By Joanna Grochowicz
The enthralling and harrowing true story of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition, with evocative photographs, and illustrations by Sarah Lippett. Together, they have taken on the greatest march ever made and come very near to great success; never giving up, and never giving up on each other. This is the story of Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova expedition to Antarctica and the memorable characters, who with a band of shaggy ponies and savage dogs, follow a man they trust into the unknown. Battling storms at sea, impenetrable pack ice, man-eating whales, crevasses, blizzards, bad food, extreme temperatures, and equal measures of hunger, agony and snow blindness, the team pushes on against all odds.
Reproduced with permission, from Into the White, by Joanna Grochowicz (Allen & Unwin Australia)
‘Farewell to the pack ice!’ shouts Ponting to nobody in particular.
After twenty days of feeling utterly trapped, the photographer is relishing the feeling of wind on his face as the Terra Nova cleaves through the waves. Mountains rise from the dark line of the horizon. It’s a promising sight on New Year’s Eve with only two hours remaining of 1910.
Mountains rise from the dark line of the horizon. It’s a promising sight on New Year’s Eve with only two hours remaining of 1910.
Landing the shore party is something that has been occupying Scott’s mind for some time. He’s discussed his plan with his second-in-command.
‘Cape Crozier, on the eastern shore of Ross Island, has a lot to offer, Evans. Comfortable quarters for the hut, ice for fresh water, snow for the animals, good slopes for skiing, vast expanses of rock for walks. Proximity to the Barrier and to the rookeries of two types of penguins, easy ascent of Mt Terror, good ground for biological work, good peaks for observation of all sorts, fairly easy approach to the Southern Road, with no chance of being cut off, and so forth . . .’ he hesitates. ‘There’s only one problem.’
‘What’s that, sir?’ asks Evans.
Scott gives a faint smile. ‘I’m not entirely sure we can get ashore.’
There’s a fearsome ocean swell when Scott, Evans, Oates and Cherry-Garrard are lowered over the side of the Terra Nova in a small boat to go and inspect a possible landing at Cape Crozier. As they get closer to the shore, they realise it’s impossible to land men and equipment safely. They stare up at the high ice cliffs and the crevasse-riddled slopes beyond.
As they get closer to the shore, they realise it’s impossible to land men and equipment safely. They stare up at the high ice cliffs and the crevasse-riddled slopes beyond.
‘Look at the penguins peering down at us from their nesting grounds,’ laughs Cherry-Garrard, taking to his new role of assistant zoologist with enthusiasm.
‘You’d do better to look down here,’ says Oates, indicating the dark shadow of a killer whale circling lazily beneath their boat.
Scott notices the worried look on Cherry’s face. ‘What an excellent time these animals must have with thousands of penguins passing to and fro. There’s no hunger here, my friend.’
‘And clearly no safe place to land either,’ says Evans drearily.
The Terra Nova presses on further west around Ross Island, which is fixed firmly to the mainland by a barrier of ice the size of France. It’s an area Scott knows well from his first visit. Rounding Cape Bird, the northernmost point of the island, and heading up McMurdo Sound, Scott feels a warm excitement take hold, almost like he’s coming home after a long absence. Back in 1901, his Discovery expedition had based itself at the extreme edge of Ross Island. Hut Point, as they called it, at the end of McMurdo Sound.
The Terra Nova glides through the slushy ice of McMurdo and slows as it approaches the hard bay ice two and a half kilometres from the shore. Scott, Wilson and Evans walk across the ice to take a closer look. Frozen to the coast, this sea ice will provide a sturdy platform to unload the ship onto. It’s perfect.
‘Let’s call it Cape Evans,’ Scott says, ‘in honour of our excellent second-in-command.’ It seems the right thing to do.
‘Let’s call it Cape Evans,’ Scott says, ‘in honour of our excellent second-in-command.’
