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Rothera diary: June 2000

written by Pete Milner

Midwinter, Work and Play


June 2000

The daylight hours in June shorten rapidly, meaning an end to winter trips for the Rothera team. After these expeditions stopped, the Field GA's have been working on equipment maintenance. Personally I am enjoying working on the Nansen sledges. These are made of wood, about twelve foot long, held together by leather thongs and cord lashings. They look really good after being fitted with new ropes and covered with a coat of Linseed oil. The design is much the same as was used decades ago. The advantage is that they flex when being dragged across uneven surfaces. Metal would just crack and break in the cold.

I did my turn at night watch this month. This duty requires that I tour the base every three hours on fire watch. I managed to be able to finish off my midwinter present during this week as I had the carpenter's workshop to myself. In addition I had to check the power generators and the Reverse Osmosis plant that supplies our fresh water. There are meteorological observations that have to be fed into the computer. Interestingly enough I have to enter figures for cloud cover and visibility. Bit difficult really as it is dark! Still I'm sure my guesswork will make sense to somebody.

Bit of a fright on the rounds one night. It happened as I was walking down to the science lab through wind, blowing snow and deep drifts. I was dressed in warm jacket and boots complete with goggles and hat, when a sudden screeching nearly gave me heart failure. There was a gang of penguins asleep in the snow right in the middle of the track. I had walked straight into them and they had not heard me approach. Much noise and flapping about whilst they shook the snow off themselves. Rather like husky dogs they lie in the snow and let the drifting snow bury them and keep the wind off. After I calmed down and did the rounds they went back to sleep in the same place. They were woken up every three hours that night, poor things. Just when you are beginning to get into a set routine, something extraordinary happens down here.We now appear to have a 'snow woman' standing outside the main door!

Soon preparations for the midwinter celebrations started. The solstice is treated like Christmas in the Antarctic, ever since the days of Captain Scott. We were invited to parties and celebrations at bases all over the Antarctic. We even had personal greetings from the Prime Minister of India and some of his colleagues. Keiron had to draft an e-mail passing on our good wishes to other stations and apologizing for the fact that we could not attend their parties. One other station was having a Full Contact Chess tournament! plus Zen Snooker and the Dominoes of death! It would be a party animal's dream to attend all the festivities on this continent.

Midwinter week started with a quiz organised by George and Howie. A great night was had by all; caption competitions, general knowledge rounds, ?getting into a wet suit' races and points awarded at the judges discretion. Somebody won, but every team got a prize and the bar was full of laughter.

The first Saturday of the week was our time for a traditional pub crawl. All around the station people generously donated drinks and their free time to provide some different venues. First on the agenda was "The Magistrate's" run by Keiron in the Library, next it was down to the Surgery for inoculations provided by Chris Burrows and his lovely nurse ( Steve Ainscough ). Things now became a bit more physical, the team had to work for their beer. The infamous "Bungee bar" had been set up in the Sledge Store. Thirsty customers had to run down the corridor attached to a piece of elastic and attempt to reach the beer, tantalisingly just out of reach. Lots of padding cushioned the speedy return back down the corridor. Then out into the cold for a stroll down to "The Watersports Club". Howie and Hugh had converted the Boatshed and provided buckets of punch. Jenny and Paul proved excellent hosts at "The Gone Fish Inn" a previously unknown department of the Bonner Laboratory. As it's the year 2000 Rothera would not be the same without our own " Millennium Dome" managed by George. Just the same as any Saturday night in England hunger takes over, and Ian Parsons was running "Mohammed's Kebabs" in the dining room. Just time for one last pub, then off to a club. Fortunately for us "The Cockwell Inn" was still serving. Pete Martin, Matt and Simon converted the Sparky Shop to as near a real bar as is possible down here. Another great thing about being in the Antarctic is the complete lack of queues to get into a club. "CinDOOrellas Nightclub" which may have been a garage in a previous life, provided a huge sound system, excellent dance floor and light show complete with polished skidoos decorating the walls.

I had Sunday cook duties to worry about so I stayed relatively sensible on the Saturday night pub crawl. Just how much food do twenty one people eat? It was all a bit of a nightmare really. Strangely there were few customers for lunch. In the evening I did a beef in beer casserole, mustard mash and horseradish mash, followed by orange and chocolate cheesecake. There was enough to go round and it seemed well received. What a relief.

Pete Martin, Simon and Matt had arranged a treasure hunt for Monday the 19th. Teams were soon running all around the station chasing clues from the Bonner Laboratory to the hangar. The winning tactics seemed to require the use of a skidoo, it was good exercise and great fun in spite of coming third (of three). Drivers frustrated by the lack of travel entered the Scalextric competition and "CinDOOreallas" hosted a BBQ night.

Plenty of people had volunteered to cook during midwinters week but on the 21st it was back to work for Keith our chef. Of course in the good old days! (Scott, Shackleton etc.), an extra ration of chocolate was considered celebration enough. However it's the year 2000 and things have moved on. Keith did us proud.

