Cold Coast, by Robyn Mundy

ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

Just last week I was toying with the idea of joining Marina Sofia in her December reading project ‘Russians in the Snow’ because I thought that settings in snowy wastes would be consoling in the extreme heat of an Australian summer.  Little did I know that within a day or two I would be reading a book that sent a chill down my spine, and not just because it’s set in the polar region of Norway!

This is the blurb about Robyn Mundy’s new novel Cold Coast:

Inspired by the story of Svalbard’s first female trapper, Cold Coast is a gripping portrayal of survival within the stark beauty and perilous wilderness of the high Arctic.

In 1932, Wanny Woldstad, a young widow, travels to Svalbard, daring to enter the Norwegian trappers’ fiercely guarded male domain. She must prove to Anders Sæterdal, her trapping partner who makes no secret…

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Readers on Reading

In the 2019–20 summer, before the world turned inside out, I worked alongside expedition guide, historian and writer NINA GALLO. Our weeks aboard took us to the magical corner of the world that is the Antarctic Peninsula, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands. Nina is a generous guide and lecturer with a sparkling personality and a deep passion for nature. One day during the voyage, surf conditions at the Falklands meant that we three girls driving Zodiacs—Nina, myself and Liz Pope—could not safely leave our boats ashore; instead, we stood off out beyond the breakers until needed. As a guide, these quiet times are few and far between, treasured moments, rafting our boats together to chat and laugh and ponder our happy lot in life amidst spectacular surrounds. All of it a privilege.

As part of this series I invited Nina to share a little of her adventurous life, a favourite recent read, and her sparkling new book Antarctica. Over to you, Nina.

Nina Gallo

Someone recently described me as an unlikely author, and I think that’s a good way to describe it. I definitely wasn’t expecting to write a book when I pitched a couple of articles to the Australian Geographic magazine earlier this year. But that’s the way it worked out, and I’m pretty excited about it!

I spent about five years at University, studying everything from astronomy to psychology, politics, Mandarin and Chinese medicine, before finally graduating with an Arts degree in English. Which made sense, because I’d loved reading and writing since I was a kid. Come to think of it, I remember dreaming of writing for National Geographic. But who doesn’t want to write for them? I dismissed the dream as unrealistic, and trained as an adventure guide instead.

It’s been a wonderful and circuitous journey that led me to working as a historian on expedition ships in Antarctica, and I feel so grateful for the whole thing. After dropping out of history class at thirteen, I graduated high school. I spent many years drifting around taking all kinds of jobs: selling climbing gear in Sydney, working in bars and restaurants in the Yukon, serving beer in Wales and wine in Melbourne. 

Writing became part of my professional life about ten years ago when I started writing websites, blogs and social media posts for small businesses. Eventually this expanded to preparing strategic communications plans and carrying them out, and I still do this today.

About five years ago I landed a job on an Antarctic expedition ship as a shop manager and trainee guide. I’d read about the expeditions of Scott and Shackleton, but once I was there I found myself entranced by the wild, intense human stories of the Antarctic—so many strange, little-known tales of humans at their limits. The politics was fascinating as well. I started reading voraciously, preparing presentations on some of the cool quirky stories I found.

I kept writing for myself in the background, and every now and then an opportunity comes up to write a great article on something I care about. This year, with the bicentenary of the first confirmed Antarctic sighting, seemed like a good time to share some Antarctic appreciation. I feel so fortunate that Australian Geographic took a chance on me and let me write this beautiful book about a place I love so much. 

A recent adventure (with a touch of misadventure)

Last January I had a wonderful little jaunt in Patagonia. I hitched a ride to where the blue-grey Rio Electrico rolls over polished stones on its way down from the ice cap. There’s a delightful trail that starts here,weaving back and forth through the forest across hand-cut wooden bridges.

I stopped at Piedra del Fraile (Friar’s Rock), a little hut surrounded by colourful lupins. From here I turned south, to head into the mountains. I wanted to get up to Paso del Cuadrado (Square Pass), a pass that looks down into the deep glacial valley separating Cerro Torre from the jagged granite spires of the Chalten Massif.

A couple of days later I went up again, this time with an Italian woman I’d met in the hut on the rain days. The morning was kingfisher-blue and glistening – none of the ominous foreboding of the other day. We tramped up the hill, familiar now, and made it easily to Piedra Negra. Paso del Cuadrado beckoned, its distance oscillating the way high things do in the clear alpine air of the morning.

We skirted a frozen tarn and started hopping up a brilliant ochre-coloured spur to the base of the glacier. The snow on the glacier was sugary, and in borrowed crampons, our progress was slow. But at the top, the world fell away. We looked down breathlessly over the shadowy void between two mountain ranges, a groove scored by glaciers long-gone. The scale was impossible. No words came, so we grinned and drank a little maté instead, before heading down.

In what ways does your new book Antarctica inform our ideas about the frozen continent?

The last time Australian Geographic released a book about Antarctica was in the 1990s. I think this edition has come at the perfect time. 

When we look at the human history of Antarctica, we tend to break it up into different eras: the sealing and whaling eras, the heroic era, the scientific era. But our era has yet to be named, and I suspect the decisions we make over the next few years may define it. 

The past twelve months have been really significant for Antarctica. Last November (2019), a group of nations met in Hobart to discuss new protections for the oceans around Antarctica, but weren’t able to reach consensus on how this would work. In December we celebrated the 50-year anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty, the ground-breaking international agreement that sees Antarctica managed collaboratively by 54 states.

January 2020 was the 200-year anniversary of the first confirmed sighting of the continent by the Irish, Bransfield—or was it the Russian, Bellingshausen? The jury is still out. And through the summer of 2019–20, over 70,000 tourists visited Antarctica, almost twice as many as in the 2015–16 season.

Tell us something that this strange year has shown you

This year has shown me that we humans are kinder and more resilient than we might have thought. Most of us, in Australia at least, have lived through a period of growth, comfort, convenience and prosperity that may have no equal in human history. This year has dealt severe blows, restricting our freedoms and rocking the foundations of our steady, predictable trajectory. It has undermined a stability we took for granted, and yet there has been so much kindness, so much positivity circulating around the globe. So much rising up in the name of justice for the vulnerable, realism about the climate. Of course, it hasn’t all been happiness and joy, but I’ve been so heartened to see this swell of humanity in the world despite the challenging times we find ourselves in.

A favourite recent read?

I’m really enjoying The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf. It’s completely re-shaping my (admittedly patchy) understanding of natural history. Here’s a guy who has penguins, squids, mountains, even ocean currents named after him; at one point he held the record for the highest mountain ever climbed (Chimborazo, 6,267 meters / 20,561 feet, in 1802). He inspired Charles Darwin and was Goethe’s contemporary. How had I never heard of him?! The Invention of Nature is also extremely well-written, a really rollicking read. 

