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 www.ninagallo.squarespace.com

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.

IWD 2020 logo

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.

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. 

Rachael Mead (1) copy

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: http://rachaelmead.com/