A black-and-white chinstrap penguin, no taller than my knee, pecks at my boots expectantly. Clearly he hasn’t read the rulebook. Much as I’ve tried to stay at least five metres away from Antarctica’s wildlife — as visitors are asked to do — this inquisitive fellow is intent on investigating me and my camera bag.
I’m on Deception Island: a volcanic caldera, shaped like a ring doughnut with a bite taken out of it. Its centre hides a deep harbour and an abandoned whaling station. This is one of the few places on the Antarctic Peninsula where the beaches are clear of ice — at least in summer — thanks to heat from the dormant volcano beneath us. No wonder my feathered friend has chosen this thermally warmed island to nest on.
I’m standing on a beach of black volcanic sand at Bailey Head, looking out at an inky sea, and, in the distance, a turquoise iceberg that resembles a huge teapot. Penguins, like fat little torpedoes, launch themselves out of the surf and waddle inland, wings out wide for balance. Despite the flurry of activity, there’s order to the chaos. On one side of the beach, chinstraps head for the water. On the other, they head inland. I’m in the middle of a penguin superhighway.
Half a mile inland, the rocky nests of over 100,000 breeding pairs stretch as far as the eye can see. The ammonia-tinged stench of krill-pink guano is pungent enough to singe nostril hairs. Grey, downy chicks screech for food, adults bicker and ward off raiding parties of brown skuas and giant petrels. The noise is one of Antarctica’s profound contrasts; barely hours earlier I was enjoying a silence I’ve only ever experienced here. No people, no voices, no machines. Just a few crabeater seals, lazily basking in the sunshine on floating sea ice, as I sit atop an icy ridge.
I’m here researching my next thriller. I’ve already interviewed scientists at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, and the Australian Antarctic Division in Hobart. But to bring such an alien land to life in my novel, I want to experience it myself. I discover first-hand the dangers of Antarctica’s volatile weather: one minute pristine skies, the next, raging blizzard. I learn how the intense cold hinders me physically and mentally, and that somebody must always know my whereabouts: that’s why turning a small numbered tag every time I leave, and return to, the ship, is critical. But I don’t expect Antarctica to claim my heart in the profound way it does, or to be inspired to write not just one but two thrillers set here.
Forget, for a moment, our multicoloured world. Imagine one that’s only blue, white and grey. A continent as big as Europe, covered in ice. A land that growls and cracks as ice shelves calve and crevasses rend open, where you’ll find statuesque emperor penguins, sleek and deadly leopard seals and wandering albatrosses. A place where you can be so truly alone it’s terrifying. There’s no permanent population, only a few thousand souls who come and go, to and from the isolated research stations.
Antarctica has many abandoned stations. Some are famous, such as Scott’s hut on Ross Island. Others are hardly known. It was only when I visited the abandoned Base W on Detaille Island that I understood the extreme isolation experienced by early researchers, who didn’t enjoy the modern, heated stations of today, with internet access and phones.
As I tramp across the ice, I see a wooden hut that looks like a village hall, with green-and-white check curtains, except the wood is bleached silver and the door is warped and scrapes across the floor as I open it. I discover it’s a time capsule. A copy of World Sports magazine, dated August 1953, lies open; and a pair of long johns hang on a line over a rusted pot-bellied stove. Tins of Scotch oats and herrings, though rusted, sit in a cupboard, intact. I begin to comprehend why the inhabitants had bothered with check curtains — they needed a little bit of England with them to preserve their sanity.
Antarctica is the most alien and beautiful place I’ve ever been to. It’s an icy Garden of Eden, a place that retains its innocence and unspoilt beauty. As long as the Antarctic Treaty that protects it is upheld, it can continue this way. Long may it last.
L.A. Larkin’s latest novel, Devour, is published by Constable. RRP: £8.99. lalarkin.com
Published in the May 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)