Rothera Diary: October 1999

written by Gerard Baker

New faces: Summer arrives


October 1999

My second diary entry of the month reminds me that we finally managed to take the midwinter photograph. Perhaps ?midwinter' is not the right title for the picture, as it is really just a photograph of the twenty two of us. Besides, at midwinter, the light outside is not really good enough for taking pictures with pretty backdrops. The walls of the base bar and stairs are littered with such pictures from years past.

I often stop to ponder the many faces smiling out from behind the panes of glass as I go down stairs to collect food from the stores. All of those people have shared something with each other and in their own way, each has left part of themselves behind. For some, the only evidence that they were ever here lies behind that glass - their image. Others leave their physical selves behind - the memories of families and friends maintaining their lives elsewhere. It is a fact that each of us could die at any time - but then death is as sure as tax wherever you live.

Whilst not in a state of denial about the relative risks of living here, I do think that living in Antarctica may be one of the safest places. For a start, there are few axe-wielding murderers, and no buses to be run over by. Those risks that do exist here are easily defined - so as long as one is aware of them, one is OK.

On a brighter note, many people make physical contributions to the base - many of our bunks are decorated and shelved out reminding us of carpenters past. Photographs of men and dogs adorn the walls of the base giving us a sense of history, reminding us of other people and other times. Often I wonder just how all of these people manage to move on from this experience. I guess that many do not completely.

I am in the process of making a frame for a picture for the kitchen - just a black and white print I have made of pancake ice - appropriate for the kitchen I thought. Matt, our base carpenter is keeping an eye on my efforts and is a fine tutor.

One significant event of the early part of the month was that my mum celebrated her birthday - so happy birthday mum! I rang her, of course, to wish her all my love and it was good to talk. We have a satellite telephone on the base which, although expensive..., is also very useful on the odd occasion. There are few present buying opportunities here - we do have base T-shirts, which are good presents but one can only wear so many ?I've been to the Antarctic' T-shirts. Particularly when you haven't. I have been spending lots of time in the dark room of late in the hope that I can print up some of my black and white images from the winter to send home in time for Christmas. Until I came south I had no experience of black and white developing or printing, so it has been fun to learn. Thankfully there are plenty of people on base to pass on experience and guiding comments.

Weekly, we chat to the Argentinean base, San Martin, as I have written about before. It has developed over the past month or so that another of their bases, General Belgrano, wants to make contact on a weekly basis our Halley station to which it is near. Some of the personnel at Belgrano are planning an overland trip to the South Pole in January, so contact between the two would be a useful backdrop for the attempt. Getting the two bases together has not been easy - and at one stage involved three radio frequencies and four radios - each on different stations. Chaos, but as I understand it, contact has finally been made. As they say, it is good to talk.

Part-way through the month we readied ourselves for the end of the winter. We expected the planes that form the British Antarctic Survey Air Unit to arrive around the seventeenth of the month and so an end of winter dinner was planned. Crispin Day, one of the Field Assistants, had planned a slide show and talk based on some diary extracts and original slides of Captain Robert Falcon Scott's expedition to the South Pole. Several people read parts - Captain Scott, Edward Wilson, Birdie Bowers, Kathleen Scott, and Apsley Cherry-Garrard - to the tune of Vaughan Williams Sinfonia Antartica. People, I think, were moved by the whole event. It was a poignant but positive way to end the winter.

Remember that we do have instant communications with the outside world and Scott did not. His polar party died at the end of March 1911, but the wintering party did not know of their sad demise, until their bodies were actually found the following year at the end of October, so for their families, the wait must have been unbearable.

October 1999 has been a month of real change here at Rothera. From a base wintering complement of 22, numbers have shot up - in fact they have doubled. October is the month that marks the beginning of the summer field season here. The arrival of the Air Unit provides a great deal of logistical back up to the research station and that is something I shall come on to - but first I ought to give a little background.

