BOOK EXTRACT: Shackleton's Whisky Chapter 12 - Convivial in their Isolation

George Marston and James Murray relax at the door of the Nimrod Hut.
The Boss: Ernest Shackleton at Cape Royds in an authoritative pose
Gramophone music was popular in the winter evenings and at times of celebration

This is the fourth of five extracts from Shackleton's Whisky by Neville Peat, available now, published by Random House. 

The book tells the story of Ernest Shackleton's heroic 1907 expedition to Antarctica with 14 other adventurers, and the case of  Mackinlay's Scotch whisky left under their hut, not to be found until 2007.

This extract is from Chapter 12: 'Convivial in their Isolation''. It describes the cramped, damp conditions Shackleton's crew found themselves in when they settled into their small hut at McMurdo Sound.

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After squalid Oyster Alley, stomach-churning seas, incessant damp, and the punishing experience of getting everything ashore and set up, the shore party could be forgiven for thinking they had taken over a picturesque holiday cottage with sea and mountain views.

‘From the door of our hut, which faced northwest,’ wrote the Boss, ‘we commanded a splendid view of the sound and western mountains.’

Picture Shackleton, an after-dinner cigarette in hand, at the outer door, watching the summer sun slip low over the Royal Society Range without setting.

It cast pastel shades of green, gold and purple light across the sound and adjacent landscape — so much colour in an ostensibly black-and-white world.

He had a foothold in Antarctica now — even if Scott asserted exclusive possession of this bit of it. Possession was said to be ‘nine points of the law’.

But occupation was a critical tenth! They were here and they were ready. Time for a toast to a successful landing?

Well, not yet — at least, not as far as diary records of the first day or two suggest. They were focused on settling in, with iced-up stores scattered like wayward knucklebones and more insulating to be done.

Besides, domestic routines had yet to be worked out. The night of Nimrod’s departure was the first night the expedition’s 15 men had been ashore together.

They were the most isolated group of people in the world — exhausted and sleep-deprived to the point where isolation hardly registered with them.

Their first day as a shore party unsupported by ship was a Sunday, and Marshall in his diary expressed concern that there were no Sunday prayers, indeed no service at all since New Zealand.

He also, and not for the first time, expressed misgivings about Shackleton. Although the two had managed to talk privately, they agreed to disagree on most occasions.

Wrote Marshall: ‘Shacks and I polite but distant, never will be any confidence between us.’

Typically, Antarctic expedition teams of the heroic age were a diverse lot (as they are in the modern era), and Shackleton’s men were no different. They embodied expertise of many kinds, and personalities across the spectrum.

Only three members of the team had previous experience of Antarctica. Shackleton, Wild and Joyce had been with Scott’s Discovery expedition, although their accommodation had been the ship.

This was their first experience of sharing a hut. What all now housed at Cape Royds had in common was an adventurous streak and an interest in exploring faraway lands.

Having personally selected them, Shackleton knew he now had to build an esprit de corps. They had to work together; they were only as strong as their weakest link.

The Boss signalled he would rely on everyone to play the role they were chosen to fill and that he would give each a free hand to pursue his specialist study or duty. At the same time, he intended to lead by example.

But first, there was some important housekeeping to attend to. Expedition members paired off  and set up their bunks on either side of the main room, except for Shackleton, who acquired a relatively private space, his ‘cabin’, first turn right past the porch.

It had a table in it and shelves for the expedition library and some of the surveying and scientific gear. Each pair had a cubicle, barely two metres square, separated from the next one by sheets of canvas or sacking suspended from wires.

Beds were built of the ever-present and versatile venesta cases or whatever else was available, including kerosene cases, spare lengths of timber and bamboo stakes.

A mattress might comprise wood shavings covered with a blanket. Strips of canvas became stretchers. The cubicles reflected the individual taste and ingenuity of their inhabitants.

Cubicles also acquired nicknames. Adams, newly appointed second-in-command, and surgeon Marshall — the doctor may have fancied 2iC status himself — occupied the cubicle next door to Shackleton’s cabin. It was dubbed ‘No. 1 Park Lane’.

Directly opposite was ‘The Pawn Shop’, where Prof David and Mawson lived in what they termed ‘picturesque confusion’ — a tangle of clothing, bedding, books and scientific gear.

Their cubicle was also known as ‘Old Curiosity Shop’. Opening off their cubicle was the expedition darkroom. Here, cases of wine were kept.

