Antarctica

The 2012 centenary of the dramatic Scott–Amundsen race to reach the South Pole prompted several new non-fiction books on Antarctica. No fewer than five of them were reviewed in the December–January edition of London’s Literary Review, a welcome reminder of the superb Ferocious Summer (Profile Books, 2007) by Australian author Meredith Hooper, which won the Victorian Premier’s Award for Non-Fiction in 2008 (disclosure: I was convenor of that panel).

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The years 1909 to 1914 were unusually busy in Antarctica. Back in 1900 the continent had barely been walked on, but in the succeeding decade or so, expeditions of scientific and geographical enquiry, often burdened with heavy loads of imperialist endeavour, penetrated to the heart of the last unexplored continent. The attainment of the South Geographical Pole became the emblematic centrepiece of triumph and tragedy in the so-called ‘Heroic Age’ of Antarctic exploration. In January 1909 Ernest Shackleton and three others were forced to turn back just a few days’ travel from the South Pole. Two years later, in December 1911, the southern geographical extremity of the planet was first reached when Norwegian Roald Amundsen and four companions stood at the pole. Just over a month later, a defeated and exhausted British party led by Robert Falcon Scott marched away from the South Pole to their deaths and, until recent historical deconstruction, a revered place in Britain’s Imperial folklore.

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On 18 January 1773, less than twenty-four hours after first entering Antarctic waters and concerned by the ice gathering around the Resolution, Commander James Cook surveyed the waters. A few hours later he wrote in his journal: ‘From the mast head I could see nothing to the Southward but Ice, in the Whole extent from East to WSW without the least appearance of any partition.’

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In Feeling the Heat, journalist and science writer Jo Chandler voyages to Antarctica (mostly), where she meets and talks with scientists about the meaning of their work. She reminds me of the eighteenth-century philosophical travellers, the first anthropologists who travelled to strange lands (Australia included) to observe the language and customs of savage peoples, and to learn from them. From ice field and coral reef, Chandler reports on the latest in climate science, as if meeting the inhabitants of a distant country where they do things differently.

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In the relatively small field of Australian photographic publishing, Frank Hurley has attracted more than his share of attention. The reasons are clear: in the contemporary world, bound by prohibitions, Hurley is a photographer–adventurer of heroic proportions.

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Last year I was invited to a literary festival celebrating writing about Antarctica. At the opening drinks session, I fell into conversation with a woman who, when she learned I was a participant, asked me if I had been ‘down south’. I said I hadn’t. She replied somewhat ungraciously, I thought, that she felt few would take me seriously in this forum because I hadn’t made the trip. I was taken aback, but still managed to mutter something in reply about Antarctica’s fascination as an imaginative space.

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As Tim Bowden would well remember, the ties of Hobart to the Antarctic have been visible long before the transfer of the Antarctic Division from Melbourne to Kingston, south of Hobart, in 1982, and the establishment of the Institute of Antarctic and Oceanic Studies at the University of Tasmania six years later. From the 1950s, the chartered Scandinavian vessels that carried members of the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions, Nella, Kista, Magga and other Dans, set out from Hobart early each summer. To look south down the Derwent was to know that one was truly at the end of the inhabited world. Yet if no permanent settlement has ever been created in Antarctica, thousands of Australians have worked and wintered there. The Silence Calling is Tim Bowden’s exemplary record of their achievements in this, the golden jubilee year of the ANARE.

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