She propped her pack on a wooden post near one of the station perimeter gates. Ten kilograms of clothing and equipment, snug, neatly packed, like her head. It was a lot to carry, but seemed nothing under the grey that puffed above her from horizon to horizon. Almost there rain swirled and creaked as she tugged and poked at her pack.
A pine log fence zagged around the half a dozen or so buildings of the station. It was not meant to keep anything in; it was to keep elephant seals out. Weighing up to three thousand kilograms and with a penchant to sun themselves against nicely warmed, but ultimately fragile, hut walls; elephant seals were unwelcome visitors near huts. It was a good fence. Usually Joan saw the fence and ticked that it was a good fence.
There were a few penguins around but no seals. It was cold, close to freezing, but she was warm in her thermals and yellow and red gortex waterproofs. Warm in all the things she had said about walking away. “I’ve decided to walk down the island,” she had said. She was good at making decisions; she knew that about herself.
Eventually she shrugged on her pack and strode off with the long low steps of a tall woman. A confident walk, she was a confident woman.
The track took her quickly away from the station on the isthmus across the beach around several small rock outcrops. Sea soaked pebbles of the beach met the rain soaked rocks of spines leading to the plateau above; it was a quiet parallel to the sloppy ocean. Spots of tussocky grass trailed their dull-green across the grey of it all. The sea sucked in pebbly gulps. Her boot steps fell into the rhythm of it all. Soon she glanced behind and could no longer see the huts or any other part of the station, not even the top of the satellite communications dome. There she was, alone. It wasn’t a moment of triumph or relief, it wasn’t a moment of thinking anything much. It was the moment she shat herself.
She stood there and felt the shit fill her underpants and trickle down her inner leg. The surprise was she hadn’t passed out. Usually she passed out. Vasovagal reflex, it was an old visitor. Lowering herself and her pack she knelt there on the beach, her pants full of warm shit. Disappointment, shame; it trickled with the shit. Anger picked and pinched and left quickly. She was fed up with anger. Kneeling took a long time.
The stones of the beach bit at her knees. Weak performer. She had wanted to be alone. Just Macquarie Island and Joan, that was what she needed. But she had only come this far; just around one corner, and now her pants were full of shit.
So go back. How hard is that? Go back past the blue ball of the dome, back through the gate, to the station leader’s donga, back to where the deputy officially took over the station leadership just twenty minutes ago, back to a warm shower. Everyone knows Joan’s not much of a walker. Who cares anyway?
The two brawling expeditioners sent home before winter, they care. That’s who. Of course they do. People were angry, taking sides, then shocked at the leader’s decision to send both brawlers home. When there are only sixteen heads thinking, small thoughts can fill big spaces. The winter night-days lay ahead like shots through a windscreen. Joan knew it. She knew things could happen if she didn’t fix it. She knew good decisions shrink bad possibilities. Walking the island was a good decision too.
The sea thrashed about in front of her. It looked no different, still beautiful. The white tipped Southern Ocean fiercely prancing, on and on. There is no continental shelf around Macquarie Island, just a small sea terrace weathered from ocean bedrocks thrust from the deep, millions of years ago. Here, the sea opens like a gape. You can feel it.
She stood. It was only for a few seconds, she thought. Then, back to the slopes, she dipped into her pack. Spreading of her space blanket, spare undies, her second set of thermals, all careful and methodical. The thing is to be quick. Boots off, short socks off, long socks off. Shuck the clothing, flick some shit away. The gortex pants were fine, the wooltwills only needed a few scrapes onto the tide line but the underwear had to be washed out.
Naked from the waist down, her soiled clothes in her hands, she stepped towards the ocean. Pale feet, long legs lost in the gritty cold, so clear, so cold, too cold. Swish and shit. It all felt like ice. Salt in her groin and on her face. She could only go in up to her knees, the waves were too big here; giants pounding their watch, just a few steps away. Rub yourself dry. Get it on. Get it on. You can always go back.
Her rubber boots back on. She knew she wasn’t clean, but her new underwear was. Her gortex pants pulled on with almost numb fingers. As she rolled the ocean cold bundle tightly and clipped it away, that was it. She had cleaned off as much as she could and had squeezed out as much seawater as she could. Gloves back on. She had known she might shit herself. The possibility had been with her from the minute she had left her donga, and for hours before. It was something she did when her guts took over. Usually she woke a few seconds later, her head banged on some toilet door. Fear was a thing. Then you do it. Then it’s over. It wasn’t a yes or no decision it was just on. She was going on.
