Posts Tagged ‘Antarctica’

Nick Smith reviews ‘The Quest for Frank Wild’ by Angie Butler in Geographical, October 2011

September 30, 2011

One of only two men to ever be awarded the Polar Medal with four bars, Frank Wild was a giant of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. He went South on five expeditions: once under Scott and Mawson and three times under Shackleton, eventually completing the Quest expedition after the death of the Boss. No serious aficionado of polar history doubts the significance of Wild’s contribution, so it’s something of a mystery that until now his memoirs have remained unpublished.

What little we know of Wild’s life after Quest seems to indicate that it was all downhill. If we believe contemporary newspaper accounts, Wild returned to southern Africa, tumbling from one failed farming project to another, taking dead-end jobs in hotel bars, scraping a living out of mining and railway projects. For decades the world, if it has noticed at all, has seen post-Antarctica Wild as a broken alcoholic who died in penury, the whereabouts of his remains unknown.

Sensing an injustice to the man, Butler sets out to find the real story behind the reports. She finds out that her instincts are good, but only to a point. Wild’s is a sad tale, but one with an unexpected outcome. In the process of metaphorically looking for the man, Butler, on her seventh visit to South Africa, finds his ashes. We probably all join her in the hope that they will one day be taken to Antarctica.

While it’s fascinating to see Butler’s spirited defence of Wild, her biographical sketch is really the curtain raiser for his previously unpublished memoirs. It seems inconceivable that it has taken so long for them to come to light, but the wait was worth it. It’s a shame that the memoirs were never finished, cut off abruptly with a cliff-hanging tale of life on Elephant Island during the Endurance expedition. At least that chapter in Wild’s life has a happy ending.

The Quest for Frank Wild, by Angie Butler, Jackleberry Press, pp214, £25

Trigger happy in Antarctica… too many penguins?

May 24, 2011

Let loose in one of the last pristine wildernesses with an open brief can lead to an embarrassment of riches. But you can take too many photos, says Nick Smith

Chinstrap penguins in Antarctica by Nick Smith nicksmithphoto

Chinstrap penguins in Antarctica

When I told a photographer friend of mine in a pub in London last November that I was heading off on assignment to Antarctica he was suitably impressed. Why wouldn’t he be? After all, for many of us outdoor photographers, the chance to visit the White Continent, to see what the likes of Shackleton and Scott saw only a century ago, is the stuff of dreams. The chance to tick off my sixth continent was also alluring, leaving a relatively pipsy Australasia last on my list. ‘Don’t forget to take plenty of pictures of penguins,’ was his considered advice.

I won’t bore you with how far away Antarctica is. Two days flying – London, Madrid, Buenos Aires, Ushuaia – followed by three days sailing in a converted Argentine navy ship across the fearsome Drake Passage. But it would all be worth it, I told myself, as my three cabin mates vomited their way to the South Shetlands, when I see my first penguin. Not that I’d been commissioned to photograph penguins specifically: my helpful editor on the national newspaper I was on assignment for had merely told me to ‘get some nice shots.’

gentoo penguins in Antarctica by Nick Smith nicksmithphoto

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica

Well the news is, for anyone who’s not been there, in Antarctica you can get ‘nice shots’ a-plenty. To be honest, it’s hard to go wrong. Once you’ve passed the Convergence (where the Southern Ocean and the Atlantic meet) it’s pretty much plain sailing: cobalt blue skies, lagoons as smooth as glass and smoked salmon skies. I’m not going to say that it’s warm, but I was there in the Austral summer, and chilly though it may have been at times, it beat the pants off winter in London, camping at Heathrow and the Eastenders Christmas Day special.

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica by Nick Smith nicksmithphoto

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica

Ever mindful of my friend’s advice, when I finally got ashore at Aitcho Island, I decided that penguins were the order of the day. At the South Shetlands you’ll be lucky to see anything other than chinstraps, gentoos and adelies, so I considered myself lucky indeed to find all three in the first rookery I visited. The light wasn’t great, but it was my first landfall in Antarctica and so… bang. Eight gigabytes in one hour. As I was shooting RAW images on a full frame sensor camera, that’s not too bad I told myself, but I knew that not one of the 250 shots would be a keeper. Safely back on the mother ship I duly downloaded and tagged the whole lot. I was right: there were no keepers, but these might be my only sightings.

In Antarctica there are strict rules when it comes to interacting with the wildlife. The penguins effectively have a 5-metre force field around them. You don’t enter their personal space or you risk negatively modifying their behaviour and causing stress that could ultimately lead to parents abandoning their young. However, they are inquisitive birds and if you sit still for long enough, as they have no fear of humans, they will simply come to you. And they did. And for first and perhaps the only time in my career I used my pride and joy 135mm f/2 prime for photographing birds. Seeing the results on my laptop later, I was amazed by just how well what’s fundamentally a portrait lens performed in such circumstances. You won’t find the manufacturer recommending this lens for penguin photography, but part of the fun is making your own decisions about kit.

penguins in Antarctica by Nick Smith nicksmithphoto

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica

A week into my voyage around the Antarctic Peninsular I found myself sick of bloody penguins. Not because I don’t like them – I think they’re tough, gutsy little animals that command the respect of all of us – but because I’d got 2,000 of the buggers in my laptop and I was getting extremely bored with editing, night after night (except it never got dark) what were essentially the same photos. And then it happened. Error message ‘Start-up disc almost full’, which if you are a Mac user (and I suspect that’s nearly all Outdoor Photography readers) is the one error message you don’t want to read. It means your computer has reached its capacity. Warning: your laptop is full of penguins, icebergs, clouds, reflections, mountain range silhouettes… all the ‘nice shots’ my editor had asked for.

