Mar – Winter begins

30 March, 2005

Rothera Diary, March 2005

There is no doubt of the dominating image of March 2005. For the twenty one of us left at Rothera, the departure of RRS Ernest Shackleton was the defining moment of the month. With a rush to complete science projects, realise recreational ambitions and capture some stunning scenes for, perhaps, the last time, the summer came officially to an end.

But March was, above all, a very hectic time for us. With the culmination of a comprehensive scientific schedule in the field, enormous quantities of equipment needed to be sorted, packed away or prepared for the long journey home. Four of the wintering team (Julian, Kat, Dan and Andy Wilson) have already been on station for a full year and more. Amongst the rest, there are three who have experienced an Antarctic winter here in previous seasons (Isabelle, Ed and Andy Barker). But for the bulk of us, this is our first encounter with the bewildering ritual which is the transformation of austral summer to austral winter.

At the summit of our “to do” list was the resolution of the Rothera annual five-a-side football competition. This is a hard fought affair played along the lines of the Champions League in Europe (although the standard of football is more reminiscent of David Blunkett than David Beckham). The venue – the knobbly, frozen apron of the runway – certainly has an effect on the general standard of play. As a result, a competitive, hard working ethic is always likely to triumph over the honed, silky skills of instinctive purveyors of the beautiful game. And so it proved to be. Congratulations go to this year’s winners, Fish and Chips FC. But we were robbed.

The final was somewhat delayed by the unavailability of the pitch since various aircraft needed something to land on. Even these interruptions, though, came to a natural conclusion with the departure of the four Twin Otters and the Dash-7. The near silence that rushed in after the planes left was almost palpable. The hangar has been a focus for so much during the summer, a near-constant maelstrom for both the pilots and the tireless team of mechanics. The overpowering noises that go with aircraft operations were, almost without us noticing, a signature for our normal working days. Sometimes they even came from the aircraft.

March, of course, also heralds the autumn (still a curious word to apply to a place without trees) equinox. At these latitudes the rate at which night steals minutes from the day is accelerated. It seems as if you can tell that each successive evening is darker and each morning later. The lengthening nights lend themselves to a burgeoning social calendar and the whole base lurched into a long diary of last-chance-to-do parties. One unexpected bonus this year was the HMS Endurance’s arrival and the organisation of their Winter Olympics. The atmosphere was fantastic – great weather, top quality snow and all conducted in a fine spirit. The best bit was that our team beat the combined might of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines at: cross country skiing, snowboarding, skiing, snow sculpture and – amazingly – an assault course. The winner here was a chainsmoking, whisky guzzling mechanic known to us as Vacant, so no-one is quite sure what was going on there.

Perhaps preeminent amongst the end of season parties was the celebrated Folk Night organised and orchestrated by a trojan triumvirate of Ads, Jo and Munki with Andy P at the electrical helm. It gave everyone the opportunity to play instruments, sing songs, recite poetry and star in sketches. It’s hard to see how the standard of the fare on offer could have been higher, nor how the support and appreciation of the audience could have been greater. First up was the Rothera Film School’s very own Kirk who had spent several near-sleepless nights producing and editing a peerless half-hour comedy of life on base. Everyone there waiting to perform realised very quickly that this was going to be a tough act to follow. But, follow on they did with a selection of finely crafted and distinctly funny sketches and plays. The panoply on offer included Countdown (won by an unconvincingly macho construction worker), Blind Date (where the contestants were left – despite their best efforts – speechless), a Faustian play owing something to the Wizard of Oz and quite a lot to the disturbed imagination of the Bonner Lab staff, and an expose of life in the Sledge Store. The last item was expected to see the GAs either hailed as playwrights for a generation or hounded out of their jobs. Fortunately, it was neither. A short cultural and poetic interlude from Alex left the stage open for a number of fantastic musical sets from a variety of diverse and talented musicians. It was a night that no-one wanted to end (and in truth most of us weren’t sure when it actually did).

The winter trips also started. They give the staff here the chance to get to less frequented corners of Adelaide Island and sometimes beyond. They’re a means of recreation and training for possible work in Fossil Bluff and Sky Blu (amongst other venues) next summer. The first trip out was for Isabelle the chef and Agnieszka the meteorologist to nearby Lagoon Island (accompanied by intrepid GAs Ed and me). A week passed amazingly quickly in a blur of card playing, name games, rich food and elaborate conversation. Isabelle and Agnieszka dismantled and rebuilt the Lagoon hut barbecue while Ed and I attempted to repaint the hut in heavy rain (and with insufficient paint anyway; an object lesson for us in that, as we now know, if you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail).

But amidst all this, the end of the season was always going to be nigh. In some respects, many of this year’s winterers found themselves hankering for the day of departure, if only as a signal for us to actually start being winterers. But a steady flow of impromptu farewell parties meant that the moment of parting was – to some degree at least – bittersweet. All of us had to say goodbye to people we’d rather were staying. As the Shackleton pulled away from the wharf our happy band waved until our arms hurt and our colourful fusillade of flares died out.

Needless to say, the departing horde had left us with a few pleasant reminders of their collective sense of humour. It’s traditional for those leaving to arrange a few booby traps for those staying behind, and this season was no exception. Rooms were laced with alarm clocks (hidden in the most unlikely crevices and timed to go off at roughly thirty minute intervals); beds filled with pingpong balls, powder and scientific apparatus; doors hinged at the top rather than the side (disproportionately disturbing the day after a big party); ear defenders lined with ink for that Two Ronnies moment of big black circles around your ears. Oh, and a skidoo and sledge, fully laden with everything you’d need for several days in the Antarctic wilderness, was parked in the loft. We’re not quite sure how yet, which is why it’s still there now. Days later we were still discovering new traps. Or at least Andy the Winter BC was, ill-advisedly using the rowing machine before fully checking it. If anyone ever asks you, talc in the flywheel mechanism of a rowing machine releases a truly vast white cloud which takes a very, very long time to settle.

So, after putting the base back to rights (including a hefty top-to-bottom clean of the buildings), we are all anticipating the next six months with relish. The group is already getting on extremely well and looking forward to April, more winter trips and the steady approach of midwinter.

Simon Herniman