Sunday, 2 March 2008

Delving into history

Our next two days on the peninsula dealt us a mixed bag of cloud, snow, wind and rain, but always accompanied by an irresistible combination of unique landscape, flora and fauna. After a couple of days gorging on jaw dropping ice fields and penguin colonies teeming with Gentoos, Adelies and Chinstraps, the following days took on a more historical complexion. On the route over we had heard a series of lectures on the heroic and often tragic history of Antarctica. From the early days of exploration and discovery, through the ‘gold rush’ of commercial whaling, there are numerous stories of hardship, sacrifice, heroism and bravery. As we stopped off at Wordie Hut and Deception Island some of these stories began to come to life as the remnants of that era lay abandoned or in suspended animation.

Hut at what is now known as the Ukranian Vernadsky research station is a time capsule that transports one back to the age of tinned ox toungue, metal capped jars of marmite and hand written coal manifests. As I wandered around the now abandoned hut I got a real feel for what it must have been like to over-winter in Antarctica during the immediate post-war period. The instruments: helioscopes, radio transmitters, barometers and slide rules stand on the desk that would have played host to the resident meteorologist. The living room lies untouched with a bookshelf full of Evelyn Waugh, Neville Shute and Graham Greene, all propped up with a bust of Nat King Cole.

The entrance to Deception Island, the caldera of one of three active volcanoes on Antarctica, is guarded by the sheer cliffs known locally as Neptune’s Bellows. As we passed carefully though the narrow entrance, it became immediately obvious why this was used by whalers as a safe haven to weather out storms and butcher their catch. On the beach the remnants of this ear and the later British research station were scattered all around. Water boats, used by the whalers to store their fresh water, lay partially buried and partially open to the elements; but ultimately
intact. A graveyard of broken oil barrels is testament to the haste with which the whalers abandoned their outpost when land based whaling was shunned in favour of factory ships. At the other end of the beach large oil tanks and crumbling huts, used by the British as a supply depot during Operation Tamarin, stand rusting and disused. Just wandering around this open air museum is a humbling experience as one tries to understand what it must have been like to earn a living in this most extreme of workplaces.

The sight of Deception Island was abandoned after eruptions in 1967 and 1969 caused many of the buildings to be buried under volcanic ash and landslides. Poignantly, two graves still remain of whalers who passed away whilst on the island. The sacrifices made are difficult to imagine now, in an era when few careers pose real hardship and the accoutrements of travel make life in the Antarctic more comfortable. The ‘heroic era’ is neatly summarised for me in a poem (introduced to us by our on board historian) that was recited by Douglas Mawson as he battled his way back to the coast after a disastrous and tragic journey of which he was the sole survivor. This poem was also a favourite of Shakelton who had an open, written dialogue with the author, Robert Service, throughout his career in the Antarctic. For me it sums up the psychology of the period; one that is anathema to most of us today.

The Quitter

Robert W. Service (1912)

When you're lost in the Wild, and you're scared as a child,

And Death looks you bang in the eye,

And you're sore as a boil, it’s according to Hoyle

To cock your revolver and . . . die.

But the Code of a Man says: "Fight all you can,"

And self-dissolution is barred.
In hunger and woe, oh, it’s easy to blow . . .

It’s the hell-served-for-breakfast that’s hard.

"You're sick of the game!" Well, now that’s a shame.
You're young and you're brave and you're bright.

"You've had a raw deal!" I know — but don't squeal,

Buck up, do your damnedest, and fight.

It’s the plugging away that will win you the day,

So don't be a piker, old pard!

Just draw on your grit, it’s so easy to quit.

It’s the keeping-your chin-up that’s hard.

It’s easy to cry that you're beaten — and die;

It’s easy to crawfish and crawl;

But to fight and to fight when hope’s out of sight —

Why that’s the best game of them all!

And though you come out of each grueling bout,

All broken and battered and scarred,

Just have one more try — it’s dead easy to die,

It’s the keeping-on-living that’s hard.

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