Given that no photographer’s computer should ever each this point, something was going seriously wrong. I was, to put it simply, taking too many photographs and not spending enough time considering the lilies. I’d made a basic schoolboy error of being trigger happy, seduced by the beauty of my surroundings into taking so many trivial variations on the theme that I’d become over indulgent.

gentoo penguins in Antarctica by Nick Smith nicksmithphoto

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica

On the leg home from Buenos Aires to Madrid, I opened for the first time, as I so often do, the guidebook to the place I’d just visited. ‘Leave nothing but footprints’ it intoned with environmental piety, before reminding me to ‘take nothing but photographs.’ Perhaps it should have said: ‘before taking any more photographs, ask yourself if you’ve already met the editor’s brief. Do you really need more?’

This article first appeared in Outdoor Photography magazine… without Nick’s photos of penguins

gentoo penguins in Antarctica

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica

Nick Smith’s review of ‘The Great Explorers’ by Robin Hanbury-Tenison (Bookdealer magazine)

February 7, 2011

Treading carefully on the frontiers of discovery

Antarctica by Nick Smith, author of Travels in the World of Books
Antarctica, December 2010. Photo: Nick Smith

 

Exploration in the 21st Century is different to how it used to be. For sure there’s still a flourishing band of adventurers ever willing to be the first to do something extremely dangerous in a hostile and remote environment, and the world would be a duller place without them. But with important environmental and cultural issues on the agenda – climate change, the fate of indigenous peoples, and wildlife conservation – our approach to what we now accept as genuine geographical exploration is changing. And importantly, so is our attitude to the great names of the past who made the first steps to push back the frontiers of knowledge. While a century ago we might have celebrated the achievements of those who claimed unknown pockets of territory for Empire, today we’re much more likely to be interested in some of the lesser-known pioneers who penetrated the interiors of far-flung continents in search of scientific data.

Nobody is more aware of the problems modern exploration can throw at you than the great 20th century explorer Robin Hanbury-Tenison. In his introduction to The Oxford Book of Exploration – a classic published nearly two decades ago – he notes wryly that time and again, ‘the European explorer, as he “discovers” some new land, makes a passing reference to his native guide.’ He goes on to refer to a cartoon in the Geographical magazine that appeared long before I was ever in the editor’s chair, depicting two pith-helmeted explorers who wonder, as they stand at the foot of a huge waterfall with their baggage bearers: ‘You don’t suppose they might have discovered it already, do you?’ Hanbury-Tenison has always been aware that the history of exploration is crashingly Eurocentric – something that today a swelling body of braying academic commentators seem to think they’ve found out for themselves.

But that’s all right, because unlike those of other travellers, the deeds of explorers, Hanbury-Tenison informs us, ‘have a lasting significance which may affect the destiny of mankind.’ Two decades on there are different challenges. Today, even the most respected and accomplished explorers tend not to describe themselves as such. This is because of a semantic shift that, for no reason I can see, has ring-fenced the word, reserving it for use only in the context of historical figures. This is totally barmy, but words change their meanings, and political correctness makes fools of us all. Even the occasionally flamboyantly outspoken Hanbury-Tenison tones it down a bit in his prefatory essay to his authoritative The Great Explorers. The language has changed, but the sentiments remain the same: the pith helmets may have disappeared from his imagery and the vaunting notion of destiny may have been brought under control, but for Hanbury-Tenison explorers are still people who have ‘excelled in their geographical endeavours to an extent that has changed the world.’

His new book profiles forty such individuals in biographical portraits spanning half a millennium, contributed by expert writers in their field. The result is a monumental tome that’s a genuine contribution to modern thinking about the nature of exploration. It could have been a bland reiteration of the received orthodoxy, names that trip so easily off the tongue, but Hanbury-Tenison challenges our assumptions, not so much with what he says – this is a curiously anonymous book for one written by so many heavyweights of the genre – but by what he doesn’t say.

In the field of Polar endeavour alone there are enough absences of old favourites to get the armchair explorer choking on his pemmican. What no Shackleton? No Scott? Instead we have a much more international cast in the shape of Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen, as well as what are, to the outside world at least, the lesser names of Edward Wilson and Wally Herbert.

This is interesting for two reasons. First: as the veneer of Empire begins to fade Hanbury-Tenison is able to be more objective as to who’s who. It’s no longer traitorous or heretical to say that Scott was pipped to the post by a better explorer, albeit a bloody foreigner. We now know, no matter how much it might hurt our national psyche, that Amundsen was simply a more enlightened and experienced campaigner, more capable of improvising. Second: rather than automatically acknowledging the scalp-hunting exploits of explorers whose ambition was to be first to do something, there’s a strong implication in The Great Explorers that an expeditioner’s greatness ultimately rests in their contribution to our understanding of the world. Shackleton may well have served up the best handful of chapters of derring-do in the so-called Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, but did he increase our knowledge of the planet in the way that Wilson – scientist, doctor, naturalist and artist – did? In the section entitled ‘Life on Earth’ we are treated to essays on Alexander von Humboldt, Marianne North, Alfred Russel Wallace and (a favourite of mine) Frank Kingdon-Ward. Given its name, it would be easy to suppose Hanbury-Tenison might have had in mind including David Attenborough. But he didn’t, and quite right too.

The essays themselves are first class and I particularly like the way Hanbury-Tenison has matched up his writers to their subject. So we find that the chapter on Mungo Park was written by Anthony Sattin; that on Livingstone by Claire Pettitt; that on Wilfred Thesiger by Alexander Maitland; that on Gertrude Bell by Justin Marozzi, and so on, where in every pairing the latter is an acknowledged expert on the former. For me this – along with the sumptuous picture editing – is the book’s key strength and what sets it apart from similar enterprises. The Great Explorers simply oozes authority and ease with its subject matter. I did raise my eyebrow slightly on noticing that one of the contributors is also one of the great explorers. In fact, our leading speleologist, Andy Eavis, it seems was commissioned to write the final chapter on Andrew James Eavis. Maybe this isn’t as much of a problem as it first seems: Eavis writes in the first person, and, as there are few specialist authors on caving better than Eavis, it sort of makes logical sense to give the man the job. I’m not saying that this editorial decision creates a flaw in the book, but it does represent to me at least a minor inconsistency.

