Rothera Diary: December 1998

written by Alison George with help from her friends

New arrivals, Christmas and food at Rothera

Rothera Research Station

December 1998

Dear All,

December in the Southern Hemisphere is the sunniest month, when the sun stops setting and there is 24 hour daylight. When the wind stops and the sun is out it can feel scorching despite being only 4·C. As the sun beams down, the snow melts rapidly, transforming Rothera from a picturesque snowy scene to one of barren grey rock. What snow remains is often stained red or green by the algae growing in it. But the views over the distant glaciers and mountains are still as stunning as ever.

As you can imagine, Christmas feels rather different in this sort of atmosphere, and not very festive, despite there being penguins and snow. Without all the hype on the television and the frenzy of shopping, the event is more of a reflective time, thinking of friends and family back home. However, the Rothera band, arisen from the massive number of guitarists on base, got us all up dancing in the evening. On New Year's Eve, a more festive occasion, the celebrations were held in the unusual venue of the boatshed, with drinks being served out of a boat filled with ice, and even more dancing to the accompaniment of the band.

At the beginning of the month the BAS ship RRS James Clark Ross was at Rothera, unloading cargo for the first ?relief' of the Southern summer. Boxes and boxes - of food, computers, steelwork, lab equipment, building materials, plus thousands of other miscellaneous items and a mechanical digger - were unloaded. The ship also brought in fuel for the generators, and then took out the winter-accumulated waste. Probably the most noticeable change that the ship brought in was an additional 30 people - scientists, technicians, builders and steel erectors - swelling the base complement to 90.

The huge building programme then gets underway – plugging the hole that mysteriously appeared in the wharf over the winter, and building extensions to the garage and lab. The lab becomes a hive of activity, with over 15 different science projects running.

With the deliveries of cargo from the ship, this brings me nicely round to the subject of food. If the ship didn't come and bring us vital supplies, we couldn't continue to live here. You will hopefully have got a good impression of the Antarctic by now - a rather barren and icy place, and not one that provides much in the way of food. In fact, according to the Antarctic Treaty, it is forbidden to eat any native species anyway. So we are totally reliant on food imported from elsewhere. Most of the food, over 90% so I'm informed by our chef, is tinned, dried or frozen and it arrives by ship from Grimsby. In addition, a little fresh food comes to us by plane from the Falkland Islands, or from South America.

Our chefs are Mark, who has just wintered here, and Gerard, who is taking over for the next winter. I shall leave the description of foody things to Gerard.

"Once the ship arrives with all of the food on board - around six tonnes per visit, I have the mammoth task of coordinating the unpacking and sorting of the six hundred or so boxes. Of course, the initial task is to get the food up form the ship to the base - a tractor job. Most of our dried and tinned foods come direct to the food bays - a series of open areas leading from a corridor that runs the length of the main building. As well as unpacking the food, we also have to rotate the stock on the shelves so that the oldest food is used first. In some cases we are using up food that is ten or fifteen years old, though most is only a year or two out of date. As you can imagine, unpacking and storing all of the food is one of the busiest times of the year for the cooks. We also have to ensure that what we are expecting has actually arrived - some things are inevitably damaged or get lost and it is our job to then cope with or without what we have.

Although the Antarctic is generally a cold place, the average temperature at Rothera is only just below freezing and certainly not low enough to keep frozen food out of doors, even buried underground. To store food we have two large walk-in fridges and five freezers. The vast majority of our meat, vegetables, dairy products and eggs arrive frozen, and stocks of these are rotated to ensure that the ?oldest first' principle is maintained. Just to let you know what kind of quantities we get through, this year we will receive 900 kilos of beef, 800 of chicken and 700 of each pork and lamb - and most of that will be eaten throughout the coming 12 months.

Each day, the kitchen jolts into action with the sound of bread making at breakfast time. We make around 50 lbs of bread each and every day of the busy summer period - rolls for sandwiches at mid morning coffee break and then loaves for toast and snacks later in the day, leaving some aside for the next morning. It is a job I love - what better than the smell of fresh bread each morning?

We make lunch at one in the afternoon and dinner at six thirty in the evening. Mealtimes are for many people the only time they get to see one another during their busy workdays and for me, the chance to sit down and proverbially chew the cud with my friends and colleagues is an opportunity I relish. During the wintertime, with only 22 on base, my job should be a little quieter - I am cooking for 90 at the moment!"

Our neighbours at the Argentinian base San Martin, 120 km away, only get relieved once a year, in March. For the rest of the time they receive no visitors and no fresh food. In this light, Simon who was testing out his newly learned Spanish on San Martin residents over the radio all winter, decided to send a parcel over to them. Heavily padded, the package contained all manner of goodies from Rothera, including some fresh fruit and vegetables. It was lobbed out of a passing Twin Otter aeroplane and thankfully landed on the beach rather than the base!

I have honestly eaten like a King since my arrival at Rothera, but sometimes the desire to eat those favourite foods not available here overcomes. People talk of being met at the airport on their return to the UK by relatives bearing gifts of fresh milk and a McDonalds special! Believe it or not I'm already looking forward to a trip round a supermarket and filling a trolley with all the things I've missed eating for the past year. I'm informed that the novelty of supermarkets and fresh food does not wear off for a long time!

Until January, when it will once again be getting darker, goodbye.

Alison (with much assistance and plagiarism from Gerard and Rich)

Alison George, Rothera Research Station, Adelaide Island, Antarctica