Written by Jo Woolf, RSGS Writer-in-Residence

Explorers have often been far from home at Christmas, but they have found peace, joy and warm friendship in the most far-flung places… 

“Christmas Eve amid the icebergs! When I went out about ten o’clock in the morning… stars of the first magnitude were still visible in a clear sky, against which the cloven mountain, lightly powdered with white, was darkly reared. An icy wind was blowing, and the lights in the village were still golden.”

Isobel Wylie Hutchison with friends in Greenland (RSGS collection)

In December 1928, Isobel Wylie Hutchison was looking forward to celebrating Christmas in Uummannaq, in western Greenland. A Scotswoman from Carlowrie in West Lothian, she was a plant collector, artist, writer and photographer… but she was also a natural communicator, with a friendly fascination for the culture and lifestyle of Inuit friends with whom she was sharing the festive season. 

She had arrived in the small coastal community four months previously, but she had come well-prepared, because, as she observed, “It is no easy matter to find suitable gifts for everyone when Christmas shops are two thousand miles away.” Her trunk was packed full of festive food and gifts for the people who had welcomed her warmly into their homes. She took great pleasure in wrapping up the clothes, fabrics and pretty jewellery; with her soft heart for animals, she even made up six paper bags of dog biscuits, one for each of the carpenter’s dogs, with their names on each.  

Over Christmas, Isobel would travel from one house to another, admiring glittering Christmas trees made of ling, since no real trees grew that far north; she would join hands with the householders and sing old songs of Yuletide, and in the midday darkness she would go skating with the villagers as the moon cast a radiant silver path across the ice. She was even planning to host a Christmas party of her own, at which she would serve haggis, flaming plum-pudding and fine French cognac.  

Meanwhile, her first invitation had just arrived: a pretty little card, hand-painted, of a polar bear gazing at the northern lights. It bore a message written in Greenlandic, which Isobel had no trouble in translating: ‘We would gladly have your company to our Christmas tree.’  She was filled with excitement. “Christmas is coming!”

Ikerasak village, Uummannaq, in 2011 (GRID Arendal via Flickr)


Bertram Thomas and Arabian tribesmen

Just two years later, in December 1930, a 38-year-old man from Somerset was enjoying a much simpler celebration. Beneath a merciless sun, Bertram Thomas was attempting the first ever crossing of the Rub’ al Khali, otherwise known as the Empty Quarter or Great Southern Desert of Arabia. Encompassing some 250,000 square miles, this is the largest sand desert in the world in terms of volume, and even T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) believed that it would be foolhardy for any man to venture into it.

Thomas, however, believed that he had the necessary skills and attributes to complete the 850-mile crossing. From his wartime service in the Middle East he had risen through a series of diplomatic appointments to become Finance Minister and Wazir to the Sultan of Oman, and he was regarded with affection and respect. He understood the culture and codes of honour that prevailed among the Arab people, and he had even undertaken some initial reconnaissance treks into the desert, to scope out the best route. These forays had to be done in complete secrecy: if the Sultan had discovered his activities, he would certainly have forbidden Thomas from starting out, because he had no control over the desert nomads and would have considered the mission far too dangerous. So, when Thomas set out from Dhofar on 10th December, accompanied by his Omani guide and negotiator, Sheikh Saleh bin Kalut, he effectively vanished from the face of the Earth, cutting off all contact with the outside world. 

Thomas’s initial escort consisted of 25 Bedouin people. Leading a train of camels, they struck north over the Qara mountains, passing through frankincense groves into the unknown desert. When they camped, night-time alarms were frequent, and constant watch was kept for ambushes by feuding tribes. Thomas heard the eerie sound of singing sands, which he compared to a steamship’s siren, and occasionally stopped to admire the spectacular view of sand dunes against a brilliant blue sky. Khor Dhahiya was the name of a waterhole that offered sweet-tasting water, and they halted there in late December:

“My Christmas dinner consisted of desiccated soup, made with the water of Dhahiya, which thus needed no salt or pepper, and one of the few tins of baked beans I carried for special occasions.” 

Thereafter, the party turned due north, plotting waterholes and other features on the blank map that Thomas had always found so alluring. At the end of a gruelling six weeks, he and Saleh bin Salut emerged safely in Doha, to worldwide acclaim.

Bertram Thomas (c) RGS_IBG

Mark Evans and companions (credit John C Smith)

“December 2015:  Three wise men (and one Englishman) with camels seen heading north in Arabia, carrying frankincense…”

In 2015, Mark Evans of Outward Bound Oman recreated Thomas’ great journey across the Rub’ al Khali. Somewhat appropriately for the traditional Christmas story, he and his companions carried frankincense… and it had a very useful purpose. Following the same route as Thomas through the frankincense groves beyond Salalah, they collected beads of resin from the plants and sprinkled some onto their camp fire every night. Wafting the aromatic smoke into their faces was an effective way to freshen up, since a shower was impossible. 