This quibble aside, The Great Explorers is nigh-on perfect, operating on two distinct levels. First, as a sensible interpretation of the historic record for the non-specialist whose interest lies beyond cannibalism, frostbite and flag-planting. Second, for those aware of how the murky undercurrents of political correctness are distorting the wider picture, it’s good to see Hanbury-Tenison serving up a balanced, if sometimes surprising, cocktail of what our true exploration heritage is in a world where many are frightened to use the word.

The Great Explorers, edited by Robin Hanbury-Tenison is available from Thames & Hudson, £24.95, pp 304 · ISBN 978 0 500 251690

To find out more about Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s books visit www.robinsbooks.co.uk

Nick Smith is a former editor of Geographical magazine. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club in New York and of the Royal Geographical Society. He writes regularly for the Daily Telegraph and his latest book Travels in the World of Books was published last May

Nick Smith interviews BBC wildlife photographer Doug Allan in Outdoor Photography magazine

December 1, 2009

Into the cold, wet world

BBC wildlife cameraman Doug Allan spends his life in remote, freezing places, quite often underwater. All in the pursuit of that magical image. Nick Smith hears his story…

Doug Allan is a freelance wildlife and documentary photographer and cameraman working underwater, on land and especially on the polar ice. Born in Scotland, he graduated with a degree in marine biology from Stirling University in 1973. This was to propel him into a career in field science that gradually transformed into one of wildlife photography. Today he is one of the leading wildlife photographers of his generation with a feast of credits including the BBC’s  ‘Blue Planet’ and ‘Planet Earth’.

Doug was working as a diver on an Antarctic research station when he met David Attenborough in 1981 while the BBC was filming polar sequences for ‘The Living Planet’. For Doug that was the ‘decisive moment’, as it dawned on him that the cameramen he was watching weren’t doing anything physically that he couldn’t. With his specialist knowledge and prodigious abilities as a diver, all he had to do was ‘work on my photographic skills’. And so a career-long relationship with the legendary presenter was launched.

Much of Doug’s wildlife photography involves physically overcoming the environmental harshness of some of the world’s wildest places and then waiting for his subject’s behaviour to reveal itself. ‘I do like working in really wild situations’ he says. The advent of digital has improved his life no end – he can spend more time underwater without having to surface to reload film. As for processing, he remembers Kodachrome film taking a year to get from Antarctica to a UK lab and back.

Doug has won the underwater category in Wildlife Photographer of the Year twice as well as the Royal Geographical Society’s Cherry Kearton Photography Medal. He has also won Emmy and BAFTA awards for his moving images.

Nick Smith: When did you realise you were going to become a wildlife photographer?

Doug Allan: When I first went to the Antarctic in 1976 I was thrown into an overwintering environment with only about 15 other people on base. Most were photographers and some had a very good eye. With the penguin colonies and the seals on my doorstep a serious interest was kindled.

NS: What was your first camera?

DA: A Petriflex given to me by Dad in 1971. It was a very simple SLR. I don’t think I had a wide- angle lens, just a standard 50mm. For underwater photography it was the old faithful Nikonos II – it was the most advanced then, but no electronics at all.

NS: What formal training do you have?

DA: I didn’t have any. I feel almost more in need of formal training now with digital than I did back in the days when we used to do our own processing. Now there is so much you can do in post processing, and you have to be careful if you want your digital files to be around in 30 years time.

NS: How important is it to specialise?

DA: I’m a specialist in wildlife and wild places with an even narrower niche of cold weather environments both underwater and topside. I don’t shoot weddings. Well, I shot a wedding once as a favour and it was the most traumatic thing I’ve ever done in my life.

NS: What is the best assignment you’ve been on?

DA: It’s hard to pick one or two. What I’m interested in is ‘difficult-to-get-behaviour’ from genuinely wild animals. That’s where I get the buzz – being in the wild and seeing things happening for real. What turns me on is being in the company of big mammals. You can’t hide from a polar bear – he hears and sees as well as you do, and yet his sense of smell is better than a bloodhound. In those situations your body language, behaviour and even what you’re thinking are ultra important. It’s like you have to talk to your subject in a non verbal way.

NS: What’s the worst thing about being a professional photographer?

DA: It can be frustrating if you’ve put a lot a lot of effort into a shoot and you feel it’s not been given the best chance on screen because the editing or production is sloppy or misses the point. But, mostly I’ve had the chance to work with high class production teams.

NS: Film or digital? Why?

DA: Digital encourages experimentation and as a stills photographer the field is absolutely wide open to interpret whatever you see in whatever way you can imagine. Shooting with film teaches you  the basics very well, with each press of the shutter having an associated cost. There was no alternative when I started. Digital frees you up creatively and the sky’s the limit.

NS: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from another photographer?

DA: I just went the classic route – the base I was on in the Antarctic subscribed to National Geographic. We’d look at the pictures and admire them. I’ve always preferred the wide-angle from up close rather than the telephoto. I liked Ernst Haas with his long exposures to experiment with blurring movement. We used to try that on base and quickly realised it was much harder than it looked. Also the early Jacques Cousteau and Hans Hass books influenced me a lot – the idea of exploring the undersea world with a camera.

NS: What does photography mean to you?

DA: I realised after 10 years in Antarctica that photographing and filming animals encapsulated so much of what I enjoyed doing. Travel, adventure, being part of a team, doing something you think is worthwhile – all those things come together in what I do.

NS: What makes a great wildlife photograph?

DA: You have to take yourself to exciting landscapes or put yourself in front of inspiring animals. Unless you’re really interested in your subject you’re not going to catch that special magic.

