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Rothera Diary — June 2012

June, the pivotal month in the Antarctic. We are tilted as far away from the sun as it is possible to be. But now the huge mass of our planet starts to swing, inexorably, the other way and we poor souls in the southern hemisphere will, ever so slowly, move away from the darkness and into the light.

Darkness does have something of a bad press though. Because without it we would miss the amazing starscapes visible through the wonderfully crisp, clear, air of the Antarctic. A perfusion of stars scattered in unfamiliar (to our northern eyes) constellations but with friendly, easily recognizable Orion tucked away in the corner. And the Moon, massive, it’s creamy coloured surface ancient and pitted, clearly visible by even the most myopic.

The weather typically mixed. Aching beautiful pink skies, clouds and high mountains summits illuminated by an invisible sun. Then gale force winds combined with temperatures of minus 16 c producing red faced novices come to worship at the lunchtime shrine of St. Justine, our wonderful chef. Bowls of nourishing soup and crusty bread to warm the cockles.

Sea ice (Photo: Adam Bradley)
Sea ice (Photo: Adam Bradley)

The coldness freezes over the surface of the sea and we lose its, not inconsiderable, noise; all that slurping and glugging, all that lapping and crashing, it all disappears. It becomes so quiet that not only do you suspect that your ears are blocked but perhaps that your entire auditory sensory apparatus, buried somewhere in your skull, has, in fact, been removed.

Wildlife has taken the hint. If it can fly it has flown away. If it can swim it has swum away.

We hunker down. The bar is a safe, familiar, refuge. Birthdays are celebrated (Adam and the still young Rosie this month). Strange outfits are on display and strange haircuts produced.

Escape to different climes comes in evening lectures remembering our former lives, Ash living wild in the Amazon basin and Adam recounting tales of big cats and friendly warthogs in South Africa.

Remote though we undoubtedly are we were still crazy enough to follow the English national football team. Listening by the wonders of the wireless being relayed over the Internet as “our boys “ pulled their usual trick. Why should we be left out of the torture just because we are 9000 miles away?

All the while the clock ticks as the lead up to midwinter continues. Furtive scrabbling in corners, not produced by foraging mice, but by “would be “ craftsmen and women desperately finishing off the presents that we all make for one another. A myriad of ideas, a cross section of skills and overall a lovely tradition to carry on.

Then it’s here, Midwinter celebrations. We are bombarded by greetings from other Antarctic bases, American, Australian, Chinese and Indian amongst many others, a true rainbow of nations but in total numbering a few hundred people scattered upon a Continent twice the size of North America.

Beer is drunk, usually in moderation, table tennis (hotly contested) and dart competitions played and won (and lost). And outside it still light enough to play and so on go the winter Olympics (we don’t want to feel left out). Skiing, of course, but also a snowy assault course and box stacking in the hanger.

Then the big day itself, the 21st June. Justine is in his kitchen. We know that he is going to produce a superb meal and, by jove, he does cook us a wonderful meal.

Meanwhile presents are swapped and marvelled over. Such imagination, such skill. Happy smiles all around.

Midwinter presents (Photo: Adam Bradley)
Midwinter presents (Photo: Adam Bradley)

Then by dint of a dress, a jacket, a tie we transform ourselves and a handsome gathering of people meet in the lounge to take their places around a suitably bedecked table, whereupon the aforementioned feast is served.

Fortunately, half way through this extravaganza, we are obliged to stretch our legs as we stroll over to the communications tower. Here we sit in cosy quietness listening to the hallowed tones of the BBC World Service and the lovely messages that you have sent us. It ‘lump in the throat’ moment as momentarily we are transported back to the company of distant loved ones.

Listening to the Midwinter broadcast (Photo: Adam Bradley)
Listening to the Midwinter broadcast (Photo: Adam Bradley)

But we rouse ourselves and return to the lounge and, manfully, polish off the main course, Beef Wellington. Then afterward, somewhat comatosed from overeating, we lapse into a thoroughly agreeable silence.

Midwinter games (Photo: Adam Bradley)
Midwinter games (Photo: Adam Bradley)

In the following days it’s back to work. Out come the pliers, spanners, saws, whipping twine, soldering irons, regulators and not forgetting the computer keyboards. For we aren’t exactly wasting our time down here. No we are supporting scientific endeavours which are at the forefront of our understanding of climate change. And as you mop up from the sodden summer you are enjoying in the UK who can deny that we are working for a noble cause.

Dave Routledge
Field GA