The first woman in Antarctica

Author Jesse Blackadder travelled to Antarctica on an Australian Antarctic Arts Fellowship to research her novel about the first woman to reach Antarctica.

I am standing on a rocky hill on a sunny spring day in Antarctica. It’s minus four degrees with hardly any breeze — most unusual for the planet’s windiest continent, and ice and snow stretch to the horizon in every direction. I am waving a 70-year-old Australian Red Ensign flag that I’ve unearthed from a rock cairn, and my companion is a life-sized fibreglass Guide Dog called “Stay”. It’s one of the more surreal moments of my Australian Antarctic Arts Fellowship, researching a novel about the first women to reach Antarctica, but it typifies several things about the extraordinary continent: history is truly alive in the moment when you are there, it helps to have an eccentric obsession if you want to visit, and if there’s something you want to find again — a ship, a flag, a vehicle — it’s a good idea to make sure it’s red.

These are the opening words of an essay called ‘The first woman and the last dog in Antarctica’, which I wrote after returning from a voyage south with the Australian Antarctic Division, in November 2011. The essay explored the obsession that took me to Antarctica — tracking down the first woman to reach the continent in order to write a novel about her. The story was bigger than I first imagined, expanding to cover whales, ice, the Wall Street Crash, undiscovered lands, ancient rocks, contraception and margarine. Not to mention Seeing Eye Dogs.

I first saw a picture of Ingrid Christensen and Mathilde Wegger in the Mitchell Library in Sydney. From an old black and white photograph of two women on the deck of a ship bound for the ice, Ingrid Christensen gazed out at me, as if daring me to find out more. The photo was taken in 1931, four years before the first woman is thought to have landed on Antarctica.

Ingrid Christensen Land is the name of the region where Davis station is located. But try Googling her name and you’ll find virtually nothing about Ingrid herself. As Antarctic researcher Elizabeth Chipman commented, when writing Women on the Ice back in the 1980s, the history of women in the far south is ‘patchy’. In fact, women were actively excluded from the continent. One of the earliest examples of this was when Dr Marie Stopes (at the time a leading palaeobotanist) applied to go on Scott’s Terra Nova expedition to look for the fossilised patterns of Glossopteris indicia leaf veins, to prove that Antarctica had once been part of the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana. In spite of her international standing, Scott declined to take her.

Women continued applying to expeditions through the heroic era (including to Mawson, Scott and Shackleton) and the mechanical era, with the extraordinary number of 1300 women applying to the proposed British Antarctic Expedition in 1937. None were accepted, and the fact of these applications has been largely forgotten.

Similarly, little was written about 38-year-old mother of six, Ingrid Christensen, and her four journeys to Antarctica in the 1930s, and even less about her female companions. It took longer than I expected to unearth her story. Almost as long as it took me to win the Arts Fellowship. I applied three times before getting the nod, and had a few nerve-racking hitches with the medical, so it was with great excitement that I finally boarded the Aurora Australis in October 2011 and set out for Davis Station.

I wasn’t sure what I expected to find in Antarctica. By that stage I’d been researching Ingrid for a couple of years, and I’d already written a third of my novel based on her travels. I had also been to the Antarctic Peninsula the year before. What would be different about travelling to Ingrid Christensen Land? As it turned out, just about everything.

The Arts Fellowship provided me with a round trip and I’m sure I’m not the only Arts Fellow who dreamt of going AWOL and spending a season on the ice. However the six-week voyage turned out to be perfect for my research. When Ingrid travelled to Antarctica four times during the 1930s, she went on the resupply vessel for her husband’s deep sea whaling fleet. Their point of departure was Cape Town and they travelled with fuel, food and supplies for the four factory ships and fleet of catchers working in East Antarctica. The voyage took about six weeks. Sound familiar? Not unlike today’s station resupply voyages.

I had many of the jigsaw pieces of my research assembled. But it wasn’t till I was in Antarctica that I realised being there wasn’t about writing better descriptions of ice. (Possibly the opposite is true — although my descriptions of seasickness now have the ring of authenticity.) It was about comprehending the story of these women’s journeys in the physical landscape in which they took place.

Once the ship arrived at Davis station the Antarctic Division turned on the red carpet treatment, sending me out on a three day escorted field trip to explore the surrounds of the station, including the flagpole marking Caroline Mikkelsen’s landing place. Caroline is widely believed to be the first woman on Antarctica. But work by polar researcher Ian Norman and his colleagues, published in Polar Record in 1998 and 2002, suggested otherwise. And it was there, on a rocky hillside in the middle of an Adélie penguin rookery, with Caroline’s flagpole standing tantalisingly out of reach in the nesting area, the jigsaw pieces came together.

On the way home in the Aurora Australis, I set myself up in a laboratory and wrote like a demon. As on the way down, writing proved a great antidote to seasickness and I hope it infused my novel with the real experience of a voyage to Antarctica. I have since finished the book, which is called Chasing the light.

I came back from the fellowship with an unexpected gift. I spent three days with ‘Stay’ (a fibreglass Guide Dog) on our field trip, and it seemed fitting that a female Guide Dog accompanied me as I followed the nearly invisible traces of the first women to reach Antarctica. However Stay wasn’t content to play second fiddle, and wanted to star in her own book, so I have also written a children’s novel about the last dog in Antarctica, featuring Stay.


Jesse’s novel about Ingrid Christensen, Chasing the light, will be published in February 2013 by HarperCollins and Stay: the last dog in Antarctica, a novel for children 8–11, will be published by ABC Books in July 2013. Jesse won the 2012 Guy Morrison Prize for Literary Journalism for her essay ‘The first woman and the last dog in Antarctica’. Her feature on early women travellers to Antarctica will appear in Australian Geographic in March 2013.