Taking a circuitous route through the pack ice, we finally made it to Frankin Island at 76 degrees south. We got the ship to within 5 miles, then flew in by helicopter, landing on the sea ice at the southeastern end of the island about a mile and a half from a colony of Emperor penguins.
They were spectacularly situated, with a backdrop of frozen-in, grounded icebergs in one direction and the dark cliff of the island in the other. Lavas and ashes of the McMurdo Volcanic Group are nicely exposed on the cliff.
These Cenozoic volcanic are typical of the islands towards the southern end of the Ross Sea, and along its western coast. But give the choice between photographing cute fluffy Emperor penguin chicks (think ‘Happy Feet’!) and a sequence of volcanics, most folk chose the former – although the cliffs did their best to draw attention with a series of noisy rockfalls.
On Monday, taking another roundabout route east, south, then west to use the best ice, we left Franklin Island to go further into the Ross Sea. By lunchtime, we passed 77o south and broke into a large polynya near the mouth of McMurdo Sound. To the west, spectacularly clear, was the coast of Victoria Land and the peaks of the Transantarctic Mountains. Then Ross Island came into view, with some cloud cover, and the upper slopes of Mount Erebus peeking out above the cloud. We sailed down the west coast of Ross Island and turned into a small bay south of the headland of Cape Royds, running the ship into the edge of the coastal fast ice.
We flew the mile and a half to the island and hiked a short distance through black phonolite lavas from Erebus to a small hollow, sheltered from the wind by a ridge of moraine. Nestled in this spot is a wooden hut, the base of Ernest Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition. From here, in 1908 and 1909, Shackleton explored the Ross Ice Shelf, found the Beardmore Glacier and followed it through the Transantarctic Mountains to reach the Polar Plateau, pushing on to within 97 nautical miles of the South Pole. Realising that he and his companions could be first to the Pole, but that they didn’t have enough supplies to make it back alive, he turned back. From this hut, too, Shackleton’s geologists explored the region. T.W. Edgworth David, Cardiff-born Professor of Geology at Sydney, led one group on the first ascent of Mount Erebus and took another to the location of the South Magnetic Pole which was on the Polar Plateau to the west at that time.
Some remarkable conservation work has been done at the hut by the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust and this finished just two days ago. But apart from a few replaced timbers which will soon weather in this severe climate, the hut looks just as it did when the expedition left in 1909. The shelves are stacked with spare food; torn, patched and darned clothing hangs from hooks or lies on the sleeping bags; a couple of sledges rest on the rafters. Outside, crates of supplies are piled against the wall or used to build the pony stables. For anyone with an interest in Antarctic exploration, to stand in the hut where Shackleton based himself in this remote part of the planet, is breathtaking.