When you first catch sight of the Antarctic ice pack, excitement courses through you as the great unknown land draws closer. I first saw the jigsaw expanse of icebergs from a US storage plane, far below, stretching away as far as the eye could see. I landed, hours later, on the Ross Island ice shelf, and stepped down into a white world of ice. ‘Ivan the Terra Bus’ rolled over the ice to meet us. Shortly after we crowded in, it became lodged halfway up its monster wheels in the ice shelf. We all eagerly scrambled out onto the white plain, stomping about in our thick, standard issue boot, waiting to be taken to Scott Base. Clouds hung like the eerie ghosts of winter darkness.
Antarctica is the end of the earth; a giant continent covered in snow and surrounded by floating ice. Governments have agreed that it is to be a place of peace and science, and no military operations or political ownership claims are allowed. It is a blank, white page for the lucky few to explore.
You may travel by boat, approaching the serenely from the southernmost point of Chile, sailing steadily for the Antarctic peninsula through icebergs, watching the interplay between land and sea. This ocean frontier is where the Antarctic animals are: sea leopards hunt across the ice bergs, orcas surface, carnivorous ducks with teeth tear at seal flesh, and Emperor penguins flock in their thousands; hatching their young. Did you ever ask that old question, why don’t the polar bears eat the penguins? Learn now or be a laughing stock. There are no polar bears in the south; this is the realm of penguins. The bears are in the Arctic North and the two never meet.
My companions and I worked to build our own ice caves as part of a survival exercise. I slept in mine for the week we stayed on the ice shelf. Some buried piles of their luggage under a thick coating of snow, then burrowed in and pulled the luggage out leaving a cave inside. Others carefully calculated dimensions of ice bricks for the perfect igloo. Some merely dug a cave down into the ice, dragging their thick goose down sleeping bags in after them. The rooftop of my cave shone brilliant icy blue as the sun circled round and round. In the land of ice the summer sun does not dip below the horizon. Day falls into more day; the circles of the sun sink lower as the season ages and hounded by the coming of ceaseless winter darkness. Late at night on Christmas Eve I raised my eyes from sawing crooked ice planks for my snow cave. The clear blue sky was dancing with the finest golden glitter, not in clouds, but evenly dispersed through the air. I gasped and my heart swelled with the breathtaking beauty of the gold dust. It was spin drift, the first of the snow crystals blowing in for the storm.
I woke on Christmas morning to wind and snow. I ventured out to help my companions dig great slabs of ice for a five metre Christmas tree and a great round table with a high-backed bench to sit for our Christmas dinner, which arrived by skidoo from Scott Base.
A day later, we were driven across a wide plane inside a grinding, yellow Hagglund, a tracked Swedish all terrain tank. We reached a Weddell seal colony and tiptoed over carefully. We trudged across the ice shelf. The sea beneath us was 200 metres down through the ice. We stared at the fat Weddell seals with their fluffy, teddy-bear faces and growling, alpha males. A bull-seal skeleton lay in his corrupted skin beside a blue pool with banks of icicles and snow. Around him other carcasses of seals were strewn. Their hides blackened and shrunken on cracked ribs and innards preserved in the permafrost. These deaths were a mystery to scientists and logistics personnel alike. The living lay amongst the corpses in languorous vigil. They gazed gently at me, upside down on their teddy-bear backs. The scene was backed by a colossal ice shelf that blocked the sky, the enchantment blue of ice, the palatial majesty and pitiless ice pinnacles that captured the sun light.
Twice we stepped reverently across the threshold into the still huts of the early adventurers: gory seal fat preserved by the door, skin on, blackened; despairing, valiant diaries on the benches, and a line that read, ‘Those weary feet that found the world too sad to walk in, wither, oh wither, will wandering lead them?’ We peered at the simple beds and rough clothing, before creeping out into the blinding light, sobered and awed.
We hiked steep, snow-covered mountains: one an icy crater, the second, an observation hill. Our bodies burning but pushing harder and fighting the skidding scree to reach the top and face the grief of death at the commemoration cross, raised for the renowned, tragic explorer, Scott, who reached the South Pole first and died coming back. We reached the summit and beheld the message which read, ‘To seek, to strive, to find, and not to yield’, Tennyson.
As we stepped back up into the heavy grey plane, anticipating grass and BBQs at home, each of us vowed faithfully we would return. A part of our souls was left there, waiting in the ice.
By Anna Pallesen