Antarctica has been with us since long before Captain James Cook became the first European to cross the Antarctic Circle in 1773. For millennia the continent was unseen, unknown but much speculated about. The honour of first sighting in 1820 goes to Fabian von Bellinghausen who was sailing for Russian Czar Alexander I.
But before that, there were dreams of a hidden landmass at the bottom of the world. Pythagoras thought the earth to be round and in 530 BC posited there had to be a hidden southern continent to balance the land masses of the northern hemisphere. Without this balance, he thought, the earth might tip over.
In AD 150, Ptolemy drew a map that showed the Antarctic region as fertile, populated and linked to Africa. It took Europeans many centuries to make their way south and disprove the connected continents theory. But it wasn’t just Europeans -- there is a Rarotongan legend of a Polynesian navigator named Ui-te-Rangiora who sailed to a place where the sea was frozen about 500 years after Ptolemy.
The late 15th and early 16th Centuries saw a series of global voyages that began the European mania for exploring, claiming and naming. The difference between Antarctica and nearly everywhere else Europeans went was that it was uninhabited and so remote that it wasn’t until the 1800s that regular voyages began. Sealers and whalers dreaming of commerce vied with naval expeditions dreaming of discovery and, later, exploration.
The trials and tragedies of Amundsen, Shackleton and Scott fired the imagination of generations. Like the Arctic, Antarctic mythology is built around individuals struggling against harsh climates and incredible odds. It is also built on the image of a region that is harsh and heartless, beyond the edge of civilization.
Where the voyage to the antipodes once took the better part of a year, it now takes a few days, depending on the route. As I write this, I’m waiting for a delayed flight in Ottawa, the start of a southward journey to Buenos Aires and a flight that will take me to Ushuaia, in Patagonia. It’s a modern inconvenience. An irritant. For perspective, I try to imagine what Sir Ernest Shackleton was thinking as he heard the ice-bound Endurance’s hull shatter and watched her slip into the frigid Weddell Sea.
Although Antarctica has been discovered, mapped, claimed, studied and negotiated over, it is still the dream continent. Hardly anyone gets a chance to visit, and once visited, it is supposed to stay with one. From Ushuaia we head into the Beagle Channel and the Drake Passage to the South Shetland Islands. These are names from books, seen on maps, but still unreal. Like a dream.
The Antarctica expedition begins with two days of pre-expedition educations activities including
exploring the southern Patagonian Andes. Map courtesy of Students on Ice Expeditions.