The research station is here in order to provide a base for British and International scientific activity in the Antarctic, some of which happens here at Rothera Point and the surrounding area all the year round - you will perhaps remember my telling you about the winter marine and terrestrial scientific programmes in the July issue of the web diary. Additionally, in the summer, there are many scientific research parties camping out and about the Antarctic continent and surrounding islands that require back up and logistical support, which is provided by the station here.

It is at this time of year - the beginning of the summer - when all of the aforementioned scientists arrive and require help to get out into their field location. Quite how they arrive is in itself of interest - at least I think that it is, so bear with me. It is, of course, quite impossible to pop down to the local travel agents and buy a day return to the Antarctic continent. In fact, you CAN fly here as a tourist, but it will cost you several thousand pounds and you'll have to be fit and healthy in addition. You might also pay several thousand pounds in order to sail here on a commercial tourist ship, but if you are a scientist wanting to get here to carry out research, then your only option would be to associate yourself with one of the national expeditions, such as run for the UK by the British Antarctic Survey.

As you can see elsewhere in the web site, the British Antarctic Survey has its own research ships - RRS Ernest Shackleton and RRS James Clark Ross - and the Air Unit. So, it is possible for visitors to our base to either fly or sail to the continent. In practice, most fly for the better part of the journey. The RAF operate an air bridge to the Falkland Islands which flies twice weekly. Once in the Falkland Islands, the Survey's Dash-7 aircraft can carry passengers down here to Rothera Point, or people can jump onto one of the two ships to obtain passage to their snowy destination.

Our first ship is due to sail to the station in mid November - RRS James Clark Ross in fact. It will bring a couple of dozen staff with it, equipment, and importantly for us, food supplies - fresh and frozen. By the time the ship sails, it is likely that there will be little "fast" sea ice in our local area, so it ought to be able to get to us on time.

Ships and planes, incidentally, do not generally over-winter here. They could in theory - some do in fact. One tourist company, Adventure Network International, overwinters a small Cessna plane in a snow tunnel, and in the past various yachts have overwintered - the famous sailor and environmental campaigner, Jerome Poncet, did exactly that on one of the islands to the south of here back in the early 1970s. His yacht had a retractable keel, so that he and his wife could haul the yacht out of the sea. Winter weather can be grim - huge winds and freezing sea - so that ships in water could be damaged and planes could, quite literally, be blown away. It is for other reasons, though, that our Air Unit and the ships do not spend the southern winter here at Rothera. Repairs need to be carried out and supplies purchased. So they head back to the UK, leaving us to winter here on our own.

Getting back to the present, the planes arrived back. That marked the end of the winter and the beginning of the summer - all in an instant. The Air Unit itself flies south in two halves - the four Twin Otters which have spent the northern summer in the UK arrived first - the Dash-7, which has a slightly more exotic summer in Canada, flies down on its own and usually arrives a week or so later than the Twin Otter aircraft.

The Twin Otters are not designed to fly over large distances - they fly short routes of two, three hours usually, even here in the Antarctic. So they need extra fuel tanks to enable them to do it. These sit in the cargo hold and occupy a huge amount of space, cramming the Pilot's and air mechanic's baggage and kit. ?Ferry tanks' fitted, the Twin Otters can fly for seven or eight hours - enabling them to reach Antarctica from the UK in about two weeks. Their route is quite spectacular, to say the least - here it is:

Oxford - Kirkwall: Kirkwall to Keflavik (Iceland): Keflavik to Narsarsuaq (Greenland): Narsarsuaq to Goose Bay (Labrador): Goose Bay to Bangor (Maine): Bangor to Wilmington (North Carolina): Wilmington to Key West (Florida): Florida to Montego Bay (Jamaica) - where there is a rest day, oh hardship - Montego Bay to Maiquuetia (Venezuela): Maiquuetia to Eduardo Gomes (Manaus in the middle of the Brazilian rain forest): Eduardo Gomes to Brasilia International: Brasilia International to Guarulhos (Sao Paulo): Guarulhos to Montevideo: Montevideo to Stanley: Stanley to Rothera.