Antarctica by Nina Gallo is published by Australian Geographic and available from bookstores and online. Learn more about Nina at

Living with Covid-19

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MV Greg Mortimer

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During a March 2020 voyage to the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia, working as Deputy Expedition Leader aboard MV Greg Mortimer, our ship experienced an outbreak of Covid-19, the subject of my previous post.

Through the voyage our expedition team remained upbeat and resilient, with one or two quiet moments when the exit home, which seemed possible one day, became unattainable the next. During that rollercoaster it felt important that the concept of home—of getting home—remained in focus. Onboard we got to talking about what each of us would do when the happy day came. For kayaking guide Dan it was reuniting with the Australian bush, the smell of the air, standing at a lookout. For climatologist Ian, it was deciding which from his collection of surfboards would best fit the happy task of hitting the surf at Sydney’s northern beaches. For expedition leader Flo returning to the Netherlands, it was visiting her parents and sitting down to her Mum’s legendary cooking. For all in the team, after reuniting with loved ones, came a wish to reconnect with nature and the outdoors, to return to the simple domesticities of home cooking, baking, and easy conversations far removed from Covid-19.

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Our Expedition Team: Back L–R: Mountaineer Kevin, Doctor Jeff, Historian Carol, Climatologist Ian, Mountaineer Jane, Naturalist Alan, Photographer Peter. Front L–R: Naturalist Isabelle, Assistant Expedition Leader Thérèse, Expedition Leader Florence, Deputy Expedition Leader Robyn. Absent: Naturalist Roger, Kayaking guides Daniel, Matthias, Eamon, Expedition Coordinator Justine, Zodiac Master Sergeii, Mudroom & Shopkeeper Reza.

The image that stood as my beacon was one of working in our garden. I am no gardening guru, but along with my partner Gary we are ABC TV Gardening Australia tragics, mostly to find out what we should already have done in our garden where it’s survival of the fittest, and where we gain joy from the vegetables we manage to grow. The vision I held was planting the organic garlic I’d ordered before leaving home.

During hotel quarantine I looked to another goal. Trials had begun using Covid Convalescent Plasma; that is, extracting antibody-rich plasma from post-Covid donors to use for experimental transfusion and research into finding a vaccine. Along with some of my expedition team mates, I contracted Covid-19 aboard. Just to have got through it, to be well, has me so grateful to be alive. I wanted one small good thing to come from all the bad. Donating my plasma seemed to fit the bill.

I am partway through writing my third novel, a story set in the High Arctic with a reference to the 1918 Spanish Influenza. Well before Covid-19 I had done due research on the virus, studied statistics, read articles detailing the influenza’s devastating symptoms that targeted young, strong adults, often men, and those who cared for them. This verse of the time, skipped to by children on the streets, found a place in my story: I had a little bird  / Its name was Enza  / I opened the window  / And in-flu-enza

I thought I understood something about the fear of contracting such a virus but until Covid-19, I never gave enough thought to how fear might transfer to stigma, a mark of disgrace that gives rise to shame, not just for those struck down but for loved ones in the same vulnerable household. In my novel-in-the-making I imagine the grief of a bereaved young widow speared with lonely solitude, friends, family members, even the local priest keeping a safe distance from the ‘Unclean’.

Five weeks after testing positive for Covid, I battled the State’s Health Department to be retested. Their resistance held logic in that PCR nasal testing post-Covid may return a positive result if a swab picks up dead, inactive virus. I was repeatedly told the test was ‘not recommended’, that any positive result would be discarded as misleading. Fourteen asymptomatic days in isolation was considered sufficient quarantine. I was close to finishing 28 days. Put it down to obsession, dogged determination, or simply an emotional vulnerability that comes with having had the virus: that rationale, those assurances, refused to settle. Even if the risk of contagion was deemed non-existent, or minuscule, I shuddered at the consequences of passing on the virus to my partner at home, to friends and those in the community who may be vulnerable. During one phone call I asked the health practitioner, ‘Is ‘not recommended’ a euphemism for refusal?’ ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I don’t make the rules.’

When it looked as if retesting would be denied me, I announced to a group of local friends, people I was likely to have some contact with, that I had contracted Covid-19. Any misinterpretation is my own, but what I felt in response was anxiety, even alarm. The subject soon turned to lighter-hearted topics. I felt dispirited. If good friends, all smart and kind, felt apprehensive, how would it be telling someone who was not so smart, not so kind? My courageous friend Jenny proclaimed that she would be coming around to visit me as soon I got out of quarantine, keeping social distancing exactly as she had been with everybody else. I had other strong support. I valued conversations with my good friend Dr Ann, a ship’s doctor currently working on a Covid ward in South West WA. Ann is fascinated by the epidemiology of the virus and remains actively busy keeping up with latest findings. Hers was an evidence-based voice of reason, talking through things that aren’t yet known, that are changing by the week, along with what seems to be consistent findings. Our tour company, too, had thoughtfully contracted Kristen, a New Zealand counsellor, available to those of us on the ship. She is a no-nonsense, evidence-based psychologist who has spent years working with front line responders such as firefighters, medics and soldiers. In my final, fourth week of quarantine I have her to thank for prising me from the solitary confinement of my hotel room, down to the hotel’s ballroom modified to a walking circuit where there is a strict limit on numbers to ensure adequate social distancing. I would venture down at meal times to clock up some laps.

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The Grand Ballroom transformed in a quarantine walking circuit

A few days before I was due to go home, my ongoing requests for Covid testing finally reached the State’s Director of Public Health. The Department relented. I took a deep breath. A positive result would likely do my head in—could I trust it to be a false positive, might I still be contagious? I had to know, come what may. Ambulance transport arrived at the hotel and whisked me away to a pathology centre for a PCR nasal test. Twenty-four hours later the result returned ‘No Covid-19 detected’.

On arriving home and doubling my garlic order, Gary asked if I was branching into garlic farming. I’d been inspired by Letitia at Tas Gourmet Garlic who taught me more about garlic during a single phone chat than I’d ever known. Five varieties to suit different cooking styles, staggered times of harvesting, a range of storage capacities—a far cry from the unidentified garlic we bunged in last winter, this season’s elaborate array well beyond our personal needs and my dodgy cooking prowess. I didn’t care. Turning over the soil and planting those eighty cloves proved every bit as heavenly as the shipboard anticipation.

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Now, seven weeks post-Covid, I understand and empathise with the fear I see and feel around the virus. There’s nothing quite the “social distancer” as telling people you’ve had Covid. I have had people literally take an extra step back as I rush to assure them that I am now Covid-free. Stigma, the shame it carries, are big human emotions to wrestle, but rocking up to Hobart’s Red Cross Life Blood this week to donate my second round of plasma continues to be a celebratory experience. The Centre is a happy place of wellness, its practitioners capable and genuinely enthusiastic professionals who are doing good work to help us all.