The pack felt heavier, but she was dry. Cold and wet kills the expeditioner; they had all learned that lesson. And don’t ski across a frozen lake like Scoble. She could pass that test too. Yes she could.
Scoble had been out exploring the island and, fatally, tried skiing across a frozen lake when the ice cracked beneath him. He could not climb out; the ice was too thin. He tried to break a channel back to shore with his skis. Cold and wet, he died within fifteen minutes. They named the lake after him. It was something. The lake still freezes over sometimes. Joan was alive, not like Scoble. Walking again.
Wide and green, the space of the island left the ocean and sometimes took Joan with it. White breasted petrels swooped on white cresting waves. She kept close to the coast, mostly along the wrists of dark, gravelly beaches. When she came to The Nuggets, two landmark sea stacks, long a sailor’s beacon, she knew she was about halfway to the field hut at Sandy Bay, and much later than she should be. Most expeditioners walk the island at around four kilometres an hour or more, Joan walked at about two. Most walkers don’t shit themselves. High and hard, the tide was snatching at the coast in front of her.
Rusting remains of boiling vats stood just above the beach line, long abandoned. Monuments to the 19th century entrepreneurs who had first boiled all the seals, then they had boiled all the penguins. They had been so good at rounding up penguins to boil, a steam digester had been installed at The Nuggets and large barrels of coal fuel unloaded onto the beach via ramps. Sailors recorded how stony waves tried to bury any barrel not moved immediately above the shore. Men were crushed and drowned, but they kept boiling penguins. One penguin made half a litre of oil, sold to northerners for polishing leather bridles and meagre fuel. By 1919 there was nothing left to boil. Decades later penguins came back. Seals came back. No one came back to boil them.
That day there were about twenty royal penguins watching Joan but she didn’t see them or the vats. The beach between the rocks and The Nuggets was hardly there and then gone, as a wave set came in. Joan watched the sea for a few minutes. The choice was along the not there beach bashed by waves, or over two parts of the rocky cliff above. Scrabbling with her hands and feet she climbed the first outcrop. The weight of the pack dragged at her spine. She felt strong, hauling herself up. On top she shucked her pack and let it bang down into a sloping crevice between the rocky outcrops.
She slid and then jumped. Shit, not much of a jumper either. Landing on her side, the pack stopped her from rolling completely over. There was no climbing the next rocky spine; up close it was too big, too steep. Go around, along the beach, or go back. Pack on, she waited. Time it to go at the end of the wave set. Now run. But the first wave caught her.
It wasn’t a first wave; this wave did not stop. The ocean grew mightily around her and under her. For a swollen moment she hung there, almost floating, a red and yellow skinned creature of the Southern Ocean. She knew she was one. Then the weight of the pack on her back suddenly twisted her away from the open sea towards the crusty sharpness of a rock face, and she felt the turn of the wave in her boots. Giant kelp floated in the foam near her head and she grabbed at it, both hands. Suddenly the water was gone. Grit and pebbles pulled at her feet. She ran.
Sloshy, awkward, the wet run of a bad walker, she put all of her strength into it. She huffed, struggling to get above the beach line with her pack, onto the rocks, onto the first patch of green, a falling stop. For a breath she wondered if she had dived into featherbed, the lush green disguise over the top of a peat bog; a quick way to be smothered in dead and decaying plant slime. Peat bogs are everywhere on this sodden island. It was lovely, lovely grass, not featherbed, not a peat bog. Deep breaths, her lungs felt like the only part of her that was not waterlogged. Subantarctic grass smells like a miracle.
This time it was all busyness. She wiped at her salty mouth and once again unpacked. Wisdom of the plastic cells. Dry socks, dry top, a second pair of wool twill trousers, but her underpants and long thermal pants from the pack were still brown tinged from the shit, still damp, still cold. Once again she stripped, everything this time. Long and white in the cold: Joan on the island. She was beautiful. She never knew. She dressed quickly.
