Victoria Land - The Race to the South Pole!

1911 New Zealand #131d Mint Never-Hinged Issue

In the year 1911 the world saw a race like no other: the race to plant a flag at the South Pole. British Naval Commander Robert Falcon Scott and Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen each set out on separate journeys to leave their nation’s mark at the center of the desolate, frozen wasteland. 

After landing at Cave Evans on Ross Island (now known as Discovery Island), Commander Scott and his crew worked all through the Antarctic winter to lay depots along their planned route to the Pole in preparation for the punishing trek that lay ahead.

 Establishing his base 60 miles nearer to the Pole than Scott’s, Amundsen set out on the Antarctic ice pack on October 19, 1911 with five men, 52 dogs and four sledges carrying critical supplies of food, shelter and fuel. The dogs proved to be so strong that the men rode on the sledges for the first 100 miles, and for the next 300 miles were towed on their skis.

When they arrived at the base of a formidable mountain, skillful reconnaissance enabled them to find a way up to the rim of the plateau where they killed all but 18 of the dogs, storing the meat in a depot for the return journey. From then on, everything went like clockwork.

Rather than dogsled teams, Scott had chosen Siberian ponies as his first line of transportation, but since they could not stand cold blizzards, he delayed his start until November 1st, twelve days later than Amundsen. 

A warm blizzard slowed Scott’s progress at the base of the great Beardmore Glacier, but he was optimistic when the last supporting party turned back with the ponies 170 miles from the Pole, leaving five men to press onward. With great determination, they struggled slowly across the hostile environment, plodding through windstorms, glaciers and crevasses, dragging their sledges like beasts of burden. 

Despite the extreme conditions, Scott’s drive to win kept him and his team moving until January 18th, 1912, when the South Pole finally came into view. All of Scott’s hopes were dashed away by the sight of the Norwegian flag flying from atop an empty tent. Documents inside the text indicated that the Norwegian team, aided by favorable weather and meticulous planning, had raised their flag on December 14th, 1911, more than a month earlier. 

Exhausted, depressed, and low on rations, Scott and his team began the arduous journey back to their base camp. By March 21, 1912, only three of the five men remained, with both Lieutenant Edgar Evans and Captain L.E.G. Oats having succumbed to the harsh environment. Scott wrote in his diary that an intense blizzard forced them to make camp only eleven miles from one of their supply depots. With only a one-day supply of rations and heating oil remaining, they vowed that they would make for the depot as soon as the blizzard abated. This was Scott’s final entry. 

On February 1st, 1913, after spring returned to Antarctica, a search party found the tent which contained the bodies of Commander Robert Scott, Edward A. Wilson, and H.R. Bowers and their final letters. 

“We are weak, writing is difficult, but for my own safe I do not regret this journey,” Scott wrote. “We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and we have no cause for complaint … Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale…” 

Victoria Land Overprints 

Scott was appointed postmaster to the expedition and supplied with 231 sheets of the 1-pence New Zealand stamps of 1909 … overprinted “VICTORIA LAND” ...specifically for mail sent from his base camp in Antarctica. 

Today, virtually the only tangible remains of Scott’s failed expedition are the limited legacy of postage stamps issued by the New Zealand government for use by the explorer and members of his crew. 

Victoria Land eventually became part of the Ross Dependencies, named for its discoverer, Sir James Clark Ross, who led the first British naval expedition to the Antarctic in 1839. 

Scott’s wooden shelter on Cape Evans, home base for his fatal trudge, still stands. Resting on bunks along the walls are reindeer-skin sleeping bags and battered boots. In the center is a dining table, the setting for a photograph of Scott and his men celebrating their leader’s last birthday – a chilling memento linking past to present.