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Rothera Diary — June 2009

Midwinter skies

June, a pivotal month in the Antarctic. The sun, our friend, has deserted us and lies out of sight, blocked by the mountains and then even disappearing below the horizon to the north. It shows its presence though by casting colourful skies as it illuminates high, shapely clouds, tingeing them pink. Concomitant with this the temperatures also dropped this month with sub −10°C spells. The sea Para responded by freezing, cutting itself off from the cold world above.

Snow Petrel on pancake ice. Photo Melissa Langridge
Snow Petrel on pancake ice. Photo Melissa Langridge

Still wildlife lingers. Weddell, Crabeater and even Fur seals are hauled out on beaches. Out in Ryder Bay, Orca and Minke whales still appear from time to time. Meanwhile the skies are patrolled by ghostly snow-white Snow Petrels, which glide silently around the base both day and night. Prehensile looking Giant Petrels are also present never lingering long in one place.

Snow Petrel in flight. Photo Michael Shortt
Snow Petrel in flight. Photo Michael Shortt

We have been fortunate in having some wonderful clear spells providing us with four or five hours of usable daylight and some gloriously clear nights. These long, clear nights are magical; starscapes almost beyond imagination light up the sky, the great arc of the Milky Way with its countless stars beams above us. Andy, Adam and Mike have all been out armed with their cameras intent on capturing this amazing spectacle and with some success too. (see May diary entry)

Night Shots Star trails. Photo Adam Clark
Night Shots Star trails. Photo Adam Clark

On the 10th June we all gathered at the flagpole to witness Ian, the oldest base member, lower the now tattered Union Flag. This was the day when the sun no longer came above the horizon. In fact we hadn’t been unable to see the sun for a few weeks before this date due to the band of mountains which lie immediately to the north of Rothera.

Flag ceremony. Photo Matt von Tersch
Flag ceremony. Photo Matt von Tersch

Even before midwinter we had things to celebrate with three birthdays this month Jonny, Adam and Kirk all ticking off another year and hopefully one that will linger long in the memory. On Jonny’s birthday we all dressed up as wrestlers (all the Field Assistants went as Cumberland wrestlers). Jonny is a great fan of the sport. Unfortunately he was unable to attend being a little under the weather.

Cumberland wrestlers. Photo Terri Souster
Cumberland wrestlers. Photo Terri Souster

In fact the whole base has been a hive of activity, as along with our normal and not inconsiderable work we were also preparing for, and indeed celebrating, the major event of the winter — 21st June, midwinter. This is the day on which the sun was furthest below the horizon and would henceforth be on its way back to us. A date worth celebrating.

Caboose morning. Photo Andy Webster
Caboose morning. Photo Andy Webster

Midwinter present making went on at frenzy. The Chippie shop was especially busy where nominally intelligent people realised that making things from wood is a very great skill in its own right. Shaun (our wintering chippie) hovered over everyone advising and supervising like a guardian angel. Pieces of wood, which were once parts of a proud tree were now routed, sawn, carved, turned, jointed or simply reduced to sawdust.

The Chippie Shop. Photo Tony McLaughlan
The Chippie Shop. Photo Tony McLaughlan

The resulting presents were outstanding, both from a technical and an artistic point of view. Technical ability had been married with wondrous imagination to produce an inspired collection of midwinter presents. There was everything from miniature sledges (one even in a bottle) to lovely framed photographs and even a pair of deck chairs.

A Nansen in a bottle. Photo Tony McLaughlan
A Nansen in a bottle. Photo Tony McLaughlan

The Big Day went along the lines of Christmas Day at home. A leisurely brunch (cooked by our beloved leader Matt B.), a movie (The Thing — as is the tradition) then time to smarten up. Suddenly the base was full of pretty girls in lovely dresses and smart young (and not so young) men in shirts, ties and jackets. Presents were presented and received with great delight and lots of smiles all around.

Amazed by winter presents. Photo Melissa Langridge
Amazed by winter presents. Photo Melissa Langridge

We then proceeded with a fabulous and extensive meal lovingly prepared by our master Chef Riet. We did manage to waddle over to the comms tower to listen to the BBC World Service broadcast. There were a few moist eyes as we listened to the messages from our loved ones back home. Then it was back to the dining room for more food and the odd glass of fine wine with which we toasted our benefactors, the good old British Tax Payer, cheers.

Midwinters Day Menu

  • Salmon Gravadlax with pan fried scallops in lemon oil
  • Pate Maison with smoked bacon and granary toast
  • Ravioli of monkfish in green curry sauce.
  • Raspberry sorbet
  • Lamb cutlets with minty gravy
  • Pommes duchesses, green beans wrapped in bacon.
  • Crème caramel
  • Coffee and cocoa cream
  • Cheese and biscuits, port

For the rest of our celebratory week people had organised various fun events. Firstly we had the midwinter Olympics organised by the Field Assistants. Teams competed in various, mainly traditional, events from Giant Slalom skiing (won by the Flying Flem — Riet) to bog chisel throwing, Skidoo trials, obstacle course etc. All of these took place outdoors in cold calm weather and everyone enjoyed being active after eating (and yes drinking) a little too much on midwinters day.

Midwinter Ice Climbing
Midwinter Ice Climbing

The Miss Rothera contest also proved, surprisingly popular. Two of our “real” girls, the lovely Mel and Celine acted as judges, whilst fun loving Terri acted as dresser. Yes all the contestants were from the male contingent on base. After a great deal of fun, laughter and banter from the compère Mr Chippendale aka Jonny, the lovely “Maxine” was voted the winner, Miss Rothera 2009.

Miss Rothera 2009. Photo Melissa Langridge
Miss Rothera 2009. Photo Melissa Langridge

Later in the week we had Matt von Tersch’s mini golf extravaganza with every department creating a crazy mini golf hole. Again, great fun and games.

During this period would-be-Inuit were making the most of the calm weather by building an igloo. Celine and Riet laid the foundations with young James being recruited as labour and myself being brought in as technical consultant. We produced something — not quite an igloo but perhaps an ugloo.

The ugloo. Photo Riet Van de Velde
The ugloo. Photo Riet Van de Velde

Yet more entertainment was provided by the Rothera band who played an excellent session in the lounge. Beautifully melodic singing from Melissa with backing from the rocking Andy, Tony on bass and Danny on guitar, Paul on saxophone and that man Riet on drums. More robust but equally enthusiastic singing came from Jonny, Matt Doc and The Boss, Matt Brown. The band almost outnumbered the audience but a great night was had by all.

Band night. Photo Melissa Langridge
Band night. Photo Melissa Langridge

The week rounded off with a movie extravaganza. We had all voted for our five favourite films on base. These were all shown on one day. However only Mike and Paul had the stamina to watch all five — a good effort.

We are certainly having a great time here, but this is still a working base where we must look after all our own needs. Even during midwinters week people still have to cook, do nightwatch, record the weather, look after the generators, fix sewage pumps (thanks Marty). We belong to a small, self enclosed community here and if a job needs to be done, we are the only people who can do it. This engenders strong feelings of being part of a very special team, cut off in the depths of the Antarctic, relying on each other for both practical and emotion support.

Digging team. Photo Terri Souster
Digging team. Photo Terri Souster

It is a great privilege to winter in the Antarctic, especially when you are part of a team of lively, enthusiastic people. For some, it will become a fond memory of a unique time in their lives, and for others, it will be a life changing experience; altering their perception of both the world and, indeed, of themselves.

Dave Routledge

Terri and Dave. Photo Andy Webster
Terri and Dave. Photo Andy Webster