All the waves so many good steps away now. Dry twill on dry skin, no underpants this time, then gortex. On again. Flat pebbles, uneven rocks, no more spines to climb. Walking seemed less difficult, perhaps it was. Getting to the hut before five o’clock, before the dark opens, keeping the radio Sched, being there to answer when the station called the hut. This is the important thing. “Joan how do you read me?” This time she would not be listening back on the isthmus, Leader of the station. She would be answering as Joan the Macquarie Island walker. “I read you.” I am the walker.
She thought she was walking around the rotting piece of giant kelp, instead she stepped on the edge of it. Instantly it slid from under her boot. Instead of falling away from it she fell into its stinking, gelatinous centre, bigger than herself. Her arms, then her face, pinned momentarily by the ten kilograms on her back.
Gagging and spitting, she crawled out of the mess. There was no changing, no nakedness. No more of that. She flapped her gortex coat at the sea, then slapped it in the foam of the next few waves until no salivary slicks dangled. It still stank. Three times, and the Lady stinks. Luck smells like rotting kelp, salty water and shit. Walkers stink. Joan got to the Sandy Bay field hut well before five.
The hut was a Walrus aircraft-engine packing crate, put in place in 1949, roofed with tarpaper and with an entrance not much bigger than a dog flap. It was wonderful. Food, canned and dried, stocked once a year via summer inflatables, kerosene heater and tanked water to wash in. Heat the water, the hut, wash everything, there was nothing to think about. Except keep the door open, don’t drown in carbon monoxide, and the pack stays inside, away from the rats.
Her body. Every part of her body, she was aware of every small part when she lay in the narrow darkness of that first night. There were bruises, the smell of kerosene, a clean body, in a bunk in Sandy Bay. The sea plundered on, just fifty metres away. As she closed her eyes, a smile almost flicked the corners of her mouth. She said softly to herself, the words she had spoken a few hours ago, “Joan here, over”. Those words, this walker, this deep sleep.
Joan and penguins trekked together up Finch Creek, away from Sandy Bay. Bracken fern lined the way for them, cradling the occasional metre high Macquarie Island cabbage plant with its broad leaves. Penguins waddled and hopped towards inland nesting areas. Joan took big steps, testing the trekker’s ache in her calves and thighs. Her pack felt lighter. It still had its ten kilograms of equipment, but she knew more about what she needed to carry that morning than at any other time of her life. Things had been left in the night, in that first night, back in the Sandy Bay aircraft-engine packing crate.
Rain fell, whipped pretty in the swirl of soft grey light. Snow settled higher up. Quickly, a gust, a billow and the rain became sleet. The suddenness of it frightened her. Winds groped intermittently at her pack and gortex skin. Another thing she knew more about today was when to be frightened. There were weeks until winter, but don’t trust capricious waves, or frozen lakes, walk carefully around rotting kelp, and don’t trust Antarctic weather.
The track led her up for about two hundred metres but not into the snow. It flattened out to follow along a terrace of the plateau, far enough from the waves rumbling the pebbly beach, not to see or hear them. Sleet slunk back into rain and the rain drifted and stopped. That good stillness came. Walking became pretty again. Rhythm of walking, swaying pack, scratching gortex on gortex, it was the cadence of thought. Thoughts go everywhere.
Soon she was thinking about her feet as the track descended towards the island shore. Most field huts were close to beaches where they were easier to resupply from the sea. Tonight she would be in Green Gorge, once a tidal inlet now a swampy basin at the edge of the sea, almost at the halfway point to the end of the island. She had been walking for nearly four hours.
Her boots slipped a little in the gravelly steps of the downward slope and her heels slid a bit every dozen or so paces. It wasn’t a scree slope, but she remembered the advice to ride loose stones like an escalator. She had never ridden a scree slope. There wasn’t much need for escalator rides on this downward track. When she reached the beach it was her new friend.
The Green Gorge hut was a log cabin, big enough for five expeditioners. She unpacked, sorted through the food and lit the kerosene heater. That was easy enough. The cabin light was a bit more complicated. It was also kerosene fuelled, but first light the metho soaked starter and clip it onto the vapour tube, pump in the kero and let there be light.
Instead, flames exploded out. The flare stamped its blue shape into the cabin. She could feel the rush of heat on her hands, burning. Was she burning? All she thought was to get the flame outside. Both hands under it, she ran for the door and threw. The flame arced away. She bent, huffing at her feet.
