AUSTRALIAN explorer Geoff Wilson was huddled alone in his tent at the roof of the Antarctic plateau a couple of days ago when a woman’s chilling scream pierced the air.
It was enough to make the solo adventurer sit bolt upright. Seconds later what sounded like a gong sounded twice in quick succession.
He was camped at China’s abandoned Kunlun research station, in the brutal, naked interior of the Antarctic continent where temperatures range from -35C to -90C.
He knew the closest human beings were about 2400 kilometres away, across the punishing ridges of sastrugi he’d just spent almost 40 days crossing.
The exhausted adventurer, who has made polar exploration history, reckons he now knows what the gong sound was – the reverberation of a clasp bashing against a bamboo flag pole the Chinese left behind.
But the distinctive sound of the woman screaming? Well, he’s still not sure about that, he told AAP from the deserted base.
Crippling fatigue? Wild imagination? The effects of prolonged isolation? Whatever it was, the Queensland husband, father, vet and explorer is ready to head home.
Sometime on Tuesday, Australian time, Wilson will once more unfurl the kite he used this week to become the first person to summit Dome Argus – the highest point of the Antarctic plateau – without mechanical assistance.
All he’s got to do now is make it back alive. If he does he’ll add another record to his long list of achievements – the longest solo, unsupported polar journey in human history.
The final distance should come in at somewhere between 5600 and 5800km, bettering the previous record of 5200km by hundreds of kilometres.
“There’s meant to be wind coming in tonight,” Wilson tells AAP from the deserted base.
“About midnight I’ll start moving, get the kite up and start skiiing. I’ve been here two days and I’ll be glad to leave this place. It’s pretty eerie.”
Wilson’s achievement is yet to sink in, in part because he knows what it’s going to take to make it back.
He’s still got another 2400km of ice to cover to get back to Novo Station, the Russian base he left on November 9. All going well, he’ll show up early in the new year after a very lonely Christmas.
At least the journey home should be kinder, and that’s got everything to do with the wind. On the outward leg, he was somewhat implausibly kiting into the source of Antarctica’s winds.
“Lots of people who know more than me said it was impossible because all of the wind is generated from the Dome of Argus. People kept saying you can’t kite towards where the winds are coming from. But now we know it’s possible.
“But we’ve just been very fortunate with the wind direction and a lot of very clever use of the kites, along with a lot of manhauling, pulling through deep snow and hating life for a period of time.”
Wilson has no special plans to mark Christmas, other than perhaps an extra square or two of chocolate once the day is done and he’s huddled inside his tiny tent.
With any luck he’ll get to speak to his wife Sarah, who he credits with maintaining his mental health during a perilous journey that has tested him in every possible way.
“She has this incredible ability to just pull out the bad and help me focus on what’s going well so I can put my boots on the next day and keep going.
“There have been days where I just thought I’m almost done in. I could see my body being injured by the cold, losing bits of my face, and you can find yourself thinking I can’t keep doing this.
“But then I have a good night’s sleep, talk to Sarah, put my boots on and do it all again.”
Wilson is using this expedition, and previous journeys, to encourage followers to give money for breast care nurses through the McGrath Foundation.
People can follow Wilson’s push for home at thelongestjourney.com.au