'Terra Nova' arrival in 1913 remembered

Morse code was in the air again in Oamaru yesterday - one of the final acts in honouring Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his party of four who died on their way back from the South Pole, with four days of events believed to be the only commemoration outside the United Kingdom.

The Oamaru Scott 100 centenary was the only major event held outside the United Kingdom to mark the ill-fated Antarctic expedition.

It was from the Oamaru Post Office on February 10, 1913, that a secret coded telegram was sent first to Christchurch and then to London, so sponsors of the Scott Antarctic Expedition would be the first to learn of the deaths of Captain Scott, Dr Edward Wilson, Captain Lawrence Oates, Lieutenant Henry Bowers and Petty Officer Edgar Evans on the ice.

The expedition ship Terra Nova arrived off the Oamaru Harbour about 2am and left two of its crew to send the telegram before sailing off for Lyttelton after stopping for about 35 minutes.

Yesterday, the telegram was recalled in one of the last events since the Scott 100 started in Oamaru on February 6, Waitangi Day. Outside the Post Office, the news stories resulting from that telegram were read out again, while how the telegram was sent, including locking the morse code operator in the telegraph room until it was received in London, was outlined.

But the most moving ceremony took place earlier, at 6am, at the harbour where the crew members landed 100 years ago, challenged by the night watchman, Neil Mackinnon, and demanding to see harbour master Captain Ramsay, to explain their secret task.

Oamaru man Evan Blair recreated the night watchman's challenge, right down to the Scots accent, while a cast re-enacted the landing.

The most moving was Geraldine actress Jill Roberts, who played the role of Captain Scott's wife, Kathleen.

She read portions of Mrs Scott's memoirs and told the Otago Daily Times she was ''very, very honoured'' to be playing the role.

She was asked to do the job by one of the Scott 100 organisers, Bronwyn Judge, the two having worked together on a film two to three years ago.

Originally from Switzerland, Ms Roberts trained in London as an actress and it was the British accent organisers wanted for the role of Kathleen Scott.

''I was absolutely delighted because I could see it was something special, something very historic and I was very very honoured,'' she said.

Her association with another Geraldine actor, Robin Stock, who also had a British accent, resulted in him playing the role of Dr E.

L. Atkinson, the expedition's doctor, who was one of the two men landed from Terra Nova at Oamaru.

Later yesterday morning a wreath was laid at the Scott Memorial Oak, planted in 1913 in Arun St to mark Terra Nova's visit.

On Saturday, the centenary was marked by the unveiling of a plaque at the Oamaru Harbour next to the original night watchman's hut at the end of Sumpter Wharf, where the two crew landed, commemorating the centenary of the landing.

The unveiling was done by the granddaughter of Captain Scott, Nicola Starks, who had come from Suffolk for the celebrations, and Waitaki Mayor Alex Familton.

Another attending the Oamaru events was the chairwoman of the United Kingdom Antarctic Trust, Philippa Foster Back, from Suffolk, England.

The trust has organised events in the United Kingdom, starting in June 2010, at Cardiff to mark the sailing of Terra Nova. They will conclude at Cardiff in June this year.

Mrs Foster Back was not aware of any other major celebrations outside the United Kingdom, except those in Oamaru.

Mr Familton praised the organisation of the events, and the number of visitors attracted to Oamaru.

He described them as a ''very special occasion'' and an important part of Oamaru's heritage.

-david.bruce@odt.co.nz