[I N D E X]
"Indeed the stark polar lands grip the hearts of the men who have lived on them in a manner that can hardly be understood by the people who have never got outside the pale of civilisation."
These were Ernest Shackleton's words at the beginning of the last century. For some, the Antarctic leaves a significant impact on those that venture into its icy wilderness. I would put myself in this category. Others are more prosaic about the place, perhaps viewing it as a unique environment but just a place to work nonetheless. People choose to live and work here for different reasons, all valid and none better than the other.
After fourteen months it's my turn to leave the Brunt Ice Shelf on RRS Ernest Shackleton which sails north to the tropics shortly. I've packed up my skis which have been such good companions over the past year. It's an odd sensation to think that I'm leaving a place which has been home for so long, yet somewhere I still cannot take for granted. Already the winter has a rather surreal dream-like quality about it. All of us would probably agree that it hasn't always been easy living, working and socialising with the same fifteen people for nine months in an extreme and remote environment. It reminds me of a bubbling pressure cooker at times, where the lid can get a little blown off by the impact of somewhat tense group dynamics. Communal living can be one of the more trying aspects of spending a winter down here. On balance, the positive aspects of the same communal living have been rewarding as well.
Vivid images spring to mind as I pause for reflection. Overwhelming silence. The beautiful colours of the ice through the seasons. The last sunset, with the dusky colours of equinox skies. Emperor penguins huddled together for warmth. The dramatic watercolour sky providing a backdrop for massive icebergs marooned in the frozen sea. The dark of winter with glittering auroras arcing across the night sky. The thin red ribbon of light on the northern horizon at midday. The feeling of relief and amazement at the sun's return to our horizon after its four month absence. The merciless sting of ferocious fifty knot winds whipping past the hood of my ventile jacket.
And now for a change. What will it be like to see and smell green grass again? Eat from an unlimited supply of fresh bananas? To drink coffee at a cafe in the city? To handle money, lock a door, be in a crowd? The prospect of rush hour commuting is a daunting one considering that the only other traffic here comprises penguins skidding across the ice. Those once familiar everyday things seem a little foreign right now and will take some getting used to again. It will be interesting to see how the world has changed in the time we have been away; it feels like we've been in some sort of timewarp.
People come and go, but Antarctica remains the same. Indeed, previous winterers at Halley have commented on how little has changed through the years. For me, the ice is timeless. It's unyielding nature covers our tracks, removing traces of our existence and putting us in our place. We're not really meant to be here. Our scientists are still trying to find out what makes it tick and its effect on the rest of the world. It reminds me that we are just tiny dots on the surface of this huge continent.
It has been a privilege to have shared some of the experience of living and working at Halley with you on the internet. Living here has allowed me to gain certainties in place of vague assumptions. You can read the history, hear the legends but ultimately make up your own mind. It has been a fantastic experience.
8 February 2001