We're currently in the middle of a period that marks numerous Antarctic centenaries, a hundred years having passed since the 'Heroic Age' of exploration was at its peak. While we can recreate the many expeditions that tried to open up the Antarctic through the books, journals and photographs of their participants, there is another, more tangible link to this heroic period--the huts the explorers used. These amazing time capsules have become poignant monuments to human endeavour.
Today, seven historic huts remain in the Antarctic: four in the Ross Dependency, maintained by the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust (NZAHT), one just off the Antarctic Peninsula and another on the South Orkney Islands, maintained by the Instituto Antartico Argentina, and one at Commonwealth Bay, maintained by the Mawson's Hut Foundation of Australia. There are also four roofless ruins--a dilapidated hut and three stone shelters--and ten sites where huts have succumbed to the harsh Antarctic conditions.
These suriviving huts have remained comparatively well preserved for three main reasons: Antarctica is cold, dry and remote. The first two conditions mean that material is protected from decay, the last that it's protected from acquisitive visitors. But we can't afford to be complacent. Another aspect of Antarctica's climate is constantly working to erase them from its face--its powerful winds wearing them down and breaking them up as if trying to prove their dominion over the vast white continent. Indeed, Shackleton's hut was recently named one of the world's 100 most endangered sites by the World Monuments Fund.
I've been lucky enough to visit nearly all of the sites, and have built up a real appreciation of what it must have been like to be involved in the pioneer exploration of this pitiless land. It isn't easy to express how it feels to walk through the huts, especially when you stop to consider what has happened inside them--the achievements, triumphs and tragedies. Each hut has a distinct atmosphere that corresponds to its original circumstances, each feels as if it's filled with ghosts.
A feature common to all of the huts is the large amount of expeditionary supplies and equipment remaining, including research instruments, food, galley and heating stoves, lighting apparatus, and even abandoned boots and socks. The expeditions were generally cautious and took supplies sufficient to last for an unexpected extra winter. If unused, these were then left behind in case of a shipwreck or stranding. A century later, the number of familiar brands among the provisions is conspicuous, particularly for those with memories from a childhood in Britain, Australia or New Zealand.
The Discovery hut at Hut Point is the oldest and was used by all subsequent expeditions because it was also the most southerly. Somewhat incongruously, the hut was an Australian-outback-style prefabricated house that even had verandahs on three sides. It was deployed mainly for stores and scientific instruments but had to provide accommodation for later expeditions. Members of the Ross Sea party of Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-17) were the last to stay in it. Stranded there waiting for the sea to freeze and provide a safe crossing to Cape Evans, they walled off part of the interior to make a smaller and warmer living area. Their survival depended on the use of seal blubber as fuel for lighting, heating and cooking. A blubber lamp, improvised from food tins, remains next to axe marks on the floor where frozen blubber was cut. The lamps' inefficiency is evinced by the thick layer of oily soot spread over the hut's interior. The blubber stove, constructed from bricks that originally supported scientific instruments, still bears a pot containing blubber scraps due to be rendered into oil, while the axe used to cut them sits nearby. All this is surrounded by a sleeping platform constructed from planks and placed close to the only heat source. …