30 November, 2011 King Edward Point
It was indeed one of the more memorable Guy Fawkes’ nights of my life: I had only arrived a few days previous with fellow winterers James (base commander) and Erny (mechanic and raconteur) and various summer staff and visitors. The base which was to be my home for the next year or so, overlooked by Mt Duse with views across King Edward Cove and Cumberland Bay, was still unfamiliar and unlike anywhere that I had been before.
Tommy and Matt (tech services) built a large bonfire on the beach. Tommy also constructed a ‘Guy’ although of indeterminate gender, race or religion in accordance with BAS policy. A bonfire, a Guy, beers and even marshmallows courtesy of Ashley (boating officer): so far, standard stuff but as we gathered around the fire we were joined by a pair of king penguins whose rather more formal attire put our BAS-issue overalls to shame.
After 6 months of preparatory medical training, a last-minute frenzy of packing and paperwork and fond farewells, the adventure had finally begun. First was the odd experience of flying from an RAF base, a twenty-four hour journey across the latitudes with a stop-over in the dry heat of Ascension Island before landing in the rather moister and rather cooler Falkland Islands. Then a week in the Falklands whilst other passengers arrived and cargo was loaded aboard the RRS James Clark Ross during which I had the opportunity to explore a little of the island and even spend a day fishing. We caught some sea trout which the ship’s chef kindly prepared as gravadlax during our journey to South Georgia.
We stopped first at Bird Island which lies at the very northwest tip of South Georgia. Shrouded in mist, the ship’s crew managed to offload cargo in choppy seas. I half-expected to find the four winterers rocking gently in their chairs after their period of isolation. They did look a little shaken as a horde invaded their kitchen and prepared a nice cup of tea, the essential preliminary to any BAS operation, but otherwise seemed perfectly normal. On our return, the few hundred metres between the shore and the ship were marked by a break from low grey mist to clear skies and sunshine. Bird Island does indeed have its own microclimate.
So too, it seems, does King Edward Point. The passage from Bird Island along the eastern coast of South Georgia was relatively clear but it was not until we rounded Larsen Point and came into Cumberland Bay that the sun emerged. My first sighting of the base, nestled in a ring of lowland tussock at the foothills of great cracked mountains where the earth’s crust has been thrust skyward, was breath-taking. James, the ship’s doctor, turned to me and said, ‘I hate you’, which I think was a mark of envy rather than loathing.
His jealousy has strong foundations. Near base there are the fascinating and evocative relics of the whaling industry at Grytviken, abandoned in 1965, tools down in the confident expectation that they would soon return. The scree slopes of Mounts Duse, Brown and Hodges have tested both my fitness and my head for heights but these efforts have been rewarded by the stunning vistas that they afford. Lower down, what might appear to be rolling grassland conceals bog and burnet which, fortunately, have yet to penetrate the sturdy boots that BAS provide. Along the coast, the elephant seals are at the peak of their mating season and prove their manhood as much with the quality of their belching as with more energetic pursuits.
Amongst them, the penguins seem to go about their business, often in pairs, heads bowed like elderly statesmen discussing the implications of the Mr Chamberlain’s recent visit to Munich. The fur seals are more playful, let us say, and to the novice are terrifying beasts. They move with surprising speed and agility, teeth bared and growling. I’m told that they are just posturing but this fact has yet to take heart and, for now, I either cower behind one of my braver colleagues or turn tail and run.
On base, we have been sorting out all the supplies that arrived with us on the JCR and taking handover where necessary from our predecessors. Sam, the outgoing doctor, has done a fantastic job of organising the surgery and outlying equipment so it has been very easy to find my way. She has moved on to higher things, taking charge of the Post Office on the island, but she leaves big shoes to fill, particularly where provision of cakes, bacon slices and other culinary treats are concerned.
An interesting element of handover that brought all base members together was a Search and Rescue exercise which gave newcomers the opportunity to get their hands on the equipment and basic procedures for retrieving casualties. It was a signal lesson in the challenges that we would face if we had to retrieve and transport a casualty over any distance, even a short distance over much of the terrain.
Among others, we were joined for a few weeks by Chester Sands, Gaby Stowasser from BAS and Jana Doemel from Germany who are studying the weird and wonderful creatures that live on the sea bed. For this, Matt (boating officer) has adapted one of the RIBs to deploy a benthic trawl net, possibly the first time such a boat has been used in this way. This adaptation worked very well, a testament to Matt’s ingenuity, and yielding plenty of material for Jana’s Masters thesis.
The local science programme continues with both Katie and Alastair staying for a second season. The first fur seal birth that has been recorded this year was on the 17th November and, in accordance with local tradition, several base members dyed their hair to mark the occasion. Whilst the origins of this tradition are not clear, it certainly generates some rather unconventional styles which subsequently find their way into the photo albums of visiting cruise ship passengers. ‘And there were these curious animals!’
‘Animal’ was the dress code for my birthday party. There were fine efforts all round with costumes ranging from penguin to polar bear, reindeer to road-kill. These were matched by a very fine meal cooked by Rob Webster and very kind presents from base members and Pat and Sarah Lurcock. As can be seen, by 9pm I was not only still standing but standing on a chair. Like Guy Fawkes, it was one birthday that I will remember.