History Thawing Quietly

Having been away in Auckland and Christchurch for back-to-back Antarctic conferences these past 2 weeks, you could say that I have ice on the brain. Sure, I’m back home now, but the thaw is slow. The quiet of Methven is helping, because now that I don’t have the roar of background traffic to contend with I can finally core down into the story gems I have collected – the odd local one included.

Christchurch is full of Antarctic paraphernalia and historic sites of ice, including Sir Edmund Hillary’s trusty tractor at the Canterbury museum, and the famous marble statue of Captain Scott, carved by his widow, which is currently undergoing repair work. Lady Scott spent time in the Garden City, as did Sir Douglas Mawson. That’s is not surprising; cities are places of bustle, full of ports and people, so they have more of a chance of attracting famous figures that will later stand out in history.

Ashburton can boast a slice of that history as well, thanks to a farmer named George Buckley and an explorer named Ernest Shackleton. George Buckley donated to Shackleton in the lead up to the explorer’s 1907 Nimrod expedition, the aim of which was to try to reach the geographic South Pole. When Buckley subsequently turned up on the docks to farewell the ship, his impromptu request to join the journey south was approved. The farmer travelled as far as the pack ice, taking charge of several ponies during the journey, before transferring across to the steamer the Koonya – which had towed the Nimrod south – and leaving Shackleton’s team to press on towards the continent alone. The Koonya headed back north, bound for cows and home, and laden with tales of excitement from the edge of the world. So it was that Buckley became one of, if not the, first Antarctic tourists. These days yearly visitor numbers may top 40,000, but the modern day tourists had to follow in the footsteps of someone.

Mid Canterbury may often be overlooked when it comes to the adventure stakes, but this tale from the days when the world was black and white shows that living on the plains is no barrier to developing an intrepid disposition.

Meanwhile, Buckley’s generosity in supporting the Antarctic expedition lives on, with ‘Buckley Island’ named by Shackleton in his honour. Antarctica has strong connections to places throughout Canterbury, and it is not just the big smoke that can narrate traces of our icy past.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

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Wish Upon Antarctica

Once upon Gondwanaland
Where glossopteris grew and dinosaurs roamed
Your wish-upon-a star was born

Or rather, became visible to the naked eye
As the gentle rhythm of day and night
Rocked loose the plates so far below

Southward bound, as we are today
They travelled to the edge of place
And the longest day, where time stood still

All wishes here are put on ice
And Peter Pan grows wrinkles too
From squinting at the frozen glare

And making out the leaves that freeze
Their memory into ancient stones
Alongside ores that don’t belong.

***

Once upon Antarctica
Where ice sheets grow and scientists roam
Your wish-upon-a star was found

Still stars rain down from far above
Scarring the ice with blackened heat
As interlopers on this white plateau

Traverse the ice to find a sign
About the universe’s once-upon-a-time
In rocks that lie so far from home

At season’s end the sun dips low
And dormant skies are seen once more
As shadows lengthen on the snow

And constellations emerge unchanged
While meteorites and fossil trees
Share shelf space behind polished glass

Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer

Aidan Dooley’s Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer
Thursday 27 March 2014, Christchurch

When Ireland and Antarctica converged in Christchurch in late March, one man stole the night: Tom Crean, as played by Aidan Dooley. The three polar pyramid tents outside the Heaton School auditorium set the scene for an icy adventure, but belied the body heat generated by a sell out crowd.  We were going on a journey to Antarctica, but parkas were best left at he door.

The play, which premiered at the Medway Fuse Festival in 2003, tells the tale of Tom Crean, a lad from Kerry who served on three Antarctic expeditions under both Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton. Crean is one of the many men from the Heroic Era who simply did his job and then faded into history, eclipsed by the Heroes that gave the age its name.  Thanks to Dooley, there has been renewed interest in Crean in recent years. His little known story is now one of the most famous adventure tales in Ireland, where the play has gained something of a cult following. Sell out crowds are usual, while the first question many Irish nationals have following any lecture on Shackleton’s Endurance expedition is ‘what about Tom Crean?’

If anyone in Thursday’s audience was wondering the same thing, they were in the right place.  Dooley spins a yarn that takes the audience to the ends of the earth, transporting us back to the sepia days of Antarctic Exploration. Act One sees us following him South on the Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions, recounting his disappointment at being sent back home as Scott and four others pushed on to the Pole. Through a combination of pub-style storytelling and exhausting reenactments of the slog, we learn of the hardship encountered, the sledding used to descend from great heights down a glacier, and Crean’s astonishment at finally making it back to the hut alive. Dooley has a way of getting under the skin of his characters and really capturing what makes them tick. He seamlessly weaves elements of the older Crean, who was publican of ‘The South Pole,’ with flashbacks of his younger self, and peppers his performance with local Irish references and questions for the crowd. This is no ‘sit back and relax’ tale, but a raucous performance full of energy and banter.

Act Two sees Crean return to Antarctica on board the Endurance, under Ernest Shackleton. We hear the story of the ship becoming trapped in the ice and slowly sinking, but it is the details that make this version come alive – the way the lights in the ship flashed on and off, on and off as she slipped below the water, as if to wave farewell. Dooley’s first person account of the boat trip from Elephant Island to South Georgia also brings home the human side of the famous feat of endurance: a particularly lively impression of Worsley attempting to take a sighting of the sun in the midst of heaving seas has the audience clinging to their seats for dear life.