Back on board, Taff and Lashly, who were both part of Scott’s earlier Discovery expedition, look out at the rocky shore with its irregular patches of snow. Beyond rises the familiar volcanic cone of Mt Erebus. They’re unlikely friends: Taff, who likes nothing more than a drink and a smoke, and Lashly, who can think of nothing worse.
‘Good to be back,’ says Taff with a grin.
‘Funny how you can’t wait to leave this place and yet once you’re gone, you’ll do anything to return,’ says Lashly.
For both men, it will be home for the next twenty-two months. For one of them, it will be the last home he’ll ever know.
Skinny, sickly and suffering from an itchy skin condition, the ponies are a tragic sight. As much as they’ve suffered during their month-long sea voyage, they’re now reluctant to leave their stalls. One by one, they’re manhandled, cajoled and tricked into a narrow horse box and lifted over the side of the Terra Nova and onto the ice. Oates is exhausted with the effort, but seeing the ponies kicking up their hooves and rolling for joy on the ice lifts his spirits to the point where he’d like to do the same.
One by one, they’re manhandled, cajoled and tricked into a narrow horse box and lifted over the side of the Terra Nova and onto the ice.
The dogs are enjoying freedom as well, although of a different sort. Meares has put them to work almost immediately, ferrying heavy loads to the shore. Suddenly there is noise and action and excitement in the vast white landscape. The sudden burst of activity has brought out crowds of penguins, keen to investigate the unfolding scene like nosy neighbours.
‘Look at them waddle forward,’ says Scott. ‘They’re so absurd. They don’t seem to care that there’s a string of howling dogs desperate to get at them.’
‘Madness,’ Wilson replies as the line of penguins advances. ‘They’re not daunted in the least.’
‘Yes, their ruffs go up and they squawk but they don’t back away. Nothing stops them. Not even when the men try to head them off.’ Scott sighs. ‘Oh dear, look at that . . .’
A dog has finally got hold of one of them. There’s a shrill cry, then a red patch on the snow. Still the birds linger, a squawking, jostling crowd.
The penguins aren’t the only locals coming for a closer look. A group of killer whales skirt the edge of the ice, assessing their prospects for a feed. There are six or seven of them. Noiselessly they slide their snouts above the waterline and eye a couple of dogs tethered by the edge.
The penguins aren’t the only locals coming for a closer look. A group of killer whales skirt the edge of the ice, assessing their prospects for a feed.
‘Ponting!’ Scott calls too late. The glistening heads disappear before Ponting can snap them.
Ponting has spent all morning documenting the unloading of the ship. He’s keen for some wildlife. He dashes over to the dogs, his camera at the ready. It should be a good shot.
‘Can anyone see where they went?’ he shouts.
There’s a boom. The ice explodes under Ponting. A dozen loose pieces rock wildly as the whales send shockwaves through the water to unsettle their prey. The dogs howl, their claws scrabbling madly on the ice. Ponting clings to his tripod. With wide eyes and his mouth set in a terrified grimace, he leaps to safety.
One by one, the whales’ heads pop up to survey their scene of destruction. Their mouths full of sharp white teeth, they seem to be laughing at the commotion they’ve caused.
‘Oh, good gracious me,’ Ponting looks about wildly, as if expecting the whales to hit again.
‘You’re a lucky man,’ Wilson steadies the photographer, sitting him down on a crate of hot chocolate.
Scott’s own heart is racing. ‘I think we’ve all learnt a valuable lesson. Everyone needs to keep well clear of the edge.’
‘I never thought it possible,’ says Ponting, his face drained of colour. ‘The ice over there, it’s a good two and a half feet deep.’
‘I know killer whales would snap up anyone in the water. But I’ve never seen them act with such deliberate cunning. Did you see how they were able to break that thick slab of ice? And acting together like that . . .’ Scott shakes his head. ‘They’re such smart creatures. I think we’ll need to treat them with more respect in future.’
‘I know killer whales would snap up anyone in the water. But I’ve never seen them act with such deliberate cunning … They’re such smart creatures. I think we’ll need to treat them with more respect in future.’
