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The Isolated Explorer

The early 20th Century was a time of great exploration of Antarctica as various expeditions attempted to become the first to reach the South Pole. You may already know a good deal of what some of the explorers experienced in terms of the extreme physical conditions and the inevitable danger of being cut off from other humans for years without access to radio, proper shelter or reliable sources of food.

Yet incredibly the explorers somehow adapted to the loneliness and constant hazards which became a normal part of life. Due to Antarctica’s extreme winter, which can include four months of total darkness, polar explorers endured intense confinement in close quarters for long periods of time.

Richard Byrd, the American pioneer and explorer explains “The ones who survive with a measure of happiness are those who can live profoundly off their intellectual resources, as hibernating animals live off their fat.”

So how did the Antarctic explorers of the early 1900s survive tedium in such a state of isolation with minimal if any contact with the outside world – certainly no Internet! Let us think about some of the key elements that came to be so important to the explorers.

Books played a huge role in the lives of the polar explorers. The library aboard Shackleton’s ship Endurance included plays, poetry, books on exploration, the Encyclopaedia Britannica and a broad range of novels.

Poetry, one explorer explained, “was useful, because it gave one something to learn by heart and repeat during the blank hour… when the idle mind is all too apt to think … of purely imaginary grievances.”

Some men even attempted to learn a language. Roald Amundsen, the leader of the Norwegian Fram Expedition (1910-1914), studied Russian grammar on one of his expeditions.

Daily diaries were very common among polar explorers. Many of the men were aware that accounts of their experiences could have monetary value in the future. The diaries served as records and keepsakes for their families while they also became a way to differentiate one day from another.

Many polar explorers created newspapers for themselves. Reports on the weather or accounts of visits to penguin colonies were interspersed with short stories, poetry, interviews, crossword puzzles and word games. They were also illustrated with both humorous and artistic drawings.

Board games were equally important, with chess being a very important pastime on the Terra Nova Expedition (1910-1913). According to Robert Falcon Scott, “Our most popular game for evening recreation is chess; so many players have developed that our two sets of chessmen are inadequate.”

Music was seen as vital to the sanity and welfare of the explorers. The Scottish National Antarctic Expedition (1902-04) included an official bagpiper.

When abandoning the slowly sinking ship Endurance, Ernest Shackleton’s men were allowed to carry very limited personal effects. But Shackleton insisted that the meteorologist Leonard Hussey take his banjo along, saying, “It’s vital mental medicine, and we shall need it.”

Shackleton was always very quick to arrange a range of activities to keep the 28-strong party busy and was a stickler for maintaining routines, with regular mealtimes being a feature. Most importantly, he inspired the men to believe that, despite their isolation, they would all be going home.

Below deck in the cramped confines of Endurance, the expedition found room for a small billiards table which was in constant use. In one episode of mid-winter madness, the entire party (Shackleton included) had their heads shaved – not that I am advocating this! Long hair is more likely in our current day lockdown.

One member of the famous Shackleton expedition was the renowned photographer Frank Hurley, so lantern slideshows of his marvellous photographs were another important feature of life. Many of the photographs that I used in the film I made for the assembly on this theme were taken by Hurley and they are still considered to be some of the greatest pictures ever taken in Antarctica.

More energetic pursuits saw the crew harness teams of huskies for an unlikely Antarctic Dog Derby across the ice, accompanied by great support.

Before the 24-hour darkness descended in winter, the men also staged a full-scale 11-a-side football match in sub-zero temperatures, hundreds of miles inside the Antarctic Circle.  Makeshift posts were erected, a referee took charge and it was reported that The Reds were victorious over The Whites with 2-1 score.

Many of the pursuits I have outlined are probably not that dissimilar to some of the activities which make up part of our normal week. I hope you are being active and positive in how you use your time – whether it is being able to spend more time on something you have always enjoyed or in trying something new, possibly even developing a new skill or seeking a deeper understanding of a particular topic. It is certainly a time to enjoy such opportunities.

Watch “A Sense of Direction” Assembly


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