Essay

Where borders break down

Recollections of a polar traveller

WHEN EXPLAINING MY Antarctic research to new acquaintances, at a dinner party or a barbeque, I can usually predict the direction of the conversation. First comes surprise and – depending on the crowd – perhaps delight that someone working in the humanities conducts research on the Antarctic region. Then almost always the question follows of whether I have ever visited the remote place that occupies so much of my intellectual life. I understand the impulse behind this question: part polite curiosity, but also genuine intrigue about a part of the world that, even now, comparatively few people have had the chance to experience. It’s a question I would ask, were our positions reversed. But it also raises a whole series of uncomfortable issues.

In the early twenty-­first century, journeys to Antarctica come with a significant carbon footprint. Passengers taking a standard ten-­day tourist cruise, for example, produce more carbon dioxide than the average global citizen produces in an entire year of ordinary living. While almost any long-­distance travel raises similar considerations, the issue seems particularly pointed when the destination is an icy region where increasingly unstable glaciers threaten to make enormous long-­term impacts on the planet and its inhabitants. And then there are direct impacts, such as wildlife disturbance and black-­carbon pollution – sooty material that increases the heat generated by incoming solar radiation. Some studies suggest that researchers have a bigger negative impact than tourists: ‘People who say you shouldn’t go there / Go there’, the Australian poet Caroline Caddy observes wryly. She herself ‘went there’ in the mid-­1990s as one of the earliest official Australian Antarctic writers-­in-­residence. An inevitable sense of hypocrisy troubles anyone who both loves and visits the ice continent.

If my answer to the dinner-­party question were no, I might then retain a sense of ethical consistency. However, shades of scepticism could begin to darken the faces of my dinner companions. As polar historian Adrian Howkins notes: ‘By the simple act of going to the places we write about, we are presumed to have a certain authority over them.’ And vice versa: not having gone suggests a certain lack of dedication and credibility. If I were studying literature set in Paris, I would be expected to have spent time in that city. Why should Antarctica be any different? Admittedly, for someone like me – who works primarily with stories, books and archives – knowledge gained from a material encounter with an environment is not as easy to summarise as it is for scientists, who bring back data sets, samples and ice cores, not just impressions, observations and lots of scribbled notes. Nonetheless, direct personal knowledge of the places we study and write about is expected of humanities researchers, as it is of scientists.

When, in 2016, I published my book South Pole – a natural and cultural history of the southern point where the Earth’s rotational axis intersects its surface – I was hyper-­conscious of never having reached this strange, singular location. Working part time while researching the book, with a baby and a toddler in my care, I would have struggled to fit the journey into my hectic life, even if I could have stumped up the $70,000-­plus a commercial tour company would have charged me for the privilege. I comforted myself with the knowledge that most stories of the South Pole – from Robert Scott’s diary of his famously unhappy expedition to American physician Jerri Nielsen’s account of diagnosing and treating her own breast cancer while a doctor at Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station – are first-person narratives written from lived experience. In my book, by contrast, I wanted to understand what the geographical pole meant to humans – how they had imagined it when it was just a theoretical idea; how they had written about its terrifying, exhilarating lure before anyone knew what might be found there; what it symbolises for those who never expect to see it. Not visiting myself seemed, from a certain perspective, an advantage. And yet, when my book was reviewed in an academic polar journal, the reviewer concluded that I ‘[did] not appear ever to have visited Antarctica, let alone the South Pole’ because the ‘mandatory photo of a muffled figure standing alongside a penguin’ was absent – although he did concede that I made a ‘good job’ of the book despite this omission.

