Rothera Diary: June 1998

written by Ian Marriott

The Celebration of Midwinter

10th JUNE - Full moon. We skied at night as the moon was brighter than daylight - through a heavy greenness which lay on the land and water.

13rd JUNE - Ice clouds formed high in the atmosphere. The colours were something from another world. All the base was outside in awe.

21st JUNE - Midwinter's day. The emotional halfway point of winter. Midwinter presents and radio messages from friends and family.

Three diary entries which seem to sum up our life at Rothera - weeks of routine punctuated by moments of brilliance.

June is the halfway point of our winter in the Antarctic. The 21st is the shortest day marking the sun's long journey back. The lack of light gets most of us down at some time - acting like a steady weight bearing down - so the lengthening day is something real to celebrate. Mid-winter's week is a big thing down here - passed down from when the bases were smaller and more isolated, and any entertainment was strictly home made. We all take a week's holiday, sharing out the cooking, cleaning and night watch. The highlight of the week is mid-winter's day when we have a huge meal, listen to the radio broadcast specially dedicated to us and open the mid- winter presents. It's been a tradition to make a present to be given away on the big day and for a couple of months people had planned and worked in secret to make something special. As the time drew nearer people disappeared "mid-wintering" and the chippy shop (the carpentry shop) lights were on throughout the night.

The week started with a mad pub crawl. There's obviously no pubs down here, just the Olde Fidde Inn, but we still managed it by making our own. Down to the Bonner Laboratory, and the Fish inn, where we fished and swam for beer in the aquarium, then to the Salty Seaman - a converted container - for a full monty cabaret act courtesy of Mark, sans hat. Over to the sledge store for the bungee bar - the beer at the end of a waxed corridor which you ran along with a bungee attached to your back. Fat people did best. Giant twister in the garage followed by man- size jenga in the generator shed. .There was something on each day - the only event which nosedived being the Olympics as the weather was too bad to go outside. Si Higgins put together a film quiz and proved how sad he was by having a James Bond round. Rob put on some old films and together with Phil Jones set up a crystal maze. We had a devious treasure hunt courtesy of Steve and Mark Smith with some even more devious bar games during the evening. Karl gave an inspiring slide show on his trips to Asia. Phil Wickens set up a reading of A Midsummer Night's Dream and put everyone off Shakespeare for life. We had a casino night with Rothera money, Daniela doing her bunny girl bit and Rachel coming as a blond tart. Meanwhile people slept and drank and worked frantically at their presents.

Midwinter's day was the climax of the week and turned out to be a lovely mellow affair after the blur that passed before. Rob our BC, Andy Rossak and Jez traditionally brought us champagne in bed and cooked and served us breakfast. Then out came the winter magazine courtesy of Steve, Ali, Andy Rossak and many anonymous contributors. Half a winter of in-jokes and below the belt back stabbing condensed in seventy pages of sordid fun. As you can imagine it went down a treat. Rich, Nigel, Karl, Ali and Ian went for a quick dip in the sea to mark the occasion. Quick because it was bloody freezing. The weather then picked up so many of us went skiing, snowboarding and sledging on the ramp. A lazy afternoon film then we gathered in the bar for the mid-winter radio broadcast. It was distinctly odd and quite emotional straining to hear our messages from friends and family. Having a radio broadcast solely dedicated to us brought home how far away and cut off we were. There were many downcast eyes in the room. Then we moved to the dining room for a seven course banquet which Mark stayed up the whole of the previous night preparing. Even the diehards amongst us were blackmailed into wearing a shirt and tie. Rachel's "iron a shirt service" was popular with the social inadequates - most of us.

After the meal we adjourned to the bar to give out the presents. This was undoubtedly the highlight of the day. Each was numbered, wrapped in paper, and stacked on the floor. We picked the numbers out of a hat and came forward and unwrapped our given presents one at once. Most were beautiful, and many were works of art. People spent weeks making them - possibly the best and most rewarding thing they'll ever make - just to have them given away. I think it says something of the unique atmosphere we live in down here.

There isn't room in here to describe and do justice to them all, but I'll mention some of the most stunning. Karl made a travelling backgammon set, the board of olive and ebony, and an albatross set in the lid. Phil Wickens shot, developed and framed a panorama of Rothera taken from the top of Léonie Island. Framed in teak it stretches nearly five feet wide. Mark Jeffrey made a scale relief model of Antarctica in wood and veneer. Each contour a different coloured veneer, laminated onto the last to give a stunningly 3-D model. Alice, in true Alice style, made a beautiful coloured lantern embossed with shells and starfish. Chris' and Phil Jones' presents were of a similar vein and both visually stunning. Chris set a piece of glass in a free-standing wooden mount and engraved the head of an Adélie penguin onto it - feathers and all. Phil made a hanging picture of glass with a pair of blue eyed shags engraved and painted on it. Both beautiful. Si Brockington carved an Antarctic clock. There were also two carved penguins, a framed drawing of Léonie Island, a model boat and Sno-cat, a Rothera coat of arms, a light box for slides, two games, a sepia sledging print framed in sledge wood, framed granite map of the British Antarctic Territory, a wooden jigsaw, filofax, and a book of poems.

It was good to get back to normal after the holiday. Like most creatures we thrive on routine and this is probably what gets us through the dark months. It isn't possible to get on with everyone here, so when down or ratty most of us keep a low profile for a few days until it passes - rather than upsetting someone or creating a scene out of nothing. Rothera station is big for twenty three of us and many of us work alone, so we've plenty of space to drop in and out of the social scene as our mood dictates. The period around and just after mid-winter seemed to be a low point for many of us. Whether it was the dark, the constant storms or the removal of normal routine forcing people to come out of themselves I wouldn't like to say. I think it just underlined the different ways we adopted to see us through the winter, and gave us a look at ourselves as we were forced to step outside them.

And so we have passed the halfway point. The daylight will take a while to return, but the trips start again in a couple of weeks. Plans are firming up in Cambridge for next season, interviews are being held, and although there are still thirteen weeks until the planes arrive there is definitely a feeling of quickening and foreclosure. Before June we were looking towards mid-winter. Now we are looking to next summer and the changes it will bring.

All the best

Ian Marriott

Ian Marriott, Rothera Research Station, Adelaide Island, Antarctica