I am on a former Russian scientific research vessel, crossing the infamous Drake Passage on my way to Antarctica. I have been warned that this 800 kilometre stretch of water can be rough. I hadn’t expected to experience the inside a washing machine, or so it feels as the little ship cork-screws through ten metre swells, buffeted by sixty knot winds, which puts this storm at a Force 10 on the Beaufort scale. The captain bellows orders over the ancient intercom system in Russian, which isn’t very helpful. Should I head for the lifeboats? I hear the clank as the doors to the decks are shut so the lifeboat option is out. We are told later that this was for our protection. I climb into my bunk bed to wait out the storm. But as the ship lurches to a forty-degree angle I am flung from one side of the shared cabin to the other, landing on the door. I slide down to the floor in a crumpled heap. Through the porthole all I can see are waves pounding the glass. I have to admit that at this point I ask myself, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’
After what seems an eternity, the wind has abated and the ship gently rocks. The external doors are opened, and I step out into another world. It literally takes my breath away. The sea barely ripples and on the inky-blue water floats jagged sea ice. We pass icebergs, some three storeys high, in various shades of white, turquoise and occasionally jade green. The eerie quiet is broken by the chattering of Gentoo penguins who watch us from their raft of ice and then dive into the water like fat little torpedoes. An ice shelf, a hundred metres high, juts into the ocean and towers over us like The Wall in Game of Thrones. I feel as if I have arrived on another planet, and a truly beautiful one it is.
I am in Antarctica researching my next novel. I’ve already interviewed British Antarctic Survey scientists, I know the story I want to write, and I’m convinced Antarctica is the perfect location for a thriller. Therefore, I’m keen to discover why only a few thrillers over the last twenty years have been set here (Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica, Matthew Reilly’s Ice Station and James Rollins’ Subterranean spring to mind). In contrast, the Arctic has proven to be a popular location for crime fiction, particularly the Scandinavian, American and Russian Arctic. Very quickly I realise why.
Antarctica is extremely remote. Unlike the Arctic, which has permanent residents and offers accommodation for travellers, Antarctica only has a temporary population of a few thousand scientists, expeditioners and support staff who come and go, mainly during the summer. The research stations are often thousands of kilometres apart. If you want to leave, you may be waiting weeks, even months, for a plane or icebreaker. It’s not simply a case of booking yourself on the next flight home. Fortunately for me, this means Devour’s central character, investigative journalist Olivia Wolfe, will not be able to escape the danger that awaits her at Camp Ellsworth. Placing characters under pressure is what thrillers are all about. And extreme isolation is a marvellous way to up the ante.
In Antarctica, you can’t pick up the phone and dial emergency services. There is no law enforcement, except at McMurdo station which has U.S. Marshalls on the base. The Antarctic Treaty stipulates that military activities are prohibited. So, if aggressors turn up uninvited, as they do in Devour, Olivia Wolfe will need to draw on her survival skills if she is to stay alive. Thriller readers love characters in jeopardy, and Antarctica gives me plenty of opportunities to ramp up the danger.
I should add that none of this applies to travellers. Tourist ships have a doctor on board. In an emergency, the crew will look after you. Other ships will come to your rescue if needed, as will station inhabitants. There is a very real camaraderie amongst those working in or around Antarctica.
I’m a bit of an adventurer and I’m known for the extreme research I do for my thrillers. I’m a big believer that first-hand experience helps me bring my story locations and characters to life. Reading books and blogs, or watching videos gives me great background information. But if I want my readers to see, hear, touch, smell, even taste, Antarctica, the best way for me to do this is to experience it for myself. Then I record it and decide later if I will use it in my novel.
There were so many amazing moments. Feeling the weight of ice freezing on my eyelashes like tiny white pearls. Arriving at a colony of one hundred thousand pairs of Chinstrap Penguins and being assaulted by the ammonia stench of penguin poo that felt as if it had singed my nostrils. The bark of what I believed to be a dog, even though I knew that sled-dogs were no longer permitted in Antarctica, and discovering it was the cry of a fur seal. The moment I leant down and touched ice that no person had ever touched before. Experiencing the terror of being caught in a blizzard.
The weather in Antarctica is notoriously volatile. One minute clear skies, the next, ferocious blizzard. Violent winds blew ice all around me. The air was thick and white. I couldn’t see the horizon or even my feet. I was disoriented and dizzy, my sense of balance lost. It was like being inside a ping-pong ball being batted back and forth. Even experienced adventurers have died in such white-outs, hypothermia setting in, numbing their mind and body, and eventually killing them. This experience enabled me to write the opening chapter of Devour in which a key member of a scientific team dies in a white-out. Or is it murder?
What also attracted me to Antarctica was its history of extraordinary heroism. Who doesn’t know the amazing stories of Robert Falcon Scott, Roald Amundsen, Ernest Shackleton, or the recently honoured William Speirs Bruce? Of course, amazing courage is not just the preserve of the past. In 1998, Dr Jerri Nielsen discovered she had breast cancer and because it was winter and the sea was ice-locked, had to operate on herself and extract tissue samples. Pilots then risked their lives to fly through permanent darkness and in sub-zero temperatures to air-lift her to hospital. This kind of bravery against all odds is what thrillers are about.
Antarctica is full of surprises, and one such surprise was the Russian crew on the ship that took me there. Armed with my English-Russian phrase book, I learnt something of their lives and their love / hate relationship with the icy waterways of the Poles. The ship’s engineer was a man seemingly impervious to the cold, whose dry sense of humour and old-fashioned sense of honour inspired another of my characters, the mysterious Vitaly Yushkov. The story is richer because of him.
My time in Antarctica not only fueled my imagination but it was the start of a love affair with our planet’s last great untouched wilderness. I would return in a heartbeat.