Travel Writing: On Top of the World by Bette Leone Martin

Congratulations to Bette Leone Martin, winner of the Anthology Travel Writing Competition 2023

by Anthology
Portrait of short story writer Bette Leone Martin

Bette Leone Martin is a writer of non-fiction, poetry, bedtime stories, short stories and memoirs, Bette lives in Melbourne, Australia. She is also the author of How to trace your Italian ancestors: a guide for Australians and New Zealanders, Hale and Iremonger, 1994.

Some of her stories and poems have been shortlisted or commended by the Australian Fellowship of Writers (NSW) and the Society of Women’s Writers (WA). She has also written articles for the Italian Historical Society journal and concert reviews for the Victorian Folk Music Club.

Most recently, she has been published in Poetica Christi Press anthology, 2023; the Grieve anthology, 2021; and Heading Southwards and Other Short Stories, 2022.

Bette has Irish, Italian, Scottish and English ancestry and is very interested in researching her family history. She also loves cooking, cryptic crosswords, Scrabble and doing 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles.

On Top of the World

words Bette Leone Martin

Of all the times for this to happen!  A fog engulfs the vessel; visibility is restricted to mere feet in front of the bow. Small sounds from within the ship are barely audible as an outer door slams shut and another traveller ventures on deck, footsteps muffled by the fog. After standing in this exact position at the bow of the ship for an hour or two each day since our journey began, I can see in my mind’s eye what I know to be concealed behind this white curtain. 

A vast expanse of solid ice spreading out in all directions. Ice crystals glittering across the crusty surface, pressure ridges rising up here and there scarring the smooth ice-plateau. There’s no life here, at least not above the surface; no scent carried on the cold arctic wind. An unforgiving, immense frozen expanse, inhospitable to human life, which has exacted a dreadful price from many who have attempted to conquer it in the past. A faint line far in the distance marks the horizon in this stark, silent world of 24-hour daylight. No sunshine, no colour, but a constant eye-watering glare reflected from white sky, various shades of whitish-grey clouds and glinting ice.

people on the ice beside a red ice breaker on a trip to the North Pole
Arktika-class ice-breaker 50 Years of Victory.

The ice-breaker ploughs ahead, determined, smashing its way through. The ship glides silently across a small pool of open black water then rams noisily, relentlessly, through the ice barricade. Great jagged chunks of ice rise up on each side of the vessel. It’s like being inside a 44-gallon drum while someone bangs the outside with a metal rod. Rhythmic thumps followed by sharp hissing as cracks zig-zag out from the front of the ship, forming angles and geometric shapes in the ice for hundreds of feet around. Thick, pointed, broken ice shards, feet across in width, rise up the sides of the vessel as if an enormous shark is trying to swallow us whole.

Astern, the ship creates a wide ribbon of crushed ice tumbling in dark water in its wake. Little auks, guillemots, kittiwakes and other hungry sea birds patrol overhead; their keen eyes search the turbulent water, wait … Tiny fish dart to feed on algae exposed by the unremitting thrust of the ice-breaker and the birds swoop and scoop up a tasty morsel.

A polar bear with two young bears on the ice

*

We are travelling on 50 Years of Victory, a nuclear-powered Russian naval ice-breaker. The vessel is operated by a skeleton crew as it’s on its summer break, so our spartan accommodation is in vacant crew quarters as we depart on the journey from Kola Bay, Murmansk, Russia. On the first two days, we sail through the Franz Josef Archipelago and are busy choosing our bright orange polar jackets and wellington boots needed for the tour, finding our way around the ship and attending the first of many lectures presented by various scientists on board. We learn many interesting facts about the lives of sea birds, seals, walruses, whales and polar bears. Some on board join the citizen science group who volunteer to chart sightings of all the above-mentioned wildlife sighted during the trip, which serves to enhance the entire Arctic experience. They base themselves on the ship’s bridge, which has a 24-hour open-door policy for eager travellers. 

As we pass through the Cambridge Strait, the first polar bear is sighted swimming leisurely not far from the boat. Small chunks of ice bob past and then more slabs, each one larger than before. After a few hours we progress from the waters of the Barents Sea into solid ice and the ship begins crunching its way due north. Later that day, I look down from the scenic helicopter flight to view the awesome sight of our vessel – black hull, orange superstructure – ploughing through the total whiteness below.

People in red standing in a circle on the ice during a trip to the North Pole
Bette and her group form a circle around the North Pole.

*

The fog is thinning; visibility is improving – much to the relief of all lurking on deck. More orange-clad forms emerge from the mist to line the sides of the ship, all, I’m sure, like me, praying for the weather to clear. A voice booms from the public address system: Thirty minutes to the North Pole.

By now, everyone on board is milling about on the bow deck. As if our collective prayers have been answered, the fog dissolves within a few minutes, revealing a bright, cloud-covered sky overhead. The staff set up tables, and the clink and chink of glasses and bottles provide background music for the tourists as people nervously check their cameras; others stand at the ship’s rails peering into the distance. Then the ship’s horn blasts repeatedly overhead and a voice announces: We are at 90 degrees north – the North Pole!

People go crazy; they kiss and hug – each other and strangers; champagne flows. My heart pounds and I wipe tears away as I sing and dance along, waving the champagne glass in the air. The ship parks, bow first, into the solid ice.

Later, fully insulated in multi-layers of thermal clothing, wearing thick wellingtons, we descend the outside metal staircase to the surface for a barbecue dinner. Tourists, scientists and guides from twenty different countries form a circle of international friendship. We hold hands and listen as the captain gives a speech. We stand on top of the world, heads bowed for one minute of silence, eyes welling with emotion as we pray for world peace. 

The crew prepares a massive barbecue to fuel the hungry revellers. The fun begins. A group gathers at the rear of the ship as thirty brave souls strip off and jump into the frigid water to perform the Polar Plunge. Others go on a guided thirty-minute trek into the distance. Most dance around, sing, play frisbee and capture special moments on their cameras.

Five hours later, the last crate of equipment is hoisted back aboard and the ship backs away, turns about and heads south. We leave nothing behind except thousands of footprints frozen in the snow. 

  • ‘Travel Writing: On Top of the World by Bette Leone Martin’ is published in Anthology Volume 21. Read more features from this volume or buy it now.
  • Browse more features in arts.
  • Why not consider entering our Creative Awards.
  • If you enjoyed this feature, we’d love it if you would share it!

KEEP READING