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Donating Covid plasma at Hobart’s Red Cross Life Blood Centre

Covid postscript: a Covid study of all who were aboard MV Greg Mortimer is the subject of a scientific paper recently published in the BMJ medical journal Thorax, the results significant for the cruising industry.

Gardening postscript: local garlic lovers, all being well, next summer I hope to have a bounty of produce and will be delighted to share.

Photos ©Robyn Mundy 2020



Working on an Antarctic voyage with Covid-19

I am officially an Australian Detainee, partway through a second round of hotel quarantine. Twenty-eight days to make sense of a voyage to Antarctica and South Georgia that wasn’t, except for five halcyon days exploring the Antarctic Peninsula. Innocents were we in that realm of ice and wilderness, to the maelstrom ahead.


Listen. Listen. Heed your intuition.

MV Greg Mortimer steams away from the port of Ushuaia in Tierra Del Fuego, four days after the World Health Organisation ‘characterises’ Covid-19 as a pandemic. Covid has shaped itself into a character, wreaking havoc through its own dystopian novel.

This is my 23rd year of working in the polar regions north and south. I live a blessed life, astonished that as I grow older, opportunities have increased rather than diminished. I work hard. I believe I am good at what I do. In the week before leaving home, Covid consumes the ABC News, The 7:30 Report; Dr Norman Swan’s steadfast CoronaCast bats a louder, longer volley of science and statistics. I try to recall the very first news mention of a Wuhan ‘seafood’ market, as it was in that first iteration, where a group of workers presented with lethal flu-like symptoms. I remember less about the words than the prickling that charged across my skin.

The plight of Diamond Princess is all across the news. I think to my voyage ahead. I do not want to contract the virus, but my anxiety lies more in being stranded, unable to get back home. On advice from a friend I head to my GP in those final days at home for a precautionary pneumococcal vaccination. Dr Sarah asks about the ship work, how I’m feeling. ‘Do you have to go?’ she speaks to my unhappiness. ‘If I don’t,’ I answer, ‘I’ll be forcing someone else to take my place.’ That is one truth. The noble truth. I love what I do. I also need to earn the income. And if I forfeit my contract so close to departure, never mind my track record, chances are I will not be asked to work again.

Off I go.

Life eases on arrival in Ushuaia, el fin del mundo as the town prides itself, a picturesque southerly port that in my two decades of coming here has expanded seven-fold on the shoulders of Antarctic tourism. In this once-frontier-now-overpriced-tourist town, the air feels crisp and clean. Remnant snow clings to the surround of peaks. It is a beautiful place. I walk along the foreshore soaking up the southerly air. Familiar territory. The start of any happy voyage.

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Sunrise over Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel, embarkation day, 15 March 2020

On embarkation day our outgoing ship’s doctors visit hotels to ensure the good health of our incoming passengers, taking temperatures, checking for flu-like symptoms, scouring the relevant travel history of each person who boards the ship. Would-be passengers from high-risk regions have already been declined from joining the voyage. Ninety Australian passengers, 12 New Zealanders, 12 from across the UK, Europe and USA. The expedition team makes up a further eighteen, with Florence as Expedition Leader, me as Deputy Leader. The ship’s crew, 85, are from all over, many from the Philippines. We are a small expedition ship. A low risk group of travellers. We are nothing like Diamond Princess. Why, then, when I step aboard does it feel like a game of Russian Roulette?

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Lifeboat and safety drill is a maritime requirement before leaving dock

As we ease away from the dock, I would like to remember a bubbly, happy ship, raring to go. But we are not. Not entirely. Several passengers express fear and anxiety. I listen. I am careful not to say, everything will be okay. I do not say, we will be just fine. I visit one couple whose outright rage stems from feeling trapped. They do not want the voyage to proceed. What if I had said to them, Heed your intuition. Go home. Go home.

Others onboard sparkle with the thrill of a trip of a lifetime. Antarctic Peninsula, Elephant Island, South Georgia, the Falklands. We are on our way, east along the cold waters of the Beagle Channel, seabirds skimming by. Argentina to our portside, Chile to our starboard.

We pass the distinctive silhouette of Mount Olivia which each time brings to mind a junior passenger from long ago. Your mountain, young Olivia. The road gives way to tracks. Tracks merge into forests of beech. It turns midnight when the first roll of ocean lifts our keel. We forge out to open sea.


a cage is a cage

Day 2: 16 March 2020: New Zealand announces that its flagship airline will suspend long-haul flights from the end of March. A whisper comes down the line: Ushuaia may soon be set to close its doors. The inevitable penny drops sharp and shrill. The ship quavers with an image of one then the next airline shutting down, borders snapping shut. The company heeds our grave concerns. But Ushuaia closes its borders and we can no longer simply turn around. A decision is made to shorten the voyage. We must do our time at sea, our own personal quarantine.

Day 3–7: 17–21 March: Arrangements are underway for an end-of-month charter flight from Stanley in the Falkland Islands, the lag of days between now and then ensuring we can safely dock and pose no risk, confident in everybody’s eyes that we remain a healthy ship. We are a healthy ship. Not a hint of a cough or cold. We forgo our beloved South Georgia and beeline to the Antarctic Peninsula, intent on sharing with our passengers this beautiful, extraordinary, crystalline corner of the planet. With all but one other ship having departed the Antarctic Peninsula, we revel in choosing our favourite sites. These are precious, joyful days. To be here virtually alone feels both extraordinary and eerie, a time warp back to my first 1996 voyage when to see another ship was truly an event. We soak up five blissful days: icebergs, penguins, whales. We steam past countless glaciers and rug up out on deck to take in the surrounds. Each new day delivers something special and wondrous.

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Juvenile gentoo penguins at Danco Island

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Steam rises from the volcanic shoreline of Whalers Bay, Deception Island

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Left to right: Thérèse Horntrich (Assistant Expedition Leader, Switzerland), Florence Kuyper (Expedition Leader, The Netherlands), Robyn Mundy (Deputy Expedition Leader, Australia).

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Lemaire Channel. Nearby Port Charcot is our southernmost landing.

Day 7: 21 March, evening: We leave the Peninsula, northward bound. Seven days have passed. Seven. My Covid guard eases. Everyone is well. I feel the shroud of concern slip from my shoulders. We have squeaked through unscathed. We are safe. Surely.

Day 8: 22 March: I sit in the front corner of our lecture theatre as one from our team delivers an Antarctic presentation. From behind and all around me I listen to a dissonance of small dry coughs. I look to Expedition Leader Flo at the very moment she looks to me. Perhaps we both close our eyes in the same ragged breath.

In the early evening our ship’s doctor shares with us that a passenger has just presented with fever. The patient and partner have been moved to the ship’s isolation wing prepared in advance for this unwanted reality.

