Reflections on Lockdown – Values learnt from the heroic age of polar explorers by Jonathan & Angela Scott

It seems only yesterday that we rejoiced in a breath of fresh air and sense of gratitude after an eventful few years where health and financial matters threatened to overwhelm us at times. Thankfully neither of us experienced the horrors of a World War. We have been blessed to live most of our lives during a golden age of prosperity, travel and leisure that past generations could only have dreamt of. How quickly things can change.

So where does that leave us? Stories from the Heroic Age of Polar Explorers such as Shackleton, Scott, Amundsen and Mawson will stand us in good stead during this time of social upheaval and fear. We may never have to live in a tent pitched on Antarctic ice for six months with little prospect of rescue like Shackleton and his men did when their home ship Endurance became stuck in the ice in January 1915. On the 21st Nov 1915 Endurance sank – eleven months after becoming trapped “like an almond in a piece of toffee” according to the ship’s storeman.

Nor will we have to survive brutal conditions beyond imagination that Douglas Mawson faced when he returned to the great white continent in 1911 as leader of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition. During one inland journey in 1912, Mawson’s two companions died, leaving him alone, seriously malnourished and with severely damaged feet, more than 320 kilometres from base. Despite falling into a crevasse and having to haul himself out, Mawson eventually staggered back to base 30 days later, only to discover that his ship had left for home just hours before. It meant another winter in Antarctica. 

A zodiac dwarfed by towering icebergs in a bay along the Antarctic Peninsula.

We wanted to see what lessons we could draw from these remarkable lives to help us remain positive and resilient today. Right now the world needs leaders with the capacity to win and hold our trust. Regardless of that we can all play a significant part. On a personal level we need to prioritise the welfare of others, not just our families but our communities. As Angie reminds me we have to make this a “competition of generosity”.

Underestimating the seriousness of the pandemic or taking a cavalier approach to the outcome of our actions will cost lives. As Victoria Moran wrote:
“The idea that everything is purposeful really changes the way you live. To think that everything that you do has a ripple effect, that every word that you speak, every action that you make affects other people and the planet.”

The Drygalski Ice Tongue or Drygalski Tongue, a 50 mile long floatiing ice tongue still attached to the David Glacier on the west coast of the Ross Sea

We are going to need to be flexible in adapting to changes beyond our control. Shackleton was a master at sustaining optimism in the face of adversity. He knew the benefit of patience while staying as active as possible. Day after day, to counter the morale-sapping effect of the miserable cold, wetness, fatigue, hunger, and boredom of life on the ice, he summoned the strength to remain optimistic – believing that “optimism is true moral courage.” That meant keeping his men so busy that they would have little opportunity to brood over their predicament, the need to counter the psychological strain of the Antarctic silence and bleakness, the sense of isolation. They followed a stringent routine each day, cleaning and maintaining equipment and safeguarding supplies.

Time was allocated for relaxation such as card games and sing-alongs as well as writing up journals, activities that played a vital role in lifting spirits. He encouraged soccer matches and dogsled races on the ice to keep his men fit. When he sensed that the mood their was darkening, he would use a holiday observance or some other pretence to justify extra rations of food to boost morale. Shackleton knew that instilling and sustaining a sense of optimism and determination, no matter what adversities they faced, was vital to getting his men home alive. He admired the skill, preparation, and attention to detail displayed by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen who was the first man to reach the South Pole on the 14th December 1911. 

Emperor Penguins gathered on sea ice near Cape Washington, Antarctica

The author Cathy Graham identified seven lessons honed from Shackleton’s leadership that are worth pondering:

  1. Honesty
  2. Diverse Team
  3. Be Decisive
  4. Inclusion
  5. Delegate
  6. Improvise
  7. Keep the Faith

Graham believes “Leadership is all about having undying faith that you can overcome any obstacle.”, while David Foster Wallace once wrote that leaders are “people who help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things that we can get ourselves to do on our own.”

Having travelled to the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia where Shackleton is buried, Angie and I are honouring his memory as we enjoy the close company of us two humans, one Little Cat and our ridgebacks Simba and Isis. For Little Cat and the ridgebacks life goes on as normal with lots of cat-naps and carefree days in the garden. Angie has created order in the house and we make sure to share precious moments together, talking, reading, exercising (me on the stationary bike and Angie in the pool). We are determined to stay as fit as we can, sleeping as well as we can, eating well, having a routine of work and break times that includes treats (chocolate cake or banana chips for me – various nuts and fruits for Angie). We have instigated a total ban on food taken around the TV enjoying our meals in the kitchen and ruminating on life and planing for the future. The challenge is to keep the stream of news broadcasts 24/7 at bay while staying informed. Fear is the enemy that we must all battle to tame the mind and go the distance.

Whale Bones litter the shore of an Island along the Antarctic Peninsula.

Jonathan and Angie Scott are world leading wildlife photographers. Each has won the Wildlife photographer of the year award in their own right. Jonathan was one of the key presenters on the BBC’s Big Cat Diary series. They live with their cat and Rhodesian ridgebacks in Nairobi when they are not out photographing in the field.

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