Follow in the Footsteps of Scott and Amundsen in the Antarctic

Have you ever wanted to sleep under the stars in Antarctica?  For the adventurous, you can now experience the world in a way that a rare few were lucky enough to enjoy generations ago.  Adventure expeditions are now a mass tourist activity, where you can enjoy with a group of friends or likeminded individuals.

It is the planet’s last and only true wilderness. For two thousand years we have speculated about a southern realm, but, only in the last two hundred years has anyone set foot on it.  It is the world’s highest continent (average elevation of 2,250 metres) and the most arid.  A land mass the size of Europe, which no one owns, and only a few have ever visited; stunningly beautiful, harsh and unforgiving.

About 40 million years ago it separated from Australia and settled in its existing position at the bottom of the world isolated by wild, storm-whipped seas and crushing pack ice in winter.  It can be desperately cold – at the Vostok research station a temperature of -89.6c was recorded in 1983.  Along the coast, the temperature in the warmest months range from +5c to -5c and the most temperate region is the Antarctic Peninsula.  The extreme cold freezes water vapour in the air and the continent is, in fact, a desert with precipitation of less than 5cm a year.  It also suffers from the planet’s strongest winds with velocities of more than 300km per hour not uncommon.

The ancient Greeks first theorised about its existence.  Aristotle argued that the populated northern realms would topple the world unless there was a counter balancing southern realm.  Ptolemy believed this southern continent would be populated and fertile.  In the Middle Ages such ideas were dismissed as heresy by the Catholic church as it would mean the existence of people who must have a separate and independent knowledge of God.  During the early voyages of discovery, it remained a complete mystery.  When Francis Drake made his circumnavigation of the globe in 1577-80, and sailed through the passage named after him, he had no idea what lay to the south shrouded by impossible seas.

Nearly 200 years later James Cook was the first explorer to cross the Antarctic Circle (66,33’ 45.8 south of the Equator) on 17 January 1773.  He did so twice again while aboard HMS Resolution without ever getting a glimpse of terra firma before he sailed north again and discovered South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.  He had little interest in exploring any further south as he said any land there would be ‘buried under everlasting snow and ice’.

An Estonian who was a captain in the Russian Imperial Navy, Fabian von Bellingshausen, is credited with the first recorded sighting of the Antarctic on 27 January 1820 – it registered little interest with his territory hungry masters.  It was probably a sealer in the early 19th Century who first set foot on the continent as a brutal gold rush in seal skins and their oil followed the discovery of South Georgia.  From 1780 to 1892 more than 1,100 sealing ships visited Antarctic regions compared to 25 scientific expedition vessels. However, the sealers tended to keep their commercial secrets to themselves as they set about exterminating the local fauna.

Scotsman James Weddell led a sealing expedition to the South Shetlands leaving the UK in 1819.  With freak weather he reached a new southern record of 74,15’S – 344km further south than Cook and named the open sea he found after King George IV.  Its name was later changed to honour his discovery.  No one reached that far south by ship for a further 80 years.

It wasn’t until the early 20th Century that people started to penetrate the interior of the last continent.  In 1902 Captian Robert Scott, Edward Wilson and Ernest Shackleton made a brave, but failed, bid to reach the South Pole.  Shackleton made another failed attempt in 1908 getting as near as 98 nautical miles.  Roald Amundsen claimed the prize in 1911 with Scott, Wilson and Edgar Evans and Lawrence Oates dying as they tragically followed in his footsteps.

This year make the centenary of Shackleton’s  next and most famous expedition.  He was forced to abandon his plan to cross the continent in November 1915 when his ship Endurance was crushed in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea.  It had been trapped for nine months.  With his 27 men he camped on the ice for a further five months before an opening in the frozen sea allowed them to head sail northwards in the lifeboats.  He then embarked on a remarkable and epic journey.  Six day later the bedraggled men landed on uninhabited Elephant Island.  Shackleton left his men in care of Frank Wild and set sail in one of the small wooden lifeboats with five other side of the island and he was forced to make the first ever crossing of the mountainous and glaciated interior.   The Boss, as his men called him, later described it as ‘a wracking march of 36 hours’.  It took a further three months to rescue his men from Elephant Island – but all survived.

In 1959 an international treaty was signed so the continent ‘shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purpose’. The last wilderness claimed for all humanity.  No animal, mineral or vegetable riches can be extracted and no military bases are allowed.  Today in a scattering of bases a few thousand scientists carry out crucial research and each year in the summer months a small number of tourists get to experience the exhilarating beauty of the extreme south.

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