To be on Antarctica's Ross Island is to walk among the ghosts of giants.

Shackleton, Scott, Hillary: they all have legacies that loom large over this gravelly enclave at the bottom of the planet, discovered the same year the Treaty of Waitangi was signed.

Polar winds blow hard across the vast Ross Ice Shelf and pound the island's bare slopes, where New Zealand and the US operate their Scott Base and McMurdo Station.

Above it all is Erebus, a great white beast of a mountain that rises as high as Mt Cook above sea level.

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Dining room talk often talks to the incredible feats of the explorers that journeyed to this hostile part of the world, and what they must have endured without our comparative comfort of hot showers, satellite phones and custom-made extreme cold weather gear.

How did Frank Worsley, a captain on Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-16, manage to guide a small party from their ice-bound ship to Elephant Island, several hundred kilometres away?

The New Zealander was so exhausted after spending 90 straight, freezing hours at the tiller of a lifeboat that he could only be woken by kicks to the head, and his near-flawless precision at navigation still summons astonishment to this day.

Or how did Sir Edmund Hillary and his crew endure the bitter cold of Pram Point to build the original Scott Base?

When the great Kiwi arrived here in the mid-1950s, fresh from his conquest of Mt Everest, little more than scoria, ice and frozen tundra could be found on this rocky hill.

Few of his team had any experience of Antarctica's near-unbearable wind chill and blizzards.

Yet, in short order, the hardy bunch put together six inter-connecting units and three detached science buildings.

Discovery Hut, desperately exposed on an outcrop above the ice shelf, was fashioned from Australian jarrah wood and designed to stay cool in Outback heat. Photo / Jamie Morton
Discovery Hut, desperately exposed on an outcrop above the ice shelf, was fashioned from Australian jarrah wood and designed to stay cool in Outback heat. Photo / Jamie Morton

They then spent a long, dark winter here on the ice living off such staples as barely-edible Government-issued meat bars.

Their group portrait hangs in the base hallway, along with every crew that's done so since.

That might have been a luxury still, when set against the privations that Captain Robert Falcon Scott's expedition encountered on the island half a century before.

We take the winding, 10-minute drive from Scott Base over the hill to Hut Point, where a drafty wooden shack built for Scott's 1901-1904 Discovery Expedition still stands.

Beams of light cut through the gloom to illuminate boxes and tins of Bird's baking powder, Fry's pure cocoa, Morton's kippered herring and Huntly and Palmer's digestive biscuits. Photo / Jamie Morton
Beams of light cut through the gloom to illuminate boxes and tins of Bird's baking powder, Fry's pure cocoa, Morton's kippered herring and Huntly and Palmer's digestive biscuits. Photo / Jamie Morton

Discovery Hut, desperately exposed on an outcrop above the ice shelf, was fashioned from Australian jarrah wood and designed to stay cool in Outback heat.

Unsurprisingly, Scott's men couldn't sleep here and instead used it for storage.

The Antarctic Heritage Trust has made such a remarkable job of preserving it that, stepping inside it feels like you'd only just missed the men by minutes.

A hunk of seal blubber – used for lamp fuel and dog food - lies against the wall and the smell of it hangs thick in the dusty air.

Beams of light cut through the gloom to illuminate boxes and tins of corned mutton, Bird's baking powder, Fry's pure cocoa, Morton's kippered herring and Huntly and Palmer's digestive biscuits.

The smell of seal blubber hangs heavy in the air inside Ross Island's Discovery Hut. Photo / Jamie Morton
The smell of seal blubber hangs heavy in the air inside Ross Island's Discovery Hut. Photo / Jamie Morton

I step back out into the biting wind, pull the hood of my warm PrimaLoft over my head, and stare out into the endless white to consider Scott's tragic fate less than a decade later.

What an unimaginably unforgiving and alien world it would have been for this brave few, so far from home.

Crates of sledging rations and cabin biscuits remain in the hut. Photo / Jamie Morton
Crates of sledging rations and cabin biscuits remain in the hut. Photo / Jamie Morton

And I think about the Kiwi pioneers that came here after them – trail-blazing women scientists like Thelma Rodgers, Pamela Young and Margaret Bradshaw; and those gutsy researchers toiling out there on the ice today.

• Jamie Morton is hosted at Scott Base by Antarctica New Zealand.