Sitting at Scott’s table – a journey to Antarctica
Sitting in Scott’s chair and pondering the meaning of century-old graffiti in Shackleton’s hut are two enduring memories of an once-in-a-lifetime trip to Antarctica for Senior Exhibition Developer Victoria Travers. Although her journey took place 15 years ago she vividly remembers the experience including her discovery that all the Antarctic clichés about its beauty and vastness had not been overstated.
Fifteen years ago I had the extraordinary privilege of travelling to the frozen continent, the great white, terra incognita itself: Antarctica. At that time, I was employed in a job where I told stories of Scott and Shackleton to young children on a daily basis. Scott’s story of the ill-fated 1911-1913 expedition was one that I knew off by heart, and recounted ad nauseam through the winter months, when many schools studied Antarctica. I calculated that I must have told that story close to 300 times – it was so familiar to me I could tell it on autopilot and still achieve the drama of the expedition, with expression and inflections in all the right places. Despite my (over)familiarity with the material, I prided myself in making it sound like it was the first time I’d ever told the story.
As someone who had a role in education about Antarctica, I was beyond delighted to be invited as a guest of Antarctica New Zealand to spend four days visiting Scott Base and the surrounds of Ross Island and McMurdo Sound.
So there I found myself, four days before the Christmas of 1998, sitting on a US Navy Hercules LC-130 (with skis), en route to Willy’s ‘field’, in the frozen Ross Sea. The only way I can begin to describe the surreal nature of preparing to go to this ancient and enormous, but curiously least-known continent, is that I felt like I could have been going to the moon.
It has changed so little since Scott and Shackleton’s days, that had I looked down and seen the Terra Nova or the Discovery negotiating the ice floe, I wouldn’t have blinked.
It’s still not easy to travel, nor survive, there. It’s the only continent with no indigenous people, and is universally enigmatic and intriguing. Each of us who are fascinated by this place has a different touchstone, something that resonates deeply. For me, it was to be Scott’s hut at Cape Evans.
The eight-hour trip down was a portent of the incredible experience I was about to have. Somehow, I wangled my way into the cockpit and was invited to stay for the last three hours of the flight. Being in the cockpit of a Hercules LC-130 as it lands on the ice in Antarctica was as good as you might imagine.
All the clichés of Antarctica ring true and it is so hard to avoid using them in any description of what I saw as I looked down on the frozen Ross Sea – extraordinary, remarkable, mind-blowing, vast. The beauty and wilderness rendered me speechless, and the timelessness was extraordinary. There are very few places left on earth which remain as they were when first described by humans. It has changed so little since Scott and Shackleton’s days, that had I looked down and seen the Terra Nova or the Discovery negotiating the ice floe, I wouldn’t have blinked.
My experience of Scott base was tremendous – it was a bubble of existence which reminded me of being on a school camp. That paradox of simultaneously feeling like you’ve just arrived somewhere and also feeling like you’ve been there an age. Of forging fast friendships that hinge on incredible shared experiences that are so separate from your day-to-day life.
Twenty-four hours of light is a trip in itself – living without the cues that set our natural rhythms is disorienting. Time is different in Antarctica, and feels entirely constructed. My watch told me to stay on New Zealand time, but my body didn’t quite buy it.
I was fortunate that the weather for the four days I was there was incredible, just like the picture postcards and coffee table books. In truth, of course, Antarctica is a land of big weather, changing brutally and abruptly, but we mostly only take pictures on the good days.
And, it was on one of these big, blue-sky days we headed North via Haglund driving on the coast of Ross Island to visit Scott’s hut at Cape Evans and Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds. The eight-hour round trip was eventful and included a fortuitous encounter with an Emperor penguin, a long way from the ice edge where he should have been, a crawl into an ice cave cathedral under the Barne Glacier, dancing on a frozen lake, an Adelie penguin colony, and the thrill of standing inside the historic huts of Scott and Shackleton.
