Reflections on returning from Antarctica

Pack ice in the ocean, seen from the plane, looking like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
A jigsaw: spot the corner piece. (Photo: Sean Williams)
View out Airbus window of plane wing and white surface.Stairs waiting for the plane's arrival.

2nd March 2017

Australian Antarctic Arts Fellow and author Dr Sean Williams recently spent eight days at Casey research station in Antarctica, gathering material for an alternate history novel which will depict a meeting of 'heroic era' Antarctic explorers and visitors from the future.

Here he reflects on his experiences and the mix of feelings he had around leaving Antarctica…

It’s not every day you get to take off from a runway made entirely of ice.

As the plane picked up speed, I wondered when the water under its wheels froze. How many years passed before such marvels of aerial technology came to visit this ancient land? Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands…? Crushed baby blue by time, the incredible ice had once been rain, and before that ocean, home to creatures unknown, now long dead. I felt that history tugging at me, pulling me back.

We took off with a roar and the white landscape fell away. My journey was over, but I returned with much more than I came with. If memories had weight, the plane would never have got off the ground.

Antarctica is a land that’s very hard to leave.

Now I’m home, the task of wrapping my experiences in words is proving no less difficult. On my last day at Casey research station, I climbed to the popular lookout point on Reeve Hill. Along the way, I noticed some shards of blue ice lying in my path. They looked like glass and were as hard as rock. But if I had picked them up in my gloved hands and held them tight, they would have warmed and turned to water, slipping through my fingers.

This is how I feel about the memories I’ve brought home. They’re precious and unique, and I don’t want my attempts to bind them to change them in any way. Left to myself, I’d be content to keep them weightless in my mind, like that moment the plane’s wheels left the ground.

Unfortunately, that’s not a writers’ job. We are conduits between our audiences and the world we experience, and the role of the Arts Fellow is to tell people what we gleaned from the great southern land. So I’m just going to have to find a way to convey the pale shimmer of an aurora australis, the distant boom of falling ice cliffs, the alien barking of penguins en masse, the silent hunt of a skua across the sky. Words bind, but they also release, from the cage of one person’s mind, pieces of life to be regarded and shared.

Flying over pack ice back home, I watched the endless white plain of the Antarctic break up into a jigsaw puzzle too big to comprehend. How would I ever put the pieces of my journey back together?

I still don’t know, but where there’s a will, there’s a way. Many expeditioners were also writers, such as Apsley Cherry-Garrard, whose The Worst Journey in the World remains one of the most vivid accounts of Antarctic exploration ever penned. In that spirit, in search of the magnetic south of the imagination, the part of me that never left will press on.

Dr Sean Williams, 2016/17 Australian Antarctic Arts Fellow