Today’s our last full day on the ship – we have to be out of our cabins in the morning and I expect just about everyone will be up on deck for the first sight of land before we dock after lunch. Some of the people on this ship haven’t seen a tree for 18 months. This morning we had a big scrub of the mess and the galley, getting into those nasty little joins in the stainless steel with steel wool. In an hour I have to hand back the returnable items of my Antarctic clothing issue – most things you’ve worn close to your skin are yours to keep, such as thermals.
But! I haven’t finished the story of the first woman to reach Antarctica yet, and there might be no chance to blog tomorrow, so now’s my chance.
I’d got up to telling you about Alan Parker’s theory that Caroline Mikkelsen really did land on the mainland, but the site hasn’t been found yet. If you need a revision, go back to the blog post called ‘The plot thickens’. Alan had some ideas about where the real landing site might be, based on drawings made by Caroline’s husband at the time, and just about every year for the past, well maybe 20 years, Alan has asked people living at Davis Station to go searching for it, supplying coordinates and maps and suggestions.
And search they have. Several of the people who have been out there to look around are on the ship now and it seems like there’s been a huge effort to search those areas that Alan Parker has suggested, with multiple trips over many years to try and find evidence of Caroline on the mainland. So far they’ve come up with nothing.
Cookie sat me down to compare the original 1935 photo showing Caroline raising the flag, and contemporary images of the site taken specifically for the purpose of comparison. ‘The secret to finding the cairn is in the rocks’, as Alan Parker scribbled on one of his maps. Cookie reckons that a careful comparison of the two photos shows quite clearly that they are the same place – that Caroline is indeed standing on Tryne Island. On board the ship we only have a photocopy of the 1935 photo, so it’s hard for me to be sure, but Cookie’s not the only one who’s certain the photo is on Tryne Island – others who’ve gone there agree.
“That doesn’t mean she never landed on the mainland,” Cookie says, “but I haven’t seen any evidence yet that she did – no photos that are clearly taken on the mainland and no cairn.”
I’d like to put the photos up to show you, but it’s not possible from the ship – however I’ll do my best to organise it once I get back (if you’re still reading).
I had no idea that there was such interest in Caroline’s landing down here and it was very heartening. Most of the time I’ve been researching the earliest women to reach Antarctica I’ve felt like I was out in the wilderness and no one cared much. But down here on the ground, where history can be seen and touched, it’s much more alive. Climbing up to the Wilkins Cairn, not far from Tryne Island, is a real thrill because you can open up the original box and look at the documents that were left there in 1939 and unroll the flag and let it fly. Wilkins left two other secret cairns from that expedition, concerned that the American expedition leader Ellesworth was claiming land for America that had already been claimed by Australia. Cookie’s been out looking for those too, but no luck so far. Wilkins described one of them as a three inch hole in the rock – he put a canister in there and put another rock over the top of the hole. Anyone who could find that deserves a medal.
But I digress. Until evidence is found to the contrary, it appears Caroline Mikkelsen landed on Tryne Island and not the Antarctic mainland.
That means when Ingrid finally achieved her dream of landing on Antarctica in 1937, with her daughter Sofie and two other women (Solveig Wideroe and Lillemor Rachlew), after three previous voyages to Antarctica and at least one attempted landing, she was in fact the first woman to step on the Antarctic mainland.
And – it seems no one has thought to go looking for her landing site yet. Scullin Monolith is much harder to get to than Tryne Island, so opportunities for searching aren’t as regular and it certainly wasn’t something a round tripper like me could fit in.
Now some of you are probably thinking why on earth would such a thing matter? Is there any importance attached to who got there first and if one landed on an island and the other didn’t?
I’m not sure if I can explain it, but I’ll try. Neither Ingrid nor Caroline were explorers in their own right – they got to Antarctica as companions for their husbands and many would think this isn’t deserving of recognition or of being written up in the history books. But remember – way back early in the trip – those newspaper articles I quoted about women wanting to go to Antarctica? A year or two after Ingrid landed, 1300 women applied to be included in one British expedition – none of them got a look in. Right up until the 1970s and even 1980s it was still damned hard for women to get to Antarctica at all. Female adventurers and explorers hadn’t found a way to get themselves to Antarctica and so, Ingrid, her companions, and Caroline were all pioneers, the first to take up one of the few opportunities for a woman to go south.
(Another digression – I did come across a fascinating anecdote about a Norwegian woman who stowed away on the whaling ship Christianna before 1932 so she could be the first woman to Antarctica, and then stowed away a second time after they attempted to dump her at South Georgia – but when I tried to find out the truth of the story in Norway and went back through old shipping records (with a lot of help, as they were in Norwegian), no one could find that a whaling ship of that name had existed.)
So it seems to me that Ingrid’s story is one that deserves telling. Although she and her husband would have travelled in comfort, if not luxury, the photos from the time show that the voyage was still very rough and long, and she would have confronted the whaling factory ships which were notoriously disgusting, with a stench that travelled for miles. So she was a woman with plenty of gumption, and the determination to leave her children and go four times to Antarctica.
Now, I have to take all of that unwieldy real life history of Ingrid and work it into a novel, which is something of a challenge. I haven’t managed to finish my first draft on this voyage, as I’d hoped, but I blame that on the extremely fast trip – I’m sure if we’d been sailing till next Wednesday I would have made it, though it would have been pretty rough around the edges. As it is, I’m reasonably close and now reckon I will have a better-than-rough draft done before Christmas, with the aim of having it polished and ready for the publisher by the middle of next year.
Antarctica breeds obsessions. Ingrid has become mine, for better or worse. And if you’re not a scientist or a tradesperson (or even if you are), it helps to have an obsession to get you to Antarctica.
Now I have to confide my dream. The story isn’t over for me… Imagine if I could go back to Antarctica and find Ingrid’s landing site…I have a plan.
Australian Antarctic Division, you haven’t heard the last of me.
Ciao for now – more later