Sunday, 26 February 2012

The first woman and the last dog in Antarctica

Talk by Jesse Blackadder on 9 February 2012  at Bangalow Business Women’s Networking Breakfast

When Kylie asked me to come and talk to you I wondered what I could say about women and business. Being a fiction writer has got to be one of the worst business decisions you can ever make, so I’m not exactly a role model. It takes years to write a book and if – the big if – you manage to get it published, the average advance for a new author in Australia is about $4000. You can do the maths on that.
But there are some great things about the business of writing, which are that you get to follow your obsessions. They might not be profitable, but I’m sure you all know how rewarding it is to do work you’re passionate about. So I’m going to talk to you about my obsession and how persistence can pay off – eventually and with luck.
Let me paint you a word picture. It’s a sunny spring day in Antarctica, only minus four degrees with hardly any breeze – most unusual for the planet’s windiest continent. For the past hour we’ve roared across the birds-egg-blue sea ice in a sturdy red Hagglunds vehicle. 
I’m now standing at the top of a hill surrounded by ice and snow, waving a 70-year-old Australian Red Ensign flag that I’ve unearthed from a rock cairn, and accompanied by a life-sized fibreglass Seeing Eye dog called “Stay”. 
It’s one of the more surreal moments of my Australian Antarctic Arts Fellowship, but it typifies several things about the extraordinary continent of Antarctica: that its history is a living part of life when you’re there, that visitors need to expect the unexpected, and that it helps to have an eccentric obsession if you want to visit. Oh, and 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.
I’ll come back to the Seeing Eye dog shortly, but first: my own Antarctic obsession began with an old black and white photograph of two women sitting on the deck of a ship on the way to Antarctica. One of them, Ingrid Christensen, gazed into the camera enigmatically. When I learned that Ingrid and Mathilde were the first woman known to have seen Antarctica, I wanted to know more.
One problem – there was little more to be found. I discovered that Ingrid, a 38-year-old Norwegian, left her six children behind and travelled to Antarctica by ship four times with her husband Lars in the 1930s as part of his whaling fleet, taking a female friend or two on each trip. 
Lillemor Rachlew went on two of Ingrid’s trips. She kept a lively diary, took photographs, shot seals and by the sounds of it, participated energetically in the voyage. Don’t you love that fur coat? 
Here’s a quote from her diary in Lars Christensen’s book:
‘At one time during the morning it became a little calmer and I made my way along to the verandah – as we called the built-in deck beneath the captain’s bridge – with my cine camera under my arm, to see if I could get any snaps of what could be seen of the after-deck between the waves. Suddenly the ship lurched violently and I fell and rolled in snow slush right across the verandah, coming to anchor with a crash on the port side, in the midst of some chairs and tables that were lashed securely there. Once there, I made use of the opportunity to take some snaps, and I very much hope they will be good – I’m sure I deserve it after all I went through!’ 
Although Ingrid was the first woman to see Antarctica, on her first three trips conditions were never right for landing. Before Ingrid could get back to Antarctica a fourth time, a Danish woman Caroline Mikkelsen accompanied her Norwegian husband Klarius south on a whaling ship, one of the fleet owned by Lars Christensen. 
During their voyage, Klarius took Caroline ashore, and she became (it was believed) the first woman to set foot on Antarctica.
What Ingrid thought about being pipped at the post was never recorded. Although her husband wrote prolifically about their travels, none of Ingrid’s words have survived, if they were ever written down in the first place. Her own landing, which took place two years later, was largely unrecorded and forgotten by history.
The whole history of women and Antarctica is problematic, as they were actively, in fact strenuously excluded from the continent. Women had started applying to Antarctic expeditions early in the 1900s. Robert Falcon Scott was asked by the famous palaeobotanist (and later contraception advocate) Marie Stopes to take her on his expedition so she could look for rocks to prove the theory that the continents had once been linked. Among Shackleton’s records is a letter from three young women said ‘We are three strong healthy girls, and also gay and bright, and willing to undergo any hardships that you yourself undergo… we do not see why men should have the glory, and women none, especially when there are women just as brave and capable as there are men.’ 
Twenty five women applied to Mawson’s expedition in 1929, and the extraordinary number of 1300 women applied to the British Antarctic Expedition in 1937. 
Not one of those women made it to Antarctica. The only women who managed to get there before the 1940s were those who went in association with Ingrid and Lars Christensen. I was intrigued by Ingrid and the forgotten story of her four journeys. All the ingredients were there for a compelling drama, and the lack of factual detail made it perfect for a novel.
One important question remained: Could I write a novel about Antarctica without going there?
Definitely not, I hoped. I was fascinated with the icy continent and determined to visit. But to get to Antarctica you need to be a scientist, a tradesperson, a doctor, a tourist with plenty of money, or – for a lucky few – an artist with a project that captures the imagination of the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD). 
It took me three attempts to convince the Division that my novel about Ingrid was more exciting than the various visual arts, music, dance, film and photography projects also vying for an arts berth on the Aurora Australis, the big red icebreaker charged with shuttling AAD employees between Hobart and eastern Antarctica for their half or full year stints on the continent. In October 2011 I finally stepped on board and began my six-week voyage, a modern version of Ingrid’s own voyages to the same region of Antarctica 80 years earlier.
