Mar – The Month Marcheth…

30 March, 2007


“The first day of March was once the time for taking the young virgins into the fields, there in dalliance to set an example in fertility for nature to follow. Now we just set the clocks an hour ahead and change the oil in the crankcase…”

E.B. White, ‘Hot Weather’ – One Man’s Meat, 1944

At Rothera Base there was no such time for dalliance or distraction. A flurry of activity and a frenzied air of industriousness coupled with the ever diminishing daylight ensured that the month of March, marched by.

The upside of the onset of winter was the crepuscular concerto of light provided by Mother Nature with each dawning of the day and the dusking of the chilled night all Halloween orange and chimney red. Winter laid her cold cloak gently on the peninsula leaving a dusting of snow and freezing everything to her cold touch.

It was the time for the closing of depots before winter gripped too tightly and a frenetic packing up of Sky Blu ensured the trio of twin otters took to the air before the weather window closed and the old hut at Fossil Bluff followed shortly after. This brought the field season to a successful closure with all personnel back on base safely and all hatches battened in preparation for the inclemencies to come.

Their scientific support and airborne taxiing complete, the twin otters were relieved of their duty and deployed north for warmer climes to be readied for a newer season later in the year.

The Dash 7 was last to leave and on it’s final day, the remaining Rothera residents lined the runway and filled the Ops tower with an emotional wave goodbye as the Dash flew by dipping it’s wings to the strains of Billie Holiday singing ‘Stormy Weather’ over the P.A. system. The flying season had been an aerial battle of logistics and long hours and in honour of the unfailing duty and dedication of the pilots and air mechanics, a BBQ and volleyball tournament was held in the hangar followed by a night’s trance dance in the boatshed.

For the Field G.A.’s, we had to mix business with pleasure as the air was pregnant with winter preparations and fieldwork to complete before malevolent skies blackened by the dark months ahead curtailed our outside activity. Initially, the annual equipment stocktake absorbed our concentrations and kept us behind closed doors. A breath of fresh air came with the reconnoitre of winter routes not only on rock and mountain, but on skidoo and foot into the chasms of McCallums Pass where safe passages were secured and flagged for the forthcoming season. Training not only occurred on land; sea ice training was refreshed for travel on the ocean when and if the ice came thick and fast.

Fire training was rehearsed, search and rescue training was practiced and plans were laid, formulated and discussed for winter trips including such complexities as condensation formation in fuel tanks, carbon monoxide emissions from cooking and how one should sleep in one’s sleeping bag because:

‘On the outside grows the furside, on the inside grows the skinside; So the furside is the outside, and the skinside is the inside. As the skinside is the inside and the furside is the outside; One Side likes the skinside inside, and the furside on the outside. Others like the skinside outside and the furside on the inside; As the skinside is the hardside and the furside is the soft side. If you turn the SKINSIDE outside, thinking you will side with THAT side, then the soft side, furside’s inside, which some argue is the wrong side. If you turn the FURSIDE outside, as you say it GROWS on that side, then your outside’s next to the skinside, which for comfort’s not the right side. For the skinside is the cold side, and your outside’s not your warm side, and two cold sides coming side-by-side are not right sides one Side decides. If you decide to side with THAT Side, turn the outside, furside inside; Then the hard side, cold side, skinside’s, beyond all question, INSIDE-OUTSIDE’.

It’s complicated being a Field G.A. and as you can imagine, we have some wild nights discussions sat around the bar. With a sense of finality, the final curtain fell, the fat lady sung and the summer show was over as the RRS Ernest Shackleton sailed into port for the last time. She unloaded her wares and supplied us with our last post, our last fresh veg and our last chance to stowaway and took with her the winter team from last year. This team had spent the last month training us up to successfully fill their shoes and now they were departing. Our mentors were returning to normal life, they had signed the release forms and were relieving themselves of duty. The 2007 winterers gathered on the wharf as the Shackleton set sail and emotions ran high as she retreated into the northern oceans as we lit fireworks and flares to light their way. We looked out to sea, looked skyward at the pyrotechnic panorama and quietly shed a tear…

Tears turned to tears of laughter as we discovered pranks and high jinks left by our departing friends. People were locked out of their rooms, some people had had their rooms completely emptied, all the spoons disappeared from the dining room, the white ball and black ball had vanished from the pool table and computers were scrambled.

My, how we laughed.As the weather changed and the air took on a harsh bite, winter trips commenced. These trips were an opportunity for all on base to experience Antarctica in the raw of winter with exploration, skiing, snowboarding and climbing. Accompanied and supported by a G.A., one could embrace ski mountaineering, board pristine slopes of powder or venture to the southern tip of Adelaide Island by skidoo to stay at the deserted Chilean winter base of Carvajal. The first teams took to the latter and spent time on the desolate coast in the dilapidated and dishevelled Marie Celestian base occupied by a multitude of seals, prone in moulting, waiting to return to the wild and crashing oceans on the shoreline. Wildlife came to Rothera Base as the runway became redundant, Fur seals took charge for sunbathing, Elephant seals hauled their bulk onto the rocks to manage their harems and Crabeater Seals and Weddel Seals filled in the gaps. Adelie Penguins rock hopped and Shags and Skuas soared overhead.

How were we to fill the long and dark winter nights?

Fancy dress is the key. Any excuse for a man to don heels and a wig, to realise his fantasies as a film star or hero, to imagine one night to be a cowboy, a knight in shining armour or in the seat of international power. What else could one possibly do………

And then there was the Winter Beard Growing Contest………

Drew Cook

Field G.A.

(With thanks to Herbert George Ponting for the poem ‘The Sleeping Bag’ 1911)