This really is the most incredible experience. The tv crews have disappeared, the photographers have packed up and I’m sitting alone in Shackleton’s original cabin aboard the RRS Discovery.
It is a decent size, with a desk (at which I am now sat), a bench and cupboard in burnished wood, and a cabin bunk. Although it is very quiet now, after I have given a series of interviews about my expedition, and posed for photographs outside the cabin bearing Shackleton’s name, I can imagine the ship alive with activity; men in the ward room, making plans or recording observations, Dr Wilson sketching.
There is, even after all this time, still an air of expectation, of promise, to the ship. It was beautifully designed and was fitted with the best technology of the day; portable stoves, matching crockery with the British Antarctic Expedition insignia, a smart, brass-lined ship’s wheel.
I’ve been fortunate to have been allowed special access aboard the Discovery in Dundee, after earlier this year I was granted permission to wear Scott’s original sledging harness, recovered from the tent which became his final resting place after reaching the Pole.
Here then, in this cabin, is where Shackleton’s Antarctic story began, here at this desk. And it is here that I begin mine. As I write these words, little bolts of excitement shoot through my body – here is a ship which has been to the mythical continent of Antarctica, which at the time was not on any map, was untouched by human presence.
I’m wearing clothes based on Shackleton’s and Crean’s originals, and I couldn’t be closer to Ernest himself. I wonder what he would have thought about a woman on an Antarctic expedition. If I’d made it aboard the Discovery in 1901; perhaps Lady Markham [wife of Sir Clements Markham, then president of the RGS, and the woman who launched the ship], had an unmarried younger sister, a scientist maybe. Could that have persuaded Scott to take a risk and take a woman? Perhaps they might have allowed me to cook or clean, certainly I would not have been invited to join the parties who struck out into the unknown from the huts after the sun returned to the continent. How might it have been, to overwinter? Without sight or sound of home, without light or life outside of the hut where they spent the dark months of the Antarctic winter?
And how is a major expedition viewed now, now we have satellite mapping, tracking beacons and emergency get-outs? I’m pioneering a new route to the geographic South Pole – is it still about the way into the unknown?
There must have been times when Shackleton, when planning future journeys, despaired of ever raising the funds to set sail, but Antarctica was in his heart, and so he found a way.
And once there, once I step onto the blue ice of Union Glacier, will it consume my soul, as it did for Shackleton, Scott and latterly Henry Worsley, as Everest did for Mallory. This week, Henry’s ashes will be scattered in South Georgia, and a simple stone erected in his memory. It will be place on a hill above the grave of Shackleton himself. A more fitting tribute to a man who loved Shackleton cannot be imagined.
When it comes to imagining – Antarctica exists, can only exist at the moment, only in my imagination, only in my head. What kind of place is it? My head tells me it’s desolate beyond imagining, harder than I can conjure up, more testing than I can replicate on training sessions at home.
Yet my heart tells me it is a place beyond wonder, of beauty which no Wilson painting or Hurley photograph can ever really convey. And in this, Antarctica takes on that mythical quality; a place of extremes which must be witnessed; dreams realised, fears confronted.
As I sit here, and turn-of-the-century music drifts from the men’s quarters, stepping into Antarctica will, for me, bit almost like stepping back in time, to Shackleton, Scott, Amundsen and Mawson’s stories, but adding a few lines to the next chapter in Antarctica’s story.
The hardships these early Polar pioneers endured cannot be imagined, certainly we would not want to replicate them, but that hardship is something which is undeniably attractive, which draws me in.
So why go somewhere so desolate, so difficult and, in all honesty, so dangerous? That is a question for British Polar explorer Wally Herbert:
“And of what value is this journey?”
“It is as well for those who ask that there are other who feel the reason, and never need to ask.”
· With thanks to https://www.dundeeheritagetrust.co.uk/ The Shackleton Company, InLine Risk Solutions, Brunsfield Property Management, and Euphoria Freefly