Doug’s 5 golden rules

1 Look around and find out what impresses you

2 Ask yourself what your shot is trying to convey

3 Stand on the shoulders of the great photographers

4 Get out into inspiring landscapes

5 Underwater, remember: the closer the better

Doug’s gear (stills)

Canon EOS 1Ds-Mk II,

Lenses: 14mm f/2.8, 17-35mm f/2.8, 24-105mm IS f/4, 100-400mm IS, 600mm IS f/4

Seacam housings

http://www.dougallan.com

 

Nick Smith reviews ‘The Shackleton Letters’ in Bookdealer magazine, November 2009 edition

November 5, 2009

Yours faithfully, Ernest Shackleton

Nick Smith reviews

The Shackleton Letters: Behind the Scenes of the Nimrod Expedition

By Regina W Daly, Erskine Press, HB, £27.50

The trouble with history of course is that it’s not really very good at telling you what happened. It creates reputations and myths that so often seem to have so little to do with the facts. When it comes to the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration we are traditionally served up two protagonists – Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton – and as the wheel goes around one takes the ascendancy at the other’s expense. At the moment Scott is in the doghouse and Shackleton is in the firmament, and if you had only read Regina Daly’s The Shackleton Letters you would have no difficulty in seeing why. Whether by accident or design, the way it falls out portrays the Boss, or ‘Shackles’ as he often signs off, as a decent bloke in love with his men, his ship and his wife (in that order), while an imperious (and I think misunderstood) Scott comes across, in the argot of the day, as a thundering ass. Of course, these letters were written a hundred years ago, when people wrote letters and didn’t have phones to shout down, but on the other hand there isn’t and never was any compulsion to write with such vaunting self-aggrandizement as Scott does.

There had always been a history between the merchant seaman and the naval officer. As far back as 1902 Scott is supposed to have called Shackleton a ‘bloody fool’ to which the Irishman retorted: ‘You are the worst bloody fool of the lot, and every time you dare to speak to me like that you will get it back.’ This was on the Discovery (‘National Antarctic’) Expedition 1901-4, where Scott was the leader and Shackleton was his third lieutenant. It seems that this extraordinary insubordination – if it ever took place – was soon overlooked, because by Christmas they were lying in their sleeping bags reading Darwin’s On the Origin of Species to each other (not ‘Origin of the Species’, as Daly erroneously calls it). By the time Shackleton was scouting around drumming up funds for an expedition of his own, their relationship was under strain again due to a conflict over rights to an existing expedition base in Antarctica. Scott’s letters are arch and seem to accuse Shackleton of upstartishness, while Shackleton, who feels more sinned against than sinning, never once loses his thoroughly infectious charm (‘My Dear Captain Scott, To make everything clear as regards our arrangements… I am following your suggestion and writing it down.’) Incidents like this have lead commentators – especially Roland Huntford – to surmise that each man was the antithesis of the other. If only it were this convenient and it were true that Scott was an iconoclast and Shackleton a loveable rogue punching above his weight, how much easier our lives would be. But, the truth is that they were both fallible human beings whose passions for the Polar Regions informed their extraordinary lives and dramatic ends.

Another area where history seems to get Polar exploration all wrong is in its insistence that we remember Shackleton above all else for his impossibly romantic Endurance (‘Imperial Transantarctic’) expedition, 1914-17. This was the one in which he lost his ship in the ice and famously (although not strictly true) never lost a man. With a handful of men, Shackleton set forth in the plucky little whaler – the James Caird – across the seas of the world to fetch relief for his crew. Although this is without doubt one of the greatest stories ever told, we must remember that it was a rescue mission, and that Endurance in essence achieved nothing. As with Dunkirk, the British heart has never been so proud of something that shouldn’t have happened. But on the other hand the earlier Nimrod (‘British Antarctica’) Expedition 1907-1909 – the subject of The Shackleton Letters – was a triumph. Among its many successes were the first ascent of Mount Erebus, the attainment of the South Magnetic Pole and the publication of the first book on the White Continent, Aurora Australis.

As we celebrate Nimrod’s centenary, Daly’s new book couldn’t be better timed or more welcome, especially as the true significance of the expedition seems to have been lost on some sectors of today’s exploration community. In terms of the range and diversity of the material assembled, both written and photographic, it’s hard to see how this anthology could have been any better, although the stickler might complain that it could have been better named. After all, many of the 165 letters, reports and telegrams collected here aren’t by, or to, Shackleton (although in fairness to Daly, they perfectly satisfy the book’s sub-title – ‘Behind the Scenes of the Nimrod Expedition’). In the section of Letters called ‘Kudos, Criticism and Rumours of a New Expedition’ there are epistles from Charles Dorman to Emily Shackleton, from Roald Amundsen to J Scott Keltie, from Robert Scott to Major Leonard Darwin, from Clements Markham to Keltie, from Markham to Darwin, from Fridtjof Nansen to Emily, from Nansen to Darwin, from Markham to H.W.Feilden and even a report from Markham to the Royal Geographical Society (‘letter’ 124). But there is very little either to or from the Boss himself, and while this all makes for interesting – compelling even – background material, it is hardly sufficient to allow for the title The Shackleton Letters. The counter-stickler might argue that this isn’t the first time a book has set sail under the wrong flag, and that to judge a book by its title might be only one step away from judging it by its cover. But titles and covers set up expectations, and here sadly it’s all gone a little bit awry.

For all these niggles, The Shackleton Letters should be on the shelf of anyone interested in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. This is the first time this collection of documents has appeared between one set of boards, arranged thematically, specifically to deal with the Nimrod expedition, and so it will prove useful to the scholar and the historian for years to come (especially if a second edition is graced with an index). Daly has done a good job tracking down and compiling the material and her historical sketches that set the papers in context are superb distillations of some of the classic Shackleton analyses by the likes of Hugh Robert Mill, Margery and James Fisher, Roland Huntford and Beau Riffenburgh.