‘You can see why they’re called the wolves of the sea,’ says Wilson. ‘By the way, I trust you got the shot?’
‘No, I did not,’ Ponting says, laughing. ‘It looks like I shall have to put myself on the line again.’
Two of the three motor sledges are up and running, hauling goods ashore. Considering how much sea water washed over them during the storm, it’s amazing that they’re still in working order. The motor sledges are considered one of the expedition’s secret weapons; they’re by far the most expensive.
‘Three motors at a thousand pounds each, nineteen ponies at five pounds each, thirty-two dogs at thirty shillings each,’ Oates comments loudly to the huddle of men admiring the motor sledges. ‘If Scott fails to get to the pole he jolly well deserves it.’
After several days, the task of unloading the ship is progressing as efficiently as can be expected. The ponies and dogs have been working hard and the motor sledges are being put through their paces too. Even the men have harnessed themselves up and are dragging sledges heavy with equipment, petrol, oil, canned food and building supplies. Anyone not busy hauling has been hard at work on shore, organising provisions and erecting the hut where the thirty-three-strong shore party will sleep, eat, cook, work and entertain themselves throughout the long dark Antarctic winter.
It’s the second time the hut has been erected. The first time was back in New Zealand, before the Terra Nova set sail. Once everything was checked, it had been carefully packed away again to ensure no important components were missing. Many sections of the hut have been pre-fabricated but, even so, fitting them all together offers the men a giant puzzle.
‘What will keep us all warm?’ asks one of the carpenters, pointing to the large gaps between the planks making up the walls.
‘We’ve got a big stove to heat the interior of the hut,’ says Birdie Bowers, whose excellent organisational skills have been put to good use. ‘But we’ll also get the men to pack the walls with sacking filled with seaweed to insulate us from the winds. And Scott has suggested we pack the pony fodder around the outside of the hut to add another buffer layer.’
Out by the ship, a pony’s leg goes through the ice. It stumbles, shifts its weight and settles on firmer footing. Every now and then a pony takes fright and gallops away. The least thing sets them off. One gets spooked by its harness, capsizes its load and bolts for shore with its ears back and its eyes bulging. Oates walks after it and once the animal has come to its senses and halted its mad dash he calmly leads it back to the ship, speaking soothing words all the way. If these creatures are to be any use to the expedition, they must get used to pulling sledges through snow and ice, harnesses and all.
The dogs, too, have moments of skittishness. One sledge team flies away at breakneck speed. One dog is caught off guard and is dragged for almost half a kilometre before it can get in step with the rest of the team. There are two Russian dog handlers, Anton and Dimitri, but Meares is the one ultimately in charge of the dogs. Among other specialised skills needed to run the teams, Meares has to learn Russian, not only to communicate with the handlers but to issue commands to the dogs as they work.
Ponting is still learning, too. He finds everything about his new environment visually stunning. ‘This is the most beautiful spot I have ever seen – I need all day and most of the night to gather it all in,’ he declares. While the others set about organising the camp, Ponting casts out on his own across the floes, hauling a sledge full of heavy photographic equipment in the hope of capturing more and more spectacular shots of the ice.
‘Will you look at that,’ he says to himself, focusing on yet another remarkable sight in the distance. He readies his camera. There’s an odd sensation. Water pools at his feet. He and his heavy sledge are sinking.
There’s an odd sensation. Water pools at his feet. He and his heavy sledge are sinking.
Ponting lunges forward. He gives it everything he’s got. Each footstep disappears under the ice but he’s got just enough purchase to take another, then another, then another frantic step. He’s running on water. When his boots finally connect with something solid, he dashes like a headless chicken for another fifty metres. Panting, pink and sweating through multiple layers of clothing, Ponting collapses onto his knees.
‘Two lucky escapes in as many days,’ he breathes. ‘How on earth will I survive the year?’
Into the White
By Joanna Grochowicz
Published by Allen & Unwin