 

I HAVE BEEN to Antarctica and have many images of my fleece-­swaddled, penguin-­proximate self to prove it. I first visited Casey Station in East Antarctica more than fifteen years ago, travelling by icebreaker with the Australian Antarctic Program as writer-­in-­residence. Later, as a guest instructor on the University of Canterbury’s remarkable Postgraduate Certificate in Antarctic Studies (PCAS), I stayed at Scott Base and camped on an ice shelf in the Ross Sea region, having flown down with the New Zealand program on a US military aircraft. Becoming increasingly interested in cultures of Antarctic travel, I later took a standard ten-day cruise-­ship journey from the tip of Argentina to the Antarctic Peninsula. My most recent visit was with the Chilean national program. As part of a contribution to a large Australian Research Council-­funded project focusing on five Antarctic ‘gateway’ cities, the Chilean program hosted one young person from each city – along with two researchers, myself included – at Professor Julio Escudero Base in the South Shetland Islands just off the peninsula. Travel on this occasion was outsourced to a commercial airline, so we shared our flights with a group of tourists.

Each journey has unquestionably deepened and enriched my ongoing passion for a place that I first knew primarily through books. But the more times I go, the less the claim I have been to Antarctica seems to mean.

Both Antarctica’s remoteness and its ice – less than 1 per cent of the continent is ice free – give it a homogenous quality in the public imagination. The continent is understood as one coherent entity, so that going ‘to Antarctica’ makes some kind of sense. But physically visiting multiple parts of the South Polar region brings home the difference within this sameness. To deal only with the broadest scale: the high ice plateau of East Antarctica – which has the monumental, minimalist appeal of the desert – contrasts with the lower lying West Antarctica, where the bedrock is often below sea level and spectacular snowy mountain ranges and glaciated islands invite a more familiar, alpine aesthetic. The Antarctic Peninsula – sometimes termed the ‘banana belt’ of the continent or the ‘Antarctic Riviera’ – protrudes some way north of the polar circle and can reach temperatures not unlike those of a pleasant spring day in my home town of Hobart. By contrast, at Dome A, the highest part of the East Antarctic plateau, minus-40 degrees Celsius is considered warm. The coastal parts of Antarctica are home to plentiful bird and animal species, while the interior is devoid of any non-­human life above the microbial. Scientists are increasingly recognising the physical heterogeneity of the continent and its surrounds by designating distinct biogeographical regions.

Layered upon these physical differences are the ones that are social, cultural and political. Antarctica is the site of more than 100 different facilities: stations – both year-­round and summer only – camps, depots, refuges and airfields. Despite the international ethos of the continent’s governance, almost all are run by individual nations – more than thirty of them, from global powers such as China, Russia and the US to smaller players including Turkey, Ukraine, Ecuador and Sweden. While maps of Antarctica often show the region divided into seven wedge-­shaped territorial sectors – and the Antarctic Treaty does nothing to diminish these political claims – there are no visible borders within the continent, and nations can blithely build their facilities in territory claimed by another nation, subject to certain environmental approval processes. Six countries – France, Italy, India, Russia, China and the US – have year-­round stations in Australia’s claim, which does, after all, cover more than two-­fifths of the continent. The result of all this is a strange, often delightful, occasionally surreal and sometimes disturbing mixture of national enclaves and international exchange.

On my first Antarctic journey, I moved through an effective corridor of Australianness, boarding the ship Aurora Australis in Hobart, travelling with a group of largely Australian expeditioners, visiting the Australian station at Casey and returning via Macquarie Island, which is technically part of Tasmania. As Casey lies within the Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT), you could argue that – apart from crossing the high seas – I never left Australia. A coastal station just north of the Antarctic Circle, Casey is not environmentally extreme by Antarctic standards, but it is fairly isolated, with no other stations nearby. About 150 people visit the base over summer, but far fewer live there in winter. The small community of scientists – tradespeople, technicians and other support personnel – feels very tight-­knit, with everyone pitching in to keep the station functional.