Above all The Shackleton Letters is important because it gives the Nimrod expedition the credibility and attention that it so richly deserves, allowing us into the methodology, planning and execution of a grand scale expedition the way it used to be. And it’s quite comforting to realise how little has changed. Behind the scenes there is still the same mad scramble for sponsorship and patronage, the begging letters, the broken agreements, lonely wives and expectant public. Perhaps even more reassuringly, in the wings the cast of explorers still comprises the same unsung geniuses and braying bigheads, dignified elder statesmen and chancy upstarts, men of iron and posturing fraudsters as it did in the Heroic Age. And there’s not a damned thing history can do about that.

Nick Smith is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a Contributing Editor on the Explorers Journal, the magazine of the Explorers Club in New York

Nick Smith’s feature on ‘Nimrod Centenary’ for Explorers Journal, Summer 2009

July 6, 2009

The mighty Nimrod – a century on

This year sees the centenary of the British Antarctic Expedition 1907–1909, otherwise known as Nimrod, after the ship on which Ernest Shackleton and his men travelled to the White Continent. Explorers Journal Contributing Editor Nick Smith discussed the significance of the Sir Ernest’s first major expedition as leader with his only granddaughter, the Honourable Alexandra Shackleton.

The story of Nimrod, the first major expedition to be led by Sir Ernest Shackleton, is one of the great tales of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. Admiral Sir Edward Evans – who had been on Captain Scott’s Discovery expedition of 1902–1904 with Shackleton – described it as ‘a good, sound, scientific programme’.

But the British Antarctic Expedition 1907–1909, to name it correctly, has been overshadowed by other events in the Polar Regions, including the failure of Scott’s Terra Nova expedition and Shackleton’s heroic rescue mission of the crew of the Endurance. So well known are these later expeditions that it is easy to forget the real impact of Nimrod, the stout little sealer that departed London on 20th July 1907. Having been tugged from New Zealand to the limits of the Antarctic ice, the vessel, overloaded with coal, had a steaming radius that would allow its captain to explore as far as the Bay of Whales, before settling on Cape Royds as the expedition’s shore base.

From this historic hut – where Shackleton wintered in 1908 – a party of four men set out on one of the greatest sledge journeys in history. After passing Scott’s ‘farthest South’, every new feature became Shackleton’s own discovery. His expedition attained the South Geomagnetic Pole, made the first ascent of the White Continent’s highest mountain, discovered coal and fossils, experimented with motorised transport and made an heroic attempt on the Geographical Pole. Despite the many brushes with death, Nimrod was, as Evans later wrote, an ‘eminently successful expedition.’

On 4th March 1909 Nimrod departed the Antarctic ice edge on the home leg of the British Antarctic Expedition. And although the expedition had not succeeded in its ultimate goal ­– the attainment of the South Pole – it was arguably the most important and significant excursion to Antarctica up until that date. Every one of Ernest Shackleton’s heroic band of men returned to safety.

Nick Smith: How did the Nimrod expedition come about?

Alexandra Shackleton: Nimrod was Shackleton’s first expedition as leader. He went South originally with Captain Scott on the Discovery expedition. He was part of Scott’s Southern Party that got to within a few hundred miles of the Pole. But he regarded the Pole as unfinished business. And so he put together the Nimrod expedition. There were scientific objectives as well as those of exploration, but in fact what he really wanted was the Pole.

NS: What do you think that Nimrod achieved?

AS: Nimrod did achieve a lot: The first ascent of Mount Erebus as well as the publication of the first book in the Antarctic, Aurora Australis. Lots of valuable scientific work was undertaken. Coal was discovered and the South Magnetic Pole was reached. It sounds quite simple to reach the magnetic pole, but in fact it moves about according to the angle of the earth’s magnetic field. After an epic trek of 1,260 miles unsupported ­– a record that stood for 80 years – the expedition managed to achieve that. But it wasn’t all success. The first motorcar was taken and that didn’t work out.

NS: But your grandfather didn’t get to the South Pole?

AS: Ernest Shackleton did not get what he most wanted from the Nimrod expedition. He did not get to the Pole. He got 366 miles nearer than the Discovery expedition, but at 97 miles from the Pole he took the decision to turn back. They were all in a bad state physically. The altitude of the Polar Plateau was affecting them badly as well as the lack of food. He could possibly have struggled on to the Pole, but he knew it was unlikely that he would bring his men back alive. So he decided to turn back: a decision that has been described as one of the great decisions in polar history, one of which I am extremely proud. To turn his back on glory for the sake of life – it really defined him as a leader and it defined his priorities. We are all defined by our priorities. His priorities were quite simply his men. Afterwards he said to my grandmother: ‘I thought you’d rather have a live donkey than a dead lion.’

NS: The British Antarctic Expedition 1907–09 is more commonly known after the ship Nimrod. What can you tell me about the ship itself?

AS: The ship was a very small, forty-year old sealer, originally called Bjorn. Small and tatty. All my grandfather’s ships were secondhand. In fact, the only purpose-built polar ship of the time was Scott’s Discovery, which cost Scott as much as the entire Nimrod expedition. Nimrod set sail from London, but in fact Ernest Shackleton joined the ship in New Zealand. In order to save coal Nimrod was then towed ­­– the longest tow for a very long time – down to the Antarctic Circle. Nightmare tow, nightmare weather. The Koonya was the tug that carried out the tow and at one stage the weather was so bad the ships could only just see the tops of each other’s masts. It was an incredible feat of seamanship that the line was kept as it should have been. And Nimrod was quite overloaded with supplies for winter. My grandfather said that the ship looked like a reluctant schoolboy being dragged to school.

NS: In the context of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, Nimrod is not the best known of expeditions, but perhaps is one of the most important. Why do you think it has been overshadowed?

AS: It’s not Shackleton’s best-known expedition, but I think it was as important as the others, quite honestly. Of course, with the Endurance expedition there was an epic rescue involving the James Caird, not quite 23-foot, 800 miles across the stormy seas of the world, with the men waiting on Elephant Island and the rescue party climbing the unclimbed peaks of South Georgia.

