Rothera Diary: June 1999

written by Gerard Baker

Midwinter Celebrations


Adelaide Island

Hello everyone. I wonder who will be reading this greeting?

Our world has been made so compact with the availability of E-mail and the world wide web. I imagine someone - perhaps a school pupil, sat at their desk, or maybe someone at home sat surfing the web, coming across this as they take a glance at occasional web sites. Perhaps this is your first time - perhaps you are a relative of one of the forty or so who are wintering here in one of the British Antarctic Survey bases? Whoever you are, and whatever your reason for logging on I hope that my greeting reaches you with a sense of the alacrity with which it is sent. I shall confess to you that since taking over the diary for Rothera station, I have begun to look at the world around me with different eyes, and with a greater enthusiasm to share our wonderful home with the rest of you. What do you want to know about what we do here? Which of our activities are going to be interesting to you?

June has been a fabulous month. We have now seen the Antarctic at is darkest - June 21 being Midwinter's Day. This in itself may not sound reason to celebrate, but being midwinter, the day is special to us as it marks the point at which the sun begins to return to our part of the world. As well as this, however, it marks for us the point at which we are the furthest from what we have known previously. And, from the middle of our winter we start the slow journey back to the summer. All told, a special time for us. The event has been celebrated, no doubt, since the very first land-based wintering expedition in Antarctica. A Norwegian, Carsten Borchgrevink, leading the British Antarctic Expedition of 1898-1900 overwintered in a hut built at Cape Adare, where he raised the British flag on April 2nd 1899. This year's celebration was, then, the 100th anniversary of that very remarkable event. The planning for midwinter had taken a great deal of time and organisation, not just in my world of the kitchen preparing the midwinter dinner, but more particularly in the workshops and cubby holes where present manufacture reached fever pitch in the run up to the week. As a tradition, we all make and receive a present, the giving of which takes place on Midwinter's Day. Matt, the base builder and, importantly in this respect, carpenter, was up all hours as a result of this as many gifts - mine included - involved wood. Ever patient and generous in praise, he assisted whilst the lathe spun, frames were glued, and sawdust was made in record proportions. Remarkable skills were found where people had never looked for them and we now have a base of budding artists, carvers, wood turners, photographers and metal workers. Tuesday and Thursday nights, plus Saturday afternoons and often Sunday too - all became present-making time and in addition to this major task, someone had to organise the other events of the week - making games, inventing treasure hunts, dreaming up game shows, rehearsing songs and music.

I thought that I would give you a quick run down of the week: starting with the aforementioned music. Patient George - very patient George - was our chief in this. Kevin, Matt, Phil, Grant, myself - Gerard, George, Craig - a third of the base - formed the band - rehearsing two or three times a week in the end. A smallish crowd of 15 listened patiently and, I think, enjoyed themselves as we kick-started the week with everybody joining in. The major theme of the week was participation. So many people had organised something - or helped - that almost everything was well attended and a resounding success. Indoor games competitions had been organised by Crispin - good weather preventing their rapid conclusion. Bars cropped up in the most unexpected places for the pub crawl - a tradition I am told - including Maggie and Crispin's ?magistrates bar' in the library, consisting of ice-cream milk shakes. Maggie - our Base Commander for the winter is made a magistrate for official purposes at the end of the summer - and for her ?bar' donned a mop head wig to add severity to her non alcoholic occasion. Mark is our resident games inventor and had thought up a brilliant treasure hunt to get us outside and clear our heads on Sunday afternoon. A gorgeous day again and so it was a pleasure to be outside running about the place for the clues and, finally, being given the chance to dig for treasure - Quality Street chocolates and other goodies. Much preparation had gone into the big day itself. Steve had been collecting ice from around Rothera Point for a week or two - clear glacier ice which cracks as it releases trapped air, and also beautiful long icicles which were packed into snow and used to adorn the table for the dinner which took place in the evening. Another beautiful day greeted us - albeit just three hours or so long - our shortest of course - and so many took the opportunity for walks and photography. Great effort had gone into choosing a suitably fine film matinée for the late afternoon - and one of our new films - Muriel's Wedding - was shown to great hoots of laughter as she rocked to ABBA. Many people showing their age by mouthing along to the songs!

