The BBC are currently airing a fascinating series on BBC Two called ‘Icons‘, eight documentaries dedicated to the great and good of the 20th century. Last night’s episode was dedicated to ‘explorers‘ and the four people that had been chosen to be celebrated (and, potentially, voted for) were Ernest Shackleton, Gertrude Bell, Neil Armstrong and Jane Goodall. All are worthy contenders for your vote and it will be interesting to see who comes out on top.
However… I’m disappointed that a certain Fridtjof Nansen wasn’t included in the final four. Alas he was before his time; his greatest exploit was just before the start of the 20th century. Like Shackleton, he was a polar explorer. When cycling through Oslo in summer 2015 I had the opportunity to visit the Fram museum and learn all about the great man. The following is what I subsequently wrote in the book Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie.
Reading through the list of things I could possibly do in the Norwegian capital, I decided to focus my attention on just one. This didn’t mean I had to neglect my customary wander: impressive new opera house, oversized bronze tiger in front of the station, lots of plaques about playwright Ibsen, walk around the perimeter of the Royal Palace, receive ticking-off from guard for taking photographs of his sentry box… I then caught a ferry across the fjord to my chosen destination of in-depth tourism, the Fram Museum.
I was on a cycling quest to the polar north, stopping in Nordkapp only because Slartibartfast had seen fit to stop designing fjords and put a sea there. Most people I met who had visited Nordkapp had cruised there on a luxury ship. Few had travelled overland and even fewer had cycled. I was beginning to consider myself as a polar explorer, of sorts. So when I noticed in my guidebook that the Fram Museum was dedicated to err… people like me, and even contained ‘the world’s most famous polar ship’ – the 400-ton, 40 m long Fram – I was on my way.
Back in the late nineteenth century, if you were an explorer who wanted to explore the Arctic Ocean in winter, you had a problem. The boat that you were planning on using would become encased in ice and crushed. Adventure over – back home to the wife and kids. (Sorry, it did seem to be a male-only profession back in those days.) Chances are, however, that you weren’t Fridtjof Nansen, described as ‘one of the greatest men Norway has ever nurtured… and a legend in his own lifetime’*. Nansen proposed a solution: design and construct a ship – the Fram – that when surrounded by ice would be pushed up and float with the ice pack itself. By doing so he would be able to prove the theory that there was an ocean current and drift of sea ice from Siberia towards Greenland via the North Pole.
The Fram set off in June 1893 and by September it had indeed become encased in ice off Siberia. It wasn’t crushed and over the course of the next three years the ship drifted, as predicted, across the Arctic Ocean. However, when he realised that it wasn’t going to cross the North Pole itself, Nansen and fellow explorer Hjalmar Johansen decided to set off on dog sledges to try to do it themselves. They left the Fram at 84 degrees north in March 1895 and started walking in the knowledge that they would never be able to find the boat again. By this point I was beginning to see where the ‘legend’ epitaph came from. After only a month, battling extreme cold, Nansen realised that it would be impossible to reach the Pole so at 86°14′ – the furthest north anyone had ever travelled – they turned around, heading for home. It would take them over a year to get there and their journey involved fighting off polar bears, shooting walruses for their skins, blubber and meat, and sitting out the long winter in their ‘den’, a stone hut that they built with their own bare hands.
Back in Norway, the Fram and its crew were presumed lost so it must have been a bit of a surprise when Nansen and Johansen rocked up on the boat of British explorer Frederick G. Jackson who had bumped into them in June 1896 on Franz Josef Land. As for the Fram, she drifted with the ice and arrived back in Norway just five days after Fridtjof and Hjalmar.
[* I could go on. According to the Fram Museum: ‘He was the personification of a great hero; the first among sportsmen, explorers, research workers, statesmen and humanitarians. Long after his death millions continued to remember him as the foremost exponent of human compassion.’ What’s betting he was also a sensitive lover, changed nappies more efficiently than Mary Poppins and tossed a mean salade niçoise?]
Header image: Oslo, Norway