Her hands were not burnt. The cabin didn’t burn. She fetched the light base from the wet grass. Someone had overfilled the bowl with kero. Helpful. That’s what you do, leave things ready for the next expeditioner.
She knitted. Her needles busied her into the confines of the cabin. The big glassed in window before her played a loud panoramic scene from a David Attenborough film. Seals and penguins; around twenty lumps of brown, lolling, dotted with smaller black and white sentinels. Some watched back, calling and calling. That could be an albatross. All propped by the Southern Ocean sloshing away at the grey beach behind. On and on, it moved endlessly into the night.
She waited for the Sched and any expeditioner who might come for the night. Rangers were out, hunting feral cats, collecting, checking, taking records. Any one of them might stop at Green Gorge.
Soft and soothing, the fine wool of the sock she was knitting slid through her fingers. She thought about who might get this pair. So many socks already with knitted up longing, lust, thoughts that will never be said, for her lover, her partner, far away, far north. She liked knitting multi-coloured socks most of all.
Ready when the Sched began, hand on the switch, she said, “Joan at Green Gorge, reading you 5-5”. Protocol. Take your turn. Stick to weather reports, stated intentions for tomorrow, no gossip, no chat. It was soon over. “Out,” she said. No ranger arrived to sit in the light of the kerosene lamp with her, to witness her sock growing, to feel the itchy, too cold night soak the cabin, to hear her sleep noises.
A morning climb back up the escarpment, being breathless, the drag of a pack; walkers feel these things. Joan’s body hurt in new places and the pull on her back and shoulders was sharp and deep. Walkers keep on: one step then another. They think about their steps and they feel the good beat. They walk in the drizzle as a storm settles out to sea behind them. Hot tea in a thermos, some shredded wheatmeal biscuits, sitting on wet rocks, cold dripping softly on cheeks while sweat wicks away: a walker’s rewards.
Beauty of the island soaks in with the rain and waits. A distant strike of sunshine on a mountain slope, the vastness of a velvety green bog and suddenly it is sharp again. The lull and startle of it all is as sensual as a lover’s caress. Joan didn’t hurry.
Getting back down to reach Waterfall Bay hut should not be a problem because walkers know they need to descend for the night. But walkers know this part of the track leads to the ‘leap of faith’, what looks like a giant pleat in the escarpment. It is a ravine where the Jesse Nichol Creek gushes down to the coastal beach below. The track was almost vertical here, mud and grass clumped into sloppy steps with huge boulders strewn between. Looking at how it went down was frightening. Joan could not wipe away the fear of lying somewhere injured as the Sched came and went. The wilderness warrior should rest. She took out her thermos and the last of the biscuits and sat with her back to the pleat. It waited until she finished eating and drinking.
Pack on, straps firm, she started down. Legs stretched out in front, pack balanced as well back as possible behind her, she inched, on her backside, towards the edge of the first step. Her legs dangled over the edge, not quite connecting. She slipped forward, her feet touched but the weight of the pack was tipping her forward. The pack buffered and slipped in the mud behind her as she threw her weight backwards. She found herself suddenly sitting on the edge of the next step, heart thumping. Trying not to look all the way down the pleat she edged forward again. Mud everywhere. Slide around a boulder on your bum. Go now, go now, just balance and don’t think, don’t look beyond the next step in the pleat. Then one was easier, her feet connected and she could feel the pack balancing against the slope. She got into an odd rhythm of sliding forward, heart jumping as her feet connected and resting back on her pack as she slipped down to the next step. Suddenly she was at the bottom, it had taken only minutes to descend.
In the panic of it all she had not heard the cacophony of the colony of royal penguins nesting on the coastal fringe before her. There were hundreds of them. Black faces above fat, white paunches, turned towards her. Joan avoided eye contact and moved slowly around the back of the colony. Their yellow head plumes bounced and flicked as she passed. The noise and smell poked into her nostrils and lungs as she stepped carefully by.
She could see the hut on the beach ahead but, as well as the royal penguins, there were large seal wallows everywhere. Huge grey masses sat languorously in muddy messes of their own faeces and piss. The smell was worse than the penguins. Between the wallows were pools of vibrant green featherbed dotted with small sandcastles of tussock grass; a hopscotch game with a Stephen King twist. What is the worst thing that can happen in an Antarctic quaking bog?
