Rothera Diary — December 2009

31 December, 2009

Fresh Marmite

November’s diary ended with Mike returning to base on the RSS James Clark Ross, having spent most of the previous month loitering in the Falkland Islands. As the writer of the December diary it’s my job to follow up on his tales of derring-do — not such an easy task, but I’ll give it my best shot.

Like so many walks of life, work for the British Antarctic Survey has its own specialised set of jargon, much of which dates back to the military origins of the various expeditions down here, and “relief” is no exception. Go back far enough and it was used to describe the person taking over sentry duty, but to the modern FID it means new people to gossip about, parcels from home and (most importantly) the arrival of fresh supplies of Marmite, the importance of which cannot be underestimated.

So relief is an important part of the Antarctic season — it means a few long hard workdays but is also a major social event. To those of us who have overwintered, the swelling of the base from 21 to over 100 in just over a month can be a little disconcerting.

But mixed amongst the new arrivals are people we’ve known from past summers — old friends who are back for anything from a few weeks to the whole season down here — and the new batch of FIDlets (another bit of BAS jargon — a FID is someone who’s wintered down here, while a FIDlet is someone who’s just arrived for their first winter here). It’s all very interesting to see a new group arriving and settling in, just as we did a year ago. Watching the processes of exploration and bonding from outside gives an insight into the ways our own relationships have developed.

Once the supplies had been unloaded and packed away the JCR headed out into Marguerite Bay on an extended science cruise, taking some of our resident beakers (even more BAS jargon — a beaker is an affectionate term for a scientist) off to do World Class Science for about 10 days. On the 5th we had a visit from the Palmer, one of the US Antarctic programme ships. They were here to drop off four or five new beakers who will be based here for a project nearby, the klatch (jargon — the myriad weird and wonderful bits of kit that beakers tend to bring with them) associated with that project and an awful lot of fuel for the planes. The Palmer is rather bigger than our ships and they had a restricted time window to get their cargo and fuel offloaded due to the tides. So another busy day at the wharf.

The JCR returned with our errant beakers on the 11th and an extended period of grotty weather hit us — high winds, grey skies and rain. This kind of weather doesn’t necessarily stop operations — it costs too much to bring people down here and then not work because conditions are inclement — but it does mean that we start taking a more measured view of what is and what isn’t possible, so the net effect tends to be rather more sitting around waiting for trends to develop than is normal. It was a little amusing to be reading the BBC website on the 18th December and note that the weather at home in Shropshire was colder and snowier than down here in Antarctica.

Just as at home, people down here tend to polarize into pro or anti-Christmas camps. The former throw themselves into the season with gusto, baking cakes, decorating rooms and singing carols as they work. The latter try to ignore it as it creeps ever closer: back home they’d be the ones seen in Woolworths at 4.30pm on Christmas Eve, desperately trying to work out whether a barbeque set was really the ideal gift for their 74 year old mum.

Christmas itself is not the big Antarctic celebration — that honour goes to Midwinter, the week around the 21st June — but we do try and make a little celebration. For Christmas Eve the planes were busy visiting each of the field parties bearing small Christmas cakes and cards, and in the evening we had mulled wine and mince pies while a disreputable subset of the base performed a somewhat irreverent Nativity Play which, in the finest tradition of BAS plays, featured rather more cross-dressing than absolutely necessary.

Christmas morning was quiet save the kitchen which was buzzing, chef Nicola aided by a variety of elves and dinner was much what you’d expect at home — turkey, stuffing, roast spuds, sprouts, carrots, Christmas pudding and profiteroles — and all the more magnificent for it. On Boxing Day we had a break in the drizzle — gloriously sunny and dedicated to relaxing. Some went skiing, some went climbing, some went for a nice walk and some just sat around in the sun chatting. A half-day on Saturday rounded off the week nicely.

New Year’s Eve arrived with alarming rapidity and a party was brewing for the evening but first the small matter of a run. The runway down here is 900m metres long, and some bright spark has worked out that this means that 5 and a bit laps makes for a decent bit of exercise. Those who take it seriously compete for the best time, those who don’t take it seriously do it in fancy dress. It was another very sunny day, not ideally suited to running 10km while dressed as Supergirl.

While all this was going on the garage was being kitted out with a stage and dancefloor. The base band had spent two whole evenings practicing, and were now capable of playing at least 50% of the right chords at the right time. Most events down here involve fancy dress and we had a mixed bag of characters appear — a pimp, an aircraft, several schoolgirls, an errant brownie, a pirate, Mel Gibson as William Wallace and a banana. Come midnight we shuffled out to watch the sun brush the top of the mountains to the south, a rowdy rendition of Auld Lang Syne and then back to the garage for more dancing.

New Years Day… didn’t really happen, and is beyond the scope of this diary anyway. So with that that I’m going to wish you all the best for the New Year and bring it to a full stop.

Danny Edmunds

Rothera Boatman