It’s been over a century since the walk to the geographic South Pole was first completed, and you could be forgiven for thinking that there are few ways to reinvent the expedition in 2018, at least without resorting to the ridiculous. So if nothing else, credit must go to Robert Swan, founder of the organisation 2041, and his son Barney, for finding a way to create a fresh stimulus and generate interest in a trek to the bottom of the planet.
Their motivation is simple: to demonstrate the power of non-fossil fuel energy sources, by using biofuels and solar energy to power their path to the South Pole, as shown in this film by Kevin Batchelor, one of many shown at the 2018 Adventure Uncovered Film Festival. ‘If we can survive out there only on renewable energy in the most hostile place on Earth,’ comments Robert, ‘[it shows that] people can make a difference! I think we need to lead by example, that’s the purpose of the South Pole Energy Challenge.’
Robert is particularly fond of these broad, dramatic soundbites. Certainly, he does a stellar job of communicating his thoughts on both the future of such ‘adventures’ (he’s a veteran of previous such expeditions, becoming the first person to walk to both the North and South Poles) and the fate of the planet. ‘This expedition isn’t just about our survival,’ he declares. ‘It is about the survival of our planet.’ He’s a man with a mission, and he intends to make a big impact.
The film is a slick and fast-paced ride through their preparation and the trek itself. Occasional cut-aways reveal their personal lives back in Durham, their diverse training methods (dragging tires up hills is apparently a good muscle simulation for walking on skis), and the background to the innovative scientific methods they are trialling en route, including heavily-branded Shell ‘advanced biofuels’ derived from wood chips, NASA pouches where urine is turned into a nutritious electrolyte drink, and solar powered ice-melters. It’s a logistical challenge to cover 600 miles of walking in a relatively short film runtime, so there are few moments to pause and catch your breath. Such speed demands your attention throughout, and makes for an increasingly tense spectacle.
Perhaps the least expected aspect – for a film principally focused on sustainability and polar expedition – is the human story of the relationship between father and son, as Barney follows in Robert’s footsteps, both metaphorical and literal. This dynamic is revealed in the simple but powerful relationship they clearly share and through their grand plans, which provide evidence of the way ambition can echo through the generations, one leader (in this case, Barney) picking up the baton from another (Robert). It’s heart-warming to watch, even in the short time we get to know them.
The Adventure Uncovered Film Festival claims to be ‘a celebration of powerful, purpose-driven adventures that matter' and that goal is certainly acheieved with Journey to the Pole. ‘The last great exploration left on Earth is to survive on Earth,’ is another Robert Swan soundbite that sticks in the mind. This is an expedition carried out not for the hell of it, not just ‘because it’s there’, but because it matters. The fact that Kevin Batchelor was able to turn this quest into such a professionally-made film makes it easier for the rest of us to spread that message as well.
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