Day 9: 23 March: Lock down. Our passengers are confined to their cabins where they will remain, heroes, troopers, each and every one of them, for an interminable 19 days. We do not know the cause of the fever. Until proven otherwise we must prepare for Covid while we hope against hope for a better outcome. The cabins are spacious and beautiful, heated bathroom floors, big screen tv’s, nearly all have their own balcony. This I know: no matter how you dress it up, a cage is a cage.

Day 10: 24 March: We are a ship with fever. Borders close to us. We say goodbye to the prospect of Stanley providing us a Cordon Sanitaire from the dock to a plane. We set a course for Montevideo, the capital of tiny Uruguay whose port remains open. We fang northward at 14.6 knots, pushed along by the might of the Falkland Current. Wanderers, Black-browed albatross, small and large seabirds wheel by, soaring in the winds.

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Daily temperature testing

Day 11–13: 25–27 March: Our two ship’s doctors don and doff full PPE gear to conduct twice daily temperature checks of every person aboard. More fevers emerge. Some present without fever, just mild symptoms from headache, scratchy cough, diarrhoea, changes in taste and smell, general achiness, to feeling a bit off. One doctor is convinced of Covid. The other has his odds staked on a less insidious ship’s bug. We in the team grow to mistrust our bodies: we fret about a sneeze, a clearing of the throat, a tightening of the chest. In bed at night I check my brow with the back of my hand, convinced it is warm, relieved the next day when the doctor’s thermometer flashes a healthy number. Dr Mauricio has an uncanny habit of leaping unannounced into our office doorway, his thermometer primed. ‘¡Hola, Senoritas!’ He makes us laugh.

We are a unified, harmonious team, kept strong by the remarkable spirit of Florence. We are also supreme at adapting. After all, on any given day in Antarctica, plans change, determined by the vagaries of weather. Regardless of our official shipboard roles, we are willing participants in whatever needs doing.

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Meal deliveries set down outside cabin doors

The days of isolation fall into an ongoing pattern of washing hands countless times, donning masks and gloves. These are in short supply and we are compelled to wear this gear for days at a time. We deliver three meals a day to outside cabin doors. I make the wake-up calls, give announcements through the day. Flo speaks at length to the ship at least twice each day. There is no spin. No bullshit. We tell it as it is, even when there is nothing new to say.

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Meals in the dining room

Daily, the team phones each cabin for a catch up, checking how each passenger is faring within themselves. It becomes a very nice way of connecting. We man and woman the reception phone to give the last standing crew receptionist her breaks. We take afternoon cappuccino orders and rotate the tasks between us. Swiss Assistant Expedition Leader Thérèse creates the daily ‘rooster’ as she calls it. We love her Swiss variation and adopt it as the roster’s title. I discover I am a better Zodiac driver than balancing a heavy dinner tray up and down the stairs. The friendly dishwasher in the galley never loses his patience at having to rinse my tray of spills. The dining room is stripped of its finery. We in the team eat our meals one per table, too far apart for easy conversation. Historian Carol likens us to Benedictine monks, alone with our supper in silent reflection.

2020-03-26 The Masked Penguin

We publish The Masked Penguin, a simple news sheet the mono printer churns out each morning. We mask up to offer daily broadcasts over the ship’s intercom. Alan our Canadian seabird naturalist enthuses us with new birds outside our cabin windows. Jane our kiwi mountain guide offers cabin workouts. Aussie kayaking guides Daniel and Eamon deliver Q&A sessions, comprising genuine and goofy questions. They read from a selection of passenger haikus: Sunlight glistening / Reflecting through the window / Our thoughts shimmering

Our host of team experts speak about weather and climate. They recount anecdotes from former lives as Antarctic research scientists and field assistants. Dan develops quite a following and we joke that when all this is over he has a second career waiting in radio. The speakers in the ship’s public areas overheat with the spikes of activity and threaten to fail. We adapt our broadcasts.

Day 13: 27–31 March: We arrive at Montevideo on the evening of 27 March. We anchor out in The Roads, 12 nautical miles offshore. This will be our home for the next 14 days. Passengers in portside cabins look down from their balconies at a school of hammerhead sharks cruising by.

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Montevideo sunrise

Uruguay supports us with provisions and medications. When the shallow waters of Rio Del Plata grow turbulent and too stirred with mud to make our own fresh water, a supply vessel tops up our supply. My newly washed hair feels as coarse as straw. ‘Do you think it’s Covid?’ I say to Flo. She checks her own hair. ‘If it is, we both have it.’

We are not permitted to berth at Montevideo until our ship remains fever free for 14 days. With 217 aboard and a rolling infection, the quarantine clock winds back to zero each time a new fever presents. Mountaineer Jane calculates we will be free to berth in approximately two years.

Cargo ships and bulk carriers sit at anchor in The Roads, each waiting their turn to go alongside. Our immediate neighbour is a ship from the Greenpeace fleet. On the other side MS Expedition sits at anchor with only crew aboard. She was destined to leave Ushuaia for Antarctica around the same day as us. Her voyage was suspended, her passengers sent home, the risk to lives deemed too high. I picture the crew looking across to us with empathy, their decision validated.

Day 17: 31 March: I will look back on this day as the moment when Covid morphed into a sinister new being, capable of indiscriminate assault. A male passenger with fever develops acute respiratory problems and is medevaced to Montevideo’s Hospital Britanico. It will be the first of many mercy visits from Uruguay’s SAR vessel which motors out in rough sea conditions to collect unwell passengers requiring hospitalisation. We are so very grateful for Uruguay’s medical support. With both vessels side by side, heaving in the swell, our first patient, dressed in full PPE gear, steps across the abyss from one vessel to the other, the SAR crew gripping the railing with one hand, waiting to catch him with the other, the oxygen tank still attached, thrown across in his wake. I cannot decide who is the braver: our passenger or that Uruguayan crew.

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Dr Mauricio Usme

Day 18: April Fool’s Day: Through this entire time our ship’s doctor Mauricio, the undeniable hero of the voyage, has taken the front line and with it the very great risk of contracting the virus. His strategy is to protect our second doctor should he, Mauricio, fall ill. Dr Jeff is wakened in the night. Mauricio is running a high fever and has isolated himself to his cabin. Dr Jeff’s worst nightmare has arrived. He attends to Mauricio then assumes sole medical responsibility.

We wait for test results to come back from the hospital where our first patient is now in a critical condition in ICU. I wish I could hug his partner who remains onboard alone in her cabin. A female passenger in cabin isolation takes a turn for the worse. More from our ship’s crew succumb to fever. Two by two, crew and cabin mate retreat to isolation.

The test results arrive. That it reads Covid should be no surprise and yet we hang our heads. We, this ship, this blighted voyage, we are the April Fool.

