2 January 2012

It seems entirely appropriate that Antarctica itself should dictate the timing of the centennial visit to Mawson’s Huts.  Aurora Australis, originally scheduled to depart Hobart on 31 December, has had its return fromAntarctica delayed by blizzards and high winds during its re-supply of Casey station.  Therefore the departure of ‘Voyage 3’ of the summer season – the centennial expedition to Commonwealth Bay – has been re-scheduled for the evening of 5 January.  This is the influence of what is called ‘the A-factor’, which is the de-stabilising ingredient in all Antarctic planning.

Another uncertainty affecting the commemorative voyage is the state of the ice near the site of Mawson’s Huts.  Grounded bergs from the Ross Ice Shelf have corralled the pack ice near the coast and tourist ships have been unable to reachCommonwealthBaythis summer.  The Australian Antarctic Division expects to have to use helicopters to reach the huts – but the feasibility of that plan, too, will depend on the A-factor.

Uncertainty and waiting are the warp and weft of Antarctic history.  The men of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition spent a lot of time waiting … waiting for the wind to stop so they could work outside or hear themselves think, waiting agonisingly for the Far Eastern sledging party of Mawson, Ninnis and Mertz to return, waiting for the black speck of the Aurora to appear on the horizon to take them home.  InAntarctica, it can feel like time has not only skipped a beat, but has lost the beat altogether.  Time there assumes different rhythms. There is the deeper pulse of the ice ages, the seamless months of eternal light or night, the transcendent otherworld of a blizzard, the breaking up of the sea ice, the exciting return of the Adélies, the schedule of the summer ships, the race to resupply – and there is also ‘the changeover’, that compressed turning over of the annual generations at Antarctic stations.

In a book called Blizzard and Fire, the Australian explorer, John Béchervaise, wrote beautifully of his year at Mawson Station in 1959 (the station founded in 1954, not the AAE huts).  In the middle of the winter darkness he considered the fabric of polar time: whose stuff is with me now: great, slow halyards of it passing through an Antarctic night where ordinary time does not exist. Here is always the time of watching, the time of waiting, the time of contemplation, the time of the little child, time that has not been impoverished by being thought valuable.

We wait humbly for the return of Aurora Australis from this other dimension.