Rothera midwinter 2000 menu

Egg Florentineserved in a pastry case, atop of spinach and coated in a rich cheese sauce

Leek and Mushroom Potage

Deep fried Brie with Cranberry Coulis served on Bob's homegrown beanshoots

Beef Wellington, with a mushroom & smoked bacon sauce

Vegetables and Potatoes of the day

Raspberry Chocolate Brulee with mint chocolate fingers

Continental Cheeseboard

Coffee and Petit fours

Feeling somewhat stuffed from the evenings feast everyone retired to the bar. The BBC World Service do a programme specially for staff wintering in the Antarctic. Recorded messages from friends and families are read out. The broadcast was quite emotional as they read out messages from home to all the three wintering stations. At the end of the broadcast John Peel came on and in his dry, witty, manner said " I hear that if I wish you happy mid-winter, it will brighten up your sad, cold, little lives. Personally I am happy that I am here, in this rather small and sweaty Radio 4 studio, than where you are. Do you still eat pemmican?" Classic, nice one John. We also had "We Gotta Get Out of this Place" by the Animals played as our request, Halley station chose some Hawaiian war chant. Great fun and both choices should worry the HQ management!

This was followed by present giving. The time when all those hours in the chippy shop would be revealed. There were models of sledges, seals and tented camps, framed pictures, engravings, windchimes, a clock, a turned pot, metal candle sticks, a wooden three dimensional map of the Antarctic Peninsula, a wooden CD holder and a moving metal snow boarder.

That night we used the last of the fresh food which had been carefully saved for our special event. Next fresh delivery is in late October. Although this was the solstice, it is not quite half way through our winter season, plenty more to go. Also similarly to England, the colder periods are after the solstice. We have received good wishes from all over the Antarctic from all nations and nationalities. The bond of polar explorers is strong. I know this is not a time that is usually special back home, but on this continent it marks the point where the sun starts to come back.

I especially remember celebrating the summer solstice in Alaska, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt with a cold beer in my hand, watching the band play at a BBQ on the airstrip. That was after a climbing expedition to Mt McKinley, it was warm after the cold of the mountains and we had twenty-four daylight then. Interesting to note that I now celebrate the same date, but with nearly twenty-four hour darkness and a different season. I suppose it must prove that the world is round, in spite of evidence to the contrary.

We finished our celebrations with a fancy dress night. First prize must go to Steve Ainscough as John Shaft, but others were good as well, Mark as Skint Eastwood, Jenny as Simon! Pete Martin as Nana Mouskouri and Howie as a dodgy scouse geezer. The best impersonation by far was Simon as Alfie, he was that man, looks, mannerisms the lot. We laughed so much.

I spent the following Sunday on my own, with a walk round Rothera Point, on a cold and clear day. Mist to the north hides Stokes Peaks, but there is sufficient twilight at midday to allow a short walk. There was a large gang of penguins on the north shore. There is a proper name for a group of penguins, but I prefer 'a confusion of penguins'. They are so funny sitting or lying there with occasional arguments about who is standing on whose patch of snow. As if there wasn't enough to go round. While I was watching one of them wandered away from the group and all the others stood up and decided to follow. Obviously the other penguin's patch of snow is always whiter. They all marched off round to East Beach and I could walk alongside them. One fell over and jammed his beak in the snow. They hopped over some rocks, some climbed over by the technique of jumping up and flopping their belly on the ledge then wriggling over, just like some human climbers I have seen. I took some photos and carried on my walk. Your fingers take some time to warm up after using a camera. As it was a still day the sea was frozen, not to any deep extent but covered nonetheless. The walk ends at the south end of Rothera Point by the memorial cross. It's a great view south from this spot and a lovely place to think and reflect. The wooden cross and the bench were covered with frost. Back to the base for a sandwich and cup of tea. Normally Sundays at home are more active, but less spectacular. It's back to work tomorrow as our week off had ended.

Monday morning and back to reality, since we have rather ignored the caboose; it needed moving. The caboose is a small hut on a metal sledge that lives up by our ski area and emergency landing site for aircraft. When it snows the wind tends to cause drifts and then it requires digging out and moving. It took us all morning and lots of pulling with the Sno-cat. We went up at about ten, which was the first chance we had to see what was going on. It had been a still day and we were treated to a few hours of a beautiful dawn, which obviously did not produce a sun. Mist hung over the sea which has now frozen as far as we can see. All the rocks on Reptile Ridge and our expedition sledges were covered in frost. The flags marking the safe route were frozen solid. Just to add something special to the day we saw our first nacreous (mother of pearl) cloud. These are high clouds, which are quite fluffy and when the light is right, shine with a spectrum of light rather like oil on water. Back home for a late lunch and then back to sledge maintenance. The next task will be to dig out the field skidoos from a snow drift and then go and free the Nansen sledges from the snow.

Now that the sea is beginning to freeze solid, the outdoor team need to start monitoring its condition. We take sea ice travel really seriously here. Soon I will have to go out onto the sea ice - GULP. We need to drill through and measure how thick it is. The situation is regularly monitored to see if it is safe for further travel. The divers will need routes prepared out to holes they cut in the ice to dive through. They must be mad! The bay does look interesting with the sea completely frozen. Even the penguins seem to be having difficulty walking on it. They keep falling over as their feet are better adapted for snow.

The final surprise of the month was an apple! Amazing - a real one, Keith the chef produced the last box of fresh fruit. I had not seen one for several months and this one will be the last until November. Keith was really pleased as he produced a surprise dessert without having to do any work.

I would just like to close by wishing you all a happy midwinter (summer). Hopefully you celebrated somehow.


Pete Milner

Pete Milner, Rothera research station, Adelaide Island, Antarctica