Florence, Captain and I hold an emergency meeting. With the current trajectory, we calculate the obvious: already there are not enough stewards to deliver meals; we in the team have been working to fill the growing shortfall. Soon there will be insufficient crew to cook and prepare meals, to maintain a sustainable level of hygiene around the ship, to fulfil the vessel’s technical requirements, to even man the bridge. Captain transmits the message to the Uruguayan Coastguard: We have reached a humanitarian crisis. We are in need of urgent help.

Day 19: 2 April: Wild seas prevent the rescue vessel from motoring out to retrieve unwell patients.

Day 20: 3 April: The wind is still strong, the ocean still rough. The rescue vessel tracks back and forth to collect two ill crew members and another passenger. In the evening a vessel brings a team of young Uruguayan medics who board the ship. I wonder if they might be medical graduates or even students who have volunteered for the task. They work seven hours straight, half the team going from cabin to cabin to test passengers with a PCR nasal swab, the other half working in the mudroom to test each of the crew and our team. As the ship heaves in the swell they perform each swab. It is midnight before I am close to being tested. I watch crewmen leave the testing bench, pinching the bridge of their nose, shaking off the sensory assault of having a swivel stick poked far up each nostril. The medic speaks in gentle, broken English: ‘Do you mind if I take a moment? Fresh air.’ She gestures to a side door. I recognise seasickness behind that face shield and mask. Within minutes she returns to her post to perform my test. I leave the mudroom gripping my nose.

Day 21: 4 April: Dr Jeff falls to the virus. A Uruguayan doctor comes aboard to stay and assist. He works hard. He speaks no English. Naturalist Roger helps to translate.

Day 22: 5 April: A Uruguayan medical team comes aboard and spends most of the day doing medical check-ups for everyone onboard: temperatures, blood pressure, blood oxygen, questions about symptoms. We are told informally that a high proportion of the ship’s company has tested positive for Covid. We are not given numbers. Test analysis is still ongoing at the lab. The team gives some of us our individual test result.

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The Uruguayan medical team show us the number to call should we present with symptoms

Day 23: 6 April: The full test results from the PCR nasal testing are emailed to the ship. Results are shared amongst the crew’s senior managers though not with our Expedition Leader. Printouts showing each person’s results are left on the bar and in the public lounge. Our mountain guide learns his results from the Hotel Manager. What of medical confidentiality? We learn that sixty percent onboard have tested positive to Covid. Fear sets in amongst those in the crew who test negative. Our passengers, safe inside their cabins, remain oblivious to the shift in mood aboard the ship.

Days 24–25: 7–8 April: Our days grind on, the company working around the clock to negotiate a medical charter from Montevideo to Australia, another to the USA and on to the UK. Throughout these days, each new charter possibility, each new negotiation with Consulates and Ministers, has been dashed. We know our company is scouring every avenue to get our passengers and team home, but this rollercoaster is a cycle of hope and despair. Today we are told, cautiously, that things are getting close, that we are at last on the verge of a very real outcome. Contracts with charterers, agreements with governments, are being drawn up, ready for signing. Each morning we print out copies of a new daily update from head office and post it outside cabin doors. I remove the company logo from all but the front page to cut down pages. We are down to our last box of paper.

Day 26: 9 April: Arrangements are firmed up for a medical charter flight to Australia. The kiwis will join the fight then transfer to a small charter direct from Melbourne to Auckland. Tomorrow at 0500 a specially fitted Airbus A340 will arrive in Montevideo from Portugal. We are told that the charter specialist has been operating for 15 years, repatriating passengers and transporting vital medical and protective equipment around the world. It feels like a miracle in the making. A gripping ride arrowing to the sky. I dare not set my hopes too high.

Day 27: 10 April: I wake from a dream that we are stopped on the road by angry protestors. I arrive at the ship’s office to learn that the charter plane has touched down on schedule. It is here, really here, waiting for us at Montevideo’s Carrasco International Airport. Uruguay has agreed to provide the 97 Australian and 15 New Zealand passengers and team members a Humanitarian Corridor from the dock to the airport. I have butterflies in my stomach that flutter stupidly for the entire day. Let it happen.

As I announce the day’s plans and details for the flight, the moment grows bittersweet. Our internationals. We are leaving twelve passengers and eight from our team behind. Their arrangements are still to be finalised. Worse, the atmosphere onboard has escalated into one of volatility. While Florence makes plans to protect her remaining team, arranging their move to adjacent passenger cabins with adjoining balconies, I inform the Australians and New Zealanders of our flight arrangements. We may bring only carry bags. We must leave our check-in luggage behind. No exceptions. No baggage handler will handle our contaminated luggage. Yes, we may bring scissors, sharp objects, no limit on liquids, so long as we alone can carry our belongings to the plane.

I believe all of us would have walked onto that plane with nothing.

The day is hectic. Late afternoon arrives before I focus my sights out the windows. The city of Montevideo shimmers silver, the skyline no longer a distant haze but a distinct line of buildings new and old. ‘Are we moving?’ I state the obvious. Normally I would be on the Bridge, looking forward, but the Bridge has been closed to all but ship’s officers since the first fever.

As we approach Montevideo Harbour, people are lined along the shoreline. They stand on the sea wall. It takes me a moment to register the full meaning. They are waving. They cheer and hoot. They look so happy to see us. They are not here to protest or turn us away. I step out onto the open back deck to wave back. To cry. Uruguay: you are a small country with a big heart. Locals post photos of our arrival to the company’s Facebook page. They text dozens of messages. ‘You will be home soon. You will be safe.’ ‘Uruguay loves you.’ ‘We welcome you, dear friends.’ They are humanity as its most generous and inspiring.

At 2130 we call our first passengers down. It feels strange to see these faces after 19 days. As if we are meeting for a first date, unsure of how to be with one another in this new, socially distanced world. Each person is donned in gloves and an N95 mask. Buses pull up one by one. Passengers are counted off as they make their way down the gangway. All but two of our passengers from hospital will travel by ambulance directly to the plane. Our two who remain in ICU are deemed not yet strong enough to travel. Their partners are transported from the ship to the hospital to remain behind and be by their sides.

The 45-minute journey from the dock to the airport is a spectacle, even from the inside of the bus. We are a kilometre-long cavalcade of buses, security vehicles and ambulances. Later I will watch images of the event on Uruguayan television news. For now, coloured lights flash. Sirens blare. On every corner of every street a parked police car or motorbike halts local traffic. It is difficult to see through the darkened windows of the bus. I make out people on sidewalks, standing on balconies. Arms are waving. Flags fluttering.

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HiFly Airbus A340 charter plane at Montevideo airport

This is no regular airport check-in. Each bus in turn moves out onto the tarmac beneath the wing of the enormous Airbus. I have never seen such an aircraft from this perspective or understood its full height. In slow orderly procession we make our way up one of two very steep outdoor steps and directly into the plane.

