In 2003 Grahame Sydney travelled to Antarctica as part of Antarctica New Zealand’s Artists to Antarctica Programme. He reports about his visit to Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition base at Cape Evans…
“Scott’s first hut, tiny, wooden and thin, still sits on a small black headland nearby. Not for them the comforts of the hot tub, the sauna, the soft warm beds and the morning shower, the instant emails, the phone calls home, the shop, the hydroponic room, the generators.
The paradoxes are startling and inescapable. Starting with the local geology: this island is volcanic – molten rock amid the ice ocean; Erebus steams away still behind us, a hot water cauldron at the height of Mt Cook, its 4000-metre head mostly in the clouds.
The painful glare of the snow, too much for any squint to cope with, is splattered with beautiful dark chocolate slashes and dribbles of rich, almost black exposed volcanic scoria, barren and blasted like a lunar surface.
It is lifeless, sharp and hard – the dusts have all blown away from here. Scott Base, McMurdo, Discovery Hut; all sit on raw, sterile rock, black ink stains on a vast white blotter. It’s a white world, surreal and hostile. The cold is exhilarating – for about two minutes – then dangerous. Nature is basically trying to kill you here and offers nothing but snow, ice, stone and the weather.
Winds turn a tolerable (with 15cm of insulated extreme weather clothing) minus 12 degrees C into an instantly insufferable, achingly debilitating -25 degrees C hell, and it happens within minutes. Face muscles tighten and numb and I talk like a stroke victim, unable to form the words. One minute exposed and my fingers shriek with acute pain, both in the freezing and the thawing. It is all snow and ice and wind but “snowing” is uncommon. Many on base have never seen it snow.
And for all the snow and ice, dehydration is a constant, indoors and out: dry mouth, sandpaper throat, everyone toting water bottles, sipping can. No water vapour, in fact no water anywhere I’ve seen so far. No bacteria either: unable to wash dishes – we only wipe ’em off with paper towels, any residue freezes to the plate anyway and is not a worry.
The surreal nature of life here is typified by the ice shelf, 100 metres give or take, itself a lifeless, colourless, rough, wind-planed grainy surface, inhospitable to living things. Beneath the shelf however is a marine environment as rich, diverse and colourful as any temperate ocean and an endless delight to scientists.”