She hopped and balanced, wobbled and stepped. No boots were lost under twenty centimetres of featherbed, no packs dropped into the peat, no-one went too close to a wallow. It took a long time to get to the hut but she arrived well before the evening Sched.
It was a brilliant Sched. Each sound she made was clear, the modulation perfect. Her words thrilled her. “Out,” she said. Joan was out.
Walking to the next hut at Lusitania Bay was always going to be the easiest walk for the walker. It was an all-beach Antarctic walk: no climbing, no sliding, no bum-sitting steps. Each crunching step on the gravel was accompanied by waves thumping their stony catch into cold sea spray. It was quieting.
She drifted. Twice she spotted huge elephant seal teeth and both times stopped to inspect her find more closely. Lost in some thunderous epic battle she thought, though more likely not. It was a prize, an Antarctic walker’s prize to see such teeth. Often walkers passed every one of their prizes, their eyes distracted by the sea, the spines, the changing sky. Her first was about as long as the width of her hand, the second much longer: wondrous. She deserved prizes.
Lusitania Bay is a wide and misty home to thousands of penguins. They come right up to the hut, calling and calling into the night. Every space is filled with their smell. It is a small space, this hut; another aircraft-engine crate.
The socks were cast off that evening, after the Sched, and a tea cosy cast on.
Day five began with an expired use-by date on one food packet. Two hours later Joan sat with a warm mug of tea, sipping, smiling and looking at the shelves neatly depleted of stale food. The discarded packets, their contents emptied into the sea, were thrown into a sack and waiting inside the door for the next stock-up visit by an expeditioner boat.
Climbing back up to the escarpment, up the Lusitania Creek, took a long time. Slipping, hauling and heaving, reaching; it was like doing the leap-of-faith in the opposite direction. Small backward slides, a grab of mud instead of rock face, sometimes felt like a fighter’s punch. By the time Joan got to the top it was late morning. Night snow, ten centimetres deep, and the cold that had been distant on the mountaintops the day before, were waiting. She couldn’t sit for long.
A snow covered puddle and a lost boot. It took time to find the boot. Track markers were often snow covered too but she saw the boot prints of a ranger and followed them along the ridge track. A slip into an unexpected snow bank and the panic of swimming out took more time. How easily the snow seeped into her layers as she swam. The effort sapped the last of her enthusiasm for the new day. Now wet and cold she sat on a boulder and slipped off her pack.
Cold and wet: an expeditioner’s peril. She had no choice but to change clothes. The space blanket, the careful laying out of dry layers, strip naked. It was a discipline. She tried to see herself above the cold, above her skin, away from her white body in the white snow. Finally the fumbling of hardly-feeling fingers to snap her jacket back on.
Now she might not get to Hurd Point before the sun disappeared. It was a simple calculation: the time it would be when she reached the turnoff to Caroline Cove. This would be her ‘dropdead point’, the time to turn off the ridge and head back to the coast for the night or decide to continue on to Hurd Point. There was no rhythm of the walk, no well for the warrior, just the ice and shiver of anxiety until she realised suddenly: she had missed the turn. Head full, she had missed the turn off to Caroline Cove.
Only an idiot. Idiot. Idiot. She let the pack dig into her ribs. There was no choice now she had to go on to Hurd Point. One step and another, keep going. Dead expeditioners had made smaller mistakes. Pecking together, the thought, the cold, swept ahead of her as she walked on.
Snow cover thinned on the next small rise. She thought this would be the last rise before the escarpment, but it wasn’t. There was another ahead with snow-sifted track between. As she crested that rise another was ahead, then another and another. A sickle moon rose in the deep grey overhead.
If it was a sign, the sickle moon, it was probably not a good one: the sickle moon of Diana The Huntress. Joan got to the edge of the escarpment. She stood, chest heaving in the half-light. An orange marker sat ahead and then nothing. Nothing. Carefully she approached the marker. Past it she could see a sharpish drop of a few metres and then the downward slope of scree. Scree is dangerous, easy to slip in, all those pebbles and rocks waiting to move with the wetness just below the surface. Go around if you can. It was a continuous slope of scree with dark patches that could be grass, clinging hopelessly grass. She could see the shape and the steepness of the slope and the vague dark line where the scree met the beach below. The slope was probably two hundred metres. As far as she could see to each side it continued. Larger rocks protruded here and there and gathered at the bottom, the bigger shapes more stark in the grey light. There was no way around this. The marker told her to go, go now.
