Braving the White Wilderness

If Antarctica were music it would be Mozart. Art; and it would be Michelangelo. Literature; and it would be Shakespeare. And yet it is something even greater: the only place on Earth that is still as it should be. May we never tame it.

Andrew Denton

Somehow this beautiful and poetic quotation encapsulates much of what I feel for the pristine landscape of Antarctica – other perhaps than a fear for the savagery of the elements when Nature unleashes all her fury.

It is the loneliest, coldest, windiest, driest and highest of our seven continents and a vast wilderness area where the human footprint is lightest. Survival is a gift, rather than a given.

GeoffPilgrimage71Perhaps only on a trek through the high Himalayas to Everest Base Camp, accompanied by the roar and crashing of avalanches and the crunching and cracking of the moving Khumbu Glacier, have I known the same feelings of humility, vulnerability and insignificance.

Antarctica frightens me and enthrals me with its contrasts. New Year’s Day was perfection and bright with every imaginable possibility for 2011, which has proven to be wonderfully prophetic.

It has been a great year in which I’ve stepped right out of my comfort zone, shed most of my worldly possessions and begun walking with a message about living simply and sustainably while treading lightly upon the Earth. I’ve met amazing people and been blessed with remarkable experiences.

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Geoff (left) and Shiraan Watson at South Africa's research base in Antarctica

Antarctica at the beginning of the year was a fitting farewell to my old life of vehicle-based adventure, my swansong being to lead a pioneering 4×4 drive to the South African scientific and research base. Along the way I navigated through vast seas of sastrugi – the endless waves of ice sculpted by the wind. In my bright blue Toyota I felt like the captain of a small boat scattering showers of ice crystals like spume upon a vast ocean.

It was hauntingly beautiful and I increasingly felt at one with the vast wilderness. Best of all was stopping, switching off and gradually becoming aware of an eerie silence in which I could hear my own heartbeat and feel the blood pulsing through my veins.

Today I am an Earth Pilgrim treading lightly and reverently at the opposite end of the Earth in northern Scotland, but part of me remains in Antarctica, which has a way of getting into your head and your heart.

My friend Paul Lee, the South African overwintering team leader who has been in Antarctica a year and experienced endless night, tells me: “It was a harsh winter and we did not get out as much as I would have liked, but it has turned into a gift because it has allowed me to stay in one place and peacefully observe and witness the passing of the seasons, the light and the dark, my own moods, the different blizzards and the return of the birds. We are so often moving in life and so seldom still that in this way the year has been a meditative retreat.”

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Flashback... Braam Malherbe (right) with his running mate David Grier in Nelson Mandela's former prison cell in 2008

For another close and inspiring friend the coming weeks will be exciting, daunting and possibly even terrifying. Braam Malherbe, a 54-year-old TV presenter, youth developer and motivational speaker, teams up with Peter van Kets, the 43-year-old winner of last year’s solo Atlantic rowing challenge, to represent South Africa in the six-nation human-powered race to the South Pole.

They’re two amazing personalities in a remarkable event that commemorates the pioneering contest a century ago between Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and Englishman Captain Robert Falcon Scott.

Amundsen won, reaching the South Pole on December 14, 1911 and survived by systematically eating his sledge dogs, while his rival found wider fame in arriving a month later and dying heroically on the way back. “Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman,” Scott wrote. “These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale…”

Braam admits that the epic race is scary, but insists that doing it for reasons beyond ego will make all the difference.

“We will not just be racing to the Pole; we will be racing for the Earth. We are all in a race against time to slow down and ultimately stop climate change and global warming. Our future and the future of all species depend on the decisions we make and the actions we take in the next few years,” he said.

GeoffPilgrimage73He and Peter will be the main characters in an international television documentary on climate-change called Cold Sweat. “My message is that unless we protect our wilderness areas and halt what human consumption and greed has caused through the use of fossil fuels; and unless we urgently curb our population growth, there will be a horribly compromised future for our children. We must embrace Nature’s laws… we must understand that species only survive by giving and taking. All species play an important role in the ecosystem and we are not exempt from this law.”

He invites everyone to join his DOT initiative and do one thing for the Earth. “I want to encourage each and every person to understand that the role they have to play is a vital one. If we all in some small way do one thing we begin a massive collective shift. We begin to heal not only our home, but ourselves as well.”

“We need to change our thinking before it is too late,” Braam insists. “Business needs to understand that to make as much money in as short a period as possible, with little regard for our natural resources, is just not on any more!”

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SA's research base in Antarctica

Is Braam ready for the challenge? “Is one ever ready for the curve-balls that Nature throws at us? I believe that by dreaming big, then planning very well, we increase our chances of success. But we must accept there will be risks along the way. I was asked recently ‘but what if you die?’ I replied that I would rather die trying to improve the Earth for future generations of all species than lying on my deathbed one day full of regrets, wishing I had tried.”

Geoff Dalglish

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