, the continent’s massive coasts. I went back to Antarctica, in fact, so that I wouldn’t become one of those old bores who keep saying they wish they had while they had their health. But I think the end result is that I got the bug worse than I had it in the first place, so don’t be surprised to see me on next year’s journey.

HOME ON A ROCK A CHILLING THOUGHT

david ellis

WHEN Don and Margie McIntyre decided to get away to the snow, they didn’t take out travel insurance.

Instead each had their doctors take their appendix out.

And rather than a cosy chalet with an open fire and a bar with plenty of like-minded folk to chat with, they pre-fabbed themselves a wooden box just 3.75m long, 2.5m wide and the same high, and headed off for the most remote rock they could find at Cape Denison on Antarctica’s Commonwealth Bay.

To spend a year there. Alone.

And because they knew winds could reach 240kmh, they took enough chain amongst their four tonnes of supplies to anchor their box to their rock, just so it – with them inside – wouldn’t get blown away.

To get to the Antarctic, Don and Margie hired a crew of stalwarts to help sail their 18m yacht Spirit of Sydney from home-town Hobart.

After putting their box together on their rock just 400m from Mawson’s Hut and watching their yacht sail back over the horizon towards Hobart, Don and Margie prepared for the year ahead.

When the sun shone they did outside maintenance jobs, took photographs, analysed and photographed every plank of Mawson’s hut to determine its deterioration rate, conducted a census of the penguin population, and did experiments requested by scientists from around the world.

Their only visitors for the whole year were the crew of an American helicopter who dropped by for half an hour on Christmas Day 2005, as an after-thought giving the McIntyre’s a pack of gum. Happy Christmas.

Most of their time was spent in their box sending our newsletters to schools around the world about their daily lives in the Antarctic, keeping diaries and journals, and doing domestic chores from cooking to mopping-up leaks.

Margie also hand-made 80-something teddy bears that were auctioned with an “Antarctica Birth Certificate” for up to $5000 each for childrens hospitals and charities. And at night they’d surprise talk-back radio hosts back home with a call. “G’day, we’re ringing from Antarctica,” they’d say.

Temperatures inside their box hovered around ten to fourteen degrees – with the heaters on. At night with the heaters off, 5cm of frost built up on the walls and ceiling.

A tiny annexe doubled as bathroom and food store for everything from food to medicines to kerosene for cooking. And because the annexe “was about the temperature of your home deep freeze,” says Don, baths were restricted to weekly… with toilet moments an art form in speed and dexterity.

And yes, they saw through 365 days of what they called “a glorified camping opportunity,” called up their yacht, and went home leaving their rock as pristine as if no one had ever been there.

Back in Hobart they finished their book ‘Two Below Zero,’ re-visited Antarctica several times as cruise ship lecturers and aboard their own icebreaker Sir Hubert Wilkins – and for something totally different joined a search for lost treasure in the jungles of the Philippines.

Today they go back to the Antarctic every summer in the luxury of the Australian expedition ship Orion, as lecturers and expedition leaders to 100 adventurers keen to explore this last frontier.

They take guests out amongst the penguins, seals, and sea birds, get up-close to whales, ice-cliffs and calving pack-ice, and go inside Mawson’s Hut – where, Don says “many just let go and cry openly with the emotion and enormity of where they are.”

And for the braver, there’s a Polar Plunge into the Antarctic waters. “They get out a lot quicker than it takes us to talk them into getting in,” says Margie.

Orion visits either the McIntyre’s Cape Denison region, or the Ross Sea area where Scott and Shackleton’s huts are visited.

Shackleton’s Forgotten Men

Sir Ernest Shackleton, despite the loss of Endurance, is revered as one of the most capable and heroic of all polar explorers. It’s true, the men under his direct command returned to England without loss. But what of the patient, dedicated men who waited in vain for his arrival on the other side of the Antarctic continent?

These wretched soles, whose task it was to lay depots for Shackleton’s advancing party, were stranded for two full years before the survivors were finally rescued. After his own rescue and on learning of their plight, Shackleton was moved to write; "without parallel in the annals of polar exploration...a task almost beyond human endurance."

Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914 was divided into two parties – The Weddell Sea Party, commanded by Shackleton himself and the Ross Sea Part, commanded by Capt. Aeneas Mackintosh. He had served with Shackleton aboard the Nimrod in 1907 and earned his leader’s respect as a gutsy, determined seaman of rare quality.

The Ross Sea Party arrived in January of 1915 aboard the Aurora, already a well-worn vessel, and immediately set about laying stores as instructed by Shackleton. When the first team struggled back to base in March without a single dog left, they found Aurora had been blown out to sea in a storm and perhaps lost forever.

Aurora’s stores had not been fully unloaded and the men were severely depleted, but resolved to complete their mission at all cost.

In October nine men set off again in parties of three with their four remaining dogs on a planned five-month sledge, this time needing to lay caches all the way to 83 degrees 37 minutes south. Feeding their urgency was the thought Shackleton’s party might be racing for those supply depots. They had no way of knowing Shackleton and his crew would abandon the Endurance at the end of that month.

Once again they were overloaded and at times covered the same ground as many as 14 times. On Jan. 4, one of the stoves salvaged from Scott’s hut failed and three men were sent back with it. Another stove failed after leaving a depot at 82 degrees south, forcing the remaining six men to continue together.

Near the end of January two men showed obvious signs of scurvy, and one had to be left behind about 40 miles from their final depot. The others reached Mount Hope on Jan. 26, 118 days after their trip started.

The two men first afflicted with scurvy had to be hauled on sledges during the return trip and one, photographer Arnold Spencer-Smith, died March 9. All of the men had scurvy by then, as blizzards had reduced daily rations drastically, but a few days later they reached Hut Point.

Their troubles were far from over, however. Their ship was gone and they were forced to live primarily off seal meat while staying in the frigid hut, originally built as a storehouse, not for long-term habitation. On May 8, Captain Aeneas Mackintosh and Victor Hayward decided to walk to a more comfortable hut at Cape Evans despite the fact it was too early in the season for solid sea ice. They were never seen again. Two days later a search party found evidence that the pair was carried out to sea on an ice floe.

Finally, in March 1916, Aurora was able to break free from the ice that had trapped her for ten months and sail for New Zealand. She returned to the Ross Sea with Shackleton aboard, on January 10, 1917 to rescue the survivors. In total, three men had perished, a fact often overlooked in the lavish, praising reports of Shackleton’s exploits.

Shackleton was so moved by the heroism and selfless devotion to duty of these men that he wrote in his memoir, South; "No more remarkable story of human endeavour has been revealed than the tale of that long march."

The depots that cost them their lives, so meticulously laid, still lie beneath the snow to this day.


Further Reading: