Tuesday, 15 February 2011


(16th of february)

Technically twilight, I should say. The sun is below the horizon but
there is still colour in the sky, and all around. Starting with deep
blue snow and blending through reds and yellows on the horizon to
green and into a pale blue sky. The green isn?t very strong, but it?s
definitely there.

But of course, being Antarctica, it?s not normal twilight. It?s not
that pause between day and night. The sun has just dipped below the
horizon for an hour and a half, and will be back up soon as the
months-long daylight continues. We?re far enough away from the south
pole that we get a three month period when the sun sets and rises each
day between the three month-long day and the three month night. And
we just passed into that period now.
But it is twilight tonight, for sure.

It?s very still and very quiet, as you?d expect at one in the morning.
It?s -55 degrees C. There?s a DC3 aircraft parked outside the
window, and they are due to leave at 0400.
They will fly to Casey, to pick up a last transfer of personnel to
McMurdo, where planes are working round the clock to carry people back
to Australasia. After that, the crew will turn tail and fly straight
across the continent to Rothera, the British base, where the crew will
change their skis back to wheels, because their Antarctic contract is
finished. And then they fly their legendary plane over the Southern
Ocean to South America, up along the long spine of Chile, make a
couple of stops in the US and fly on home to Canada.

At Mario Zucchelli Station, most of the people I knew there have
already gone home, and the last five close-down crew will be picked up
by a Korean ship in a couple of days time and make their own
convoluted way home. They?ve already switched off their UHF radio, we
can?t talk to them any more. ?Bye folks, see you next year.

Most bases, like MZS, are run only in the summertime. Humans come;
strive, and depart, year after year, all round Antarctica in an annual
migration rivaling any in nature for it?s regularity and it?s
mysterious complexity. Now night is coming and it is time to leave.
Soon most of the coastal bases will fall silent and still. Soon after
that the land will be dark, and blasted by an unimaginably fierce
winter, and empty as the wildlife make their own retreats. Next
October,when the light returns, humans will return. All the machines
will roar into life again, the buildings will be warmed, and people
will roam around the nearby land in scientific pursuit. Helicopters,
ships, snowmobiles, jeeps, pisten bullys, and planes will zip in and
out, in and out, for another brief summer. I wonder what the wildlife
make of it all.

Here, in Concordia of course, and at DDU, McMurdo, Rothera, Amundsen,
Vostok and several others we stay. Rather than abandoned to freeze
these bases stay warm and lit, in a kind of hibernation maintained by
a skeleton crew. There will be no more planes, guests or radio
contacts. As the night, and winter ? that?s just different ways to say
the same thing here in Antarctica - close in it will not be possible
to travel to or from the base because it is simply too cold for
vehicles to function. When the summer campaign ends and the
winter-over begins, each base abruptly becomes insular and isolated,
self sufficient and very, very alone. If it wasn?t for Inmarsat and
Iridium, two satellites very low on the horizon through which we can
call home, we would be just as isolated as Shackleton a century ago.

The last of our summer crew departed a week ago. But we always knew
we would have a couple of planes come through in transit afterwards,
at least one carrying supplies of fresh food to last us as long as
possible. So, although we, the winterover crew, made our goodbyes as
though the winterover was starting, we all knew the isolation hadn?t
begun yet and to me, at least, it seemed a little anti-climactic.

The first couple of days after the summer crew left there was a little
nervous tension at meal times, largely because we hadn't all sat
together to eat since the pre-departure meeting in Paris. It's so much
easier, when you arrive here, to make friends amongst people speaking
your own language that it?s hard not to naturally gravitate towards
groups of your own nationality. So we were only together as a team
once a week at a Monday meeting I would call for my experiments.

So here we all were, struggling along in each other's languages across
the table, pretty much for for the first time since October. But,
after a few days we settled in. The quiet of the base felt more
comfortable. The slightly tense laughs became relaxed full laughs and
now it all seems perfectly OK. Our chef, Andrea has been so important
in helping the transition. He owns several restaurants in Italy, he?s
a great chef and knows how to make a good atmosphere. With his
guidance we?ve re-arranged the furniture in the dining room and the
living room to make a much more pleasant, less institutional
arrangement that suits us. The French and Italians know how to keep
an army happy ? even an army of 14: Hire a really good chef. And it
really works.

On February the 12th we had our first sunset. We all went out
together to see it and to take some group pictures, largely I think
because we all felt compelled to try do do something as a group rather
than because of everyone?s intrinsic interest in a sunset. And, the
sunset didn?t disappoint. With a northerly breeze we always get at
least some mist on the horizon and, that?s what we had, letting our
sunset blaze beautifully. There was no darkness ? the sun was only
gone forty minutes.. A wide, bright vertical beam of orange light
shone up from the horizon while the sun hid just below it.
We wandered in but, after a hot drink I wanted to get outside again.
I walked round taking some pictures of interesting silhouettes against
the orange sky. The Meteo equipment reported that the temperature with
windchill was -65degrees. It's OK, as long as you have the right
clothes you don't feel it. The gloves I had on were a bit thin. I felt
it. Without touching anything would be fine but, carrying a camera the
plastic just sucked the heat out of my hands. I would take a few
pictures and then have to pull my fingers out of the finger bits and
curl them up inside the palm of the glove to warm them again.
Eventually it got a bit much, but I didn't want to go inside before
the sun rose. I walked under the base and leaned up against one of the
legs to shelter from the wind The beam diffused out and soon after,
the first flat crescent of sun appeared on the horizon. It was getting
hard to see clearly through the little icicles sticking my eyelashes
together. But there was definitely a shimmer on the the horizon under
the sun. I'm not sure what it was, possibly just drifting snow in the
breeze I suppose, but it really looked like a heat shimmer.
And there it was, even more colourful than the sunset. The first
sunrise in two months, It was definitely worth the wait. For the next
three months we'll have a day-night cycle of sorts. I had a feeling of
contentedness that a little bit of normality might have crept into
this alien landscape, albeit temporarily.

0400, now just a couple of hours away. Summer will become winter. And
day will soon become night. Our winterover here begins in earnest
tonight with the departure of this, last, DC3.

I realise with a little smile, that I?m on the nightshift. I?ve taken
handover, it?s time to get on. Lots to do. I generally quite liked
nightshifts in the hospital. This?ll be alright too, I think.

Satellite uploads at: 00.00, 07.00 and 14.00 UTC - times may change soon
Concordia station 75°06'06''S - 123°23'43''E

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