My Ross Sea experience brought contrasts, although I still travelled within an Anglophone bubble. This region was originally claimed by the British (as was the AAT) and then inherited by New Zealand. The memory of British expeditions led by Scott and Ernest Shackleton, as well as a later one co-­led by the New Zealander Edmund Hillary, is strong in the region, centred on carefully preserved ‘Historic Huts’. Ross Island – wedged against the huge floating Ross Ice Shelf – is now home to New Zealand’s Scott Base, where I stayed. Only a short drive or a half-­hour walk away is the US McMurdo Station, the largest of any facility on the continent, which can house more than 1,000 inhabitants in summer. With amenities such as a gym, chapel, coffee house, several bars, places to park cars and dirt roads connecting the various buildings, it feels as much like a town as is possible in Antarctica. In contrast to Casey, both Scott and McMurdo employ cleaners as well as cooks, and due to the frequent flights into the area there is an ongoing inflow and outflow of people in the summer, giving both stations a greater sense of transience than is evident at Australia’s bases. Scott Base has something like a backpackers’ ambience. A road – dirt when I visited but presumably snow-­covered in colder months – joins the two stations, and traffic between them is relatively frequent. At one point in my stay, a member of our group needed minor medical attention while walking near Scott Base, and an ambulance from the small hospital at McMurdo came down the road, lights flashing – for whose benefit was not entirely clear. The ‘feel’ of the small New Zealand station is quite different from its larger counterpart, and each base attracts inhabitants of the other looking for a change of scene.

Both nations express themselves politically through the built environment of their Antarctic stations, although in contrasting ways. In the US National Science Foundation’s administrative building at McMurdo, our PCAS group sat in a small wooden hall surrounded by the flags of the Antarctic Treaty nations while a framed photograph of Donald Trump glowered down on us. Outside, the flags of the treaty’s twelve original signatories surrounded a bust of US explorer Richard Byrd. An inscription stated the explorer’s hope that the continent’s ‘symbolic cloak of white’ would ‘shine forth’ in the form of peace and international co-­operation – although Byrd was also eager for his government to make its own territorial claim. At Scott Base, Māori culture is evident: a carved pouwhenua stands outside the base – and there are woven panels and other carvings inside. These carvings, which surround one of the doors, are part of a recent, larger program to incorporate Māori knowledge into the New Zealand Antarctic science effort. In a well-­attended ceremony held while I was staying there, the national flag was lowered and then replaced, symbolising the end of one season and the start of another. Out in the wind and cold, flags can get a little ragged – the bar at Scott is called the Tatty Flag, a moniker that captures the ironic national pride manifested in the base.

 

NATIONAL EXPRESSION CAN be evident to Antarctic visitors even before they depart the lower latitudes. Almost all Antarctic travellers, whether tourists or expeditioners, are routed through the small group of southern ‘gateway’ cities that include my own city of Hobart; Christchurch, in the South Island of New Zealand; Punta Arenas and Ushuaia, at the bottom tip of Chile and Argentina respectively; and Cape Town in South Africa. The first four – comparatively small and regional – all promote their Antarctic connections strongly within their urban infrastructure, through statues and memorials, interpretative centres, signage and museums. In Hobart you can visit the Mawson’s Huts Replica Museum, an exact-­as-­possible copy of the main living quarters of the nation’s most famous exploratory venture into the far south, the Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Multiple maps of Antarctica inside the museum have the Australian Antarctic Territory marked out but show no other sovereignty claims. If you drive some way south of Punta Arenas, you come across a tall monument, sporting a long, thin image of Chile in relief at the top and a triangular section of West Antarctica at the bottom. A nearby sign explains that the monument stands at the centro geografico del pais (geographical centre of the country). As Punta Arenas is itself close to the southern extreme of the South American continent, this claim makes sense only if you accept that this country stretches all the way from the border with Peru in the north down to the Geographic South Pole. And Chile’s is only one of three overlapping claims in the region – Argentina and the UK also consider the peninsula their own. It makes you wonder where the geographic centre of Britain might be, on this logic – presumably somewhere in the mid-Atlantic.

Despite the political tensions created by contested claims, King George Island – where I travelled with the Chilean program – felt far more cosmopolitan than my earlier Antarctic destinations. Warmer and more accessible than most parts of the Antarctic, the peninsula and nearby islands are comparatively dense with scientific stations. The Russian base, Bellingshausen, abuts Escudero, and the Chinese station Great Wall is within walking distance. Artigas, a Uruguayan station, is a bumpy ute ride away, and a South Korean base across the bay, King Sejong, can easily be reached by boat. Until the onset of the Covid pandemic, people living in these bases interacted regularly, socially enacting the international ethos underlying Antarctic governance.

