One year ago I glimpsed Antarctica for the first time. I was perched on a tiny foldaway seat, squashed in between the two pilots in the cockpit of the BAS Dash-7 aircraft. My overriding emotion at the time was pure excitement – this mysterious continent was a place that I’d been desperate to see for many years and there was no room for any trepidation about the significant chunk of my life that I would spend there.
My first Antarctic summer flew by and it was in early April, before I had really registered what was happening, that the last ship of the season sailed away and left our team of 18 to fend for itself. Already there had been some casualties; two of the original recruits for the winter had been replaced at short notice, forced back to the UK for personal reasons. Those of us who remained waved the ship off and then headed up to the base to begin what would be one of the strangest, most rewarding periods of our lives.
Now, exactly one year after I first glimpsed Rothera, our peaceful winter existence has been shattered by the arrival of the first Dash-7, heralding the end of our isolation and the beginning of a new Antarctic year. Four other opportunistic aircraft also took advantage of the unusually good weather window and piled into Rothera, disgorging their many passengers into the rapidly-filling base. Suddenly, all of the quiet buildings were filled with the hum of voices and the hustle and bustle of the busy summer season.
Meeting the visitors was a strange experience – these were the first new faces that we’d seen for many months. With them came new conversations, new banter and outlandish new ideas about how things should be done. It almost required a conscious effort to accept these newcomers, avoiding the temptation to hide in corners and revert to the safety of the winter clique. That night in the bar there was a palpable sense of excitement as we gossiped and traded anecdotes with the new residents, whilst nonchalantly trying to hide the crazy and avoid dropping too many in-jokes.
Of course, the summer has its compensations. With the first plane came our first ‘freshies’ – fresh apples, bananas and crunchy lettuce, and juicy kiwi fruit. Carrots that go crunch rather than mush. Potatoes without the depressing uniformity that comes from coexisting in a tin for a few years before consumption. Eggs with proper, yellow yolks that don’t come glooping out of a carton. There was also a newspaper, a decent broadsheet that can be properly spread out and pored over at breakfast-time. The next Dash-7 flight holds even more excitement – it will be piled high with our first post for many months, carrying parcels of such excitement as new, unholed socks, long-overdue tax bills and other such treats from home.
Even the weather has played its part in helping to convert us into a summer frame of mind – since the Dash-7 landed, Rothera has been blessed with the sort of sunshine, blue skies and clear air that make you want to stay in Antarctica forever. A sudden trend for t-shirts and shorts means that the ghostly-white skin of the poor sun-deprived winterers is finally emerging again. Already, it is essential to plaster on the sun-cream to avoid turning beet-red under the harsh ozone-dodging rays of sunlight. We haven’t yet reached 24-hours of daylight, but the sky in the South glows a deep red late into the evenings, a warning sign that the sun is hovering not far below the horizon.
Before the planes arrived, I would have been quite happy to maintain the status-quo of winter. It was an incredible time, during which our amazing little community formed strong bonds and jealously made Rothera our own. However, the energy and vibrancy that arrives with the summer is already infecting us. The hours are longer, the work harder and the base is busier, but the hectic days fly past and there is never a dull moment. It’s a close one, but, on reflection, I think we’ll let our new visitors stay.