NS: In 1908 Nimrod returned to New Zealand and then in 1909 it arrived back in Antarctica to collect the expedition team…

AS: Every single man returned. That’s why when I recently went to visit my Grandfather’s Nimrod expedition base hut at Cape Royds – beautifully conserved by the Antarctica Heritage Trust – it looked as if they had just stepped out. It was an incredible experience. First you notice the smell of wood and leather, and then you notice that it’s lit by natural light. And then you notice the hams hanging up and the socks and the clothes and the Mrs Sam stove. I felt a great wave of grief because I’m looking at the past, and the past as the cliché has it, won’t come again. But afterwards, after I had processed the experience, I decided that the hut itself is not a sad place because everyone came back alive.

NS: The point of your recent voyage to Antarctica to visit your grandfather’s hut?

AS: Yes. A documentary was being made about me by a New Zealand filmmaker called Mary-Jo Tohill to record the visit to my grandfather’s hut for the very first time in the Nimrod year. It’s a long voyage. The Ross Sea is a very long way away. The ice was extremely bad and we couldn’t get to all the places we wanted to get to, even in a powerful icebreaker. But we did get to Cape Royds and it was an astonishing experience, for which I’m very grateful. All my life I wanted to visit it.

NS: What is the hut like?

AS: It’s about 30 by 15 feet. Fifteen men wintered in it, and other expeditions used it too. It’s a permanent building in that it’s still there, but it was prefabricated in England, taken apart and re-erected there. The packing cases were taken apart and used for things like furniture, and of course the covers of Aurora Australis. Two members of the expedition took a short course and they were lent a small press. But of course it was incredibly difficult because there was all the volcanic dust – the scoria – that one walks through because Erebus, a live volcano, is nearby. And the ink would freeze and you’d drop a plate and you’d have to start all over again. It was painstaking and a huge achievement of very high standard. You would not think that they had not printed before.

NS: Do you think Aurora Australis tells us much about the Nimrod expedition?

AS: Aurora Australis is effectively a Nimrod anthology. The subjects range from science to fantasy, from humour to poetry. Ernest Shackleton contributed two of his poems. The humour has changed a bit – some of the things they thought funny we don’t think quite so funny today. And of course generously illustrated too. We don’t know exactly how many were produced – probably not more than a hundred. One was discovered recently in a barn in Northumberland. I think it was sold for about £56,000 (around $100,000 dollars) and I think that was the top price. Obviously, condition makes a difference and whether Shackleton or any of the others had signed it. I think Aurora not only throws light on the members of the expedition and how they thought a hundred years ago, but also on the leader who chose these men. They are like this, and he chose these people.

NS: What do you think s the legacy of Nimrod?

AS: The significance of Nimrod is that it defined Ernest Shackleton as a leader. There has been a great upsurge of interest in him over the past ten years for one reason: Leadership.

Nimrod expedition in cold, hard facts

Party of 15 men wintered at Cape Royds on Ross Island; climbed Mount Erebus (3794 m), 10 March 1908; Shackleton and 3 others (Jameson Boyd Adams, Eric Stewart Marshall, and John Robert Francis [Frank] Wild), discovered and sledged up the Beardmore Glacier to the farthest south of 88 • 38º S (01 • 62º [180km] from the South Pole) where Shackleton took possession of the Polar Plateau for King Edward VII, 9 January 1909; insufficient supplies necessitated their return; discovered nearly 500km of the Transantarctic Mountains flanking the Ross Ice Shelf; discovered coal at Mount Buckley. Tannatt William Edgeworth David leading a party of three reached the region of the South Magnetic Pole (72 • 42 º S, 155 • 27 º E) and took possession for Britain of Victoria Land there, 16 January 1909, and at Cape Bernacchi, 17 October 1908. Dogs and ponies used for some sledge hauling. Visited Macquarie Island, searched for ‘Dougherty’s Island’. First experiments in motor transport in Antarctica, an Arrol Johnston motor car was used with limited success; ciné photographs of penguins and seals were made. The expedition use New Zealand postage stamps specially overprinted ‘King Edward VII Land’ and an expedition canceller; Shackleton was appointed Post-Master. Book Aurora Australis, printed at Cape Royds, 90 copies made. [To conserve coal, in January 1908, Nimrod was towed 2700km from Lyttleton to the ice edge by Koonya (reached 66 • 52º S) which visited Campbell Island during the return voyage. The hut at Cape Royds is now protected as a ‘historic site’.]

Extracted with permission from A Chronology of Antarctic Exploration: a Synopsis of Events and Activities from the Earliest Times until the International Polar Years, 2007-09, by Robert Keith Headland

Feature on ‘Nimrod Centenary’ for Explorers Journal, by Nick Smith May 2009]

‘Shortcut for the armchair traveller’ feature article in Times Higher Education Supplement by Nick Smith

April 27, 2009

Researching a feature on Ernest Shackleton earlier today I came across an article I wrote about print on demand in 2006 for the Times Higher Education Supplement.

Shortcut for the Armchair traveller

Nick Smith unearths a publisher who can supply rare or out-of-print travel books at the click of a mouse

As you read this, someone somewhere is tearing out their hair.

This person is a biographer of the early 20th-century explorer Ernest Shackleton, and the cause of all this frustration and despair is the difficulty of getting hold of a first edition of the great man’s book Aurora . You could try a copyright library, or you could go to a book fair in New York, where for $100,000 (£54,000) a dealer will be only too pleased to track down one of the five or six copies that are circulating in the commercial world of antiquarian book collecting.

But imagine that you could, at the click of your mouse, order the printed text or even a facsimile of the first edition of Aurora , neatly bound and delivered to your door within 24 hours for under £20.

Now imagine that virtually any out-of-print, rare or collectible travel book could be accessed that way. Enter CuChullaine O’Reilly, who describes himself as a “literary archaeologist”. He is one half of the US-based husband-and-wife publishing team that will bring Aurora to the masses.

Their Classic Travel Book company will publish it on demand, book by book, so that not a single copy will be pulped. The process will ensure that researchers and academics – who are among the O’Reillys’ main customers – will be granted unprecedented access to valuable primary source material at an affordable price.