Visiting these stations was a highlight of my journey, dispelling some of the myths I had absorbed from my reading about how particular nations inhabited the continent. Russian stations in my mind were associated with bare-­bones existence: people removing their own appendices (this auto-­operation, using a mirror and local anaesthetic, occurred in the early 1960s) and stabbing each other over library books. In contrast to what I’d heard, the actual Bellingshausen was cosy and welcoming. Our hosts served our group tea and biscuits, we bought fridge magnets, caps and postcards in a gift shop using US dollars, and the resident priest at the beautiful Russian Orthodox chapel disarmed us with his warmth, openness and extensive English vocabulary. I was grateful for my one recently acquired word of Russian – ‘Spasiba!’ – which I blurted out repeatedly. When we were invited to a party at Artigas on a Saturday night, the entire Uruguayan population of Antarctica lined up to kiss us on both cheeks and – after a surreal night that involved equal parts table tennis, karaoke and dancing to the Bee Gees – they all lined up again to farewell us in the same way. This was February 2020 and – although further down the island Great Wall Station was already in quarantine – the new virus still seemed only a distant, worrying media report. In the impressive new building at King Sejong, we all sat in the well-­appointed canteen, enviously eyeing up a big Italian coffee machine. (Escudero had only instant – there are still some deprivations left in Antarctica.) We were taken on a tour of the facility, which included a former dormitory that had been converted into a highly professional museum, with dual-­language signage and interpretative videos outlining the thirty-­five-­year legacy of South Korean researchers on the site. Visiting King George Island, where you can see caves in which sealing parties sheltered in the early nineteenth century, is a reminder that ‘Heroic Era’ sledging expeditions do not have a monopoly on Antarctica’s heritage.

King George Island was eye opening for another reason: the visibility of the impact of warming water and air on the continent. Such changes were far less visible to the naked eye in East Antarctica and the Ross Sea region. And although I had known intellectually how much the continent’s icescapes and wildlife were being impacted, King George Island brought this home far more materially: the impact was unmissable. While we were on the island, the continent’s highest ever temperature – over 18 degrees Celsius – was recorded on the other side of the peninsula.

Where we anticipated a picturesque snowy backdrop to Escudero Base on King George, as we had seen in photographs, we were confronted instead with a mudscape. On a visit to nearby Ardley Island – the stark green beauty of which brought home the aptness of the name ‘South Shetlands’ – we saw gentoo penguins where there had previously been Adélies. This latter species, as ice-­obligates, can no longer survive in the warmer conditions. We visited the local Collins Glacier, where water poured off in torrents and one of my colleagues, visibly affected, remarked on its recession in the few years since he had last visited. We had left an Australia still reeling from terrible bushfires – the dust from which, newspapers reported, had reached South America and possibly Antarctica itself. The Collins’ face was covered in dark streaks. While I knew that these were just lines of debris typical of glaciers, in my mind the bushfire smoke, carbon pollution and the besmirched glacier all coalesced, reminding me once more of the price of my own journey. Only the presence of the five young city representatives – all of them energetic, innovative thinkers determined to protect the continent – helped fend off the bleakness of that image.

 

AT ESCUDERO WE would often see cruise ships anchored in the bay as they collected tourists taking the ‘fly-­sail’ expeditions that arrived at the same airstrip where we had landed.

