A group of Australian explorers is about to recreate Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1916 trans-Antarctic voyage, one of the greatest journeys of human survival ever made.
After departing in late 1914 with the intention of crossing the Antarctic, Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, became frozen in an ice floe, and was eventually crushed and sank. The party was stranded for months but once the ice around them melted, the explorer and five crew members rowed 800 nautical miles on the lifeboat James Caird from Elephant Island to South Georgia, where they knew they could get help from a whaling station. The final part of the journey involved climbing the island’s treacherous icy mountains.
The 2013 voyage, led by British-born Tim Jarvis, aims to row the same route in a replica seven-metre lifeboat, navigating with a sextant, wearing the same clothes and even eating the same food (animal fat) as Shackleton. It appears to be to a genuine attempt to recreate the 1914 voyage and is fraught with dangers.
Modern adventures are often about endurance and recreating journeys of the past, as much as about discovery. Ventures are judged on the depth of their historical “authenticity”, but are there many left to actually recreate?
The trek to the south pole has been repeated in numerous ways, one of the most recent being a Blue Peter presenter doing the journey by bike. Jarvis has already recreated Douglas Mawson‘s 1912 expedition to survey the far eastern stretch of the Antarctic’s south coast. This turned into desperate tale of survival after most of the supplies fell down a crevasse, two colleagues died and Mawson was forced to survive on a diet of dog (rumours of cannibalism are usually discounted). Again, Jarvis used replicas of all the equipment, although substituting kangaroo jerky for dog meat. However, a film crew was nearby, along with a doctor.
One Antarctic outing that is just waiting to be recreated is the so called The Worst Journey in the World, named after Apsley Cherry-Garrard‘s book. This was an epic and ultimately futile outing to collect emperor penquin eggs in the depths of the Antarctic winter.
In July 1911, three members of Captain Scott’s doomed expedition to the south pole, Bill Wilson, Henry “Birdie” Bowers and Cherry-Garrard set out from the main base camp in Ross Island to make a 70-mile trip to a penguin colony at Cape Crozier. It was thought at the time that the eggs would play a key role in understanding how species evolve. The horrendous 35-day journey was made in pitch black, with the party having to navigate through horrendous blizzards by candlelight and the stars. Temperatures plunged to -60 degrees, resulting in teeth chattering so violently that they shattered. Would a modern-day team really want to recreate this merely to prove that humans can survive horrendous conditions?
Cherry-Garrard was a great admirer of George Mallory, who in the early 1920s was trying to climb Everest, the “third pole”. While debate continues as to whether he actually made it to the top in 1924, in 2007 an expedition recreated parts of the climb, wearing the clothes of the day. However, it would be an interesting challenge to see a team recreate the entire expedition – from base camp to (hopefully) summit – using only 1920s equipment.
An alternative venture would be to follow in the footsteps of someone like the Swedish mountaineer Göran Kropp who in 1996 cycled from his native country to Nepal, and then climbed Everest solo without bottled oxygen. For those in search of other solo adventures, perhaps a re-creation of Benoît Lecomte‘s swim across the Atlantic (although there is no official confirmation), or Martin Strel’s swim down the length of the Amazon.
Probably the greatest feat of maritime adventure re-creation was Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 voyage across the Pacific in the Kon Tiki, a balsa-wood raft. Six Norwegian sailors charted a course from Peru to the Tuamotu islands, intending to prove Heyerdahl’s theory that early man could have crossed the ocean from South America to people Polynesia. After 101 days drifting more than 4,300 miles on the prevailing wind and currents, the crew eventually succeeded.
While the Kon Tiki voyage has been repeated by Heyerdahl’s grandson (albeit with solar panels), no doubt someone will wish to attempt it again. Heyerdahl’s introduction of “experimental archaeology” led to a number of similar journeys in the latter half of the 20th century. In 1976-7 Tim Severin’s voyage across the Atlantic in a small oxhide boat proved that sixth-century Irish traveller St Brendan could have made it to America. Even the Guardian got involved when in 1966, JRL Anderson, the paper’s self-appointed yachting editor, led a boat across the Atlantic following the supposed route of pre-Columbian Vikings.
It is doubtful whether anyone would wish to recreate this particular journey but there will always be explorers and adventurers who, in the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, seek “a voyage to a further goal”. Heyerdahl’s was to challenge “a lot of old dogma” about the world’s oceans isolating people, while Jarvis hopes to use the Shackleton trip to raise awareness of climate change. No one doubts these motives, but Mallory’s line – throwaway or not – cannot be bettered when trying to understand why people embark on such enterprises: “Because it’s there.”
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