It’s sometimes difficult to think of this as a job. Today started off well, with a gentle morning’s work followed by a generous lunch. I was busy preparing myself for a quiet afternoon doing some kit repairs, when I became aware of some cryptic messages being passed over the radio between the Ops Manager and the Chief Pilot.
“Shall we do it today?” asked the Chief Pilot.
“Yes, why not.” replied the Ops Manager, “do you want to tell them, or shall I?”
Shortly afterwards all became clear, and my wintering team were asked to assemble at the hangar for the ‘winterers’ flight’. This annual event is an opportunity for the new crew
to be taken on an aerial tour of the area around the base. During the winter, the sea ice (which makes access to the local area much easier) and more free time means that getting out and exploring becomes a real possibility. The flight is intended to give the winter residents some awareness of what exists in the vicinity of the base.
Fourteen of us boarded the Dash-7 in bright sunshine, chattering excitedly about this unexpected break. Most of us had only flown on the Dash once, on our flight South to Antarctica, but for those who arrived on the ship it was their first trip in the big plane. After the mandatory flight safety briefing we buckled up, taxied out onto the runway and then roared up into the blue skies above base.
First we headed West, out into the middle of Adelaide Island – this area is accessible from base by skidoo, and the ridge of mountains that form the backbone of the island are a
popular destination for winter climbing trips. As we turned South and cruised past the peaks at low-level, the pilot reeled off the names – Mount Gaudry and Mount Liotard were some of the lucky ones; others just had numbers.
Soon we reached the Southern tip of the island and overflew the Chilean base of Carvajal. This was built by BAS in 1961 and was the predecessor to Rothera, but was handed over to the Chileans in the 1980s once Rothera was established as the UK’s main base on the Peninsula. It is now virtually unused even by the Chileans, although the buildings, equipment and vehicles remain in place, quietly waiting for their inhabitants to return one day. The base is situated on a desolate rocky outcrop, with a snow-and-ice ramp giving access up to the island and incredible panoramic views out over Marguerite bay.
We waved goodbye to the seals and penguins that are now the base’s only residents, and headed out East to the mainland of the Antarctic Peninsula – this was just sightseeing n
ow as we were well out of range of winter trips. The coastline here was vast, rugged and phenomenally beautiful, with jagged rocky peaks and velvety snowfields sloping down to the sea where they broke apart into huge crevassed ice-cliffs. Perched on a small outcrop down here was San Martin, the wintering Argentinian base that holds our nearest permanent neighbours on the continent (about 40 miles away, as the skua flies). San Martin does not have the luxury of a skiway, so the lonely inhabitants only get one visit per year from a resupply ship. We chat to them on the radio occasionally, and our pilots often divert to overfly them, to provide a brief sense of companionship to this remote place. This time the pilot took us down to skim only a few tens of feet above the tops of the waves as we flew past, and we could clearly see the faces of the base’s inhabitants as they ran outside and waved enthusiastically at this rare sight of other humans.
Just round the corner from San Martin is another old British base on Stonington Island, which was abandoned in 1975 and is now an Antarctic heritage sight. Alongside it is an even older American base that was in use as a surveying outpost back in the 1940s.
The Brits left the place when the ice-bridge back to the mainland retreated, leaving clear water between them and any form of escape back to the mainland. From our vantage point in the air the huts appeared to be in good condition, but there’s no doubt that this would have been a lonely place to spend the winter.
Our final destination was another old British base, this one on Horseshoe Island. The base was used by survey teams during the 1950s, but is still maintained by BAS and also remains an Antarctic heritage sight. A couple of weeks ago I saw some photos of the inside of the hut, taken by the family on board a French yacht that had moored off the Island. It is stunningly well preserved, with blankets on the beds, neatly stacked tins of food, ancient but serviceable radio equipment and personal possessions waiting patiently on the table. The hut apparently has a very strange, expectant atmosphere, as though the residents have just nipped out and will return at any moment.
From this tour of historic sites, we headed back North, past Porquoi Pas and up to the Arrowsmith Peninsula, where the pilot showed off his skill as he weaved the plane a
mongst the high, snowy peaks. This was the real Antarctic wilderness – huge, inaccessible and lifeless. The vast snowfields looked smooth and inviting, but littered here and there were crevasses that could have swallowed our plane whole.
All too soon we were crossing the water back to Rothera. As the plane touched down, all of the chatter had stopped and left behind a quiet, contemplative atmosphere. I was struck by our glimpse into the history of the area and felt honoured to be joining the select few who had spent the winter in these unforgiving places. More than anything though, I was overwhelmed by the enormity and beauty of this place that was home.