Camp gossip

Having recently returned from the field, I thought I’d share some goings on from camping in Antarctica.

Each of our camps were set-up the same. We had our main Polar Pyramid tent (for communal morning and evening cooking and warmth), 3 small mountain tents (each with an ensuite pee bottle and a sanitiser wipes ‘shower’), a fuel cache and a toilet. Our first camp’s toilet was our proudest, built out of snow blocks to shelter from wind and complete with a blue ice floor as it was built on a frozen lake.

Antarctic camps
Couple of our camps on the flanks of Mackay Glacier

Each day would start with a reluctant unzipping of the sleeping bag and then a rather hasty wriggle into our salopettes, tops, jackets and then boots, hats and gloves. We’d firstly have our daily sked with Scott Base over HF (high frequency) radio, reporting our safety and getting a weather forecast. Meanwhile we also melted snow and boiled water for the day. For breakfast we cooked up some bacon and hashbrowns, or alternatively had muesli or toast. We also got a small hit from an orange flavoured vitamin C tablet in the mornings, before the cups of tea and coffee kicked in. After all of this we usually then headed off around the snowy mountains. Days were fairly long with 5 minutes to half an hour break for lunch, depending on the weather and morning’s progress. Lunch consisted off crackers and cheese, warm soup, a muesli bar, some dried fruit and some squares of chocolate. Constant daylight meant the working day often dragged on. Once we had returned to camp we got the stove fired up and stuffed our faces with pretzels, nuts, chewy bars or other snacks while we cooked. The evening meal usually involved frozen meat (thawed in the roof of the tent or sleeping bag if required), frozen veg and a form of carbohydrate mixed with some flavouring. We were even supplied with an Antarctica New Zealand cookbook, which annoyingly included recipes with ingredients they didn’t provide us with. The highlight of our endeavours however, was probably leg of lamb braised in sweet chilli sauce, on a bed of garlic, chilli and parsley cous cous, with some mixed vegetables, and then a steamed Christmas pudding (pre-made) to follow. It’s amazing what can be done with a camp stove. But some nights an easy option was simply adding water to a bag of dehydrated food. At 7.30 pm Scott Base sent out a weather forecast, base news and real-world news consisting of bizarre stories with little significance from New Zealand and beyond. The evening then progressed to gin & tonics, whisky and/or Kahlua, and inevitable ‘deep and meaningful’ conversations.

One tends to get less fussy about cleanliness, of food and personal hygiene  Breakfast often included remnants of the previous night’s meal (for example, odd flakes of tuna in a bowl of museli). Kevin was conforming well to this way of life, happily glugging down a piece of mince floating in his gin. It’s best not to think of what you don’t have, yet we often talked about favourite fieldwork food, like venison in an Alpine bistro or fresh crayfish while cruising down the Amazon. Kevin also constantly reminded us of showers. An itchy head and unavoidable Antarctic dandruff takes a few days to get used to, but after a couple of weeks Kevin’s hair (usually worthy of Loreal “..because I’m worth it” adverts) turned to a matted mess.

Dinner (possibly some form of curry) and our kitchen set-up with drinks cabinet underneath.
Dinner (possibly some form of curry) and our kitchen set-up with drinks cabinet underneath.

When coming to Antarctica one expects very cold dry air and strong winds off the polar plateau, but on this trip we discovered other weather to be afraid of. Zero wind meant that bad conditions lingered and snow from moist sea air made tents and clothing damp which then froze and was frankly miserable and cold. This is something you can’t escape even in tents, but whacking the stove on helps and Chris’ never tiresome comment “It’s like Antarctica in here” was a gentle reminder to turn the stove on or up a level. Despite this, Antarctic sun can be even more intense than what I got used to in New Zealand with a temperature of nearly 20 degrees C in direct sun with zero wind, but then this can turn to -15 degrees within seconds simply with a cloud drifting passed the sun and a pulse of katabatic wind. Having said this, some days it felt like a balmy winter’s day in Scotland – very pleasant.

Morale can be greatly affected by the weather, and although the mad appearance of me walking around in circles most mornings looking at the ground may seem like the end, it was merely to warm my feet up while contemplating the day’s plan. An added advantage of having to bring a generator, to charge communication radios and rock saw batteries, was the opportunity to have occasional film nights. This involved bringing our sleeping mats into the communal Pyramid tent and perching a laptop on a food box in the corner. It was almost possible to escape the cold reality. After our first film night we popped our heads out of the tent to experience midnight sun, surreally the sunniest it’d been since arriving.

There were other added bonuses on this trip. Chris brought his satellite phone (with call minutes paid for by Google – thanks), to use in an emergency but also for important business or the odd special reason. I took advantage of this luxury to wish someone a happy 21st birthday, and despite the sound of (joyous, I think) screaming being muffled by white noise it was a novel and odd experience to be in contact with people from the inhabited world. Meanwhile, Chris got word that he’ll be organising a massive research trip that will take a ship around the Antarctic coast and then use hovercrafts to traverse onto the ice shelves and ice sheet – I want a ticket!

Aside from using a helicopter for some fun and productive daytrips and camp moves, we also required it for a pre-planned resupply of numerous things including food and fuel. Little did we know that the Prime Minister of New Zealand had come down to the base for a visit, and he duly took over our helo time. This delayed our resupply by a few days, to our great annoyance.

Towards the end we were all feeling fatigued and repetitive comments like “Scott Base bar” and “Can we go home yet?” made it obvious that some were looking forward to rejoining civilisation, and that I might have a mutiny on my hands. Before this could happen we had to experience an Antarctica storm, didn’t we? It built up over an afternoon and raged all night and into the following day, rattling my little flimsy tent. But the tent survived, although it half-filled with snow through every orifice, and I was required to dig a way out. Our departure from the field was delayed as the New Zealand helicopter was required to assist with search and rescue attempts of a Twin Otter plane which sadly ditched in the mountains south of us in horrific conditions. The weather changed at our camp and we tried to make the best of our situation, lying in until 11 am, waking up with a view of icebergs and Mt Erebus over the water. The day progressed in a similar fashion, meeting for a brunch of tea, coffee (none of that instant stuff), bacon and hashbrowns, more coffee and pancakes. A couple of days later we ran out of tea, possibly the first ever Antarctic expedition to do so. The lesson being to never let an American pack your food box, said in the words of Kevin (the American). Word of our eventual return to Scott Base was accompanied by news that the Twin Otter crash had no survivors, a reminder that this continent can be harsh to those most prepared. We had a successful, safe trip, with most of our body and mind still intact.

Toilet in the midnight sun
Toilet in the midnight sun

I’m now looking forward to returning to New Zealand and Wellington, having a leisurely brunch of eggs benedict in the sun and then an afternoon down at the beach, perhaps hugging some trees and smelling some flowers in between. Unfortunately the continuous wearing of thermals has exfoliated all the tan I built up over the first half of summer. I will however have a sun-kissed patch across my nose and cheeks to take home.

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