Beside the two Australian geologists were the Discovery pair of Wild and Joyce, whose cubicle was proudly labelled ‘The Rogues’ Retreat’.

It housed the printing press and was decorated by a Marston painting of two hardy blokes drinking beer from pint mugs. Further down the eastern side was the scientific pairing of Murray and Priestley, with Mackay and the cook, Roberts, occupying the corner.

On the western side the last two cubicles housed Brocklehurst–Armytage (‘Shruggery’) and Marston–Day (‘The Gables’).

Marston had painted homely images on his cubicle’s curtains, including a vase of flowers on a mantelpiece. At the far end were the stove, pantry-cum-bakery, cook’s tables and storeroom.

Squeezing into the middle of the hut between the two rows of cubicles was a trestle dining table nearly four metres long, which could be raised to the ceiling when not in use.

It was another DIY product, built of packing cases with detachable legs. For lighting there were two double-glazed windows on the northern wall and an array of gas lights, fuelled by a Drummond acetylene (carbide/water) gas generator suspended between  Shackleton’s cabin and the darkroom.

Beneath it was a short corridor into the main room. A low beam supporting the generator spanned the corridor; a few heads were bumped on this beam, and it became a standing joke for the number of times it caught out all but the shortest members of the expedition — in fact, anyone over about 1.7 metres tall.

Designed small, to maximise heat retention and economise on fuel, the hut was a cosy fit for 15 men, and at meal times it became a singularly convivial place.

From past experience, Shackleton knew three cooked meals a day would need to come off the Mrs Sam stove to sustain men working in a frozen environment.

Roberts, a 35-year-old Englishman with a waggish sense of humour and an interest in zoology, was happy to oblige. He also produced loaves of bread and other baking daily.

Breakfast routinely began at 9 a.m., after the feeding of ponies and dogs and other chores. The men sat down at the dining table on bentwood chairs (to save weight on Nimrod, Shackleton had purchased very little furniture, expecting most to be fashioned from crates and other packaging).

Bowls of steaming porridge were passed along the table from the stove end, and in turn the men helped themselves to sugar and hot milk from a large jug.

Porridge was the breakfast staple dish, but there would be days when the cook offered a second course of bottled fruit — pears, apricots, plums, gooseberries and so on.

‘Fruit days’ were a treat. Breakfast tea was also served with milk made up from milk powder and heated. ‘At twenty-five to ten breakfast was over,’ said Shackleton, ‘and then we had our smokes.’

Cigarettes were popular, and the Boss smoked his fair share. Others preferred pipes. Inveterate pipe smokers made sure they were sucking on their pipe at photo opportunities. There were cigars as well for special occasions.

With enough food to last two years, Roberts could introduce plenty of variety and heartiness into the lunches and dinners. Meat from New Zealand, of which ‘Koonya mutton’ was the freshest, included roast beef, corned beef, Irish stew, ox cheeks, ox tongues and tripe in milk.

Also in the larder for protein were York hams, bacon, brawn, salmon, sardines, pilchards and herrings. There were soups of many kinds, fresh vegetables from New Zealand and whole walls of canned vegies.

Back in England, Colman’s had donated a whopping six tonnes of flour — some 14,000 lb. Cocoa was a popular drink during or after dinner.

Shackleton was sure it had useful soporific properties that would come in handy. A good night’s sleep was not always assured in a thinly walled dormitory whose 15 men were bound to include snorers.

In the week after Nimrod departed, the focus for everyone was on restoring order to the stores. With pick axes and crowbars, they attacked the ice imprisoning hundreds of cases that lay in jumbled piles.

Another priority, a local harvest. On the other side of Pony Lake — a name applied to the ice-clad lake at their front door where the ponies were exercised — the Adelie penguin breeding season was fast drawing to a close.

Many chicks had fledged, and the adults would soon be migrating north for the winter season. A few penguins were slaughtered to provide fresh meat in winter, and seals were fair game as well.

Seals were as much a resource for their blubber — used to fuel the stove — as for their rich meat. Both meat and blubber kept well without refrigeration.

It took some days and an increased effort at insulation before temperatures in the main room of the hut were anything like comfortable.

Ink bottles inside the hut froze through those early days, shattering the glass. Prof David simply collected up the casts of solid ink, stowed them in a chilled place and melted them as required for writing his reports. 

Next week's extract is from Chapter 17: 'The Abandoned Years', which explains what happened to Shackleton's hut in the decades after he left it, with that case of Mackinlay's whisky remaining untouched beneath it. 

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