An age when exploration and science went hand in hand
The Road to Gondwana is the story of a journey. Actually, it’s a story of many journeys, of paths woven through the fabric of Earth’s history, and of human history, all of which lead to one semi-mythical and yet completely real place: the lost supercontinent Gondwana.
When Gondwana first formed there was no life on land, and animals in the sea were simple, single-celled organisms. When Gondwana finally broke apart, dinosaurs roamed its forested hills and valleys.
The road to Gondwana took western science hundreds of years to travel, and one journey one this road is the tragic yet inspiring story of The Terra Nova Expedition of 1910-13, led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott.
The following is from the prologue of The Road to Gondwana
In the spring of 1910, the ex-whaling ship Terra Nova, every inch of her deck laden with supplies for a polar voyage, sets out on a voyage of exploration that will etch her name, and the names of those on board, into the annals of history.
Crowds in the town of Port Chalmers, in southern New Zealand, line the wharves to watch her go, willing her onwards towards one of the greatest goals of human exploration — the as-yet-unreached South Pole.
January 1912, fourteen months later.
A cold sun glares across the Earth’s atmosphere, oblivious to the tiny party of emaciated skiers hauling their sledge across the snows of Antarctica — specks on the endless white of the polar ice cap.
These five men — Robert Falcon Scott, Edward Wilson, Lawrence Oates, Edgar Evans and Henry Bowers — are dragging with all their fading strength not only their sledge but also the heavy burden of defeat. Having travelled 1500 kilometres (930 miles) in fierce conditions, they arrived at the South Pole to find a Norwegian flag planted in the featureless ice — their quest to be the first to stand on the Earth’s southern axis rendered fruitless by the rival expedition that got there a month earlier.
‘Great God this is an awful place,’ Scott writes in his diary. ‘Now for the run home … I wonder if we can do it?’
The team follow their outbound tracks, aiming in the featureless white for food and fuel depots left on the outward journey, racing against the shortening season. On 8 February the team reaches the top of the Beardmore Glacier — their stairway off the Antarctic Plateau and onto the Ross Ice Shelf, the home stretch. For the first time in weeks they encounter bare rock, something Scott likens to reaching land after a long sea voyage. Despite the pressing urgency of making progress, the explorers decide to stop for an afternoon of ‘geologising’.
“An age when exploration and science went hand in hand.”
From the start, this expedition was planned with science at its core — the ‘rock foundation of all effort’, as recorded in Scott’s diary. And so, despite their predicament, Scott and Wilson spend this afternoon exploring ancient sandstone outcrops near Mount Buckley.
The Beacon Sandstone had been discovered on Scott’s previous expedition to Antarctica in 1904 — a thick layer of sedimentary rock dissecting the Transantarctic Mountains.
Beneath their hammers, the sandstone quickly reveals organic impressions: fossil leaves. This icy wasteland, these fossils say, hasn’t always been like this. Antarctica was once warm and fertile, a continent of lush growth and running water. How appealing the idea must seem to the travellers in this frozen moment.
Scott and his men load up the fossils and the next day continue their long march. They still have the treacherous Beardmore Glacier to negotiate and, after that, 700 kilometres (435 miles) of hard slog across the Ice Shelf. One by one they make the supply depots, finding all of them depleted of food and fuel – then the weather turns hostile.
By 29 March there are just three remaining — Scott, Bowers and Wilson, huddled in their sleeping bags in a pitiful tent, just 17.5 kilometres (11 miles) from the well-stocked depot that could save their lives.
A fierce blizzard imprisons them in their tent for four days, making further progress impossible. In the midst of the storm, Scott, in a hand shaking so much it’s barely legible, he writes that he can write no more.
And then the wind comes driving in hard, snow piles up in drifts against the tent, and beyond the constant shifting of the snow, there is no more movement.
With the coming darkness of winter, the whales abandon the ice for warmer latitudes and the continent slips into the long polar night.
‘For God’s sake, look after our people’ is his last sign-off. The diary is complete.
When the Terra Nova returned to New Zealand in the summer of 1913, the world learned of Scott’s demise. In response, the city of Dunedin erected a monument, to mark Scott’s last port of call.
At the monument’s base a plaque carries a portion of the final note Scott made out to the world: ‘Things have come out against us,’ he wrote with charismatic understatement. ‘We have been willing to give our lives to this enterprise.’
Today, Scott’s Antarctic expedition of 1910–13 is often discussed as a heroic failure. But his expedition was about far more than claiming the glory of being the first to step on the pole. It was primarily propelled by a thirst for knowledge in an age when exploration and science went hand in hand. And viewed in this light, the expedition was a success.
Meteorological data painstakingly and meticulously gathered by the crew is still in use to this day, while the fossils collected by Scott and Wilson on the Beardmore Glacier, and which they refused to abandon even in the jaws of death, would, in time, help to reshape the world in the human imagination.
The last words on [the monuments plaque] are from the Bible, a line from Joshua. ‘Your children shall ask their fathers in times to come,’ it reads, ‘saying, “What mean these stones?”’
Find out what these stones mean, as well as other journey’s scientists, nature, and author Bill Morris took to give us a window into what life was like over 250 million years ago in The Road to Gondwana
Out now in Australia and New Zealand, and coming to the Northern Hemisphere (UK and US) in March 2023.
About the author
Bill Morris is a writer, documentary filmmaker and musician based in Port Chalmers, New Zealand. He has worked extensively as a wildlife filmmaker for NHNZ, the BBC Natural History Unit and others, and is a regular contributor to New Zealand Geographic magazine. His passion for science and stories of the natural world informs all of his work.