Lizzie, Monday 28 July 2008
Discovery Hut was the base for the 1901-04 National Antarctic (Discovery) Expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott. It sits just above the shoreline of Winter Quarters Bay, at the end of the Hut Point Peninsula on Ross Island - a spot Wilson described as “the most perfect little natural harbour imaginable”.
It may have been a perfect little harbour, but it is generally regarded by McMurdo-ites and Scott Basers as the coldest and windiest spot locally, and certainly not the perfect place to build a house - although the view is rather splendid.
Discovery Hut was designed by Professor Gregory, (appointed as leader of the scientific staff, he resigned before the Discovery headed south) and prefabricated by James Moore of Sydney (cost: £360.14.5d). Intended to house a small landing party, it is 11.3 metres square with an open verandah on three sides of the structure which was to be enclosed below the verandah edge with provision cases, against which snow could accumulate, providing additional shelter.
Without the packing cases there, snow drifts under the verandah and up against the building year round, and there is little shelter from the wind whilst conservators struggle to free ice from the lock. Why is there a lock? Well, part of the conservation management plan means restricting visits to the huts to a maximum of 8 people in this instance, and they must be accompanied by a trained hut guide who ensures visitors disturb the site as little as possible. The lock is to make sure people don’t just pop in unannounced.
Therese, Carla, Susanne and I were there to make one of the regular maintenance inspections AHT performs. Active conservation of Discovery Hut is not scheduled to begin until work on Scott’s hut at Cape Evans is completed. Once we had dug away the snow which had built up inside the door, we spent some time photographing areas of snow build-up on the interior, checking clothing, fabrics, and shoes for mould, and metals for signs of active corrosion. We also made a general check of the internal and external structure, to note any damage/issues prior to any maintenance work in the summer. I’m pleased to say that we found little change from previous seasons, although the amount of snow that manages to work its way in through the tiniest of cracks never ceases to amaze me.
The design of the hut will be familiar to many Australians and New Zealanders. It was described by Bernacchi as “more adapted as a summer house than a polar hut”, and by Armitage as a “colonial shooting lodge”. It does have a double layer of timber tongue and groove boarding on the walls and floor, with felt insulation in the walls, but even Scott said “on account of its size and the necessity of economizing coal, it is very difficult to keep a working temperature inside; consequently it has not been available for some of the purposes for which we had hoped to use it. “(Scott, ibid, pp 306, 307).
In the end, the men mostly lived aboard Discovery, with the hut being used for scientific observations, for drying furs and tents after sledging, for skinning birds, as a repair shop and as a venue for entertainment, leading to it also being known as the ‘Royal Terror Theatre’.
The hut was also used by later expeditions: The Nimrod expedition (Shackleton, 1907-09); the Terra Nova expedition (Scott, 1910-13); the Ross Sea Party (Imperial TAE expedition 1914-17, Shackleton). In 1911 as many as 17 men lived in the hut!
It was bitterly cold in the hut, about -40C, and I thought of Antarctic men huddling around the blubber stove, planning their next march, with home a very long way away. Cold as it was working in the hut, it was worth taking a walk around and looking at the lights of McMurdo ablaze on one side, and the soft persimmon glow of the sunrise lighting up McMurdo Sound on the other. For me, views like that emphasise the everlasting questions of Why? and What? and Where? And I suspect it was the same for them.