Nobody is aware yet that the Fram is going to head South and the ship’s captain, Roald Amundsen, is being highly secretive. As the ship draws closer to the port of Madeira, a ship specifically designed to cut through ice, bought from his explorer and friend Nansen, he decides that it is time to disclose his real project to his crew members. In fact, the Fram is ostensibly bound for the North Pole, while unofficially it will be going in a wholly different direction. Amundsen’s ambition to be the first to reach the most remote spot on the planet and plant his country’s flag has been shattered on hearing that Robert Peary, an American, has beaten him to it and planted the stars and stripes at the North Pole. Thus, the Norwegian blue cross outlined in white on a red field must aim for the South Pole now. However, he is not the only one to plan an expedition there, as Robert Falcon Scott also wishes to claim the South Pole for England.
Roald takes a last look at the approaching coast and then goes below deck while he thinks of how to tell his crew that he did not share his ideas initially because he was afraid they would refuse, and he wants to involve them all in this new expedition. His pipe and tobacco are waiting for him on his desk together with his nautical charts. It is a delicate moment which calls for some comfort. In fact, as soon as he has goes ashore he will have to send a telegraph to Scott informing him that Norway is about to challenge the British Empire to a race against time and ice.
As it gets dark Amundsen discloses his plan to his four friends, Olav, Helmer, Sverre and Oscar, who will follow him to the new, ambitious destination. Thus, sitting with a cup of coffee, he speaks, the soft but determined words coming out of his mouth accompanied by comforting gestures and puffs of smoke. Words that are almost visible owing to their historical impact. Words that once spoken hang dense and white in the air, of an unmistakable aroma, the aroma of bold ventures. Yes, it can be done, they all think. After all, the equipment is basically the same – long skis to save them from falling into perilous crevasses, fifty-two dogs to pull four loaded sledges, seal, reindeer and wolf skin clothing for warmth, and boots designed by Amundsen himself that have been tested throughout winter. They have all trained hard to be fit in the past months, as the Norwegian does not leave anything to chance, but everything is to be planned meticulously if he wants to challenge Nature and make history.
On the contrary, Scott does not think in the same way, and while his fate is in some way being decided in Madeira, miles away but on the same route, he lights his pipe alone in his cabin. His words are caught in thought, and between one puff and another he is gratified by the way the air is turning dense with smoke, isolating him from the rest of the crew. Meanwhile, he imagines the future glory for the Crown once he has arrived first at the South Pole. He has spent the whole winter in scientific conferences and photography courses. For an Elizabethan hero there is no room for physical attributes and sharing, as it is more a case of the mind and personal prestige. However, when the unpredictable natural elements are involved to determine honour and achievement, humans will never win if they are not in tune with their environment.
The day has finally come to leave the Fram and step ashore. The Antarctic summer is near, although the weather should not be underestimated, above all the fog which could interfere with their sense of direction. The point of departure is the Bay of Whales, chosen because it is the closest to the South Pole, but also the least known area.
On the other hand, the Englishman has decided to begin his expedition from a base at McMurdo Sound, choosing the route previously followed by his fellow countryman, Shackleton, which is further away from the South Pole, but apparently less obscure. The race is on. It is Autumn, 1911, and an era is about to end, the era of land exploration.
Amundsen and his companions must travel 2,800 kilometres. The hard training of the previous months will bear fruit. The men travel by ski and the dogs pull the sledges. This tactic will in fact be the best, as the speed is the same but less tiring. They eat oatmeal, seal and vegetables. Unfortunately, they also eat some of their dogs who will perish during the expedition. However, although these episodes are recorded in the Norwegian explorer’s diary as moments when “there was depression and sadness in the air”, morale is still quite high. The sun shines day and night more or less at the same altitude, which encourages the explorers to go on as they know they are the first to see it, until December 14th of the same year when they finally arrive. “This is the South Pole – calm, so calm stretches the mighty plateau before us, unseen and untrod by the foot of man. The sun appears to make the circuit of the horizon at the same altitude, shining and warm in a clear sky. This evening there is no wind and it is so peaceful”. Unfortunately, things are very different for Scott and his diary entry confirms this: “It is utterly impossible to push ahead in this weather, and one is at a complete loss to account for it. The barometer rose from 29.4 to 29.9 last night, a phenomenal rise”. They will finally reach the South Pole thirty-five days later only to find the Norwegian flag already flying, and will never return home. The Norwegian exploit will only be communicated on 7th March 1912, on the return of the expedition, as the telegraph was too heavy to carry on the journey. Amundsen’s ironic comment on the fact that ever since he was a child he had dreamed of reaching the North Pole would be: “Never has a man achieved a goal so diametrically opposed to his wishes”.