Fiona Purnell: we owe a debt to the early explorers


I’ve never been to the Antarctic, but I’d like to go.

Miles and miles of ice, magnificent scenery, beautiful wildlife, yet bleak freezing cold conditions.

Images aired of the polar regions -both in the north and south - in the recent BBC natural history programme, Frozen Planet, showed just how awesome it looks, yet how wild and dangerous a place it can be.

It’s therefore incredible to think that 100 years ago there were people racing to be the first to reach the South Pole.

It’s a century since Robert Falcon Scott, accompanied by Wilson, Oates, Bowers and Evans, became the first Brits to reach the South Pole. The team reached the spot on January 17, 1912 only to find the Norwegians, led by Roald Amundsen, had beaten them there by a month.

It was Scott’s second trip to the Antarctic, having been the commander on the National Antarctic Expedition of 1901-1904.

That expedition, which included Ernest Shackleton, saw the men reach further south than anyone before them.

Scott’s second expedition, which set sail on the Terra Nova from Cardiff in June 1910, was to collect scientific data, yet Scott also wanted to reach the unconquered wilderness of the South Pole.


In an appeal for sponsorship for the trip, Scott said: “The main objective of this expedition is to reach the South Pole, and to secure for the British Empire the honour of this achievement.”

They reached the frozen continent, setting off over the ice the following October.

When discovering the Norwegian flag at the pole at the beginning of 1912, they started their 1500 km journey back - none of them made it.

Evans died first, followed by Oates.

The remaining three died of starvation and exposure in March that year, just 11 miles from a pre-arranged supply depot.

A search party found the tent and their bodies eight months later, burying them with a cairn of ice and snow to mark the spot.

There’s no denying this was a tremendous effort for Scott and those who travelled with him in a bid to reach the Pole first.

Mechanical sledges and ponies which they had were left behind early on in their journey as they couldn’t cope with the conditions.

The dog teams were forced to turn back too.

Unless they were going to turn back, the men had no choice but to walk, pulling sledges behind them.


Since then there have been major advances in the world covering all aspects of our lives.

Improvements have been made to equipment, technology and clothing - remember the many outdoor clothing specialists available these days with hi-tech footwear and clothing would not have been around in Scott’s time.

When you think about it, with the types of clothing they would have been wearing, it’s any wonder they survived for so long.

The efforts and achievements of Scott and his fellow Antarctic explorers have been recorded in many ways over the past 100 years.

Exhibitions are taking place around the country as we speak to commemorate the centenary of the group’s arrival at the South pole.

A commemorative race takes place each year by teams journeying in Scott and Amundsen’s footsteps - it was again the Norwegians who won this year.

One hundred years may have passed, but it’s important we remember the ultimate sacrifice paid by Scott and his commrades. If it wasn’t for their bravery exploring the unknown, who knows whether we would all be able to enjoy the beauty of Earth and its polar extremes as we saw in that recent Attenborough series.

* Fiona Purnell writes for the Fife Free Press, Kirkcaldy