Rothera Diary: September 1999

written by Gerard Baker

Visitors at the end of the winter


September 1999

Dear All

I swapped my sister yesterday. It is not that she is horrible or that I am bored of her. In fact, she is about as good as big sisters ever get, and being a nurse, rather handy to have about at home too. But, I was made an offer I could not refuse - three sisters in return for my one! A net gain of two sisters, and Spanish speaking ones at that - so handy for language practice. Quite how and why I managed to do this will be apparent if you read on, for this has been a busy month at Rothera and I have lots to tell you.

As a schoolboy, September always marked the end of the long summer holiday and the shortening days held an uncomfortable inevitability about them. For the last few weeks, the thought of summer has dominated and we have all been tying up the loose ends of the winter - making our respective areas ready for the busy summer season ahead. Our notice board has been dominated by news of the new summer staff coming in - the work programme and such like. The base has a very end of term feeling about it, people are at the same time appearing relaxed and nervous. Relaxed, because the ?ordeal' or winter is almost over, and nervous because the ?ordeal' of summer is almost upon us. I put the word ordeal in inverted commas because for me it is not the word I mean to use.

Winter and summer alike represent challenges for us in very different ways, and I hope that over the past few months I have been able to describe to you the things that occupy our lives here over the winter, and do so in a way that has allowed you to imagine life here. I mean - other than actually locking yourself up in a building with 22 other people for the better part of eight months, there is really no way of finding out for yourselves what the winter here is about. And then, everyone's experience is going to be different. I have only written this diary for the past six months and so I have not as yet had the chance to tell you how I view the summer - but I shall, and for that you will have to wait

I have mourned the passing of winter - for me, and I know for many others here, it has been magical. I came here to spend a winter because I knew many people who had, and wanted to find out for myself what it was all about. Why is it so special? Is it the loss of the sun, the companionship, the sea ice formation, the deprivation of so many luxuries, and the way we have to dig deep inside ourselves in order to cope? I am not sure that it is possible to distinguish any of those, and one hundred other factors. I am sorry that words fail me right now. I only know that it has been one of the most profound experiences of my life, and I could ( and to the detriment of my family's's sanity no doubt will ) go on at length about it for the remainder of my life.

But for now - I will ask you to imagine what you think it is like to overwinter here. What do you think we do - how would you fill your time? Would the lack of television drive you mad? Could you bear to be without your friends and family, and eat out of tins? Winter here can easily be made to sound terrible - endless winds, snow up to your head, temperatures so cold that freezers are warm to walk into. And maybe it is just a matter of temperament, but I see mainly positive aspects to the last six or so months when I reflect on them.

Of course - I do not walk around with a smile on my face every day. We all have our bad days, after all. The loss of a close friend, a relative for example. Remember we cannot just hop onto a plane and go home. The finality of our position here is one I think we all accept when we come here. For the duration of the winter, there is realistically no way out - but that is fine.

Having said all of that - it sounds quite depressing and final - but it is not. Taking all of the different bases here, only a handful of people will ever experience an Antarctic winter, souls who will perhaps never match this particular experience again in their lifetimes. Looking back on the past few months here I am proud to say that I have managed to survive it and still be able to smile about it, to laugh and to have things to look forward to. The summer - new people - are not far away, and they will bring their own challenges with them - their own agendas, and we will move on together.

In fact, September has already seen new faces at Rothera - for the first time since RRS James Clark Ross left the station in March, we have seen our first visitors. That is where my sister comes into the picture, although she was not one of them, if you get my drift.

I shall explain. Each Sunday, a few of us gather around the radio and try to communicate in rather broken Spanish to our nearest neighbours at Base San Martin, an Argentinean station a few tens of kilometres south of Rothera Point. We do so for many reasons. For the good of our Spanish, for comradeship, and just for the fun of it. It has become one of the highlights of my week. As two groups of people overwintering here, we have a great deal in common - we face similar challenges - a brotherhood has developed between us that echoes the best traditions of mankind and of Antarctic science, whatever the reasons for our presence here.

Since our first contact with this group of overwinterers, back in April when they arrived en-masse to take over their base, we have talked of the possibility of being able to visit one another. It would be impossible for us to visit each other by boat, the only realistic way being by sea ice. So - as the ice has formed, melted and reformed over the past two or three months, we have shared dreams and mutually extended invitations to visit one another during our Sunday chats.

From San Martin, a group did make the journey - although not in one go. A direct route here would lead travellers out into a wide expanse of ocean - crossing Marguerite bay on ice would be a very risky proposition - one would be too far away from land to run for cover should the weather turn nasty. A coastal trip - running north close to the Antarctic Peninsula coastline, taking in old bases for shelter, would be more sensible, although a greater overall distance. It was this option that five of our friends from San Martin took. We first heard that they had made it to Horseshoe base - which is a regular holiday destination for them, and did not honestly expect them to get further north than that, itself almost eighty kilometres south of us following a safe route. The weather - which had been stable, turned on their third day out - closing in with cloud and wind - not weather in which to be out on sea ice. But, we knew that they would try to get here if they could - and there was a sense of inevitability about it. If they could, we knew that they would get to Rothera and, other than warning of bad weather, and encouraging them not to travel when it might be dangerous, we could do nothing to stop them.

