There is no doubt that winter is creeping ever nearer. A few weeks ago the sun started to dip below the horizon in the middle of the night, but now even that dusky gloom has evolved into nights of proper darkness, something of a novelty after the months of endless light. The base now gets bathed in spectacular sunsets most evenings, with any low clouds lit from underneath in shades of purple and gold by the sun sitting just below the southern horizon.
The weather is gradually getting more wintery, with showers of snow most nights now turning the runway white, before melting off in the warmth of the day. It is only a matter of time before a really big dump of snow takes us by surprise and means that the snowblowers and bulldozers need to be brought out of summer hibernation to keep the runway open and the planes moving through.
As the end of the season draws nearer, the mood on base starts to hit fever-pitch, with vast amounts of work to be completed before everything closes down for good. Twin Otter aircraft work all hours to shuttle field-parties back into Rothera, bringing groups of bearded, evil-smelling men and women (not all bearded) who are elated to be in ‘civilisation’ with the prospect of their first hot shower in months. It is not only BAS camps that are closing – as the continent disgorges all of its summer-only residents, various foreign bases further South are already shutting the doors for the winter, their aircraft transiting through Rothera and heading for the sanctuary of South America.
Ironically, the sea-ice around Adelaide Island has finally cleared for a brief time, just long enough to allow non ice-strengthened vessels to make trips into Marguerite Bay before freezing over again. A couple of yachts have headed North past Rothera, one crewed by an adventurous family with a couple of young kids, its tall mast dwarfed by the giant icebergs in the bay. Of more pressing concern to us are the visits from giant cruise ships, anxious to stop by and shuttle some of their residents ashore for a quick tour of the base – ‘the real Antarctic experience’ – consisting of a hurried cup of tea and scone in the dining room before purchasing their own body-weight in Rothera-branded T-shirts for the family back home.
It is an exciting time – everyone is working long, hard hours, but there is an end in sight. The Dash-7 airbridge flights to Punta Arenas and the Falkland Islands will soon start in earnest, taking the weary non-wintering staff back North. However, there is also a certain sadness about this time of the year. Long-term residents of the base, some of whom have been down here for two and a half years, are starting to catch lifts on some of the northbound planes. They look bewildered as they say goodbye to the place that has been their home for such a long time, and the people that they have seen every day. They joke about how they will react when faced with a crowded street, or a large group of people, or feel money in their hand for the first time, but the jokes have a certain nervous, hollow ring about them.
There is much to happen before our ship, the RRS Ernest Shackleton, slips away from the wharf for the last time and leaves 18 of us standing alone. But as the days tick by, we are becoming increasingly desperate for the moment to arrive. This is what we came for – when the summer has ended for good, that is where the real adventure starts.