Both Scott and Shackleton based themselves twice on Ross Island. Once as members of the same expedition (1901-1903), and then each as leaders on separate trips (in 1908 and 1911). Scott was leader of their first expedition and Shackleton was a member of his team. The team transported everything they needed for the years they planned for each of these expeditions, including prefabricated huts, each expedition improving upon the provisions of the last. The first of their dwellings is the Discovery Hut, so named after the ship which brought them down in 1901-1903. (This hut sits the furthest South and is just 300m from where the US base, McMurdo station – ‘Mac Town’ – was later built, which is just over the saddle from New Zealand’s Scott Base, established by Sir Edmund Hillary as part of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition.)
Shackleton, being a natural leader, went on to lead his own expedition in 1908 with the aim of reaching the South Pole. They built their hut at Cape Royds, adjacent to a handy Adelie penguin colony, which was the source of some fascinating observations by the expedition team that have only been revealed in recent years. The third, and perhaps the most enigmatic hut, was that of Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the pole in 1911-1913, sited at Cape Evans, on the Southern side of the mighty Barne Glacier.
I knew these huts so well already – I knew where they were located, who stayed there, where they slept, and something of their daily lives, as described in the plethora of Antarctic literature these men scribed. And, it was still incredible to me that I was about to enter these huts – as so few people are able – and to briefly step into their worlds.
Our first hut experience was the one I knew would be the weightiest, Scott’s hut at Cape Evans. We disembarked from our Swedish troop vehicle (‘disembark’ feels like the right description of exiting an all-terrain Swedish troop vehicle) and I was asked to recount the story of Scott to our small party before we entered the huts. With a deep exhale, there I stood, on the ice outside Scott’s last home beginning the story that I told so often. It was one of the most overwhelming experiences I’ve ever had. If I was a spiritual woman, I’d have said I could feel their ghosts. I remember every single word of the recount that day.
In complete silence, and with hairs standing on end, we made our way to the front door, entering like intruders. It was so eerie, and there was a real presence in the Cape Evans hut; as if they’d just walked out of the door and they might step back in and find us trespassing.
I knew the layout of the hut already and where I was heading as I moved around. I knew who had slept where. Now, here it was, real, in front of me. I could picture them moving about, the cups on hangers, food in the tins, Clissold preparing the meals. I could see the different sections of the hut where the men had segregated themselves in order to achieve some privacy in such close confines. The ‘Ubdugglery’ where Captain Oates had slept, ‘Clissold’s Corner’, and the Officers quarters at the far end of the hut, where the two beds of Edward Wilson and Captain Scott’s lay. Between them was a table. I sat down in Scott’s chair and imagined him sketching, filling out his diary, logging preparations and daily happenings.
As we left the hut I found myself giving an imaginary tip of my hat to Scott, Evans, Wilson, Bowers, and Oates.
That same day we travelled to Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds. The informality of the Cape Royds hut was in notable contrast to Scott’s hut, a difference likely driven by Shackleton’s merchant rather than royal naval background.
Of all my observations that day and during my short time in Antarctica, it is the glimpse into the lives of these explorers that has stayed with me. It is the little details, the remnants of these big lives. Standing in the huts I wondered why they left some things behind and not others? What did they think of the tinned curried rabbit still sitting on the shelves? What was the joke behind the graffiti “Joyce’s Skinning Academy” crudely scrawled on packing cases? I’m sure the answers are out there but I quite like living with the questions that remind me of my time in those huts and the men who stood there before me.
Still Life exhibition
This article was a companion to the Still Life: Inside the Antarctic huts of Scott and Shackleton exhibition.
Post by: Victoria Travers
Victoria Travers is the Senior Exhibition Developer at Auckland Museum. She has a particular interest in natural history, conservation and the communication of science, but also enjoys working in a Museum with such encyclopaedic collections and knowledge. Her exhibition development work includes Auckland Museum’s most recent major exhibition, Moana - My Ocean.
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