It seems to me that we create cities wherever we live, however much we try
to escape them. And when we hate them, we go further remote just to repeat the
same mistakes. At the risk of sounding overly deep and philosophical in an entry
that has expectations of pure light-hearted escapism, why is this?
I had an amazing day recently. The hassle of Halley had been wearing me down
a bit and I needed a break. We all need a break, we’re working hard and have
long hours, but it’s more than that. It’s impossible to be autonomous, independent.
To move things, you need the vehicle mech, to build things, a chippie, to wire
things up, a sparkie, and to seal things, a plumber. In addition, the steelies
are jacking buildings, the field assistants providing safety guidance for all
off-base activites as well as a lot of on-base ones, the genny mechs keep the
place warm and comms managers work shifts to keep us in contact with the world
and run radio scheds with planes and field parties. Met babes are also on shiftwork,
taking air observations and launching balloons to add to the Met Office weather
forecasting, electronic engineers are probing the crazy currents in the sky
and data managers trying to look after all of our numbers. Plus, handovers are
happening between last year’s winterers and this, people are flying in and out
so there are pilots and plane mechanics requiring support, and the various summer-only
scientists are trying to get their tasks completed before the ship takes them
out in February.
But that’s not it either. I like hubub, I like buzz. It’s the politics, the
interdependencies, the rules and regulations, that’s wearing me down. Every
little thing every person does has an impact or demand on someone else. Usually
it’s a demand for time, expertise or advice. Even if it’s a job I’m intending
on carrying out alone, I need to ask advice on relevant safety procedures and
standard protocol. There are forms and procedures and politics surrounding everything
plus the necessity of keeping people in the loop so they know what’s going on
but not boring them with inessentials about your work that they don’t need to
know. Sometimes I even forget, for a moment or three, that it’s great to be
here, it’s an honour, it’s a dream come true. It doesn’t feel like a dream come
true, it feels like a job I don’t particularly like. At times. It’s exhausting.
So then you have to be extra careful and extra considerate and extra nice because
you know that everyone is as equally knackered as you are. Plus, you live with
these people, and are due to live with them and only them for the next year
or two, so you don’t really want to piss anyone off, or talk behind anyone’s
back, or just VENT because they know the person or situation you’re venting
about and that then will influence their impression of that subject which is
the last thing you want because really, really, it’s not a personal thing, it’s
not even a big or important thing, you just want to go and talk to a stranger,
or a friend, who knows none of these people, and talk shit all night in the
So there you have it: it’s not all roses. But then, I never said it would
be. I just don’t generally talk about that stuff on the internet! Anyway, it
was time to get out of the big smoke and remind myself of where I was for a
while. I’d been on standby for five days for a co-pilot jolly to Berkner Island
where there’s a deep core drilling project occurring that is very, very cool
indeed. Every morning, 7am. And every morning, no, not today… or maybe, we’ll
check the weather again in 2 hours. And eventually the weather would get worse
or they’d decide to go elsewhere and I’d get on with whatever it was I was meant
to be doing that day. Or trying to get on with it until some other divergence
came along that required more immediate attention. A day of divergences is,
I guess, as productive as a linear path although the final arrival point often
feels much closer to home, where you began, than the intention might have been.
Anyway, I got up at 6:30. 7am sched? Nope, we’re going elsewhere. And so finally,
finally, I made it out to my lab in the bondoo to start unpacking my final machine.
Or penultimate machine. Well, one of the big ones anyway. And finally, finally,
was on a roll, colleagues away at lunch, music turned up loud… and the phone
rings. “The plane’s leaving for Berkner, you’re on it if you want it, how quickly
can you get here?!” Never have I skiied so fast!!
And there I was, 40 minutes later, in a twin otter, flying high, flying away
from Halley, away from the chaos, out over the ice, over the ocean, the waves,
the icebergs, the reflections of the sun through clouds and onto the water below.
It’s ironic really: this is the driest place in the world but yet we’re surrounded
by water molecules, and only water molecules! I live in a giant frozen ocean!