I was sat in the dentist's chair one afternoon when I heard a slightly desperate Keiron - deputy base commander - asking for ?anyone who speaks Spanish' to come to the front door. They had arrived. One skiddoo short - left behind because it gobbled fuel, and without food or tents (also left behind on a local island) they arrived full of cheer and excitement. Just to SEE new faces about the base was novelJust to SEE new faces about the base was novel. Greetings exchanged and beds made, tea brewed and a hasty lunch prepared, they settled into what must have been three very odd days for them. It was a tremendous time for all - not least Juan, one of their number, who arrived on his birthday. A cake was quickly improvised. As I said, five in total came. They were Oscar Zarich, base commander, Lorenzo Lopex Meyer, logistics, Luis Gomez, mountain guide, Juan Carlos Serpp, radio operator, and Jose Antonio Garay, mechanic.

Whilst here, they managed to keep busy, Luis and Oscar made empanadas for us - tiny bread- dough pasties, with a beef, potato, cumin and onion filling - which were very well received by the people here, and Chris, one of our mechanics, made them pork pies - which they likened to corned beef, and scoffed. Luis had a lesson in freezer repair from Pete Martin, and travelling arrangements for skidoos and sledges were compared. It was fun. We were beaten soundly at football - 18 to 3 - and entertained to some Argentinean folk songs by Jose, we looked at pictures of our families, and swapped sisters for a laugh. And, as quickly as they came, they left, but not before Juan and Jose wrote some messages for their families.

At San Martin base, there is no Internet and as they have no summer research season, the only way they have of contacting their families at home is over the radio, which they seem to do often. I know how nice it is to receive a letter - however brief, and so here are their greetings - I hope that everyone else out there will bear me this indulgence.

Juan Carlos Serpp:

Para mi querida familia:

hoy tengo la oportunidad de visitar esta hermosa Base que se llama Rothera junto con cinco amigos mas, y decirles que estoy muy bien y disfrutando de esta estadia que jamas olvidare ya que el 14 de septiembre fue mi cumpleaños y tuvimos un largo viaje a este precioso lugar.

Todos las personas en esta Base son muy amables y bondadoso con nosotros, hojala pudiera estar mas dias en este lugar.

Familia les envio muchos cariños y saludos y nos vemos pronto no se precupen que falta poco

con cariño CARLITOS!!!!!!!!!!!!.

Jose Antonio Garay

Para Gonzalo MI REY

Hoy te envio este mensaje desde un lugar inpenzado,estuve en la Base Rothera, una base inglesa la cual es muchisimo mas grande que San Martin.

Despues de haber recorrido mas de 100 Km llegamos el 14 de septiembre te cuento que fue muy importante para mi haber aprendido algo de ingles, dentro de todo me pude comunicar bastante bien , ya que de los cinco que vinimos uno solo hablaba bastante bien en ingles.

Esta fue una gran experiencia por el cambio cultural ,nos trataron muy bien ,mostrandonos todo lo que tienen y hacen ,lo que mas me gusto fue el acuario donde vi una gran variedad de seres vivos que habitan en el mar antartico ,es algo increible.

No podia faltar que jugaramos un partido de futbol el cual como siempre ganamos 16 a 3,tambien ivamos a esquiar pero el tiempo no lo permitio.,probe tambien las diferentes comidas que comen ellos ,uno de nosotros ,para no ser menos ,cocino unas empanadas tucumanas que les gusto mucho.Tengo fotos de todo eso ,asi que cuando vuelva las vas a ver, bueno papi me dieron la oportunidad de poder mandar un mensaje y ensegida me acorde de vos y esto lo quiero cmpartir con vos ,mami y Nicolas MI PRINCIPE, a los que siempre llevo en mi corazon y quiero muchisimo.

Espero que te alla gustado esta cortita carta pero que adentro de ella , va todo mi amor hacia ustedes .Les mando un beso very big ,en ingles,para todos ustedes CHAU CHAU


Our other visitor this month was an errant Emperor penguin. Rare in these parts - there are few sites on the Antarctic Peninsula where these - the largest of the penguins - live and breed, but there is one south of here, and every one or two years they are seen at Rothera, which is nice for us. At Halley research station there are hundreds - so if you read their base diary you will find out all about them I hope, but we had one, and so I have included a picture of him or her. The penguin stayed about as long as the Argentineans and then headed off on the sea ice south, much as they did. In fact, they now have an Emperor penguin sat outside their front door - coincidence?

There are not many days of our winter left and our most important job is still left to do, namely get the base ready for the summer season ahead of us. Clearing the runway of snow is a major task, cleaning the base, making beds for the new arrivals, sorting out work spaces...

In the North you will be seeing lights turning on earlier each day. Soon it will be Hull fair, and the shops will fill with Christmas presents, tangerines and chestnuts. Here, it is now possible to go for a walk in the evening after dinner and see the sky change colour later each day. It will not be long before I am converting my room for one into a room for four, packing up the clutter of winter into boxes and sharing my kitchen with a new friend.

But that is the stuff of another month, and so for now, I shall leave you and go to my bed.

Best wishes, Gerard Baker.

Gerard Baker, Rothera research station. Adelaide Island, Antarctica