Travelling with four camels and sleeping out under the stars, Evans and his companions passed through scattered desert communities and hosted many social gatherings around their camp fire, listening to stories and reminiscences. Some of their older guests even claimed to remember Bertram Thomas and Sheikh Saleh Bin Kalut. On Christmas Day their festive meal of dried goat’s meat was supplemented with cold baked beans, the same treat that Thomas had enjoyed in 1930.

Rosie Swale Pope

Rosie Swale Pope was running alone through the dark forests of Poland in December 2003. This was the first winter of her run around the world, a mammoth journey that would take her five years to complete. It was a daring and inspirational plan, designed to raise awareness of cancer after losing her husband, Clive. In her backpack she carried all she needed: a lightweight bivouac, sleeping bag, spare shoes, waterproof leggings, a small stove, saucepan and food. Winter was already beginning to bite. Her tiny overnight shelter had been engulfed by a five-foot snowdrift, and one morning after washing her socks she had to break them apart because they froze solid. Far greater challenges lay ahead, but for now she was focusing on finding somewhere to sleep on Christmas Eve.

As she ran, she came across a woman named Dorota, who was walking home through the snow with her eight-year-old daughter, Kasia. They insisted that Rosie join them: in Poland it was the custom to lay an extra place at Christmas for an unexpected guest. Their warm apartment was decorated with pine branches and candles, and a delicious aroma was emanating from the kitchen. Rosie was plied with baked fish followed by moczka, a sweet pudding containing nuts and dried fruit. Before she left, Dorota and Kasia tied tinsel to her backpack for happiness and luck. She was moved beyond words by their kindness: “I couldn’t have asked for a lovelier Christmas gift.” 

Poland’s forests in winter

John Rae, portrait by Stephen Pearce

John Rae was seeking no such hospitality in the winter of 1853, because he knew that none was available. The 40-year-old Orkneyman had originally travelled to Prince Rupert’s Land (now part of Canada) as an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and his survival skills were being put to good use as he surveyed the last remaining portion of uncharted shore on the west coast of Boothia. It was tough work, demanding physical stamina and resilience in a bleak Arctic region that was entirely uninhabited, except for small parties of Inuit hunters who occasionally passed through. When on the move, Rae and his small hand-picked team of men erected buffalo-skin tents and killed game for food; but as darker days approached they cut blocks of snow and built a traditional igloo in which to spend the winter. The floor area measured nine feet by eleven, and a two-inch thick piece of ice served as a window. Snow houses, as Rae knew, were much warmer than stone-built dwellings; but even so, he had to take his ink to bed with him in order to thaw it before he could write his journal. 

At Christmas, Rae served up a meal of venison followed by plum pudding and brandy. He even attempted to make mince pies, with limited success. Afterwards they all played football and forgot, temporarily, about the trials that lay ahead. “My fine fellows were again as merry and happy,” he wrote, “…as if they had been in the midst of their friends instead of surrounded by a desolate wilderness of snow.” Rae and his companions stayed in their igloo at Repulse Bay until March 1854, when they set off once again across the tundra. During his travels, Rae would recognise the final undiscovered link in the Northwest Passage, and he would be confronted by undeniable evidence that pointed to the fate of Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition.   

Modern image of Repulse Bay, Nunavut

Captain Robert Falcon Scott (RSGS collection)

Fifty years later, in the Antarctic, Robert Falcon Scott was reflecting on the progress of an eight-week expedition in the company of Edgar Evans and William Lashly. The men had set out from their ship, ‘Discovery’, in McMurdo Sound on 26th October 1903, man-hauling their sledges in a mission to explore the interior of Victoria Land. They ascended the Ferrar Glacier, which they named for the expedition’s geologist, Hartley Ferrar, and pushed onwards to discover the Polar Plateau. 

Noting that the temperature regularly fell to -40°C, with a cutting wind that chapped their faces and cracked their fingers, Scott paid tribute to the unfailing good humour and optimism of his companions. He was appalled at the vastness of the bleak terrain that spread out before him, and wondered whether future explorers would travel further over “the most desolate region in the world.” On their return journey, with supplies of food running dangerously low, Scott and Evans narrowly escaped death when they plunged down a crevasse, saving themselves by climbing back up the ropes that bound them to the sledge. A few days later, they followed a glacial river and were surprised to find a dry valley with a patch of muddy moraine some ten or twelve feet deep, which the ever-practical Lashly declared to be “a splendid place for growing spuds!”

The brave little party made it back to the ‘Discovery’ on Christmas Eve, having completed a round trip of some 700 miles. Scott was relieved and thankful. “And so after all our troubles and trials we spent our Christmas Day in the snug security of our home quarters, and tasted once again those delights of civilised existence to which we had so long been strangers.”


The ‘Discovery’ and Scott’s hut in the Antarctic

Quotes: ’On Greenland’s Closed Shore’ (1930) by Isobel Wylie Hutchison; Arabia Felix’ (1932) by Bertram Thomas; ‘Crossing the Empty Quarter’ (2016) by Mark Evans; ’Just a Little Run Around the World’ (2009) by Rosie Swale Pope; Fatal Passage (2001) by Ken McGoogan; The Voyage of the Discovery’ (1905) by Robert Falcon Scott.