Dooley was first drawn to Crean’s story when he learnt the explorer had been awarded the Albert medal for bravery following Shackleton’s Endurance expedition, and the play grew from there. These days it is a full-blown theatrical sensation. The play may be called Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer, but it is written and performed by Aidan Dooley, Master Storyteller: he deserved every one of the ovations he received at the close of the show. It was a warm night, but with images of the Ross Ice Shelf and Patience Camp in mind, the polar pyramid tents outsides elicited a shiver as we passed them on our way back home.

  •       The Christchurch performance of Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer was hosted by the Antarctic Heritage Trust.

 

 

 

 

South and South-er

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This week I find myself writing from a location that is far further south than I ever bargained for when I moved to the Mainland. Forget Canterbury’s balmy 43 degree latitude:  these days I have become intimately acquainted with the Antarctic Circle, thanks to a summer stint lecturing on a cruise ship that is South Pole bound.

Now, I’m no stranger to sea air. Auckland is the city of sails, with harbours and islands galore, and the one thing I have missed most whilst living in Methven is the ocean. Getting on board a ship that spends four out of ten days out of sight of any land appears to be the perfect antidote to any salty cravings I may have experienced whilst living in the mountains.

Nevertheless, living in a ski resort town has primed me well for Antarctica in several regards. First, the snow. Winters in Methven have toughened me up enough to be able to face icebergs with pluck and only one pair of gloves, purchased from Four Square at the end of the ski season. It’s been great to get up and personal with the kind of tabular icebergs on which our local ovine hero Shrek was shorn some years back. Not even sub zero temperatures can detract from the delight I gain from seeing guests’ faces when I tell them this anecdote from my homeland.

Secondly, wide open spaces. Both Antarctica and the South Island are renowned for their photogenic nature and their wide uninhabited expanses. Down here there is a distinct lack of sheep, famous or not, but the glacial valleys are reminiscent of an icier version of the Milford Sounds. The seals that lounge around their fringes more than make up for any woolly deficit: with several million such seals to a human population that numbers in the thousands, they far outdo the efforts of their four legged friends in the mammal to man ratio.

Thirdly, living in a small community. When I first moved down from Auckland I could not have imagined living in a town of 1000 people. Working on board a ship with just over 100 staff, a four digit population count starts to sound like the busiest of bustling metropolises. Having visited several Antarctic Bases where the tour of duty exceeds two years and the population count barely makes double figures, I have come to appreciate the new blood that floods into our area with each new ski season. Our small town will never seem small in quite the same way again.

I’ve swapped sheep for shags and pigs for penguins as I get up close and personal with the source of our biting southerly winds, but I would not swap this experience for the world. There are so many new sights and sounds to experience every day, from breaching humpback whales to the unmistakably fishy smell of penguin guano. Heading south off the map to a place where the sea and the mountains come together under snow has put life back home in perspective and made me appreciate both latitudes all the more.

Originally published in The Ashburton Guardian

A Frosty Reception

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So far I’ve enjoyed the South Island so much that I’ve decided to take things to a new level. I’m heading as far South as possible, to a place that makes Invercargill look positively tropical: Antarctica is in my sights.

When my partner first suggested I return to the frozen continent, my first response was ‘am I really that terrible to live with?’ As it turns out, I had been bringing it up rather often in conversation, so he thought it must be time for a fix in order to allow other topics to penetrate the sphere of scintillating dinner time talk every now and then.

It wasn’t always this way. A few years ago, my contact with Antarctica consisted of little more than wrestling with the part of the blow up globe where you put the bung in. Since moving to the South Island that has changed. On my first flight from Auckland to Christchurch I found myself sitting next to an Alaskan cook who was en route to McMurdo Station to work for the summer, and he was just the first of many people I’ve come across who have an Antarctic connection. There’s the husky dog driver whose father used to be a dog handler at Scott Base, the anesthetist who also does summer jaunts South as a doctor on tourist vessels from Bluff, and the engineering student who spent a summer restoring Scott’s hut at Cape Evans (As it turns out, he was also neighbours with my partner’s Godmother in Timaru – but that’s New Zealand for you). Having spent a summer studying the continent at Canterbury University, I was well and truly hooked.

Canterbury has strong Antarctic ties, with the United States Antarctic Programme (USAP) basing its South Pole logistics out of the city, and their off casts often found in surplus stores. My man’s distinctive red USAP jacket is not the only one in town, as we found out last June when we ran into his doppelganger on the main street of Methven. Perhaps they should have headed through the snow-clogged streets for a beverage together at the aptly named ‘Shackleton’s Bar and Grill’?

Right now it’s the wrong time of year for snow and ice: All the window dressers have scrubbed of the fake snowflakes to make room for the cheeping birds that symbolize Easter and Spring, bang on the dot of Autumn. Still, last year’s ski season has reawakened a hunger for the cold that not even a raft of unseasonal southerlies can sate. (Said southerlies have meant that my ‘Antarctic’ tomato plant, which is suited to colder weather, has done very well over Christmas…)

So, as I write this I find myself Southward bound – again – but the latest experience has taught me that there’s nothing to shy away from, only millions of moments (and perhaps an old neighbour alongside the odd penguin) gathering at ever-higher altitudes and waiting to be discovered.

Originally published in The Ashburton Guardian