Many great 19th and 20th-century travel texts are out of print, and mainstream publishers cannot or will not do anything about it. The problem in the past has always been lack of a large market for such books. But, argues O’Reilly, most books serve a limited market. More than half of those published in the UK sell fewer than 250 copies a year, so the traditional publishers’ objection that “the book won’t sell” simply doesn’t hold water.

“It just doesn’t make sense that so much great literature is out of print,” he says. He believes that the combination of herd mentality and lack of vision in publishing is the main reason for bookshops being awash with works of “polished mediocrity”.

According to a study commissioned by the British Library, 90 per cent of newly published work will soon be available digitally. O’Reilly thinks this might help to “ensure that financial considerations are no longer the sole motivating factor in publishing and library sciences”.

The Classic Travel Book company was born of the O’Reillys’ love of long-distance equestrian travel. They are the original Long Riders, founders of an international guild of horsemen dedicated to the traditions and philosophy of geographical exploration on horseback. The Long Riders’ Guild is also dedicated to the preservation of equestrian literature, for which there is a limited market. The guild established a publishing arm that was gradually overtaken by the more generalist Classic Travel Book imprint, which has more than 200 titles on its growing list. It contains works from long-forgotten explorers such as John Duncan and George Younghusband, as well as the less famous works of big names such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Leonard Woolf and, of course, Shackleton.

“Any book selling fewer than 500 copies a year is a good candidate for making available on demand,” says Suzanne Wilson-Higgins, commercial director of Lightning Source, a Milton Keynes-based company specialising in printing, binding and distributing on-demand books.

And while their traditional clients are academic, professional and scientific publishers, business is increasingly coming from specialist trade publishers and imprints such as The Classic Travel Book company. They have also brought into print a wide spectrum of what Wilson-Higgins calls “non-traditional” publishers. These include old-fashioned vanity self-publishers as well as database publishers, the so-called “content aggregators” who source digital collections of books or even scan out-of-copyright titles, rework the covers and sell them (quite legally) over the web. As Wilson-Higgins says: “No warehouse, no stock, less risk.”

And no waste. “To fell forests and then pulp books is not a responsible act,” O’Reilly says. “Our mission to preserve rare and important travel knowledge is tempered by the realisation of our ecological duties as publishers.” He believes he has a moral duty to share the profits he makes with the academic institutions, scholarly societies and charities associated with travel writers, past and present, featured on the Classic Travel Book list. For example, he is working with author Glynn Christian – the profits from Christian’s book will help create a community library on remote Pitcairn Island.

Mike Berry, an independent antiquarian bookseller and owner of Somerset-based Rare Books and Berry, believes print-on-demand will enhance his traditional business. “I can supply books to customers where previously the rarity and cost made this impossible, so the reader wins. It will not affect the sale of first editions, as this is a collectors’ market,” he says.

Berry thinks that collectors will even go for print-to-order books. “I am happy to make these available – people want to use bookshops as well as the web.”

The reader may be considered the winner in all this, but the writer is not doing too badly either. Robin Hanbury-Tenison, described by The Sunday Times as “one of the greatest explorers of the 20th century”, has more than a dozen of his books on the Classic Travel Book list and sells them via his website.

Hanbury-Tenison, who, as editor of The Oxford Book of Exploration , is no stranger to traditional publishing, decided his most recent book, Worlds within: Reflections in the Sand , should go straight to the on-demand format. “It’s the second instalment of my autobiography and doesn’t have the wider appeal of some of my earlier books. It was a book I just wanted to write, and I didn’t want to get stuck into the process of lengthy meetings with publishers and so on. I just sent off the manuscript, and in ten days I had a copy of the book in my hands.”

LIFE IN THE SADDLE

Before you get 100 pages into CuChullaine O’Reilly’s 600-plus page novel Khyber Knights , the protagonist is being tortured in a prison cell in Pakistan. It is a terrible scene where two men are held in separate rooms and forced to listen to the other’s sufferings while their assailants try unsuccessfully to beat a confession out of them with cricket bats. They are accused of being in possession of a large amount of heroin.

Basha, O’Reilly’s wife, says the book is based on her husband’s real-life experiences. “Every word you read is true. A few names have been changed here and there, but that was basically what happened.”

O’Reilly is known for his journeys through Pakistan, which form the source material for Khyber Knights , widely held to be the best and most authentic book on the country written in English.

Basha O’Reilly is the other half of the publishing partnership behind Classic Travel Books and the Long Riders’ Guild website, described by the O’Reillys as “part-museum, bookstore, tack room and Guild Hall” and as containing “the world’s largest collection of equestrian travel information”. She is known in equestrian circles for her ride from Russia to the UK and as author of children’s book Count Pompeii – Stallion of the Steppes , first in the Little Long Rider series.

Long riders do just that. They ride long distances. They are a tight-knit, though far-scattered, community whose significance lies in the quality of their literary output.

The O’Reillys plan to circumnavigate the world on horseback, a feat never before accomplished.

Details: www.thelongridersguild.com/

Nick Smith is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and has been a judge on the Thomas Cook Travel Book Awards

Nick Smith’s review of Bob Headland’s ‘A Chronology of Antarctic Exploration’ as appeared in Bookdealer magazine (full text)

April 27, 2009

A few people mentioned to me yesterday at the Antiquarian book fair at the RGS that they’d not seen my review of Bob Headland’s new Chronology in Bookdealer. Here is the full text, but remember words look better in print so please subscribe to the magazine… 

 

Cold hard facts from the bottom of the world

Nick Smith reviews

A Chronology of Antarctic Exploration: a Synopsis of Events and Activities from the Earliest Times until the International Polar Years, 2007–09

By Robert Keith Headland

Quaritch, HB, £110 · ISBN 978-0955085284

Ever since Pythagoras postulated that the Earth was spherical the possibility of there being Polar Regions has intrigued philosophers and explorers alike. In the 8th Century a Northumbrian monk conjectured that the poles were places of eternal cold: in the north he thought there was an ocean, while in the south a great land mass. The Venerable Bede was of course spot on, but it was to be well over a thousand years before the likes of Robert Peary or Roald Amundsen would be able to see that for themselves by setting foot on the geographical poles. In 1366 pioneering travel writer Sir John Mandeville was the first to use the word ‘Antartyk’, while in 1487–88 a Portuguese naval expedition commanded by Bartholomeu Díaz de Novaes discovered the Cape of Good Hope. In 1516 the earliest printed description and illustration of the Southern Cross Antarctic constellation appeared in a work by Andrea Corsali, an image that adorns the front cover of Robert Keith Headland’s monolithic A Chronology of Antarctic Exploration.

