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…
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.
Someone recently described meas 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 JanuaryI 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 enjoyingThe Invention of Nature 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.
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.
Recently 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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
In this post I invite an inspirational guest reader to share a little about their life and a recent favourite book.
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.
This 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.
On Instagram I’ve been following Rachael’s recent wind-whipped adventures around Iceland and Scotland. Was there a favourite book along the way?
Rachael: 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.
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
…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.
What a crazy and unexpected year 2018 has become, thanks largely to a new part time work role that I happily agreed to, having exploded into a juggernaut. The consolation I hold onto (and it’s a big one) is that my efforts might make a positive difference. But with many hours consumed, I have turned into an absent friend and non-communicator. My work desk, once stacked with writing research and photos and scribbled notes of dialogue, has been taken over by To Do lists and a utilitarian work diary, Week To A Spread. Christmas cards relegated to the side table are gathering dust, remnants of glitter glinting from their envelopes, the senders, still waiting to be acknowledged, unaware of how precious their greetings are to me. (I’m sorry. I’m sorry). A stack of novels waiting to be read occasionally glares at me from my bedside table; they’ve all but given up. I’ve abandoned testy Twitter and gone for Instagram — a voyeur rather than a contributor — because there’s something lovely, and effortless, in ‘liking’ a world of beauty, travel and glee beyond my own.
Well, enough of that. Time to post a few images with a reminder that just back there, just beyond the corner of my sights, lies another world. Antarctica. I hope you enjoy this photo selection from four voyages, November through January, to the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia. It’s not all blue skies and sunshine. You’ll see a dolloping of wild weather and snowfall which, for those of us onboard, often makes for some of the most memorable moments of all.
This northern summer I voyaged to Svalbard Archipelago with a host of adventure travellers, including Karen Povey, a passionate nature enthusiast, wildlife conservationist and all round good sort to have aboard an Arctic voyage.
Karen is a talented photographer, so when I saw this gobsmacking* photo feature on the cover of the trip’s voyage log, I invited her to share her image and the story behind it. Over to you, Karen:
My July trip to Svalbard was truly one of my life’s highlights. One favorite experience was our landing in Hornsund on the archipelago’s main island of Spitsbergen. We scrambled, often on hands and knees, high up a nearly vertical slope of dense moss to the base of a kittiwake nesting cliff. As we clung to our precarious perch an arctic fox appeared, effortlessly trotting by, nose to the earth. Astonished, we watched the fox briskly snatch up chicks that had fallen from the rocks above. Soon its mate appeared and they alternated foraging forays, mouths stuffed with downy prey. Upon descent, it became apparent why they worked so hard in this brief season of plenty – they had a den occupied by at least eight active youngsters! Watching the kits tumbling in play while we stood yards away was beyond thrilling. I don’t know how long we stayed transfixed, immersed in the awe of nature (and the dedication of parents!) in this amazing place.
Like to meet an exceptional photographer whose first camera was a Box Brownie, who has never had formal training, who neither markets her photos nor runs a website, but whose images of landscape and nature have won more national and international awards than many photographers dare dream?
Meet VI WILSON, landscape photographer, fellow adventurer and friend. I have sailed with Vi several times to the high latitudes, most recently aboard Polar Pioneer on voyages to Svalbard and East Greenland. I invited Vi to speak about her photographic journey, and to share this selection of gobsmacking images, all taken during our September Arctic adventure.
If you listen quietly enough life will whisper its secrets to you. —Rasheed Oghunlaru
Markers of a Journey
‘Ever since I was a small child I have been drawn to the ever-changing beauty of land, sea and sky. It is inevitable that the focus of my image-making portrays this. But growing up in a working class family in Albany, Western Australia, money was always in short supply and at 15 I had to leave school to find a job. There was no encouragement to pursue a career. Out of my three pounds, five shillings and seven pence wages, I was required to give my mother one pound board.’
With hard-earned savings, Vi bought her first Box Brownie and the path to photography opened. ‘The world was there as I saw it. I never questioned or analysed why it was important to record it, although on many occasions I have been spellbound by the sheer magic and emotion of the moment. I was once told that I was an instinctive photographer, and to some extent I think that is true. Often you just know but the challenge then is how.’
We see things not as they are, but as we are. —H. M. Tomlinson
I decided it was time to learn about photography and it was on a 2005 trip to Antarctica that I heard the first whispers about why I make photographs. More recently at a photography workshop I was given an assignment to ‘identify images which are markers for your own journey.’ As I sorted through images something surprising happened. Similarities were emerging. I began to see things that really did say something about me. The images were serene but ordered. There were patterns and shapes; there was light and shadow, strength and vulnerability, emotion and rhythms—like music. My music. Music in landscapes. My need to capture the beauty around me had been ever present but the reason remained elusive. I feel enormously blessed and grateful to have discovered it.
‘It was such a privilege this year to travel to the Arctic with Aurora. The wildlife and scenery of Spitsbergen, the pack ice, and the absolute grandeur of Greenland have the ability to leave one speechless and filled with awe. I suffered from an acute case of sensory overload.’
‘Trying to capture and convey my emotional responses to this kind of splendour is not always easy, but when a viewer responds positively to an image, there is the satisfaction of knowing that perhaps I did – just a little bit!’
Landscape photography: pointers from Vi Wilson
The landscape is aboutlight, and that can be capricious and elusive. Absolutely the best times are the golden hours in the mornings and evenings. This can be a challenge where there is 24 hours of daylight, so sometimes it is a good idea to change the camera settings to record monochrome, as it gives an immediate idea of whether a scene might work as mono. This can work rather well in the middle of the day, but the camera needs to be set to capture RAW data. The image can always be restored to colour in post processing.
Sometimes trying to capture the whole scene can work, but at other times, it is good to explore shooting vertical, or zooming in to focus on details. There is the far landscape and the near landscape, and both have their place.
Tripods are a blessing and a curse! In some situations the circumstances just don’t lend themselves to using one, so it is important to keep an eye on the speed and ISO, especially when using a long lens on the camera and shooting from a bobbing zodiac, or a rolling ship. If you are able to use a tripod, also use a cable release, delayed shutter release, or mirror lockup.
Increasing the ISO can increase noise but there are some good noise reduction programs on the market. However, they should be used with care or they can make an image look over-smooth and plastic.
Vi, in closing, a question I always like to ask my guests: will you tell us something you cherish about your life? I cherish my good health and my family, and the privilege of being able to witness the wonders of the natural world.