I love it! The clouds are water, the snow is water, the ice and its hundreds
of forms, the ocean – it’s all water, beautiful, wonderful, flowing, moving,
Water water everywhere but not a drop to drink. But that’s a further beauty:
you melt it, and you can drink it! Immediate water supply wherever you care
to pitch your tent. How amazing is that?! How convenient! I love it so much.
And my whole scenery, the sphere in which I am flying, it is all composed of
light from the sun interacting with water in various beautiful forms. That’s
it: fire and water. So simple, so incredible. So vast. Shimmerings on ice, crevasses,
glaciers, ice cliffs, ocean waves, clouds, clouds, clouds. I was flying over
The flight takes two and a half hours along the coastline, across some frozen
ocean and then onto the south dome of Berkner Island. Berkner is much larger
than I expected; I don’t know what I expected, but I’m sure there are countries
in the world smaller than this island. When we arrive there, I see a few orange
pyramid tents, some flags, skidoo tracks and some people. There’s not much here
at all. I breathe a deep, deep sigh of fresh, unpolluted air. I am here, in
the middle of nowhere, far, far, far away from the politics of bases. This here
is a field camp. It’s great.
Genevieve, a friend from Cambridge, greets me. It’s not at all odd to see
a familiar face in the middle of nowhere although I know it should be. “Welcome
to the city!” she says, and I laugh. And then I realise that she’s only half
joking. There are certainly people in the party who feel it is too luxurious
for a field party. It’s more comfortable than I was expecting, yes, but then,
why not, they’re here for three months every year for three years. And by luxury,
what do I mean? There are a few pyramid tents dotted around, a couple of weatherhavens
and a large drilling tent. That’s it.
Two people share a pyramind tent so your personal space is essentially limited
to the size of your sleeping bag. (In a tent with a relative stranger, that
could get very claustrophobic.) The dome shaped weatherhavens provide a space
to escape to. One has an eating and drinking area, a kettle, some chairs and,
sacrilige for the field, a stereo! The other is an office space. There is also
a toilet tent and a shower tent, again, luxuries of the modern era. The toilet
is an oil drum covered by a sheet of foam with a hole in the top. The shower
is one of those camping bags hanging on a hook holding melted snow. Chilly.
The drilling tent is incredibly impressive. The entrance is at the bottom of
a long deep tunnel and there, inside, in the middle of nowhere, is state-of-the-art
engineering equipment, retrieving ice that was first deposited 5000 years ago!
The floor of the room is about 4m under the snow surface with walls of blue
ice covered by a large dome tent that reaches maybe 3m above the surface. Spacious,
blue, cold. And here they sit and work shifts, drilling, drilling, pulling,
coring, cleaning, processing this precious ice. I saw a core being pulled out
of the ice, carefully, lovingly handled by the ice chemists. This is a true
jewel. It’s so dense, so cold, so brittle, so old. The air bubbles inside are
tiny, compressed under the weight of the ice above. As the ice relaxes to atmospheric
pressure, it hisses and bubbles, you might hear a quiet fizzing and sometimes
shards bounce. Amazing and beautiful to see.
We fly home along the coast and listen to the radio. The antarctic equivalent
of driving home on the motorway tuning in to the stereo. Halley to us, Halley
to field parties, Rothera to field parties, us to Rothera… when you get bored
of one channel, tune into another! All the gossip on these airwaves! You can
even get the world service up here!
And so we fly home and I stare at the ice, at the sea, at the waves and the
clouds. I look around and see no human habitation, no human impact, no wildlife
at all except a couple of birds above the sea. We are far away, this is a special
place. Approaching Halley, I see a few boxes on matchsticks, a couple of masts,
some flags, vehicle tracks and some people. That’s it. There’s not much here
at all. It’s miles from anywhere.
Very soon, only eighteen people will be here, living in these blocks on twigs.
The scenery is huge and vast and dismissive of the human presence. There is
no reason for us to be here. It’s the furthest place in the world from civilisation.
It’s tiny. I breathe a deep, deep sigh of fresh, unpolluted air. I am here,
in the middle of nowhere, far, far, far away from the politics of the world.
This here is an antarctic base. It’s great.