In the 1600s the southern seas were getting positively crowded, with Dutch, English, French and Spanish expeditions all contributing to the exploration and mapping of the region. In 1736 the lighting of London streets with whale oil lamps created ‘great impetus to the whaling industry’. In 1762, John Harrison claimed the Board of Longitude’s £20,000 prize for the invention of an accurate chronometer for the determination of longitude at sea. By the 1800s the sub-Antarctic islands were starting to see the slaughter of marine mammals on an industrialised scale, when barely a year went by without a whaling or a sealing voyage setting forth to plunder the biodiversity of the South.

But it is the 20th century – starting with the Heroic Age of Polar exploration and ending with the dawn of an age of environmental responsibility ­– that forms the bulk of Headland’s Chronology. In a tome of well over 700 pages, the 20th century begins on page 231. To express just how intense this surge in activity in the region is, the first two millennia of the Chronology are dealt with on just one page. Political issues such as territorial sovereignty, international accords and the Antarctic Treaty weave their way through the latter part. These threads are supported by a wealth of scientific, expeditionary and tourism-related material that will be of inestimable value to researchers, academics and anyone with more than a casual interest in polar affairs.

Since the Second World War there have been several compilations of chronological lists of Antarctic expeditions, but this title is essentially a third edition of the author’s Chronological List of Antarctic Expeditions and Related Historical Events (CUP, 1989). There are major structural changes. For instance, its historical extent now includes up to the International Polar Years 2007–09 (for some reason I’ve never managed to work out, International Polar Years are considerably longer than the more conventional calendar year). This means that there are some 1,500 new entries, while a tenth of the original entries have been significantly amended. Headland is nothing if not thorough: in his introduction he notes that there are some additional minor voyages of discovery, several hundred more sealing voyages, corrections to dates and notes, better indexing of subjects, revision of the histograms and bibliography, and ‘similar improvements in completeness and correctness.’

One of the most curious effects of reading a linear chronology such as this is how dispassionate academic history can be compared with its so-called ‘popular’ counterpart and as a consequence it is sometimes hard to gauge the relative importance of historical events. While the polar community celebrates the centenary of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s iconic British Antarctic Survey of 1907–09 (otherwise known as the Nimrod expedition), Headland allocates what seems to be a rather measly 22 lines to the subject (although in fairness he allocates fewer to the 1982 Argentine invasion of South Georgia, during which he was captured, and even fewer to the invasion of the Falkland Islands.) And yet within those 22 lines salient points for the academic historian are rattled off in a prose style that has a taciturn beauty all of its own. Here’s one sentence from the Nimrod entry:

‘Party of 15 men wintered at Cape Royds on Ross Island; climbed Mount Erebus (3794 m), 10 March 1908; Shackleton and 3 others (Jameson Boyd Adams, Eric Stewart Marshall, and John Robert Francis [Frank] Wild), discovered and sledged up the Beardmore Glacier to the farthest south of 88 • 38º S (01 • 62º [180km] from the South Pole) where Shackleton took possession of the Polar Plateau for King Edward VII, 9 January 1909; insufficient supplies necessitated their return; discovered nearly 500km of the Transantarctic Mountains flanking the Ross Ice Shelf; discovered coal at Mount Buckley.’

Somewhere in here is the human drama of the Boss’s decision to turn around a tantalising 97 miles from glory. He could have pushed on and claimed the pole but his men were in bad shape and he needed to get them home safely. This has been called one of the greatest decisions in exploration, and one that defines Shackleton as an icon of management leadership a century later. But this category of interpretive analysis is not what the Chronology is about – it is about cold, hard facts from the bottom of the world. There’s even one for antiquarian bibliophiles: ‘Book, Aurora Australis, printed at Cape Royds, 90 copies made.’

Bob Headland is of course a legend in Polar circles, having held the post of Archivist and Curator at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge until late 2005, when he left in order to pursue his research and to get his Chronology finished. During his career he has spent probably as much time as anyone else in the Polar Regions. He spent two winters at Grytviken on South Georgia involved in biological research with the British Antarctic Survey in the late 1970s. In 1982, a third winter of study was cut short by the inconvenience of having to spend time at the Argentine forces’ pleasure (a ‘Galtieri: his part in my downfall’ moment if ever there was one). South Georgia not only provided Headland with masses of field experience, but also resulted in studies on the biogeography of the peri-Antarctic islands and an interest in their history, which in turn led to his 1984 book The Island of South Georgia.

In his introduction Headland admits that there’ll probably be no fourth edition to his Chronology. Improved access to the White Continent means that the sheer volume of data will become unmanageable in book form. As commercial flights and tourism cruises increase in frequency, the maintenance of such a project will become more difficult and will inevitably be handed over to the online environment. Which means that for those preferring their reference works to be made out of paper and board the time has come to invest. At first glance £110 might seem like a tall order, but for that you get the definitive work. Bob Headland has produced a monumental work of scholarship based on a lifetime’s dedication to his subject, and if his Chronology does not become the final court of appeal for all factual matters to do with the events and activities in Antarctic exploration, then nothing ever will.

Nick Smith is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a Contributing Editor on the Explorers Journal, the magazine of the Explorers Club in New York