I will admit to having not looked it up on a map - but it would be an interesting route to take, I am sure of that. This year's route was a slight alteration from that of previous years as the Chilean - UK dispute over the summer had caused some concern. The pilots say that the flight is tiring - the worst potential leg is that north from Kirkwall to Greenland - where the weather can be either really bad or really good - this year it was not too special by all accounts. Each morning there are the routine customs checks and loading up - and then the flying itself to contend with - day in day out - which after all does amount to a great deal of just sitting down and watching the controls.

In fact, our first summer visitors were not the British Antarctic Survey planes. Adventure Network International (ANI, the company I mentioned earlier) just happened to be due at Rothera at the same time as our own planes, and one of them landed first - but the sight was one to behold. After seven or so months of relative isolation to see the sky full of aircraft and hear the familiar drone of propellers was elating. Seeing old friends is always a pleasure too, but one moment of that day stands out - and is a telling reminder that I am a cook.

The ANI planes brought us a present of fruit from South America. Giving me the box, one of the pilots said that he was sorry that it was small, but that was all they could carry. I stood on the apron outside the aircraft hangar with a mixture of pilots, mechanics and winterers, and Jenny picked up an orange. If you have one to hand, pick it up and dig your fingers into the peel - watch as the spray of zest fills the air and inhale. The scent will be overpowering - anyone walking into the room you are in will know exactly what you are up to. The sight of the cloud of zest and juice drifting up into the air and the scent of oranges stands out as the most vivid smell memory I have. We had not seen oranges for a very long time. But of course, oranges are not the only fruit, to coin a phrase. The Survey's own aircraft brought us apples, lemons, pears, tomatoes, lettuces, REAL POTATOES, garlic, ginger.

I am sure that all of the winterers were happy to have the food goodies. But, I am not sure whether they would put them ahead of the post that we received at the same time. Letters are so more special than e-mail - handwritten with all of the care that phrase implies. Photographs of home and familiar script, letters that have been read and reread, newspapers. As Juan Carlos, Radio Operator at San Martin would say ?we enjoy too much' - his ?I am having a good time' phrase.

So - in an instant, the winter ended, and the dining room resounded with unfamiliar voices, strange faces and it was all slightly bizarre to be honest. As well as our own Air Unit, the ANI guys stayed overnight and ate with us before pressing onto their own camp at Patriot Hills - some distance to the south - east of us. Once they had left, we manage to ?survive' a very relaxing few days with the familiar faces of the pilots and mechanics. I could pass many compliments about the BAS Air Unit. I will mention just one here and now, and that is that, as the first visitors to the base after the winter, the Air Unit managed to arrive and blend into the base as though as they had never left.

Here is a photograph of the Air Unit and this is who they are:

Back row: Geoff Porter - pilot; Anthony Tuson - pilot; Adrian Mildwater - Chief Pilot; Steve Tucker - Chief Airmechanic; Dave Leatherdale - pilot; Doug Pearson - pilot; Les Kitson - pilot; Giles Watson - pilot.

Front row: Tracy Eros - airmechanic; Andy Alsop - pilot; Tom O'Connor - airmechanic; Wayne Busby - airmechanic; Steve Parker - Head of Aircraft Engineering

It could be difficult for both them and us - imagine visiting a group of people who have been cut off from the outside world for such a long time. What would you expect them to be like? Huge beards, strange behaviour and odd twitches perhaps? And, if you had been wintering here what would you feel like to have ?strange' people invading your personal space? In fact, the eight pilots and mechanics know how the base works, and all of them have visited us before - so they are used to being in that position. And for the winterers, frankly, it is a relief to have new people to talk to after such a long time. All in all it went quite well.

The month is well advanced now and I have to send this off to the web, so I shall say bye for now and see you again in November.

Best wishes to you all

Gerard Baker, Rothera station, Adelaide Island, Antarctica