In 2012, the universe gave me one of the greatest gifts of my life. I won the Australian Antarctic Arts Scholarship and the prize was something no amount of money could buy – a berth on the Australian Antarctic Supply Ship, Aurora Australis, and a trip to the station Casey in Antarctica.

An old dream come true.

I was in shock for days after hearing the news. It was the hardest scholarship I have ever applied for and it took me weeks to complete. I’ve gone through each answer 10 or more times. I was obsessed. I barely slept. I wanted it so badly and it terrified me because the chances of winning were so slim. I tried not to hope, to dream, but the ghost of a long sunken ship was calling me: come find me. Please don’t forget me. I am here all alone in the cold and in the dark.

I said the words over and over in my head.

Nella Dan

Nella Dan

Nella Dan

They made my heart beat faster.

When I was 12, I was head over heels in love with a little red boat, the Danish polar ship Nella Dan. She worked for the Australian Antarctic Division for 26 years, and in the 1980s Hobart was her home away from home. Inside, she was all wood and brass – a lady from another time. She smelled of Danish food, like hot butter, pastries, dark bread and real coffee. A slice of Scandinavia moored in old gray Hobart.

She lit up the whole town.

I decided to work at sea, to navigate the Southern Ocean. I would accompany Nella Dan on all her adventures. At night, my bed became a ship on slate-green water, and I looked at the open sky – the stars paled there, the moon and the sun shone at once. It was still light.

The icebreaker ran aground on Macquarie Island. Photograph: Australian Antarctic Division

But my dream was not to be. On December 3, 1987, Nella Dan struck rocks on Macquarie Island on a supply trip and, after a long and emotional battle to save her, was scuttled in deep water on Christmas Eve.

Down, down, down in the dark, alone and far from the air and the light.

His crew were heartbroken – many of them still are to this day.

Me too.

I would think of her lying on the bottom of the ocean, 4 km deep in the dark. It made me very cold. I missed seeing her at the dock – bright and smiling. I kept pictures of her on my bedroom wall and promised I wouldn’t forget her.

But time has flown. The world kept turning.

And I grew up.

“She was back”

My first novel, Past the Shallows, was published in 2011, and it completely changed the course of my life. I went from postman to writer almost overnight. But Past the Shallows had taken me five long years and I had no idea how I was going to write another book. In real procrastination, I set out to clean the guest room. I diligently sorted through all the collected garbage, boxes and boxes of old papers and memories, old dreams.

And there she was, smiling at me, Nella Dan. The pictures of the little red boat I had Blu-Tacked on my bedroom wall all those years ago.

Nella Dan moored at the ice edge in Stefansson Bay in 1965
Moored at the ice edge in Stefansson Bay in 1965. Photograph: Phil Law/Australian Antarctic Division

I felt a pulse of energy go through me. It was a line to follow, a trail to follow, something I had to write about. She was back, and I wanted to remember everything, to know everything. I wanted to bring it back to life.

The writing poured out of me and I started dreaming about her almost every night. Its bright red hull and rolling swell are the size of mountains. Albatross hovering over thermals and a million shades of blue, white.

Antarctic.

Then came a voice – a real, living character: a man called Bo Anker Johansen from an island in the Baltic Sea. He was tall and kind and made the best pancakes in the world. He told me about his house, about Nella Dan. He told me about his life as a cook at sea and I listened to every word.

You will lie down on your berth – your stable, vibrating, humming vessel. You will listen to the engines and the hull splitting the ice. You will never forget this sound. You’ll remember it for the rest of your life – the clatter rattle, the scrape, the sharpness.

Now I could live Bo’s life on my scholarship. My own adventure. I was going to see and feel everything my character told me. And my trip was getting closer.

But first, a full week of training at the Antarctic Division in Hobart. First aid, frostbite, conflict resolution, firefighting drills, survival suit drills, how to urinate in a bottle while wearing a freezer suit. Then I was fitted for all my gear. Snow boots, freezing suit, thermals, work boots, woolen socks, work pants, snow jacket, special polarized sunglasses, neck fleece, emergency kit – the list went on. The training was intense and fascinating – and I was absolutely terrified. I did not sleep much. The day before departure, I had none.

I didn’t really need to get on a boat and sail the Southern Ocean, did I? Maybe I could just stay here on earth. Maybe I could just write the book without going anywhere? Who needs to go to Antarctica to write? How to deal with isolation? How am I going to get along with all these new people? What if I freaked out halfway through, had a panic attack, made a fool of myself? Doubts ran and I knew that once on board, there would be no way out. I couldn’t just change my mind and go home. I would be stuck.

But then the 12-year-old in me kicked in; she wasn’t going to let me back down. I was going; she knew it. I was going to get on that orange ship, Aurora Australis, watch Hobart grow smaller and smaller until the River Derwent became the sea and the land became a speck on the horizon; watch mobile reception go down bar by bar until my phone is nothing more than a useless digital clock.

There would only be me. A bunk. A cabin. A ship on the Southern Ocean.

It would be simple. Everything I needed.


OWe drove away from Hobart as the sun was setting and I felt completely out of my body in fear. I made the last calls from my cell phone. I cried to my husband, to my brother. I made my bed and sat down on my bunk. I closed the porthole shutters so as not to have to look at the land, Tasmania, which is receding. I climbed under my doona, snuggling up as tight as I could. I closed my eyes and turned everything off. I fell into a deep sleep.

Griffith Review 77 Cover - Real Cool World

When I woke up, I opened the blinds and in front of my porthole there was only water. A flash of energy went through me: I jumped up and got dressed – thermals, pants, socks, boots, snow jacket – and left my cabin. I ran along the passageways and climbed two flights of stairs until I found the heavy, cold metal door to the outside.

Outside.

The crisp glory of the Southern Ocean hit hard. I was here. There was no way back, no one to call. I was so incredibly happy at that time; I knew that I would no longer be afraid and that I would no longer think of home.

I would love every second of the trip.