Tales from the heroic era of polar exploration have inspired travellers to Antarctica for a century. The names of Captain Robert Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton remain talismans for many people planning their trips today.
The huts that these early explorers used as bases for their attempts to reach the South Pole still stand today, and are registered historic monuments, preserved and protected by New Zealand’s Antarctic Heritage Trust. Every year a lucky few tourists make the epic trip south to the Ross Sea to visit them. We spoke to polar historian and guide Stephen Scott-Fawcett about what it’s like to step inside such hallowed ground.
What is the significance of this region for the race to the South Pole in the early 20th century?
This was the main theatre of war, so to speak. It was the Ross Sea Island region that featured heavily as the base camp for three expeditions: Scott’s Discovery expedition of 1901-04, Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition in 1907-09 and then Scott’s Terra Nova expedition of 1910-12. It’s an iconic place if you’re interested in polar history.
How was your first experience visiting these huts?
When I first went to the Cape Evans hut in 2000 I came away feeling that it was a bit of an anti-climax. Of course, it was the base of the fateful expedition where Scott and his four companions lost their lives coming back, having failed to be the first [to the South Pole] as we all know. It was not in the best shape; I didn’t feel any real soul in there. But when I revisited it in February this year, I completely changed my opinion. The Antarctic Heritage Trust has done a remarkable job with a lot of conservation work.
The hut measures 15 metres by five, with appendages added to it like the big stable area and a workshop down the side. It was intended to house 25 men. What’s beautiful about this hut which I really do respect and admire, and is because of the work done by the Antarctic Heritage Trust, is that when you walk in the hut, yes it’s conserved, yes it’s in some order, but it’s still messy in a nice way. Somehow it feels lived in.
People often say it feels like the men who lived there just stepped outside
It’s got a lot more stuff in it. Crudely speaking, one side of the building was dedicated sleeping quarters, the other side was dedicated to the work stations. Some scientists actually lived on top of their work quite literally. It’s fantastic to see the artefacts which are now in place. It was a busy hut. Remarkably, it was described by Scott as too warm! They had two ovens working full out to cook as well as provide hot water and a bit of heating on top.
There are layers of history here. It was built by Scott’s men in early 1911 for the Terra Nova expedition. It was then used very heavily between 1915-17 by the survivors of [Shackleton’s] Ross Sea party. The Americans kindly came along in the late 1950s to clean things up and do what they could, and in about 2016 the Antarctic Heritage Trust New Zealand undertook their preservation work to a very pleasing standard.
What about Cape Royds and the hut from Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition?
This is Steve’s happy place. I’m a polar man in general, but I do focus as you probably know on Shackleton, so when I get to Cape Royds I’m in my element.
This was a prefabricated hut erected by Shackleton’s men in early 1908 to house 15 men.
Shackleton himself said that it was pretty small and cramped for the men, though he did have a cubicle to himself personally. If anyone visits the hut they’ll discover that Shackleton’s cabin room was nothing more than a cupboard – it’s quite extraordinarily small.
Photos of the hut make it seem emptier than the hut at Cape Evans
They originally had two stoves but one has now gone. The so-called Uncle Sam stove, which was used for cooking and features in many iconic photos taken at the time, was there when we visited. It’s a wonderful thing to look at.
Again, there are many layers of history. This hut was visited on many occasions subsequently by the men of the Terra Nova to scavenge. If you go to the Cape Evans hut, you’ll find some provisions from Cape Royds that were nicked and stowed away happily in the garage and the stables. Cape Royds was subsequently visited in 1915 and 1916 by the Ross Sea party. These men were in quite a fix without supplies because their ship had been blown away in a major storm. They came over to Cape Royds and did what they could to find things like tobacco and soap. In 1948, 1959 and 1960–61, the Americans under Operation Deep Freeze very kindly came along and started to dig the ice out of his hut. They found it in relatively poor condition. And then the Antarctic Heritage Trust in 2004 through 2008 did a pretty remarkable job of conservation.
There’s an even older hut at Cape Adare as well, yes?
Yes, we’d be remiss not to also consider the importance of the Cape Adare hut that was built by Carsten Borchgrevink’s men for the British Antarctic Expedition of 1898–1900. It was the first permanent hut on the Antarctic continent to be overwintered in. Cape Adare is on the northern edge of the Ross Sea, quite a long way away from the other huts.
What’s extraordinary about this hut is that it’s still in pretty good nick, despite the fact that it hasn’t really begun to be looked at by those who wish to conserve or repair it. There are two huts in fact – a main house and a store. Those buildings are in pretty good shape, a typically Scandinavian design built very well.
The winter party under Scott’s Terra Nova expedition planned to visit Cape Adare, led by Victor Campbell. They also erected a prefabricated hut here. That Campbell hut is now splintered and scattered about the beach. It didn’t withstand the elements.
And now the site is overseen by an awful lot of Adélie penguins?
Yes – visitors will have the great pleasure of seeing this piece of history, the very first hut to be built on the continent, alongside the largest Adélie penguin rookery in Antarctica.
Access to all these huts must presumably be tightly managed to maintain their condition
For visitors, there are strict controls. The huts are designated as Antarctic Special Protected Areas so it’s very strictly regulated under the Antarctic Treaty system. Those taking visitors to the huts have clear guidelines about the numbers of people that should actually be in a given area – not just the inside huts, but the area around them as well has a specific number that mustn’t be exceeded at any one time. And of course, when you go inside, there are clear controls as to how long they should be inside the hut, how they should conduct themselves and so on.
Finally, as a polar historian what is your emotional reaction to being inside them?
First and foremost, I’m pretty overwhelmed. When you walk into these huts and realise where you’re standing, it’s just humbling. As a guide, I have the great privilege of being inside for a long period of time, making sure people are entering in the proper manner. To be in the huts for four to five hours is quite something. Very overpowering.
And the guests on the ships?
You get a complete cross section. I look carefully at people’s body language and listen to them as they come in. Some people show modest interest in the huts only. They will take a few photos then exit quickly to commune with the wildlife and landscape. And that’s entirely their privilege! But everyone is very respectful.
There is often a demarcation between those who come down to the Antarctic region for the history and those who come down for the wildlife and the landscape. And that’s fair enough. But every single one of us who visit the Antarctic – whatever our passion might be – will be overwhelmed at some point. I don’t think there was a single person on my trip this year that wasn’t absolutely overwhelmed by the experience. Even the long sea days, which we had in the Ross Sea, were more than compensated by the sheer beauty of the continent.
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