I will never forget arriving into Concordia- located in the hidden, inner interior of Antarctica.
Despite the minus 40 degree windchill, a glove was removed and a bare hand thrust forward towards me as I stepped off the plane. I was caught off guard, dazed by the extravagance of the hypoxia. The words “Dr Kumar, I presume” rang out over the gentle hum of the Twin Otter’s dying propellers
I met a traveller from an antique land
I smiled at the reference to Livingstone and Stanley’s infamous meeting in the middle of nowhere in Africa. There stood Claire Le Calvez, among others. There was no need for an introduction. I already considered her, by reputation, to be the mother of Concordia, a pioneer, having been one of the first people who overwintered here with no means of escape, in a simple camp. She was one of the few who built Concordia station. That is a story I will save for another time, but it is as brave, daring and impressive as some of the glorious accounts of exploration, to me anyway.
Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert
The famous twin towers of Antarctica, Concordia Station – stood strong and proud, alone. An architectural delight. An Antarctic Colosseum of its time. Two cylindrical barrels built high up on hydraulic feet, to outwit the glacial shift where it stands, linked by a central corridor. One barrel, the noisy building. The other, the quiet building. A few other shelters and research buildings look like they have been airdropped, scattered around the vicinity. Not too far that you would die walking to them. Not too close, so as to make you fight for your breath and fear death in getting to and from them.
My name is Alexmandias, Doctor of Doctors: look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
I remembered my mother telling me some years ago how me she had once stood in front of Ramesses temple in Egypt and out of the blue recalled from her childhood, ‘Ozymandius’, the poem by Percy Shelley. Only to return home to the UK to learn that Ozymandius was in fact written by Shelley describing the same place as she had stood. I later smiled recalling this on one of my four subsequent return trips and explorations of Egypt’s interior, on and off the beaten track. And here I stood, in front of a monument of our time..
The lone and level sands stretch far away
In honour of Shelley’s poem, I took a moment and breathed silently and slowly, reviewing Concordia’s structure against a blue, cloudless, polar sky. The horizon, a white line, span into infinity. There was nothing for 1500 kilometres. This was it. We had arrived. The middle of Antarctic Nowhere.
There are few places on the planet where you could be this far away from modern civilisation. Among them, would be at the bottom of the Pacific ocean.
Those passions read, which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things
It is a french- italian Antarctic base. It features in the Lonely Planet, simply out of extravagance, boasting Antarctica’s best food. I imagined one of the two cylindrical barrel buildings, the French side, to be filled with vintage wine. And other barrel, the Italian side, to be filled with the world’s best coffee and ice-cream.
The air was ripped from my lungs. It became a struggle to get it back. Welcome to Concordia. 3800 metres high up on the ‘Antarctica Plateau’ – the world’s largest desert. A fact, that had taken me to the exclusive Desert Club annual dinner, just before I came away, by invitation from Joe O’Brian – renown pilot who flies East Africa’s skyways, a good friend and Irish consul to Kenya. It was held in the India room at Sandhurst- magnificent and littered in historical artefacts, with a ceiling as far away as a Catherdral’s. I was joined by Dr Sam Allen, consultant in Infectious Diseases and Tropical medicine- a friend and fellow adventurer. It was certainly an evening to remember.
Here’s to new friends in the world’s biggest desert.
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
In line with the overall theme of Ozymandius- underlining the inevitable and complete decline of all leaders, and of the empires they build, however mighty in their own time – and in thinking about another poet’s words – this time Lord Byron who said, ‘A thousand years may scare form a state. An hour may lay it in ruins’, I was left to wonder, standing, staring, breathless, whether in the next centuries to come, in maybe 4000 years, an archaeologist from a newer age would stand in the the very same place and look chance upon the buried skeleton of our station, ‘Concordia’ – an ancient abandoned wreck – a relic of another age of exploration in Antarctica. And then gasp in awe at the simplicity of the foundation of our Antarctic ‘society’.
It would puzzle the new race. As to how our relatively primitive generation had lived in the ice so far from anywhere. Now Google ‘Thule’ and ‘Ancient Egypt Civilisation’ and you’ll see what I mean.
In terms of isolation and remote extreme, I had just finished reading Stanley and thought how my own arrival at Concordia Station in Antarctic’s harsh interior this century is the closest one could get to Stanley’s arrival in Africa, where he met Livingstone so famously back in the day.
I leave you with Ozymandius by Percy Shelley. It doesn’t matter that Shelley never went to Egypt. That’s not the point. Go to Egypt if you can and see it all for yourself… the removed fallen statue of Ramesses II at the Ramesseum, in Thebes, near to Luxor in Upper Egypt (some of the artefacts now reside in the British Museum)…[quote]I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away[/quote]