Explorers in the Ice - Ross Sea Antarctica
Although I’ve taken Antarctica expeditions to the Peninsula many times, the opportunity to experience the Ross Sea and its historical sites for the first time was very exciting. Visiting the huts, of course, was the fulfilment of a lifetime’s desire for someone captivated by the stories of heroic endeavour of the early explorers. In Borchgrevink’s small, sturdy hut at Cape Adare that sense of confinement in the first ever Continental overwintering was palpable. In Shackleton’s beautifully conserved winter quarters at Cape Royds one could almost hear the echo of men’s footsteps or, turning suddenly, nearly catch a whiff of tobacco amongst the woollen socks and tins of soup.
But it was not in the huts that the strongest sense of engagement with those historic men came as I had expected; rather it was in a place far less familiar to me and one for which I had no previous mental picture – the Bay of Whales.
The day was wild. For hours we had watched aboard our comfortable ship while the wind touched 40 knots and the air temperature dropped below 11°C. This was the spot that Borchgrevink had reached in 1899 and found an inlet deep into the barrier ice shelf. It was here that Scott came on his first expedition and, climbing onto the ice surface, rose 800 feet in a hydrogen balloon to have his first glimpse of that vast white expanse stretching out towards the Pole. Shackleton named it after the number of great whales all around his ship here. He intended to make his base on the ice here in 1908, but taken aback at how much the front had collapsed since Scott’s time there, he vowed to build his hut only on solid land. No such fears for Amundsen, whose single-minded vision led him arrow-straight from his base on the ice at the Bay of Whales all the way to the South Pole.
Against all expectations the conditions eased, and we too were on our way, in Zodiacs, to have our close encounter with the ice face, where so few had gone before. Like Shackleton, I felt ambivalence at leaving behind the comfort of our base, but full of anticipation of the adventure ahead. The spray from the sea froze instantly on our backs. Out of dark streaming clouds emerged the 40-metre-high ice face above us, dramatic and stark. It was an adventure indeed, and this historian felt thrilled to be there, in the footsteps of so many great historic expeditions.