Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Mario Zucchelli Base 74°South 164°degrees East.

Written 10/12/10

This time last year I was at roughly 60° North and 5° West (I used to
know the position, but I can't remember exactly) in Stornoway. Now I
really am as exactly on the other side of the world as I think it's
actually possible to be. On land, that is.

Mario Zucchelli base (formerly called Terra Nova) is run by Italy, and
is manned from October to March. It's been built out of prefabbed
units that look for all the world like containers, and stands right at
the sea shore on rock.
The temperature yesterday was actually 4 degrees above zero, despite
being at virtually the same latitude as Concordia.

The landscape here is very familiar to a highlander like me. The
hills here have been heavily glaciated and really, lack of vegetation
aside, are shaped remarkably similarly to the Cairngorms in winter.
The rock is granite, rough as gabbro. But unlike Scotland the wind
has sculpted boulders into the weirdest shapes. I've never seen
anything like it before. Some large boulders have had their
undersides scooped out to make shapes like shells. Others have thin
roofs centimetres thick and protruding a foot out or more, usually
with edges that curl downwards. When Antarctica was in the tropics
all those millions of years ago this place must have been fantastic
for rock climbing.

The wind has been blowing hard here, and worse up at Dome C. So,
although we were meant to arrive and fly out the day we got to
Antarctica, we have had a four day lay-over. We've been put up in 12
bed dorms in wooden chalets. Everyone is very quiet and considerate
and it has not felt uncomfortable.

It's beautiful here. (if you keep your back to the base!) It stands
on a rock outcrop, with only a thin rim of ice around the shore. The
sea is the deepest shade of ink blue I have ever seen. To the east, is
an ice shelf formed by glaciers, with quite impressively high looking
cliffs of ice where the ice meets the sea. Daily, flat icebergs break
off it and drift out in a conveyor belt current over the horizon. To
the west of the base, rocky cliffs and stacks.
The sun stays high in the sky 24 hours a day only even casting a
shadow after 10pm. It's not as strange as I expected it to be. But
as it remains so strong, you'd forget to go to bed unless you remember
to keep an eye on the time.

There are inquisitive Adele penguins here. This morning I sat on the
rocks at the shore to watch three penguins mooching around together on
the ice rim. And one by one they all wandered straight up to have a
good look at me. One got close enough to peck my jacket. It thought
about it, but I was watching and I think that put it off. It stood
about a foot away and bobbed it's head this way and that, sizing me
up. They are amazingly nimble as they waddle around on the rocks.
And yesterday some of the guys cut a hole in the ice shelf to do some
fishing. The ice there is more than a metre thick and the twin otter
plane can land on it. Later, a couple of Weddell seals popped up
through the hole and lay on the ice to sunbathe, utterly unbothered by
the humans working metres away.

The Italians who run the base are a very friendly bunch of people. I
think there are about 80 people on the base right now, including us in
transit. But there are always people in transit.
What I'm really beginning to like about Antarctica as a whole is that,
although nationality is probably emphasised more here than anywhere
else I've seen, the co-operation is beyond anything I've ever imagined.
Koreans, US, Italians, Canadians, French, British, everyone seems to
pool resources. We are made very welcome. And the food is good too!

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