Walking to utopia

Asutralian convicts formed into a chain gang – a sketch made near Sydney in 1842.

Australian convicts formed into a chain gang – a sketch made near Sydney in 1842.

What is it that makes us human? The question is as old as man, and has had many answers. For quite a while, we were told that our uniqueness lay in using tools; today, some seek to define humanity in terms of an innate spirituality, or a creativity that cannot (yet) be aped by a computer. For the historian, however, another possible response suggests itself. That’s because our history can be defined, surprisingly helpfully, as the study of a struggle against fear and want—and where these conditions exist, it seems to me, there is always that most human of responses to them: hope.

The ancient Greeks knew it; that’s what the legend of Pandora’s box is all about. And Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians speaks of the enduring power of faith, hope and charity, a trio whose appearance in the skies over Malta during the darkest days of World War II is worthy of telling of some other day. But it is also possible to trace a history of hope. It emerges time and again as a response to the intolerable burdens of existence, beginning when (in Thomas Hobbes’s famous words) life in the “state of nature” before government was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” and running like a thread on through the ancient and medieval periods until the present day.

I want to look at one unusually enduring manifestation of this hope: the idea that somewhere far beyond the toil and pain of mere survival there lies an earthly paradise, which, if reached, will grant the traveler an easy life. This utopia is not to be confused with the political or economic Shangri-las that have also been believed to exist somewhere “out there” in a world that was not yet fully explored (the kingdom of Prester John, for instance–a Christian realm waiting to intervene in the war between crusaders and Muslims in the Middle East–or the golden city of El Dorado, concealing its treasure deep amidst South American jungle). It is a place that’s altogether earthier—the paradise of peasants, for whom heaven was simply not having to do physical labor all day, every day.
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Alone against Antarctica

The last photo of Mawson’s Far Eastern Party, taken when they left the Australasian Antarctic Party’s base camp on November 10, 1912. By January 10, 1913, two of the three men would be dead, and expedition leader Douglas Mawson would find himself exhausted, ill and still more than 160 miles from the nearest human being.

For some it is the wind; for some, the terrible cold. For others, it is the endless, howling blankness of the landscape that drains resolve, or the blinding glare of sun on fresh-laid snow, or the week-long blizzards that pin intruders inside tents that groan under the weight of drifts of snow. Not even the strongest, fittest, hardiest groups– intensively trained, exhaustively equipped and painstakingly acclimatized–can be certain of escaping with their lives from a journey through the hostile wilderness of Antarctica.

Even today, with advanced foods, and radios, and insulated clothing, a journey on foot across these freezing wastes is the harshest of all tests that a human being can be asked to endure. A hundred years ago, it was far, far worse. Then, wool clothing absorbed snow and damp. High energy food came in an unappetizing mix of rendered fats called pemmican. Worst of all, extremes of cold pervaded everything; Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who sailed with Captain Scott’s doomed South Pole expedition of 1910-13, recalled that all his teeth, “the nerves of which had been killed, split to pieces” in temperatures that plunged as low as -77 degrees Fahrenheit.

Cherry-Garrard survived to write an account of his adventures, a book he called The Worst Journey in the World. But even his appalling Antarctic trek–made in total darkness in the depths of the Southern winter–was not quite so horrifying as the desperate journey faced one year later by the Australian explorer Douglas Mawson, an epic that has gone down in the annals of polar exploration as perhaps the most terrible ever undertaken in Antarctica.
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An abandoned lifeboat at world’s end

Breaking news: a credible solution to the Bouvet Island lifeboat mystery has been found. See comments for 22-27 May 2011, 12 November 2011, 17-20 March and 9 April 2016.

The unidentified whaler or ship's lifeboat found abandoned on Bouvet Island on 2 April 1964

The unidentified whaler or ship’s lifeboat found abandoned on Bouvet Island on 2 April 1964

LongreadsThere is no more forbidding place on earth.

Bouvet Island lies in the furthest reaches of the storm-wracked Southern Ocean, far south even of the Roaring Forties. It is a speck of ice in the middle of a freezing fastness: a few square miles of uninhabited volcanic basalt groaning under several hundred feet of glacier, scraped raw by gales, shrouded by drifts of sea-fog, and utterly devoid of trees, shelter, or landing places.

What it does have is a mystery. More

The loneliest shop in the world

The view from the Birdsville Track.

The view from the Birdsville Track.

Harrods, in the bustling heart of London, is in a good location for a shop. So, for that matter, is Macy’s, which boasts of serving 350,000 New Yorkers every day at Christmas time. Whereas down at the Mulka Store, in the furthermost reaches of South Australia, George and Mabel Aiston used to think themselves lucky if they pulled in a customer a week.

Mulka’s proper name is Mulkaundracooracooratarraninna, a long name for a place that is a long way from anywhere. It stands on an apology for a road known as the Birdsville Track – until quite recently no more than a set of tyre prints stretching, as the locals put it, “from the middle of nowhere to the back of beyond.” The track begins in Marree, a very small outback town, and winds its way up to Birdsville, a considerably smaller one (“seven iron houses burning in the sun between two deserts”) many hundreds of miles to the north. Along the way it inches over the impenetrable Ooroowillanie sandhills and traverses Cooper Creek, a dried-up river bed that occasionally floods to place a five-mile-wide obstacle in the path of unwary travellers, before skirting the tyre-puncturing fringes of the Sturt Stony Desert.

Make your way past all those obstacles, and, “after jogging all day over the treeless plain,” you’d eventually stumble across the Mulka Store, nestled beneath a single clump of pepper trees. To one side of the shop, like some ever-present intimation of mortality, lay the lonely fenced-off grave of Edith Scobie, “died December 31 1892 aged 15 years 4 months” – quite possibly of the sort of ailment that is only fatal when you live a week’s journey from the nearest doctor. To the rear was nothing but the “everlasting sandhills, now transformed to a delicate salmon hue in the setting sun.” And in front, beside a windswept garden gate, “a board sign which announced in fading paint but one word: STORE. Just in case the traveller might be in some doubt.” More