A very special thing happens on midwinter's day. Imagine the scene. The bar has been decorated with Christmas decorations in variety. PEOPLE ARE WEARING SUITS! We are gathered, champagne glasses in hand, eating mini bagels stuffed with smoked salmon, hushed quietly, waiting for the sounds of home. The BBC World Service broadcast a special programme for all three UK Antarctic stations - our family and other contacts are given the chance to send us messages of love and best wishes which are then either read aloud by people from HQ, or are taped so we hear those familiar voices which, momentarily, transport us to a different place and time. A very emotional time - people sat quietly, smiling to themselves as their messages crackled through the radio. Thank you BBC. Then, dinner. I had taken the chance to pop into a few favourite food shops last year when, in August, I packed my trunks and shipped them several thousand miles. By the time they had arrived I had forgotten packing most of the contents, so occasional packs of olives, spices, chocolate - all came as a surprise. A few ?extras' from the trunks just to make things a bit special for the winter. I am glad that I packed them. Lesley, base calligrapher and Doctor, had spent a good deal of time writing a beautiful menu to which I had added sketches of Edward Wilson's. A feast was prepared.

Courgette soup with ricotta gnocchi. Served with rolls - walnut bread, onion seed knots, granary.

A souffle of black truffles served with a wild mushroom sauce and Parmesan.

A puff of lemon sole and tiger prawns with aioli and a bouillabaisse sauce.

Then - a relief - a homemade champagne and melon sorbet.

Barbary duckbreasts served on a crisp potato and onion latka, with a goose sausage on parsnip mash, and chicken liver pate on a triangle of toasted brioche.

For dessert - a millefeuille of chocolate mousse and raspberry sorbet with caramelised lemon zest and vanilla bean sauce.

Some cheese - Argentinean as it happens - thanks to Hamish, purser on RRS James Clark Ross.

Finally, coffee with homemade fudge, palmier, ginger and brandysnaps. - And the odd special bottle from home.

So - with a little difficulty - we eased ourselves into the bar to partake in the giving of presents.

As the youngest person on base, George opened the first gift, the maker of which chose the second and so on until everyone had a gift, but no one opened their own. Wonderful - what a good idea someone had. Then, a surprise. The second year winterers had done a very good job of keeping a secret - our families had been given the opportunity to send to us a little parcel which would be kept secret and given to us on Midwinter's Day - a real treat. Containing music - a new pair of socks, videos, sweets, games - brilliant. Eyes gleamed wet with tears and memories. I phoned a friend to say thanks - forgetting that it was midnight here and 4 am at home. So many nice memories - and just one day. Just like Christmas, people sat and talked without any idea of time and with few worries- just chewed life over and made the most of it.

A few people made it up for the midwinter Olympics the next day - Tuesday. Ski slaloms, three legged snow boot racing, blindfold skidoo racing, were all eagerly contested and put us in a good eating frame of mind for the BBQ that evening. Traditionally, the base builder/carpenter organises these - possibly because they sanction the use of the wood. Pete Grey, one of the base mechanics, had made some fabulous torches - pedestals five feet high topped with a basket to hold a small fire. These, along with a starry, minus fifteen night, gave a wonderful backdrop along with the smell of cooking and the sound of calypso music from the electricians workshop.

Wednesday saw a cloudy and dull day with many recovering inside for most of it - only a few braved the ice carving competition - which in fact is still going on as it has been too warm since to finish them off - they kept melting! Easier than it looks, and obviously chisel-blunting, it was great to see buckets of boiled water turn into skidoos, whale flukes, faces and ice cube holders. Two spectacular recreations of 1970s/80s game shows brought the week almost to a close. The Generation Game and Play Your Cards Right. The mediaeval night which brought our celebrations to a close on Saturday 26 June was one to behold with awe and amazement. An entire castle of brown paper, stone painted walls was erected in the space of a day and low tressels arranged with sheepskins for sitting on.

And, so for me anyway, midwinter will always be a memory of these good times. I have, for the past few years, stayed up to greet the sun on Midsummer Day back in England, and when I do this next year, no doubt in the meadow that is opposite my house in my tiny village, surrounded by the early morning crows, it is to this place that my mind's eye will drift.

And what of the rest of June. Well, our environment dictates so much of our mood here, and we have all been up-beat to say the least to see the formation of sea ice around Rothera Point. To freeze, the sea needs to cool significantly, as salt water freezes at around minus 1.8·C, the salt being squeezed out as the ice matrix forms - which is why sea ice is almost freshwater. Clever eh? Temperatures in the minus fifteen degrees Celsius region for many days in the run up to midwinter coincided with still air and delivered to us the sequence of grease ice, pancake ice and finally fast ice. From the top of the glacier above the base the white ocean spread out as far as the eye could see. Suddenly, the prospect of trips to other bases on the Antarctic Peninsula - Horseshoe Island, Stonington, San Martin seemed possible. And then, as quickly as it had arrived, the cold weather left us for a warm spell which has meant the breakup of the ice we had. Back to square one. So, the planning of boat journeys around the local islands for winter trips now occupies our minds. And, so back to the routine of winter trips and enjoying the return of the sun, and hopefully good weather. I am putting together some information on science in winter for the July diary, so please tune in!

Bye for now.

Gerard Baker

Gerard Baker, Rothera Research Station, Antarctica.