Frank Hurley panorama of South Georgia 1915

Panorama of South Georgia taken by Frank Hurley in 1915

We’ve set up various blogs for countries in Latin America. Each demands a deep and fascinated interest in the country. But when it comes to the Antarctica, the pen almost freezes (bad pun, sorry). This is a continent of extremes, whether of heroes or of nature, and anything remotely mediocre strikes a dissonant note. Facts need to be correct, opinions well-supported. There is little room for anything less.

Record cover for Sinfonia Antarctica by Vaughan Williams

Record cover for Sinfonia Antarctica by Vaughan Williams

This is daunting. But I’ve long nurtured unfulfilled dreams about the Antarctic. I’ve read many of the classic explorer accounts, re-read Shackleton’s crossing to South Georgia many times, listened raptly to Vaughan Williams’ Symphonia Antarctica, and dreamt of hunting for Emperor’s eggs in the true style of Cherry-Garrard. So my enthusiasm should give some right to express opinions. And twice I’ve tried to join Antarctic missions.

The first, while at university, was with British Antarctic Survey . After an initial exploratory interview and a brief meeting with one of the gods (Sir Vivian Fuchs, leader of the Commonwealth Trans Antarctic Exxpedition), it became obvious my chances were zero without further preparation. So I signed up for a special survey course, along with a friend.

To cut a long story short, the friend re-applied to BAS and was accepted, whilst I, impatiently, headed off to South Africa well before. A year later I applied for the South African program; was invited to Johannesburg for a battery of interviews and psychology tests; and then returned to the bush, waiting, waiting waiting. Nothing ever came, and so ended the dream. Or did it?

In both cases I had been applying for a 2 year stint on a base camp. Could I have stood it? To this day I’m really not sure. But the answer was probably crystal clear to the interviewers, looking for social animals able to get on perfectly at all times despite frostbite and colleagues stealing the last of the whisky. As I’m quite unable to shout with the lads (one of Shackleton’s interview questions) and left-handed to boot, the interviewers must have quickly consigned my application to the scrapheap.

In recent years it has become much easier to take a cruise to the Antarctic, and I’ve jumped at these. They are truly spectacular. A 10 day cruise is of course much easier to handle than 2 years. Is the dream spoilt? No, not all. It is simply a different one, more intense in the speed of events, more superficial in the depth of experience. And much safer. One simply just can’t get enough of the experience of visiting such a forbidding but fascinating continent, so alien it really can’t be part of the same planet!