Dreaming of following in Scott’s footsteps
I have read just about every account ever written on Scott’s Antarctic expeditions. Some hail him as a great hero; some claim he was an autocratic leader who failed his men. The truth lies somewhere between the two. Personally, I don’t think I would have liked the man, but he has fed my dreams over my lifetime.
Once, when I was out camping, I read a chapter of Ranulph Fiennes’ Captain Scott before turning off my headlamp and snuggling into my sleeping bag. It was the part of the journey where Scott added some curry powder to his pemmican with disastrous results: the next day, as he marched, he suffered heartburn and didn’t focus on keeping his feet from freezing. My dreams were so real. I was walking across the Polar Plateau and my feet froze. I awoke to find the skies had opened and my feet were outside the tent. Perhaps I am guilty of possessing an overactive imagination.
If my friends could see me now!
It is therefore perhaps an understatement that, when we sailed up to Cape Evans—the holy grail of the expedition—I was excited.
While the outside temperature registered -11.4oC and the winds were gusting 31.7 knots (giving a virtual temperature of around -25oC) I dressed in every layer I possessed and lined up on the deck of Ortelius waiting for the Zodiacs to be launched.
There was a two-metre swell, the gangplank was covered in ice. The Zodiac and the guide were covered in ice. The entire bottom third of Ortelius was covered in ice. I was as far outside my comfort zone as it is possible to be. I stood on the landing platform, grabbed the guide’s arm in the sailor’s grip (wrist-to-wrist) and jumped when he said ‘Now!’ The timing was perfect. I stepped onto the side of the Zodiac as it lined up with the platform. A second later or earlier would have been disastrous. It is vital to have total confidence in the guides and follow their instructions.
Spray, whipped up from the surface of the waves, snap froze, slapping me in the face and body. I slid to my spot on the edge and hung on to the rope loops with white knuckles. ‘Anybody who knows me would not believe this,’ I thought, as we ploughed through the waves to Cape Evans.
It was the first time I had experienced such temperatures dressed in all my kit. My balaclava and zipped-up outer shell came right up to my eyes, fogging my glasses, which I had to remove, and making it difficult to breathe. As I struggled up the slope, unable to see, dipping to the knee in fresh snow every few steps, I felt a hint of panic. I stopped, pulled the covering off my nose and breathed deeply, but immediately my nose became very cold. Get a grip, Dale!
Bumping into Scott in Terra Nova
Stepping onto Cape Evans was made more poignant by the fact that we had been watching, episodically, Scott and Amundsen’s race to the pole over the past week, and saw the last episode the day before.
To enter Terra Nova hut is akin to bumping into Scott and his men themselves. Everything is as they left it, even down to the woolly socks and hot water bottle hanging over Scott’s bed.
Outside, the wind screamed. Inside, the only thing that screamed was the separation of classes, still obvious a century later: a wall made of packing cases to separate officers and gentlemen from the others, each with their own dining table. Of course, the officers’ table was larger and more ornate. Even the outside toilets catered for different classes of backsides.
The most moving part of the hut lay in the horse stable annexe: a pile of seal blubber still reeked after all this time; a box of penguin eggs; a wee pot stove in the corner which would not have afforded much warmth in the dead of winter and, in the last stall, the skeleton of a husky still wearing its collar and chain.
I left the dark silence of the hut to return to horizontal sleet and snow blowing straight in my face. I looked out to sea and could hardly make out Ortelius in the distance through the blizzard. Not quite a whiteout, but it gave me an idea of what it must be like. I decided not to make the climb to the cross on the hill. To me, the men’s spirit remained in the hut and, in all honesty, I was pretty well all out of emotion. Besides, as it turned out, my feelings for this beautifully constructed building were stronger than the feelings for the men who had lived in her. My passion for pioneer huts is almost as strong as my passion for Antarctica.
That afternoon, I felt overwhelmed by the enormity of it all: the history; my voyage; missing my mum who passed away six months before; fulfilling a dream; the continent. I needed to be by myself, so went to the bow, which was empty, and tried to come to grips with it all. Of course, I couldn’t. I cried a little, but was not sure for what. Perhaps for the girl who so desperately wanted to go to Antarctica, or for the adult who promised she would. We live our lives in instalments: child, daughter, lover, wife, mother, grandmother. However, it is all interconnected. The dreams we nurture, the friends we choose, the books we read lay the foundations for the being we become.
But the past is past. Scott and his crew are there, the continent has been there for so long and, human beings willing, will continue long after I am gone. Many, including my mates, have visited as modern explorers and expeditioners. It is a wondrous place, an awe-ful place, and I am among the fortunate who have experienced it.
About the writer
Dale Lorna Jacobsen is a freelance writer. She is passionate about grass-roots history, which led to the publication of two novels: Union Jack (2011), political intrigue set in Queensland in the 1920s; and Yenohan's Legacy (2013), a story of love and life in the High Country of Australia. Dale has won awards for her short stories, including ABC Short Story Award in 2005 for The Pilot. In January 2013, Dale fulfilled a lifetime dream when she boarded "Ortelius" for a 32-day expedition to the Ross Sea in Antarctica. Read more of her adventures illustrated with beautiful images and links in her iBook: Why Antarctica? a Ross Sea odyssey. Kindle version | Mac or iOS version.