The cabin crew are dressed in white hazmat suits, hoods, goggles, masks and gloves. In my section the attendants are nearly all men, Portugese names written on their suits in black texta. They greet us warmly, as if we were any regular traveller returning home from holidays. Areas of the cabin are cordoned off with plastic sheeting to create medical bays. It resembles a scene from Breaking Bad, akin to a makeshift meth lab. Doctors and nurses are onboard to attend to our hospital patients and any traveller needing assistance during the 16-hour nonstop flight. I have been tasked with handing the ship’s ‘Fit to Fly’ document to the pilot. The plane, I have been told, cannot leave without it. The signed, stamped document lists each person’s health status and body temperature, final recordings taken onboard that afternoon. The cabin attendant I talk to seems puzzled by the documents. He takes the envelope and sets it aside. I go to urge him how vital it is that these papers reach the pilot. I stop myself, take my first steps back from my shipboard role. The crew, now, are in charge. Attendants show us to our seats and sort out mix ups, they soothe anxieties, help stow bags that no longer fit the crammed overhead bins.

There is no dilly dallying. We push back the moment the doors close. I do not register a safety demonstration though perhaps sensory overload is at play. At 0145, right on schedule, we move into position and in a mighty surge and rumble we barrel down the runway, arc up into the sky. We are away. Above the city. Tracking west across the night.

I wake at predawn as we cross the beautiful New Zealand alps. They feel as comforting as home.

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Crossing the Australian coast

When I wake the next time the wing of the plane is enveloped by apricot sunrise. We cross the Australian coast. The pilot’s voice comes over the loudspeaker to thank us for choosing his airline to travel with. He hopes to see us again. Under better circumstances, he adds.

At 0655, Easter Sunday morning, we touch down on the tarmac at Melbourne.

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The Airbus on the tarmac in Melbourne


a league of tragedy

On 15 April 2020 our internationals take their turn on a Boeing 737 medical charter to Miami, USA. From there follows an elaborate series of smaller charter flights which, miraculously, thanks to the company’s detailed arranging, all line up. The exception is our Canadian naturalist whose final charter is redirected mid-flight due to a refusal to the plane to land in Canada. He is met by ground ambulance and driven the final hours to the Canadian border. The ambulance doors open to a line of uniformed border guards wearing surgical masks and guns in their belt holsters. He asks them, ‘Are you here to shoot me if I make a break for it?’ A moment’s silence before they break into a grin. ‘Welcome back to Canada.’

The 737 continues on to the UK, to ground ambulance shuttles, to yet more charter flights onward to Europe, all the 19 delivered home.

Partway through my Melbourne quarantine we receive news from the ship that Ronnie, a Philippine crewman, has passed away from Covid. Since being admitted to ICU in Montevideo, his health status has remained confidential. The news leaves us numb with shock. The voyage plunges to a league of tragedy.

As I sit here in Hobart quarantine, the ship remains at anchor off Montevideo. Two of our passengers remain ashore in Hospital Britanico, supported by their partners. Our Zodiac Manager is the last of our expedition team still aboard, our company working through the challenges to repatriate him home to Russia.

Eighty-four crew members from numerous countries are still on board. Some have been separated from their families for close to eight months, having signed on in September 2019, a time before Covid-19, when the newly built ship departed its Chinese shipyard.

After a stint in hospital Dr Mauricio is back onboard, thankfully fit and well. He remains a strident voice in appealing to the USA-based company which employs the crew, and to the Uruguayan government, to repatriate the crew to their homes.

I would not wish this blighted voyage on anyone. Yet even owning my premonitory fears leading up to the voyage, I do not regret being part of it. To witness the courage and stamina of our passengers, and to work with a remarkable team of resilient, capable, rock-solid colleagues who each laid their life on the line, was a privilege. Equally, it was a joy to work side by side with an exceptional expedition leader who recognised and drew upon every person’s strengths. I like to think we shared fortitude, clear thinking, compassion and caring, qualities that help get us through.

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Touch down in Hobart, Tasmania

Photos and text ©Robyn Mundy, 2020

News articles relating to the voyage and current situation aboard can be sourced from the following hyperlinks:

3 May 2020:

21 April 2020:

21 April 2020:

Dr Alan Burger (shipboard naturalist) website and blog:





Horizons of uncertainty

I am in Ushuaia at the southern tip of South America, waiting to embark on MV Greg Mortimer to work the final voyage of our Antarctic season.

The experience of flying across from Australia was one of biosecurity checks, anxiety, fear, discrimination, even repulsion from one airline counter assistant.

I cannot guess what the world will look like in 20 days time when I return to port, which new borders will close, which new biosecurity actions will be imposed to help protect us all.

I only know that now more than ever is the time to draw upon our core human values: kindness, compassion, generosity, courage. From the tiniest acts to the largest actions.

This photo I took on the morning of leaving Hobart is a reminder of earth’s eternal beauty. Wishing everyone, on land, at sea, flying high above the clouds, Bon Voyage.

A Radiance of Women

When I began working in my late teens, I was largely innocent to inequities between work opportunities for women versus men. It seemed the unquestioning norm that men, primarily, took up leadership roles while women, primarily, took supporting roles. After all, things had come a long way since my mother’s time. Back then in the fifties, as a young married woman her bank would not allow her to have a savings account in her own name, and employer rulings meant that many in her circle, once married, were compelled to surrender their careers.

Mrs+D+front+coverRecently I read Lynne Leonhardt’s meticulously researched Step Up, Mrs Dugdale, a novel based on the life of Australian suffragette Henrietta Dugdale. Henrietta’s story set me firmly down within the awful confines of a late 19th and early 20th century world, where married women were regarded as property with no legal rights of their own, where the efforts of a few battled long and hard for a move toward equity, for changes to unjust marital laws and property ownership, for a woman’s right to vote—freedoms I take as givens in this cruisy 21st-century world.

2017 Robyn at the Helm -- by Karen Povey Arctic 2017

Photo ©Karen Povey

Thanks to the courageous voices of each generation, women in Australia are largely afforded choice and opportunity. I am thankful for the choice to take up writing studies at a time and age that was right for me, for the opportunity to forge a self-made career rich in experience. In my seasonal shipboard role, which began in 1998, I am part of an exciting momentum that places women as leaders, acknowledged for their skill, experience and personal qualities. May such recognition cast itself across all the colours of the spectrum.

