I’ve been out and about lately and it feels good. Nothing as exotic or high
speed as what you folk out there in the ‘Real World’ can do I admit, but a kilometre
away from the base makes all the difference. Remind me in the future that you
don’t need to go far, or for long, to have a holiday.
The first trip out was on the Friday before mid-winter. There is an old caboose
called Wonky just beyond the perimeter that is equipped with
there after scrub-out and before dinner, pulling our huge
p-bags and two small backpacks, containing dinner and stories,
on a pulk.
CabooseLike a caravan but on skis.
PerimeterThe perimeter drum line around Halley base
has a circumference of about 5km and rolls around 1km from the main building
at any point. As a general rule, we stay within this boundary for our own
safety but the CASLab and some containers are betyond its reach.
BasicsFrozen butter, dried food, pots, pans, primus
stoves and tilly lamps, sheepskins, candles and fuel.
FrankDoctor and good friend.
Scrub-outFortnightly intensive cleaning of the base
– everyone does something.
P-bag"Personal -bag". A massive bag containing
thermarest, insulating foam mat, sheepskin rug, down sleeping bag, fleece
sleeping bag liner and bivouac bag.
PulkSmall plastic or fibreglass sledge used for
manhauling stuff around the place.
It was an absolutely stunning night. Clear to the horizon, no moon, stars so
bright you could navigate by them. After dinner, we took two sheepskins out
of the caboose, dug some seats in the snow on which to lay them and stared at
the sky. Orion setting, Scorpio dancing, the old familiar faces, the southern
cross. And shooters! So many shooting stars. A beautiful crystal clear night.
After about 5 minutes my toes were numb and I had to go in to warm up.
The caboose is equipped with a slow oil-burning stove in addition to the lamps
and primus which, once it got going, kept us toasty all night. The familiar
smell of kerosene, slightly sweet, the tent-like banter, bedtime stories.
The next day I had to go the the lab to do daily checks and then most of the
weekend was spent by people finishing up presents. Monday finally arrived, June
21st, mid-winter, the day we’ve been counting down to since the ship left. It
was a great day. Breakfast in bed from the Base Commander, The Shining as a
traditional morning movie, everyone gathering in the lounge around lunch- time,
surrounded by decorations, a newly created fire-place and a christmas tree.
Awaiting Santa. Ho Ho Ho! He’s not that busy this time of year so he stayed
for a while. Under the tree was one present for each person (a miracle of trust
and memory, if you ask me!), made by a secret friend on base, often involving
hours of unknown heartache behind workshop doors. No-one was dissapointed and
I was reminded again what present-giving is supposed to be about. Intricate
models from brass, carvings from wood, a fully functioning stove, an engraved
knife, hand-developed photos, paintings, stories, picture frames and glossy
photographs, games, plaques and stories. Each very personal, each unique and
each made with love. Then the bubbly was popped, wine bottles opened and the
festivities began! Christmas with none of the bad bits, none of the consumerism,
an amazing meal, great stories, everyone dressed up to the nines. Celebrations
into the night.
The next day I had to go to the lab to do daily checks. I didn’t think I’d
In honour of reaching mid-winter, all British bases have a week holiday at
this time of year, but obviously everyone has a certain amount of maintenance
work to do. It was a relaxed week, a fun week but very low key and I for one
spent most of the time asleep.
On one of the evenings a group of us went to the igloo to read poetry and stories.
I had my big fat book of native american tales and delved back into the world
of Coyote and Iktome. Others brought poems and we passed the book around. After
a couple of hours, folk were cold. It was, after all, approaching -40C outside
and body warmth can heat you only so far. Another beautiful, starry starry night.
Kev (the chef) and I decided to stay the night in the igloo and had brought
our p-bags just in case – in case we dared, that is. It was cold. The
tilly was providing light but little heat and our sleeping bags needed unrolling,
sorting out, mattresses blown up etc. Not easy with bear-paw mitts the size
of your head on the end of each hand. Not easy in fits of giggles eaither. Kev
first clambered into his sleeping bag, overalls and all, to warm up. I tried
the more sensible approach of taking off atleast one layer of down in order
to allow the bag to work its magic. But this involved getting cold first so,
in retrospect, I wasn’t much better off. Invariably, just when you’ve warmed
up, your bladder decides it’s time to make itself known. Out of the sleeping
bag, back into boots (ooo so cold!), out the chute of the igloo, down the tunnel,
up the entance that is now buried and has no steps, out, out, spat out into
the glorious night sky. And then repeat. The only good thing about this whole
charade is the amusement it provides your companion.
Eventually we settled down to try to sleep. All thermals, all liners, all zips
zipped and toggles toggled, cosy cosy. Turn over in the middle of the night
and BLAST a shot of icy cold air shivers right down to your toes. In the morning
we tried to light the tilly but the meths wouldn’t take. When it eventually
did, we got a plume of smoke in our face. It was all comical and awkward, and
cold. We just needed to get some light and warm up enough to get out of our
sleeping bags and go home. But this involved putting on boots that had been
sat at -45C all night. Still, it’s a record I’m proud of. I came in, had a mug
of horlicks and a hot shower and then went straight to my bed.
The week continued with celebrations and events. A murder mystery night, a
barbeque, a fancy dress party. It was so cold for the barbeque that the wood
had to be doused in petrol and the petrol lit with a soaked rag. Even on a red
hot stove the meat barely cooked because of the icy air above and before not
too long, people ended up inside again.
Then we went back to work for a week. It wasn’t as bad as I had expected. The
sun’s coming back now. It’s a shame – I like it dark, I like it in winter,
this is my pace of life.
Last Friday, Simon and I went out to the caboose, this time equipped with bottles
of plonk and ingredients for fish butties. The night was not clear. It was foggy
foggy, no, misty. I can’t explain it. The world has a mauve haze about it. The
moon has returned now so there is light even if you can’t see where you’re going.
It’s a bit like, I imagine, being inside a mothball inside a freezer looking
out. With a dim blue light on in the freezer. That’s the best I can do. Isotropic.
Every direction in a sphere around me looks the same. I can’t see a thing. I
can’t see where my feet are going, where my body is headed, what’s up, what’s
down, what’s in front or behind. I quite like this haze too though, it’s enveloping.
We found the caboose eventually but not without some difficulty. Inside, once
again, was warm and welcoming – eventually, that is. I like it there so
much that I’ve now left my sleeping bag out there. At the very least I intend
to go out there for my birthday. We talked through the night like you do when
you’re students, or kids at a slumber party, and slept like babies late into
the morning. The day that greeted us was stunning. The haze had gone completely,
the moon was bright and there was a striking red glow from the horizon to the
north. It was huge and red and so uplifting! It took us a while to sort ourselves
out but by 3pm we were walking the long way home, past some old Roman Ruins
and a cow called Cyril. It was like being a tourist in your home town. The sky,
the light, the shapes in the snow revealed after days of wind and fog.
I didn’t want to go in. But it was cold, so we did, at 5pm. And then I had
to visit the lab to do my daily checks.