Seeing the tourists recalled my own cruise-­ship journey the previous year. After studying cultural aspects of human engagement with Antarctica for many years, I had wanted to know what ‘version’ of the continent was being offered through commercial operators. After all, many more people encounter Antarctica this way than through national programs – nearly 75,000 in the summer season prior to the pandemic. Many in the industry believe that the exponential growth in Antarctic tourism seen in recent decades will continue when international travel resumes. The clientele is also becoming more nationally diverse. I travelled with a US operator, and the vast majority of guests were American, but there were also sizeable contingents from China, Canada, Japan, Australia, Israel and the UK. The expedition staff were mainly Canadian. The barman who served us was from Kyrgyzstan; the woman who cleaned our cabin was from the Philippines, where she had left a young baby whose support was the reason she turned down our beds every day. Not all these workers were seduced by the ice wilderness. One staff member told me they were ‘sick of Antarctica and sick of penguins’.

What struck me most, travelling with a tour operator, was the curated nature of the experience. I attended lectures on glaciology, geology, photography, history, the Antarctic Treaty System. A selection of Antarctic-­themed films was available on the television screen in our cabin, and polar books were kept in a small library. (I was embarrassed how pleased I felt to see South Pole among their number.) Each day we did one ‘landing’ and one small boat trip. In each case, we were accompanied by guides who interpreted what we were seeing. Landings meant walking within relatively small flagged-­off areas – a necessary imposition for both safety and environmental reasons.

The whole experience made me realise that operators have considerable power in how they ‘present’ the continent to visitors. The industry takes this power seriously, strongly promoting the idea of visitors becoming ‘Antarctic ambassadors’ – protectors of the continent. But almost all tourism focuses on only a tiny, accessible part of Antarctica – the northern part of the peninsula – and ten days is a short time to get to know any place. My journey made me keen to understand how tourism companies, working in conjunction with researchers, can use this power most effectively. Together with tourism researchers at the University of Tasmania, I’m now working with tour operators to empirically investigate this question. Alongside Intrepid Travel, we are examining ways to give visitors of diverse cultural backgrounds, who embody different national relationships with the continent and with wilderness areas more generally, a deep appreciation of this place. We are also working with Hurtigruten Expeditions to assess the potential for citizen-­science activities to give visitors a stronger and more informed relationship with the far south.

 

ANTARCTIC VETERANS OFTEN reflect on the different entrées to the continent enabled by sea versus air travel. My own Antarctic journeys reinforced this for me. Leaving a summery Christchurch, flying for five hours in a windowless Boeing Globemaster and stepping out onto an ice shelf, I felt like I’d entered an interplanetary portal. By contrast, the week or so that it took me to reach Casey from Tasmania on board the Aurora Australis was a very gradual introduction to the continent, both socially and physically. The group on the ship held bets on the timing of first iceberg sighting. We rushed up to the deck when we heard rumours of a whale; we peered over the bow as the ship began to move through the ice floes, watching the penguins scatter. Paradoxically, while the sea journey allowed me to see the continuity between ‘Antarctica’ and ‘the rest of the world’, it also gave me an appreciation of the enormous stretches of ocean that separate it from other continents – something a five-­hour flight belies.

By coincidence, all of my Antarctic journeys have been in February – the end of the summer season, when the continent is still warm, light and as ice free as it is going to get. People who winter see another side, and those who stay for substantive periods begin to know not only the rhythms of the seasons – such as they are – but also the nuances of the icescape. In researching South Pole, I was struck by a comment made by Paul Siple, the American chief scientist of the first wintering party in 1957, when the US South Pole Station was being completed. While his companions’ first impression was simply the featureless blankness of the polar plateau, ‘as they began looking closer, they saw new things each time. There was beauty in the snow surface that was not apparent at the outset.’

It seems a pity that the many writers and artists in residence supported by various Antarctic programs almost always travel to the continent in summer, and for a fairly short time. Historians such as Flinders University’s Alessandro Antonello are calling for approaches to Antarctica that go beyond understanding the continent as an ‘undifferentiated totality’ and pay more attention to the local, thus recognising the ‘full range of actors and identities at play’ in the region. What is true spatially is also true temporally: just as a visit to one part of a large continent cannot provide insight into the whole, a summer sojourn will not do justice to the long-­term experience of living in Antarctica. At a time when scientists are emphasising the biogeographical diversity of the continent, we need images and narratives that help us recognise Antarctica’s full variety of human encounter.

