Monday, March 1, 2010


(click to enlarge)

"Whatever for?" is almost as common as every other response combined when people find out that you and Antarctica have had a thing going. Even the man at emigration in Sydney looked at my card and said "Antarctica? - why?". I thought it was a silly question as I heard it, from the other side of a counter where you usually wonder if people are bordering on mute. But when I heard my uncomfortable answer - "Because it's there" - I knew that I didn't even know myself. I think the answer I should have given was "I don't know". It would have been the honest one. I didn't know.

For me, It, going to Antarctica, was one of those things that started slowly, gained momentum, and eventually became a tail wagging the dog. It started one happy evening on Lord Howe Island where, buoyed by the togetherness of the like-minded in some remote place, an invitation to join another group on another adventure seemed not only like a natural extension of how I, unusually, felt then, but moreover like a gift I had been wanting without knowing it existed. And it was the easiest thing to say yes, maybe, for something more than a year away. Send me a brochure. What harm would it do? There was certainly plenty of time to worry about things like work, and money, and plenty of time to say no.

The brochure arrived about the same time as I'd begun looking for people who had already been, and others who might be interested, and curiously not long before those who had planted this seed in me were starting to waver themselves. Still, something was happening - a feeling that this could actually happen was settling over me. I'd started seriously thinking about the place - about what it would be like to go, and what it would be like to not go. It wasn't that I really wanted to go; I really didn't want to not go.

I thought about icebergs. I could only imagine big white slabs of ice. How can you imagine icebergs when all the ice you know is ice blocks in glasses. Did I know they were infinitely variable, endlessly changing size and shape and colour, exquisitely complex, old weathered and eroded, and sometimes populated.

What if we didn't see any; if they'd all floated away or had melted. Or if once you'd seen one you'd seen them all.

What if all you saw were other boats, bumping into each other, full of Amercians and Germans taking photos of each other taking photos of each other.

What if all the penguins had left to go somewhere else. What did penguins do? I knew what they looked like; did I need to know anything more? And birds, and whales, and seals?

Mountains, were there any mountains, or just snow and ice? Did you land on ice or was there something else at the waters edge, rocks, or slush, or just ice. What if there was no ice. What if it wasn't white at all, but something else which I couldn't even imagine.

What about the Drake Passage? What about the most dangerous sea of them all? I had never been 'at sea' before except for the glassy waters of Norway's fjordland. I remember my mother saying there were times when the boat pitched down that you almost wished it would just keep going. People drowned on Drake Passage. What is it like to drown? What is it like to not drown?

There was talk about subantarctic islands, like South Georgia and the Falklands. I didn't want sub anything. I wanted the lowest, the mostest. And anyway I remember Exocets, and the Belgrano, and that Iron Woman.

In what seemed something more than just chance, someone turned up, someone with long strings of attachment which wound themselves around me into a rather nice bow. She was the sister of a neighbour of good friends, she had grown up with distant family in far Nth Queensland, we had worked together years ago, and she had been twice. She pointed me down a one-way street. There was no discredit to the operator I had been talking with, but I was put in touch with the Mortimers.

Greg and Margaret Mortimer were different. He was the first Australian to scale Everest, so what more do you need to know? Margaret Mortimer gave me time, gave me answers and gave me what was between her words. Another brochure came, not to idle over this time, but with forms in it. Now there was time pressure. Cabins were being taken.

That one, 401, that's it, that's the one. It chose us. We were going.

In Cabin 401.

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