Antarctic dreaming

'I had dreamed of Antarctica a thousand times before ever I trod upon its frozen shore. But none of my imagining had prepared me for that exhilarating feeling of walking up the gangway onto the Aurora Australis at the wharf in Hobart. When I stepped onto the metal deck of the large orange ship, I was grinning like an idiot. This was it. I was really, really going to Antarctica.'

That’s the first paragraph of the book on travelling to Antarctica that I completed on my recent Arts Fellowship. It was originally going to be a feature article, comparing our voyage with Douglas Mawson’s, but like Michelangelo working on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the original concept just grew and grew and there was always something more to add. Always another great story to put in. Always a new spectacle to describe. In the end I had completed an 85 000 word non-fiction book before we had returned to Hobart.

I went to Antarctica with what I thought was a slightly too ambitious program of things to do (Australian Antarctic Magazine 13: 34, 2007) — but in fact I found inspiration coming as thick and as fast as a blizzard, and I rolled up my sleeves and wrote like a demon. Whenever I was away from my keyboard I was talking to expeditioners and scientists or going out in the field and visiting places that were quite beyond whatever dreams I had had.

As a result I completed the slightly too ambitious program and more, which included writing a feature article for the media, producing a school’s resource on biodiscovery and biosecurity in Antarctica, and running writing workshops with expeditioners as well as undertaking one-on-one sessions with many of them, editing their work to improve it for publication.

I can’t recall a period when I've been so inspired to work at such a pace — but in a sense travelling to Antarctica has been in my head for many years. So when it came to writing about it I found that it was bursting to come out and just needed that catalytic inspiration of experiencing the frozen continent first hand (albeit within thick gloves).

Also, in a sense, I have travelled to Antarctica many times through the books of previous expeditioners and explorers. I hope to add to that tradition through my own book, which also seeks to capture many of the stories of the people I met, the voices of the people who do the hard work to make things a success, but who don’t get mentioned in most official histories.

And I had so many experiences of my own to write about, whether seeing my first iceberg, climbing mountains up on the Antarctic plateau, flying in a helicopter over the Vestfold Hills, photographing penguins, seeing a spectacular aurora australis (the atmospheric one, not the ship), smelling elephant seals, exploring the different stations, or discovering the mysteries of ‘crap and wrap’ field toilets.

I feel extraordinarily privileged, not just to have really, really travelled to Antarctica, but to have met the people who make Australia’s presence in Antarctica a reality. In my opinion, the heroic age of Antarctica isn’t over — they are all heroes in their own way, through their enduring spirit of dedication, discovery, adventure, comradeship and love of both acronyms and the great white continent.

Goodness knows what I might have managed to knock off if we’d been stuck in the ice and I had a few weeks more! Well there is this novel about Captain Scott that I’m thinking about…

Australian Antarctic Arts Fellow 2008