Ice Coffee - Antarctic History for Your Ears

Words by: Matt McArthur

Photo by: Jonas Jacobsson

Clear ice with blue and white hues up close by Jonas Jacobsson

My podcast, “Ice Coffee: The History of Human Activity in Antarctica,” experienced a protracted gestation. Five years after I came home from my second austral summer working as a diver at Scott Base, my workmates at Geoscience Australia gave me a going-away present at the end of my three-year contract in Canberra - an MP-3 player. 

I began consuming podcasts on it. Lots of them. In spite of the many fascinating rabbit holes this new audio input led me down, I couldn’t find much content about Antarctica. “There really should be a podcast dedicated to Antarctic history,” I thought. The thought eventually snagged some unoccupied synapses, and these dendrites with nothing better to do fired up an idea – the meat sack carrying us around could make that podcast.

The idea stewed for two years while I put aside some coin for recording equipment, and the synapses gradually iterated a plan in the interim. I also began volunteering at Vision Australia, narrating talking books for the vision impaired to improve my microphone technique. That practice served me well in the podcast but also became a very satisfying continuing role in my community.

I began making demo recordings in various settings and accumulating a stock of sound effects. These were to shape my intended soundscape – my old dive hut on the shores of Ross Island, brewing up a coffee from snow while I recount tales of Antarctic discovery.

When I could afford the device of my choice, I began making demo recordings in various settings and accumulating a stock of sound effects. These were to shape my intended soundscape – my old dive hut on the shores of Ross Island, brewing up a coffee from snow while I recount tales of Antarctic discovery.

The first episode went through three iterations before I was happy with the content and the mix. I launched the series at a friend’s book shop (Embiggen Books in Melbourne) with an unrecorded episode featuring live music, fake radio scheds and a quiz complete with Antarctic themed prizes going to the top score (for awesome Antartic knowledge) and the bottom scores (for an obvious need to improve Antarctic knowledge without having tried to game the system).  

I originally intended weekly output, but the research going into the scripts slowed me down. Rather than push myself and turn the project into a source of stress and dread, I lowered my sights to monthly releases and have bumbled along on approximately that pace for the past five years.

Now that I have five years of experience and several podcasts up my sleeve, I know what I would do differently to improve the soundscape if I was starting from scratch. However, I keep close to the original format for the Melbourne-based episodes because I’m quite fond of the rickety framework I’ve built the series on.

I kicked off the series, in part, to give myself a sense of connection with Antarctica that I was scared might fade as my days at Scott Base receded. I didn’t expect it would contribute to my getting back to the ice but I’m exceedingly pleased that it did. “Ice Coffee” gave me the confidence to approach Antarctic tour operators to see if there was an opening in the industry for someone with my experience and knowledge. The opening came my way in 2017 and I’ve been contracting as a history lecturer on ships visiting the Antarctic Peninsula for the past two austral summers. 

I kicked off the series, in part, to give myself a sense of connection with Antarctica that I was scared might fade as my days at Scott Base receded.

I like to try to remember what five-years-ago-me was thinking and feeling as he began the project. That was a troubled time for me. A broad range of uncertainties (while far from completely dispelled now) weighed heavy on that younger iteration of me. I wish I could reach back and tell him things would get better, but maybe that would prevent him trying to make the necessary changes himself - including producing this series.

Well, this wasn’t supposed to devolve into maudlin cogitation on time travel paradoxes, but digression is part of the deal with “Ice Coffee.” After twenty-five years of writing papers and reports in the precise and concise straits of scientific prose, podcasting gives me the chance to play with the English vocabulary while exploring ideas and concepts with a less rigid adherence to coherence and impartiality that exists in scientific writing. I get to mouth off, digress, rant, and make dumb jokes only my dad would get if he listened to the series, which he doesn’t.  

“Ice Coffee” is my hobby and I revel in it.  Episode one awaits - I wonder what you’ll make of it. 

Favorite episodes of “Ice Coffee”

Episode 001 - Making Coffee

Beginnings are important in any adventure, but I seem to hold an affection for episode 001 that extends well beyond that truism. I listen to it whenever someone tells me they’ve started listening to the series, trying to hear it with new ears to see if I can experience it the way they do and trying to fathom what it might mean to someone who doesn’t know me. I’ll never know if I’m getting anything of value from the exercise but the compulsion strikes me something strong, especially if the person in question is someone who’s high regard I value.

Episode 013  - Morrell Symmes Reynolds and Sue

It was around episode 013 that I started seeing some feedback from listeners, and it’s hard to put into words how incredibly buoying that felt. Not only was I happy with the content, but other people were enjoying it enough to want to reach out and let me know. That’s a kind of validation I haven't often experienced. The series was hitting its stride in terms of script style and I was able to really hook into the motivations that drove expeditions south - which was never more interesting than in the hollow Earth speculations of John Cleves Symmes.

What I love most about episode 013 is Sue. Sue accepted the first invitation I proffered for a guest interview, and besides offering a very different perspective on Antarctica to my own, she’s carried her high latitude passions a long way since her first voyage south. Her experiences and perspectives offer me a treasure trove of insights every time we catch up, and the opportunity to share some of her story with listeners is a source of joy for me.

Episode 061 - Lester and Bagshawe

The tale of the British Imperial Antarctic Expedition stands out in my eyes for three reasons: the incongruity of John Lachlan Cope’s vision when set against what he actually organized, the somewhat unwilling involvement of personal Antarctic hero Hubert Wilkins, and the friendship that saw two young men thrive where others went mad.

Due to Cope’s unrealistic preparations for the expedition, Lester and Bagshawe ended up short-sheeted in terms of equipment, cutlery, and effective sledge dogs as well as stuck on a small spit of land surrounded by glaciers and the sea. However, they carried out their scientific program diligently and remained friends long after their year of living in a boat they had converted into a hut came to an end.  

I’m not big on trying to recreate the miseries of past expeditions, but I am tempted to celebrate the centenary of the British Imperial Antarctic Expedition overwinter with a year at Waterboat Point for the sheer carpentry and culinary challenge of it. In a narrative so often featuring harrowing tales of starvation, frostbite, and horrible death, Lester and Bagshawe’s example demonstrates you don’t have to suffer in the extreme conditions of Antarctica if you have the right company. 

Download and subscribe to “Ice Coffee” through iTunes, Stitcher, or find all of the episodes here.

Letters From the Ends of the Earth is an online multimedia platform that brings the polar regions to you - through real stories, stunning photography, inspiring artwork, and informative resources. From Antarctica to the Arctic, Svalbard to South Georgia, this project shines a new and different kind of light on the unique experiences found at the Ends of the Earth.

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