I didn’t know what to expect of the short and gloomy days of the Antarctic winter. Down here nearly everybody has a tale to tell of some unlucky past winterer who suffered miserably through the polar darkness. Many went barking mad, they say. Some developed a deep lethargy and struggled to leave their beds each day. Others went the other way altogether and suffered from chronic, debilitating insomnia, brought on by confused hormones unable to make the distinction between day and night.
Happily for me, adjusting to the curious reality of winter has not caused too many problems. Getting out of bed is no harder than it has always been; insomnia is a condition that I suspect will never trouble me (it certainly never did during 6 years of university lectures), and I’ve successfully managed to conceal the barking madness from my unsuspecting colleagues. In fact, on the contrary, I’ve loved the opportunities that winter brings – long, dark evenings indoors are a rare guilt-free opportunity to make music, read books and play board games. In short, we’ve indulged in some good old-fashioned pre-television-era pastimes that I lost sight of during the hustle and bustle of a busy life back in the UK.
The most surprising thing about all of this is that the sun-free months were a real breath of fresh-air, a time to rediscover the art of keeping active and interested, without the stimulation of sunlight and the great outdoors. Several of the team even recently remarked that it’s gone too quickly and they would have preferred a longer period of darkness. It’s a bit like the English summer – just as soon as you get used to a lifestyle of barbeques and gin-and-tonics on the balcony, it’s over and you’re back to hot soup and freezing rain.
Stay with me, there is a point to all of this, and here it is. As much as I can wax lyrical about the joys and opportunities of the dark days, nothing, absolutely nothing, can prepare you for the uplift of emotion that comes with your first sighting of the sun after midwinter.
We’ve known for a few days that the sun was back. Every now and then there has been the odd tantalising glimpse of it through the thick cloud lying heavy over Rothera for the last week. A matter-of-fact note was scrawled on the dining room whiteboard days ago, promising a sun-up ceremony just as soon as we could see the bloody thing.
However, the weather forecast for today was more promising and sure enough when I got up this morning the cloud had finally lifted, there were pinpricks of starlight and a thin, bright sliver of moon was visible in the sky. So far so good. By mid-morning the first rays were creeping over the horizon and lighting up the tips of the higher peaks around us. By lunchtime, the whole sun-disc was visible, beaming light and shadows into the dining room and filling it with a tangible air of excitement (it’s difficult to overstate how exhilarating it is to see a proper shadow again, after several months of dull, contrast-free landscapes).
After lunch, we all headed up to the flag-pole for the obligatory ceremony. Rothera is a beautiful place any time, but today the panorama, crystal clear in the first rays of spring light, was as stunning as I’ve ever seen it. It was also as cold as I’ve ever felt it because, in the greatest British tradition, we’d donned shorts and t-shirts at the first glimpse of the sun. With hindsight, this was perhaps a little optimistic for what is still technically the depths of an Antarctic winter. The deep cold has its advantages though – from our position high up on the point we could see a fresh raft of virgin sea-ice now forming as far as the eye can see.
Scott, as the youngest member of the team, had the privilege of raising the Union Jack over the base. This flag will continue to fly until the sun once again leaves Rothera next winter. However, when that moment comes we will all be long gone from here, and that will be someone else’s story. It is thoughts like these, on such a stunning day, that bring on the profound regret that 18 months here is not long enough.