Running is a way to get down a scree slope. Run down as it moves beneath your feet, ride it if it moves, ride like you would an escalator, but try to outrun any slide that comes with your weight on the stones. She stepped out.
Immediately she fell. The scree slope was frozen. She tried to stand but fell again. It was brittle and slippery and as felt hard as concrete. Sitting so solidly and suddenly on it, the weight of her pack and the momentum took her breath and she landed on her backside. A push back onto the weight of the pack did nothing to slow the slide. Instinctively she bent a knee to try to dig her heel into the ice and pebbles and then propped it behind her other knee to hold it in place. It slowed her slide a little and shifted some of the weight to her pack. But she pitched forward again as she hit a mound and the burn was on her backside again. Within seconds she was at the bottom.
She lay under the sickle moon, the rocks of the beach large around her. Was she alive? The sky was wonderful, that infinite darkening place. Hearts can pound and pound and not break. Everything in a falling night can seem still except you: your heart.
Cold made her stand. She could stand. The pack sat hard on her spine as she took a step. She could walk. Both knees hurt but they worked. The rocks at the bottom of the escarpment gave way to tussocky sand. Dark places, wide and smelly, the occasional slick of movement and bass grunt told her she was passing elephant seal wallows. It would be a stinking misstep to make.
Carefully she picked her way around the wallows. Everything felt cold so very cold. Was she wet? The hut was visible, its built shape shouting to her through the night, across the wilderness. It was only a few hundred metres ahead but it took a long time to get to it. Her fear of falling, slipping again, out of control, missing something, made her check every step.
Finally she could let her pack slip as she flung the door to the hut open. Inside it was dark. No sickle moonlight in here. She needed light to work the radio, set the switches and dial. The metho starters used to light a lantern, easy to find in every other hut, hid somewhere on the tidy shelves. They were usually stored in a vegemite jar or something similar. Gloves shucked, her hands darted from shelf to shelf. The Sched was only minutes away. She needed proper light.
It was so cold, so very cold in this hut. The heater, oh the heater, gas not kero. Her fingers fumbled as she clicked the gas on. It lit immediately and its glow in turn lit the room just enough for her to see everything, see the radio. She turned it on and heard the leader already going from station to station. Then, Hurd Point this is radio VJM Joan how do you read? She fell into protocol, pressed the right button. VJM, VJM I am reading you five five.
How are you Joan?
I fell down the Hurd Point scree slope.
Tears. They came, those tears.
Are you hurt?
I am okay.
A breath, sobbing.
Well get a grip Joan.
But Rookie I am sitting here in the dark, I can’t find the starters.
Are you sitting on the bunk?
Why don’t you reach up and switch on the light?
She did. Light filled the room, wind generated and stored just for her, for Joan in the Hurd Point hut. Immediately she could see jars of starters. The shelves seemed to be full of jars with starters. Rookie left. Warm in the light, she sat for a while on the bunk. Hurd Point was the last hut on the island. The most southern hut and she was here. Joan was alive and alone. Eventually she stood and closed the door.
When she stripped off her gortex she could see the scree slope damage. The seat of her gortex pants was almost gone, a perfect elliptical burn, and the scree had bit at the centre seam of her thermal pants. There had been only one more layer. Just one, to get to her.
Next day she knitted and cleaned the shelves of out-of-date packets, one quick dash to the seashore to shit and empty the packets. Late in the afternoon she walked to the beachline of Hurd Point.
South, she looked south past the hundreds of noisy cavorting royal penguins. The Southern Ocean raged. She dove. She dove and dove. It was a long time before she could look away.
To the north she could see the coastline, all the way into a misty line. That’s where the other expeditioners were, up there on the isthmus. Tomorrow she might go back along the coast route. Yes that’s what she’ll do. A good decision. Beaches, more prizes.
Going back would be easy, the walker decided.
Joan is an impressive woman. From the first time I met her she had me enthralled with her tales about living and working in Antarctica. I never tire of her telling her stories.
This is my fictionalised version of her walk down Macca ( as she calls it) but yes she is a real person and these things really happened to her.