Where, when, how you visit the continent – all will influence your experience, but just as important is who you are when you travel: I’m speaking administratively, not ontologically. Everyone who encounters Antarctica does so as a traveller, and all travellers – unless they are renegades bypassing the Antarctic Treaty System – are subject to extensive bureaucratic systems. Cruise-­ship tourists are literally barcode-­scanned as they disembark their vessel and their explorations confined to demarcated areas in specified landing sites. Even independent yachts need their permits. Travelling with a national program allows you to see a different side of human habitation of Antarctica, but it comes with expectations and restrictions. Entering what you assume is the wildest region of the world, you are immediately subject to all kinds of invisible boundaries and zoning systems. An instinctively obedient person, I was constantly worried at Casey, Scott and Macquarie Island that I was accidentally wandering without permission into a magnetic quiet zone or a Specially Managed Area, or within a five-­metre radius of an unsuspecting penguin. No doubt this sense of constraint changes for those who live long term in Antarctica, but nonetheless the paradox of claustrophobia and vastness that humans contend with there – like the paradox of a highly curated wilderness tourist experience – continues to intrigue me.

 

NONE OF THESE musings addresses the issue of who, if anyone, should ‘go to Antarctica’. Those who have not visited, whether by choice or circumstances, can nonetheless know the place deeply. In places such lutruwita/Tasmania, Indigenous people have interacted with the far south for tens of
thousands of years without leaving the island, through their experience
of weather, migrating animals and atmospheric phenomena. And ‘gateway citizens’ can have strong affective relations with Antarctica despite never having been there.

But like the proverbial group of blind people feeling different parts of an elephant, everyone encountering Antarctica – whether through direct experience or through stories, sounds and images – knows just a fragment of its whole. Only as a community – sharing, acknowledging and augmenting each other’s experiences, impressions and responses – can we ever hope to discover the kind of creature that is Antartica.

 

References 

Antonello, Alessandro. ‘Finding Place in Antarctica.’ In Antarctica and the Humanities, ed. Roberts Peder, Lize-Marié van der Watt, Adrian Howkins. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp 181-203 

Burton, Robert. Review of South Pole: Nature and Culture. Polar Record 53.3 (2017); 340-41. 

Caddy, Caroline. “Antarctica,” in Antarctica. South Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1996, 54-55. 

Farreny, Ramon, Jordi Oliver-Solà, Machiel Lamers, Bas Amelung, Xavier Gabarrell, Joan Rieradevall, Martí Boarda and Javier Benayas, ‘Carbon dioxide emissions of Antarctic tourism’, Antarctic Science, 23:6 (2011), 556–66. 

Friedlingstein, P., et al. ‘Global carbon budget 2020’. Earth System Science Data 12: 3269-3340. 

Hughes, Kevin A., Peter Convey, Luis R. Pertierra, Greta C. Vega, Pedro Aragón, and Miguel Á.Olalla-Tárraga. “Human-Mediated Dispersal of Terrestrial Species between Antarctic biogeographical regions: A preliminary risk assessment.” Journal of Environmental Management 232 (2019): 73-89. 

Howkins, Adrian. “‘Have you been there?’ Some Thoughts on (Not) Visiting Antarctica.” Environmental History 15 (2010): 514-19.  

PolarGeospatialCentre. COMNAP Antarctic Facilities v3.3.0. Available at https://github.com/PolarGeospatialCenter/comnap-antarctic-facilities/releases. 6 May 2020. 

Rose, Lisle A. Explorer: The Life of Richard E. Byrd. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 2008. 

Siple, Paul. 90° South: The Story of the American South Pole Conquest. New York: G.P. Putnan’s Sons, 1959. 

Wehi, Priscilla M., Nigel J. Scott, Jacinta Beckwith, Rata Pryor Rodgers, Tasman Gillies, Vincent Van Uitregt and Krushil Watene. “A Short Scan of Maori Journeys to Antarctica.” Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand. 2021. DOI: 10.1080/03036758.2021.1917633 

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