Most Antarctic tourism takes place between the southern end of Argentina and the Antarctic Peninsula, where the crossing of the Drake Passage by ship is rough but blessedly short – about two days. 
However Australia’s three Antarctic bases (Casey, Davis and Mawson) all lie on the other side of the continent, in a remote location far from most tourist activities. It’s more than 4500km from Hobart to Davis Station – two weeks sailing time each way, through the roaring forties, furious fifties and screaming sixties latitudes of the Southern Ocean.
  1. Thorshavn and waves
It’s an epic voyage and, unusually in modern travel, bears more than a passing relationship to the ship journeys of past years. In 1931, Ingrid made a six week voyage on the resupply vessel Thorshavn from Cape Town carrying fuel, mail and food for the deep sea whaling fleet working in the Southern Ocean near eastern Antarctica. The development of wireless communication meant some contact with home was possible and news reports could be sent back to the papers.
Eighty years later, in 2011, I made a six-week voyage on the Division’s resupply vessel carrying fuel, mail, food, personnel and equipment from Hobart to Davis Station in eastern Antarctica. The development of satellite communication meant limited email contact with home was possible, though connecting to the internet was not. (With help from a friend I could post to my blog from the ship via email).
I settled in to the strange, insular world of a long ship journey across a wild ocean. I slid around in my bunk at night and waltzed through the corridors, one-two-three, one-two-three in a side-to-side motion to keep my balance. I suffered seasickness, though unlike them I had an extensive range of medications to help me through it. 
Like Ingrid and her companions, I braved the chilly air on deck to watch for albatrosses, whales, the snow petrels and the first icebergs. I imagine those women were just as fascinated and awed by the spectacle of the sea ice and by the continent itself as I was.
Once the ship arrived at Davis Station the Division turned on the red carpet treatment, sending me out on a three day escorted field trip to explore the surrounds of Davis Station, including the flagpole marking Caroline Mikkelsen’s landing place. 
And there, on a small hill in the middle of an Adelie penguin rookery, I found confirmation of a curious fact that polar researcher Ian Norman and his colleagues had noticed when examining the records of Caroline Mikkelsen’s landing. Caroline in fact landed on an island.
Now this kind of hair splitting about who landed where and when might seem ridiculous, but it was an important part of polar exploration, as evidenced by the still-famous story of Scott and Amundsen’s race to the South Pole 100 years ago. 
In fact, the first confirmed landing on Antarctica, by Henryk Bull’s 1894 expedition on a ship called Antarctic, shows the lengths to which such competition could go. The identity of the first person ashore was hotly disputed, with the captain, a junior seaman and the Norwegian Carsten Borchgrevink, who made this sketch, all claiming to have leapt from the landing boat before the others. To this day no one knows the truth of the story. By such slender margins were reputations made and histories written.
It wasn’t till I got back from our field trip that I discovered this discrepancy about Caroline’s landing has fascinated people living at Davis Station over the years and there are all sorts of wonderful theories about it. They include Norwegian sailors secretly hiding things, missing artefacts, mistaken identities and the prospect of an undiscovered treasure: Caroline’s real landing site. But for 20 years Davis Station residents have gone out with the old photo and tried to replicate it to prove or disprove the landing, and have looked for an alternative landing site. They haven’t found one. It seems likely that the place I visited really is Caroline’s landing site
Meanwhile, I found that although people at Davis Station knew quite a lot about Caroline Mikkelsen, none of them were familiar with Ingrid Christensen, even though the station is located in this area which is named Ingrid Christensen Land. 
I went to Norway last year to do more research, including meeting Ingrid’s granddaughter pictured here. I had had a section of Ingrid’s husband’s diaries translated describing their own landing at Scullin Monolith, not far from Mawson Station. 
Here’s a picture of their landing site, where all four women who were on that final trip went ashore. Those blurry figures are Lars and Ingrid, standing by the cairn of rocks they built and the Norwegian flag. They left a depot under a cairn of rocks.
As far as I know, nobody has ever gone searching for Ingrid’s landing place. But last year’s station leader and I went through all the photos that are on file of Scullin. We think we’ve identified the general area where they landed. But the only way to prove it is to go looking for the depot. If it hasn’t been souvenired by passing sailors in the past eighty years, it’s still there, a heritage treasure waiting to be found. 
I have a dream of going back to find it – and a plan – but that’s another story.
Postscript: “Stay” the Seeing Eye dog is an Antarctic legend in her own right. She was kidnapped by a group of expeditioners from the streets of Hobart in 1991 for a short visit to Antarctica to provide some comfort to the men and women mourning the imminent removal of huskies from Australian bases. But instead of returning to the Guide Dog Association full of money as planned, Stay embarked on her own Antarctic adventures. She’s been smuggled, liberated, repatriated, incarcerated and dognapped all over again. With her own facebook page and passport, she’s travelled all over Antarctica and even north to Spitsbergen in the high Arctic, by means largely unknown. I was delighted that she accompanied us to Caroline Mikkelsen’s landing site.

Jesse’s two published novels are The Raven’s Heart (HarperCollins 2011) and After the Party (Hardie Grant Books 2005). Her website is and her novel about the first women to reach Antarctica will be published in 2013.  If you would like to see more - Good Reading magazine is publishing this story with lots of pictures of Jesse's trip and the Bangalow Newsagency will have Good Reading magazine after 1 March, 2012.

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