Wire & Ice

by Naomi Arnold / 29 October, 2014
A writer spends Christmas on Antarctica tracking the ghosts of Scott and Shackleton alongside photographer Jane Ussher.

First published in Metro, September 2014.


Last week, I found the ring that Al made for me in Antarctica. He made it when he, Jane and I were sitting in a shipping container out on the sea ice, taking a break from photographing the hut. It was lunchtime, and we were eating cheese on top of gingernuts that were so cold we had to jam them sideways into our molars and gnaw, like a dog with a pig’s ear. As we ate, Al coiled a length of 12-gauge wire into a flat spiral, kind of like a thumbprint, and then around to make a loop to fit my finger. He made one for Jane, too. They both matched his.

It was December 2008, and the sea ice that gripped the edges of Ross Island was beginning to crack and run with bands of pale blue. I was down there on a reporting stint, and was spending much of my time awake and wired, my eyes gritty. An Antarctic year is one day long: three months each of dawn, day, dusk and night, and by the time my new roommate Jane arrived, I was clocking up seven weeks without relief from the light. I’d get up in the night sometimes and creep through the corridors of Scott Base to the drying room, which was warm and airless and black. I’d sit there until I felt my eyelids fall heavy, then walk back through the halls, the white midnight outside only slightly softer than broad day. This was the light the photographers preferred, when the sun was skimming the mountains on the horizon and warm­ing, barely, the iced sea outside.

Jane turned up just before Christmas, laden with gear. She immediately commandeered me as driver, photographer’s assistant and packhorse, and in the last days of 2008 she, Antarctic Heritage Trust programme manager Al Fastier and I headed off on her assignment: to photo­graph, for the trust, the three wooden huts that polar explorers Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott left behind in the first years of the 20th century.

I remember she was nervous about what she’d find out there. We’d spent Christmas Day out on the ice under Mt Erebus, where a group of University of Canterbury students had dug a massive banqueting pit into the snow and caroused for hours. She’d photographed some of them — coated in sunblock, peeling red skin, hair wild, best friends. But she didn’t like the pictures much. The bright, even, white and blue of an Antarctic summer science season is unrelenting and practical, a place of metal and diesel and labs and fleece, best suited to physicists and jocks.

But when we arrived at Cape Evans, and she walked through the wooden door and touched its rope handle, she found a different age — of Antarctica, but also of Earth. It was nearly 100 years since Scott and four of his men died on their march home from the Pole. Their tent, bodies and diaries, discovered months later by their friends, are buried now and slowly heading toward the Southern Ocean. But they left behind this hut, built in 1911, abandoned in 1917, and dug out of the snow in the mid-50s. It was soft and old, insulated with quilted seaweed, full of chiaroscuro and desks stacked with pipettes, worn yellow newspaper and secrets under the bunk beds — perfect for photographers.

Detail of Emperor penguin specimen on the table in Scott’s cubicle, Cape Evans. Photo by Jane Ussher.
Detail of Emperor penguin specimen on the table in Scott’s cubicle, Cape Evans.

Over the next week, we moved carefully around their home, crouching to hold reflectors and stretching to hang white sheets, painting light onto wood with torches while Jane counted off a long exposure. We hunted out shaving brushes, ski bindings, a man’s dress shoe, safety pins, reindeer-hide boots, penguin eggs, a toothbrush jammed into a leather strip nailed to the wall, a postcard: ‘‘With all good wishes for 1912.’’ Melting snow outside revealed pony shoes, a dead dog, a pile of headless Emperor penguins stacked for food.

Our skin reddened, our lips cracked, our hair grew increasingly matted and smelled of cold, rotting meat and fat. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered, really, for days, except the sheets, the reflectors, the light, and the lives the dead men left behind.

After New Year, we left for Shackleton’s Nimrod hut, built next to a colony of honking Adelie penguins at Cape Royds, 11km away. It was completely different from Scott’s dark rooms; Shackleton and his men left Antarctica alive, though barely, and his hut is light and airy, golden inside and out.

As we drew closer to the day when the helicopter returned, and with the hardest work behind us, we began to relax. We went for strolls. We sat out on the rocky cliffs, eating gingernuts and cheese, watching the wobble and splash of penguins and the basking seals as the cracks in the sea ice below deepened to indigo.

One afternoon, Jane made me take off my insulated boots and socks and stand in bare feet on a rough hump of scoria, wearing angel wings and a blue dress she’d brought from the dress-up room at Scott Base. I stood like a bird of prey, the dress fluttering in the icy wind, my hand curled like a talon as she instructed me to stare down at the skuas tearing apart the penguin chicks below. After, she photographed a decayed penguin carcass, the bone white of its flippers spread wide, like an angel. In one of the photos I have from that long, bright afternoon, I can see Al still wearing his wire ring, on the little finger of his left hand.

We flew back to Scott Base the next day, over icebergs trapped in the sea, into the year 2009. I had Al’s ring on my finger, and Jane had hers. ‘‘He makes those for all the girls,’’ some arse said when I returned, but I kept it on anyway, under my gloves. I didn’t take it off for good until I got back to Christchurch and my hands were bare again and my car had got a ticket for an expired warrant and there was no more silence, and it suddenly seemed weird to be wearing jewellery made of 12-gauge wire. It didn’t fit in back on Earth, where the air was full of scent and rain, the calls of insects and children, and best of all, a warm summer night as thick and dark as a blanket.


This essay was commissioned to coincide with Still Life: Inside the Huts of Scott & Shackleton, an audiovisual experience created by Jane Ussher and the Antarctic Heritage Trust, which was exhibited at Auckland Museum earlier this year.

Photos taken from Still Life: Inside the Antarctic Huts of Scott and Shackleton, by Jane Ussher and Nigel Watson, published by Murdoch Books. Main photo: Skua off Cape Royds with McMurdo Sound and Royal Society Range in the distance. 

Naomi Arnold visited Scott Base on the inaugural International Polar Year media scholarship.


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