The novelist knew nothing about the continent – she hadn’t even seen Happy Feet. So how would she cope with a week among the icebergs?
The morning I set foot on the Antarctic peninsula for the first time, I saw the back of a green-scaled creature between floating pieces of ice. Others in the inflatable Zodiac boat saw it at the same time, and we called out to the expedition leader, Dr Gary Miller, to identify it. “That’s ice,” Gary said. No, no, we said, the thing between the ice. The green, scaly thing. “That’s ice,” Gary said. He motored us nearer the object, and we saw it was a piece of ice so clear we could see right through it to the dark waters beneath. Not so much scaled as pitted, like a golf ball. It had once been part of a glacier, and now that it had floated away into warmer environs, the air bubbles trapped in the ice were making their way to the surface and popping, hence the pitted texture. I had been aware for a while of the crackling sound around us; now Gary explained that was the air bubbles, “which might have been trapped over 10,000 years ago. You’re listening to ancient air escaping.” A little while later, one of my fellow voyagers lugged a smaller chunk of clear ice into the Zodiac, and that evening the ship’s bartender, Lea, poured drinks over glacier ice – I crunched frozen ancient air between my teeth and tried to think of a way to convey the wonder of this continent to those who have never been here.
It is a well-acknowledged fact, which I uphold in person, that brown people don’t camp. As such, you can imagine how little affinity someone from Karachi might feel for the tales of the Shackletons and Scotts of the world, who didn’t merely camp but chose to do so as far from modern plumbing and artificially controlled temperature as humanly possible. In addition to remaining largely oblivious to the tales of explorers, I have never seen The Blue Planet or March Of The Penguins, or even Happy Feet. In short, there may be no one in the UK who has spent less time imagining Antarctica than I have. What, then, explains my exhilaration when the possibility arose? Perhaps for a novelist the lure of the unimagined is far greater than that of the imagined.