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As thoughts turn to International Women’s Day 2020, my shout of cheer goes to the radiance of women I know, whose extraordinary lives enrich and inspire my own. Amongst them are adventurers, artists, archaeologists, ambassadors, animal lovers, bush walkers, biologists, birdos, carers, caretakers, climbers, climate crusaders, coordinators, educators, editors, gardeners, graphic designers, glaciologists, garlic growers, heroines, historians, hairdressers, kayakers, killer cooks (the harmless variety), larrikins, life savers, leaders, literary agents, managers, mothers, mentors, medicos, naturalists, novelists, performers, peace makers, potters, poets, polar guides, photographers, publishers, playwrights, readers, recyclers, swimmers, students, scientists, stewardesses, snowshoers, ship’s officers, speech pathologists, station leaders, Scrabble lovers, travellers, teachers of little ones, teachers of big ones, trail blazers, tireless volunteers AND fellow Zodiac drivers.

Top Shelf: Donna Mazza

Photo: ©Sarah Mills

Fauna lays bare an electrifying genetically re-coded future so real, so terrifying, so close, I can feel its baby breath soft against my cheek.’—Robyn Mundy

I am thrilled to introduce fellow author, friend and colleague Donna Mazza. I have known Donna since we were postgrad writing students at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Donna about to graduate, me just beginning. More recently we were colleagues at Edith Cowan University South West in Bunbury, Western Australia, where Donna, lover of fine literature and funny looking chickens, works as an Arts lecturer.

The south west of WA is an extraordinary region of farmland, vineyards, tall tree forests, beaches and surf—a place that beats a little more slowly than city life. But how might the future look for Stacey, a young mother, newly pregnant through genetic engineering? How far will a mother go to save her child? Donna Mazza’s novel Fauna artfully navigates this terrain. As one of its early readers I found this story to be a chilling, entirely arresting window into the reachable future.

I posed some questions to Donna about the work and her writing:

Your new novel Fauna is about to enter the world, to give birth, you might say. Its main character Stacey is a pregnant mother of two, living in a familiar though somewhat bleaker Western Australia, 17 years into the future. The title itself is a sobering choice for a story that offers a different slant on motherhood. Tell us about the story and the questions you set out to explore.

The story has a provocative concept about Stacey carrying a child who is not entirely human, but I feel that there are many issues that it raises about motherhood. I particularly set out to consider the invasive nature of contemporary childbirth and its relationship to technology. I think it has changed the way we think about life. Having the window that we now have to look into ourselves as we create life is quite a wonder and as we unpick the code of our DNA that seems to raise even more wonders.  That doesn’t only apply to humans, of course. In Fauna, I wanted the sense that the characters are also living in our own aftermath: that the damage we are doing to the world sits all around them as the world goes on, continuing its journey and leaving its wake, and its consequences.

How did the ideas for the novel first come about? 

It was reading about the new CRISPR technologies and the potential to raise extinct megafauna that started my wondering for this novel.  I first wrote about it in my short story ‘The Exhibit’ and applied what I had been reading to extinct humans instead of extinct animals.  The short story never really felt like enough to fully tease out the ideas and the more I read around it the more I realised that eventually we would be able to do this and if we were able to then somebody, somewhere probably would.  As I deepened my research on the Neanderthal people, I found that contemporary science has a much more sophisticated understanding of them, their intelligence and their lives. I gathered all kinds of precious details and wove them into Fauna through my research.

How would you describe your process of writing? I mean, do you set plot points along the way, or does the story carry you along to where it wants to go?

I like to have a scaffolding when I write so I had some structural plot points as guides along the way for Fauna, helped by the markers of pregnancy, birth and childhood.  But it was a loose structure, with plenty of creative space in it for taking the story where it needed to go. I don’t have a failsafe method of writing but I do my best writing in intense bursts. These don’t come out of nowhere and I am always ‘working on it’ mentally, building the scaffolding for the story.

Your debut novel The Albanian was published in 2007 after winning the illustrious TAG Hungerford Award. You began writing Fauna around 2017. I remember you quietly saying to me that throughout that hiatus you felt you had become a stronger writer. Tell us more about that realisation.

I think if you’re a writer and an avid reader, like me, you never stop learning and I hope that I can say that to you again next time I have a novel written.  I learned a lot between novels by writing short fiction and poetry and also from my reading and teaching.

In 2018 you were named the Mick Dark Flagship Fellow for Environmental Writing and awarded a residency at Varuna, the National Writers House. How did that residency influence your writing?

That was a wonderful three weeks of reading and writing and writers. I met some wonderful and encouraging people who urged me forward with my journey to publishing Fauna.  I also realised something about myself and my relationship to writing that I will carry into the work that I do in the future – that I try to share the emotional and physical experience of my characters in the hope that the reader can empathise and feel something of it too.

What advice do you have for fellow writers?

Make time and don’t give up.

Do you have a favourite paragraph from Fauna?

The nights and the days. I have forgotten my name and the chapters that have gone. I have no knowledge of what will come or how I have moved from place to place. How they have all lived around me. Their coming and going in a world above the surface, where the wind blows and sun shines. Down here, inside this thing we slip into the gullet. So slick with saliva that little force is required to swallow it down. So many things here that I cannot name. Through the miasma all I see is her eyes, her cheeks drawing in, the rim of milk at her lips.

Donna Mazza’s novel Fauna, published by Allen & Unwin, is available in bookstores from 4 February 2020.

Homage to the wild

Returning home from the icy south, especially at the tail end of an Antarctic summer, is a play of the imagination. I have an image of the ocean already settling with the winter freeze, the penguin rookeries now empty, whales heading north to temperate latitudes, and summer’s window, which tolerates visitors of the human kind, sliding firmly closed.

Every part of Antarctica’s summer offers unexpected rewards. The key is to drag on the insulating layers and get out in it, regardless of the weather. I took the images below during March and April 2019 voyages to the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia. It is always tempting to single out photos from ‘best weather’ days, but I’ve resisted. The times when we venture out in wind and snow, when the cold bites and the warmth of the ship feels like heaven to return to, are when I feel most alive.

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Tabular bergs break from ice shelves far down in the Weddell Sea and travel north with currents to round the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. ©Robyn Mundy


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This katabatic wind sprang to life unannounced in Royal Bay, South Georgia. ©Robyn Mundy

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On this same day, the trip from shore back to the ship earned a nod to the skill and fortitude of my expedition team mates. ©Robyn Mundy

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I’m a sucker for a spectacular sky. These lenticular clouds at Jason Harbour, South Georgia, demanded a stop in the Zodiac to bring out the camera. ©Robyn Mundy

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Salisbury Plain, South Georgia. This colony of king penguins with their brown fluffy chicks is a sight to behold. ©Robyn Mundy

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This young humpback shared itself around our Zodiacs and kayaks for over an hour, spyhopping, rolling, diving beneath each boat and extending a flipper. He/she was so attentive to each of us that my colleague Roger later said, ‘It felt rude to leave.’ Cuverville Island, Antarctic Peninsula. ©Robyn Mundy

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Ant2019 by Katherin Jafari

This season we shared a voyage with dear friends from Perth, WA, who embraced Antarctica and got to experience every kind of weather. Good on you, Katherine & Kev! ©Katherine J.

