Magazine article The Spectator

Survival of the Not So Fit in the Frozen Sub-Antarctic Wastes

Magazine article The Spectator

Survival of the Not So Fit in the Frozen Sub-Antarctic Wastes

Article excerpt

You will lead this expedition? Well ... OK,' said the chief at Port-aux-- Francais. 'It's the first time you have led, I think? See what confidence I have in you.'

More confidence, in fact, than I had in myself, but it didn't do to say so. This was my chance for a final walk into the mountains before the ship, the Marion Dufresne, already at anchor offshore, took me away. An Englishman with only four months' acquaintance with the French sub-Antarctic island of Kerguelen would not normally be entrusted with the care of two total novices on a two-day walk to a mountain shelter and back, but there was nobody else available. My team, two passengers from the Marion, had placed their faith in me.

They were an odd pair. Marc, a young photographer, had joined the ship, hopeful of pictures of these little-known islands. Tall, good-looking, solidly built and apparently fit, he was raring to go. Daniel, a sculptor in his fifties, gave every appearance of a Daddy Cool beamed back from the 1970s. He had been commissioned to create a sculpture for the base at Kerguelen, but it had immediately become clear that he could hardly do so in five days so he had redefined his mission as a journey for inspiration - and possibly a rock: something he might chisel on return. It was unclear how this wispy-bearded, elfin figure with a little canvas rucksack, shiny blue, ankle-length plastic boots and a bobble hat was going to lift, let alone transport, his rock. We made an unlikely team.

Still, the weather was calm and the walk across a windy, stone-strewn plain to the foot of the mountains should only take a couple of hours. Once we had waded across the river, it was but two or three hours up the great Studer Valley to our overnight shelter by a windy lake. I collected food, and a walkie-talkie - which I did not know how to use - from the BCR radio room. I watched furtively while the radio officer tried it out. It seemed you pushed a button when you wanted to speak.

Allons!' I cried jauntily to my team, pointing towards a gap in the mountains which I supposed might be the Studer Valley; and we set out. Marc began to limp: an old knee injury, he said. Daniel danced off, antique rucksack askew, gazing towards the rock horizon with a look of rapt anticipation.

The sky was blue, but the air was way below freezing. Before the desert-like plain comes a huge bog punctuated by countless vicious little sinking bogs camouflaged by moss. 'Frozen solid,' I said, before sailing across one. Behind me, Marc went straight through the ice, up to his thighs. Daniel, who alternated between panic and ecstasy, switched briefly to panic. We helped Marc out, redistributing some of his load among us as his knee worsened. The wind was in our faces, but not strong, and we made it easily to the Studer Valley.

'We cross the river?' breathed Daniel, back in ecstasy mode.

'Ah,' I said, 'there's a point.' There was indeed, but I had only the vaguest idea where it was. It matters where you cross. A young man was killed near there when he chose too deep a stretch. We followed the river until I saw what I seemed to remember as a familiar crossing place. 'Here!' I announced. We crossed. Even Daniel kept his feet dry. My team's confidence in me rose. But Marc was now in real pain.

We made it up that majestic valley and found the shelter: an old sea-container, customised into an iron cabin with no windows. We marvelled at the nearby waterfall: a river drops a thousand feet in three great falls into a huge black gorge. …

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