A rare print of an iconic photograph from the ill-fated 1911-13 British Antarctic Expedition is being auctioned at London's Sotheby auction house.

It depicts the five members of Captain Robert Falcon Scott's doomed polar party posing disconsolately beside a sagging Union Jack marking their arrival at the South Pole on January 17, 1912.

The bedraggled party is the very picture of misery - they resemble condemned men posing for a pre-execution photograph.

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They look this way because they have just hauled heavy wooden sledges over about 1400km (twice the distance from Auckland to Wellington) of frozen wastes, traversing glaciers, crevasses and high mountain ridges, for the honour of being first to reach the South Pole ... only to find Norwegian Roald Amundsen had beaten them to it more than a month.

"Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority," Scott wrote in his journal.

Now, all that's left is to repeat this terrible journey in reverse, sucking the bitter pill of defeat the whole frozen way.

Like myself, many will have imbibed the tragic Captain Scott tale along with - it seems - mother's milk.

It was - and perhaps still is - a junior school staple: the valiant ponies, devious dog-driving Norsemen, self-sacrificing "Titus" Oates, One Ton Camp, blizzards ... no survivors.

A recent Guardian article on the coming auction revisits the whole sorry saga. But in so doing, it perpetuates several shonky tenets that have turned a tragically heroic story into a massaged cultural myth.

The main one is that Scott and his men were robbed because a bunch of caddish Norwegians deceitfully snuck through the back door, snatching the prize from the gallant Brits at the last minute.

Roald Ammundsen, one of the truly great explorers
Roald Ammundsen, one of the truly great explorers

Deceit, too, inasmuch as Amundsen's original goal was the North Pole, but at the 11th hour two separate American parties both claimed to have beaten him to it,
probably fraudulently. Amundsen then not only switched goals but, the Guardian claims, secreted his plans from Scott to get the jump on him.

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Amundsen did, indeed, change plans, then keep it quiet, but for a different reason.

To fund his original expedition, he'd borrowed big from local businessmen with similar interest in the north. With his main goal usurped, as a professional explorer, Amundsen now needed an alternative of similar stature in order to later financially recoup from hopeful success. The South Pole was the only viable option.

He initially kept mum because he feared his local backers would withdraw with the shift of emphasis away from the north, and thus scuttle his chances for any expedition at all. Once under way and out of creditors' reach, Amundsen telegraphed Scott informing him of the new mission.

But, according to the Guardian, if not for these heinous deceptions, Scott and co would have been first to the pole, returned safely because of high morale, and all lived famously ever after.

Besides, whereas the Norwegians were just glory hunters, Scott's men were on a meritorious scientific expedition, weren't they? With the Pole only a side show, right? Well, yes ... but also, no.

Visiting England some years later, Amundsen was asked by his host's son what he did for a crust. Amundsen mentioned exploring, being first to the South Pole, that sort of thing, only to be summarily denounced by the young scion as an imposter - he couldn't have possibly discovered the Pole, he was reprimanded, because Captain Scott did.

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The kid then showed poor Roald the passage in his school history textbook stating exactly that.

Amundsen was one of the truly great explorers - among other feats, the first to complete the epic Northwest Passage. If alive today, he'd be bemused to find himself now a mere historical footnote, with statues of the also-ran Scott abounding.

Frank Greenall
Frank Greenall