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Tag Archive: Deception Island

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Penguins who haven’t read the rule book

May 8, 2017

I’m a big fan of National Geographic Traveller UK, so I was delighted to have my article on my experiences in Antarctica published in the May issue of this magazine which you can find here. I’m also really chuffed to see an illustration of myself by Jacqui Oakley. It’s a great likeness!

Just in case the link doesn’t work for you, here is the entire article which I hope you enjoy:

A black and white Chinstrap Penguin, no taller than my knee, pecks at my boots expectantly. Clearly he hasn’t read the rule book. Much as I have tried to stay at least five metres away from Antarctica’s wildlife, as visitors are asked to do, this inquisitive fellow is intent on investigating me and my camera bag.

I am on Deception Island: a volcanic caldera shaped like a ring doughnut with a bite taken out of it. At its centre, hides a deep harbour, and an abandoned whaling station. This is one of the few places on the Antarctic Peninsula where the beaches are clear of ice – at least in summer – thanks to heat from the dormant volcano beneath us. No wonder my feathered friend has chosen this thermally-warmed island to nest.
I’m standing on a beach of black volcanic sand at Bailey Head, looking out at an inky sea, and, in the distance, a turquoise iceberg that resembles a two-storey high teapot. Penguins, like fat little torpedoes, launch themselves out of the surf and waddle inland, wings out wide for balance. Despite the flurry of activity, there is order to the chaos. On one side of the beach, Chinstraps head for the water. On the other, they head inland. I am standing in a penguin super-highway.

Half a mile inland, the rocky nests of over a hundred thousand breeding pairs stretch as far as the eye can see. The ammonia-tinged stench of krill-pink guano is pungent enough to singe nostril hairs. Grey, downy chicks screech for food, adults bicker and ward off raiding parties of Brown Skuas and Giant Petrels. The noise is one of Antarctica’s profound contrasts: barely hours earlier, I was enjoying a silence I have only ever experienced in Antarctica. No people, no voices, no machines. Just a few Crabeater Seals, lazily basking in the sunshine on floating sea ice as I sit atop an icy ridge.

I’m in Antarctica researching my next thriller. I’ve already interviewed scientists at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, and at the Australian Antarctic Division in Hobart. But to bring such an alien land to life in my novel, I want to experience it myself. I discover first-hand the dangers of Antarctica’s volatile weather: one minute pristine skies, the next, raging blizzard. I learn how the intense cold hinders me physically and mentally and that somebody must always know my whereabouts: that’s why turning a small numbered tag every time I leave, and return to, the ship, is critical. But I don’t expect Antarctica to claim my heart in the profound way it does, or to be inspired to write not just one, but two thrillers set here.

Forget, for a moment, our multi-coloured world. Imagine one that is only blue, white and grey. A continent as big as Europe covered in ice. A land that growls and cracks as ice shelves calve and crevasses rend open, where you’ll find statuesque Emperor Penguins, sleek and deadly Leopard Seals and balletic wandering albatrosses. A place where you can be alone, so truly alone, it is terrifying – there is no permanent population, only a few thousand souls that come and go to the isolated research stations.
Antarctica has many abandoned stations. Some are famous, such as Scott’s hut on Ross Island. Others are hardly known. It was only when I visited the abandoned Base W on Detaille Island that I began to understand the extreme isolation experienced by early researchers who did not enjoy the modern, heated stations of today with access the Internet and phones.

As I tramp across the ice, I see a wooden hut that reminds me of a village hall, complete with green and white checked curtains, except the wood is bleached silver and the door is warped and scrapes across the floor as I open it. I discover is a time-capsule. I am back in 1953. A copy of World Sports magazine, dated August 1953, lies open and a pair of long-johns hang on a line over a rusted pot-bellied stove. Tins of Scotch Oats and herrings, though rusted, sit in a cupboard, intact. On the dining table is a half-completed jigsaw puzzle of a quaint English village scene. I begin to comprehend why the inhabitants had bothered with check curtains. They needed a little bit of England with them to preserve their sanity.

Antarctica is the most alien and beautiful place I have ever been. It is an icy Garden of Eden, a place that retains its innocence and unspoilt beauty. As long as The Antarctic Treaty that protects it is upheld, Antarctica can continue this way. Long may it last.

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