Readers on Reading

In this post I invite an inspirational guest reader to share a little about their life and a recent favourite book. 

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Rachael Mead

I first met Rachael Mead in 2011 during a writing residency at Varuna the Writers House, a sanctuary set on the edge of Australia’s Blue Mountains. I spent my time there with an inspiring group of women writers, sharing dinners, ideas, snatches of our own writing. During a casual conversation Rachael told me of her husband, a paramedic who, on Rachael’s birthdays, would paint her a replica of a favourite famous painting. The image of that gift as an expression of love grabbed me. Rachael gave me permission to explore the idea in short fiction which slowly, glacially, led to ‘The Forgeries’, most definitely NOT a story about Rachael or her husband, but about the fragile nature of creativity.

TFITP coverThis small window into Rachael’s life introduces a talented poet and short story writer, arts reviewer and bookseller, who lives in the beautiful Adelaide Hills in South Australia. Rachael’s had an eclectic life, working as an archaeologist, environmental campaigner and seller of books both old and new. She has an Honours degree in Classical Archaeology, a Masters in Environmental Studies and a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Adelaide. Rachael is the author of four collections of poetry, and I recommend all of them: The Flaw in the Pattern (UWA Publishing 2018), The Sixth Creek (Picaro Press 2013) and the chapbooks Sliding Down the Belly of the World (Wakefield Press 2012) and The Quiet Blue World (Garron Publishing 2015).

I invited Rachael to share something she treasures about her life.

Rachael: Being able to travel. My husband and I met on an archaeological excavation and since then we have leapt at every chance to experience the wild and lonely places of the world, whether it’s throwing the swags in the back of the car or heading off on overseas adventures. I’ve been extremely privileged to have visited Antarctica twice, camping on the Ross Ice shelf in East Antarctica and crossing the Drake Passage by ship to the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula. The only continent I’ve yet to visit is North America but, with an Iranian stamp in my passport and a history of environmental activism, ticking this continent off the list may prove a little challenging under the current administration. In the meantime I’d love to do a little more long distance hiking, so early in the New Year we hope to lug our backpacks around the western end of Kangaroo Island, which lies off the coast of South Australia.

Clockwise: Kayaking in South Georgia, 2013; Rachael with orphaned Lowland Mountain Gorilla while volunteering in Limbe Wildlife Rescue Centre, Cameroon 1996;  Imax Crevasse, Ross Ice Shelf, East Antarctica 2005. Photos ©Rachael Mead

On Instagram I’ve been following Rachael’s recent wind-whipped adventures around Iceland and Scotland. Was there a favourite book along the way?

Living MountainRachael: I love researching the ecological and cultural histories of the places we visit, so while driving through the Scottish Highlands I read a title that had been on my ‘must read’ list for a while. The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd is a gorgeous piece of nature writing and deservedly a classic. The book is a loving, lyrical and ecologically precise account of the Cairngorm Mountains by a woman who spent much of her life exploring this harsh and beautiful landscape by foot. Shepherd wrote this book in the mid-1940s but it remained in her desk drawer until 1977, finally finding a publisher at the same time that other classics of the genre by male writers such as Matthiessen, Chatwin and McPhee were being published to great acclaim. As a lover of nature writing, reading this book was an absolute delight, not only as a poetic and intimate account of a wild landscape but as a landmark piece of nature writing by an extraordinary woman. Every time I used a Scottish five-pound note (which bears her portrait) it felt like I was paying tribute to a newly discovered literary heroine.

Another ‘must read’ piece of nature writing is this poem by Rachael Mead from The Flaw in the Pattern, the first in a sequence of seven poems chronicling each day of a trek though the Tasmanian wilderness.

These clouds that cap the world

Walking the Overland Track, Tasmania – Day 1

We set out, climbing towards the tight lid of clouds,

our whole week hanging from our collarbones.

This land casts timelessness at our feet,

unfurling like an old rug, ragged and enormous.

We are superimposed here, stepping into an epic.

Trees glow in wet light, the sky flat as an ironed sheet.

Everything is so magnificent it feels ridiculous, like words

in the mouth of Dorothy Parker. This is beauty beyond

necessity, the way it usually is, but on its own terms,

the golden mean redundant and symmetry just a neat idea.

For seven days we will walk, each carrying our own burden

of what we think we need, our sweat and aching joints.

We tread the silvered vertebrae of the track

one foot after the other, learning the bleakness

of repetition. The sky drops on our heads,

fog enfolding us in silence and cold.  Ahead,

I watch my partner’s shape dissolve then reappear

fiercer than ever, like love over time. I draw endurance

from my aquifer and keep pushing through this weather

that has nowhere better to be, striding among

these clouds that cap the world, my hair netting sky.

Read more of Rachael’s poetry and see her photographic images at:

Arctic jewels

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Home again on the tail of three magical Arctic voyages aboard Polar Pioneer, exploring Svalbard and East Greenland. While every voyage sees a keen focus on wildlife—that dream of seeing the mighty polar bear, King of the Arctic—Svalbard and East Greenland are crowns crammed with all kinds of precious gems, from the large to the tiny. Here below are some of the wonders I love about the high north. I hope you’ll enjoy them too. — Robyn Mundy


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Gateau Point, Scoresbysund, East Greenland ©Robyn Mundy


Bjørneøer (Bear Islands), Ø Fjord, East Greenland ©Robyn Mundy


Lake Noa, Blomsterbugten, East Greenland ©Robyn Mundy


20180807-RM-Kongsbreen IMG_2237Kongsbreen, Svalbard ©Robyn Mundy

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Kapp Stewart, East Greenland ©Robyn Mundy

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Røde Fjord, East Greenland ©Robyn Mundy












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Broad-leaved willow herb  ©Robyn Mundy

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Mouse-ear chickweed  ©Robyn Mundy

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Snow buttercups  ©Robyn Mundy

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Purple Mountain Saxifrage  ©Robyn Mundy


Arctic cotton grass  ©Robyn Mundy


Tundra reflections ©Robyn Mundy


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Arctic fox in summer coat, Ytre Norskøya, Svalbard   ©Robyn Mundy


Muskox, Harefjord, East Greenland  ©Robyn Mundy

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Svalbard reindeer, Kap Lee, Svalbard  ©Robyn Mundy

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Polar bear, Kvitøya, Svalbard ©Robyn Mundy


…to MV Polar Pioneer, our ice-strengthened Russian workhorse that makes it all happen year after year. For those of us who have been working with her since her maiden voyage in 2000, it is bound to be a sad farewell this time next year, the Arctic 2019 season being her final with Aurora Expeditions before she steams away toward shiny new adventures.


MV Polar Pioneer ©Robyn Mundy