I’ve had in mind to write this piece all week but every day something new
arises that makes the week even more extraordinary. So much so that the initial
inspiration now almost smacks of the ordinary. So I’ll just list them as they
On Tuesday, we had record warm temperatures. I am almost ashamed to admit
that temperatures soared above freezing to +0.3C. There was water on the platform,
beads of condensation drops dribbling down windows, snow so soft it was soggy
and you sunk into it wherever you walked. It felt like a rainy day, we were
all too warm, and it was not in any way pleasant. At the lab, we had to open
all our doors and windows to stop overheating and all my lovingly collected
snow samples melted before we could get them to safe refuge in the tunnels.
I had to analyse the samples all evening for those molecules that undergo chemical
change during melting. Nothing I wore was suitable and I was dripping with sweat
after walking home from the lab.
Water! We were not impressed. We will ofcourse be even less impressed when
the truly cold temperatures return as everything that got wet will freeze solid.
Only then did I realise how much we take this dry environment for granted. Everything
that’s solid is happily left outside. The only real dangers are freezing or
being buried by snow. But it’s dry snow. Toolboxes, skis, items of clothing,
bags of rope, cardboard boxes, waste food, sleeping bags even.. stuff you would
never leave outside at home is regularly left out on the platform or the base
of steps before being moved on elsewhere. This week, for the first time in at
least a year, things got wet outside.
On Thursday the melt-tank was completely drained for its annual cleaning.
Gallons and gallons of water just being thrown out. The melt-tank at the summer
accomodation was filled, washing machines were in continual use and, my favourite,
we were allowed long, hot showers. I was looking forward to it all day. A shower
more than 2 minutes long, not having to turn the taps off while sudsing up,
being able to stand and soak. But you know what, I couldn’t do it! And I wasn’t
the only one. Try as I might, rational reason that there was, I couldn’t keep
the water running while washing my hair. I just couldn’t watch all that fresh
snowmelt go down the drain even though I knew it was headed that way anyway.
I made up for it though by running it about 5 times between soapings and staying
in there until my fingers went wrinkly. The start of the winter was marked by
our melt-tank party, the end by long showers. This for me is still the ultimate
On Friday night our clocks went back by three hours. Three extra hours in
bed! Halley is fairly close to the meridian so GMT actually suits us fine and
there really is no need for us to change clocks since we have continual light.
We change for logistical reasons, to be in synch with Rothera and the ships,
and I guess the 24 hours of sunlight means we shouldn’t really be bothered either
way. It doesn’t affect me too much but I know the met-folk who have to launch
a weather ballon every morning such that it reaches a certain height by midday
GMT are less than pleased! Anyway, the special thing was the extra three hours.
Summer is coming.
And now that you have a taste for the things that make my life special down
here, I’ll tell you about the really extraordinary thing that happened. A tourist
ship popped by! No, really. The first one ever. And not just any old ship, this
ship has zodiacs and helicopters (yes, plural) and as far as I can tell is stuffed
full of rich fat americans. It’s a terrible stereotype but I’ll be able to tell
you the truth of it in about an hour. The organisers of the tour have been great,
I can’t fault them, they’ve invited us to the ship, offered to fly us there
even and put on a barbeque for us, anything we ask. BAS said no but only after
lots of excitement and anticipation had built up as you can imagine. Something
to do with fraternising with the tourist industry or some such nonsense shrouded
in arguments around health and safety. I don’t fault or begrudge anyone along
the line but really, this is an unprecedented opportunity. I went to the airstrip
last night as the first group left and climbed inside the chopper just for a
look around. Climbing out is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do all year
("no-one will miss you for a couple of hours will they", Danielle,
the South african expedition leader, asked with a wink). No, they wouldn’t,
and I could. It’s just a sign of what a great winter we’ve had, and how much
resepct I have for Russ, our winter base commander, that I didn’t. And no-one
The next day we had a hundred yellow jacketed toursit on base. One asked me
if I felt like an emperor penguin,- all that solitude and then all these cameras
and tourists? As vivid as an imagination as I have, I must admit I had no answer.
Another asked me when women were introduced to the base since he couldn’t see
any females in any of the winter photos on the wall that date since 1958. I
said it was around 1995 but that after a winter here the women look like men
so you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. He replied "oh, really?".
But there were rays of light as well. The first dear I met was 83 (41 years
in Germany followed by 42 in England she told me as she ran up the steps while
her companion nearly had a cardiac arrest behind her) and reminded me of all
my most loved relatives. She was petite and spritely and inquisitive, interested
and so alive. She held my hand and kissed my face and asked really good questions
and told me about having to pee into a bottle when she went ot the South Pole.
Around this time I realised that these folk weren’t on a trip of a lifetime
(not a unrealistic assumption at $25,000/month) but rather had almost all been
on several similar crusies previously, if not every year since retirement.
The Halley visitors book started in 1999 and on Saturday morning had three
pages filled in. The first was dated December ’99 from the "first ever
Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition". The second was November
2000 by three tourists who arrived by plane between Rothera and ‘Blue One’.
The third was February 2004, the Argentines who arrived by helicopter last summer.
We now have five more pages filled with autographs – thirty-eight in all,
representing the hundred odd folk who came through. They all seem happy to have
come here, they all know it’s something special. My favourite says: Having worked
in isolation myself, may I observe that you do not need to be crazy to work
in a place like this, but it certainly helps.
We didn’t get an amazing jolly, it’s a shame, but we did get fruit. Oh yeah,
and in the madness and mayhem a plane arrived from Neumayer carrying three BAS
personnel who have since stayed. I guess they were expecting a fanfare welcome
but instead they just got shimmied along with the masses. Winterers are supposed
to be "woken up" gently at this time of year by a select group of
folk who speak to us in monosyllabic words and absorb rants like sanitary pads.
I prefer our method – a hundred tourists, a box of wine, a fresh apple
in the morning and many happy, if bizarre memories. If that doesn’t wake you
up, nothing will!