In this new series, we ask some of our favourite travel writers to tell us about the most memorable and defining journeys of their life. This month, writer and photographer Nick Smith heads ‘ultimate north’ with his cameras, notebooks and, of course, his Globe-Trotter suitcase.
It’s not a country. It’s not even a place by any conventional standards. More a geometrical concept where the lines of longitude all meet. The point at which the Earth’s imaginary axis emerges. TS Eliot called it ‘the still point of the turning world’. The rest of us call it the North Pole. As I was to find out, 90 degrees north is a pinprick of nothing in the middle of nowhere. And it’s amazing.
I first encountered the Arctic as a schoolkid, not in geography but in English Lit class, when I was spellbound by Mary Shelley’s Gothic novel in which Victor Frankenstein wanders the icy wasteland in pursuit of his ‘daemon’. My next encounter was through the accounts of the great explorers from the Heroic Age of polar exploration. Captain Robert Falcon Scott. Ernest Shackleton. Roald Amundsen. I never once realistically thought I’d follow in their herculean footsteps, but I dreamed of polar adventure in the way others dreamed of hitting a century for England at Lord’s or playing guitar in the Rolling Stones.
My chance came years later. I’d heard from a polar photographer that there was a stowaway berth on the Soviet nuclear icebreaker – 50 Years of Victory – that was heading for the North Pole in a few days. If I could rustle up a Russian visa and a commission from a national newspaper the place was mine. For the next few days, I hardly slept while I filled in forms, booked flights and packed cameras into a black nylon backpack and any clothing with the word ‘thermal’ on the label into my trusty old Globe-Trotter suitcase, which, incidentally, took on a whole new significance when I remembered that both explorers Captain Scott and Sir Edmund Hillary had owned Globe-Trotters too.
When the whirlwind stopped, I was stepping off a plane at Murmansk – the world’s northernmost city – and asking for directions for the Atomflot service base where I’d board the Victory.
Living in the northern hemisphere, we tend to think of the North Pole as being at the ‘top’ of the planet. It makes no sense at all, but then again, neither does the onboard slang of sailing ‘uphill’ to the pole. But it sometimes feels like that as the 65,000 horse-power atomic icebreaker blasts through the pack-ice. It shoots out jets of air from its prow to lift the ice-sheet, which is then demolished by a sub-surface ‘ice tooth’, propelling blocks of ice the size of a house spinning into the air. You can’t but wonder how a century ago those bearded polar pioneers managed in coal-fuelled wooden boats, wearing only oilskins, living on hard-tack biscuit.
It’s not all hard slog and there were plenty of sunlit days when it was plain sailing through open channels, photographing polar bears, visiting long-abandoned explorers’ huts and weather stations, even going on aerial reconnaissance aboard the ship’s helicopter.
Our arrival at the North Pole was an anticlimactic fact confirmed by Victory’s captain and my GPS. We’d reached a pan of ice identical to any other. But we clambered off the ship and excitedly planted a red paddle at the exact point where all lines of longitude meet. We drank champagne while looking south in every direction, walking through every time zone in minutes. Then it was time to sail downhill back to Russia feeling very insignificant indeed.
Nick Smith is the UK Bureau Chief of the Explorers Journal, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and author of A Camera in My Luggage.