First ship shop

November 27, 2007 at 6:40 pm | Posted in Assistant Post Mistress, Dreams and imagination, Rachel Hazell, The Practicalities of Everyday Life Out Here | 1 Comment

15th November

Slightly hungover. Glad at prospect of fresh fruit for breakfast, to ward off scurvy. No time for porridge. First shop; Helen and I are nervous about prices and stock. Stand on ramp to welcome the passengers.

Take positions and the flow is steady, no problems (except for slow adding up.) It’s interesting to see how people move around the space, what they buy, how many stamps… Not too pooped. Tudor and I re-stock.

(Must remember to take torch, tally sheet, knife, pen and gloves.) Helen cashes up. Rick, expanding his culinary envelope, (and bravely using the mysterious unlabelled bag of dried mushrooms which hydrate up into huge slithery oysters,) serves up miso-style noodle soup for lunch; hot and sustaining. Wind increases. Endeavour arrives. Tim Soper (who was expedition leader on the ship that first brought me to Antarctica,) runs in to hug hello, see that our jerry cans are filled, and deliver enormous box of fresh fruit, veg, milk, butter and enough steak for a week, hurray, thank-you! Extra pair of hands (Tudor’s) allows mingling, helping with sizes and testing knowledge of science room. The frailer pax are quite buffeted about in the gusts outside – it’s horrid – and scale the slopes with ski poles. Weather conditions make the decision whether to invite us on board for dinner or drinks uncertain. As we’re about to restock the shop for a possible early morning visit, it’s a surprise to be told that the last zodiac is waiting and we need to hurry. Rough and bumpy ride straight into the waves, jolts Helen’s back and I nearly lose hat. Glad we’re in immersion suits. Speedy shower – four of us in twenty minutes (dispelling theory that women take an age to ablute.) At recap, Rick performs well, the audience is charmed. We answer questions, delighted to be drinking G+Ts as waiters pass canapes.

Divine to sit at a table with starched napkins, a menu, wine and intelligent conversation. Weather has continued to worsen – gale force eight, forty knot winds. We must stay on board, it’s too dangerous to return to Port Lockroy tonight. Warm, wined and dined; I don’t care.

Cabins are juggled, empty bunks found. Banter tiredly but contentedly in bar. Rick talks to the doctor about nasal issues. Helen keeps sliding off sofa (due to swell.) After the luxury of checking internet, Helen and I go up to the bridge to look at icebergs on the radar and charts that show how small our little island really is. I’m sharing a cabin with Rick, who is too tired to snore. Late to sleep.

Helen and I, warm-cheeked and excited, model the ladyfit t-shirts as best we can

November 27, 2007 at 6:39 pm | Posted in Assistant Post Mistress, Book art, Dreams and imagination, Life in the snow | Leave a comment

14th November

Metallic pale grey outside. Very still. Inside, legs tucked up, cross-legged in bunk, trying to delete hundreds of photos from computer to make room for multitude of Port Lockroy penguins. Involves looking at the documentation of the last four years (I’m no good at filing.) Keep pics of people, lose technical work sequences. Memories gurgling: trees, cars, workshops, dinner parties… Odd. Wash up porridge bowls and pan to clear kitchen surface, because it needs raising from back breaking to minorly uncomfortable. I’m chief joiner’s assistant, which means watching a lot of measuring and sawing, and occasionally writing a number in a notebook or holding bits of wood. Things improve when the power tools come out, and there’s some drilling and screwing to be done.

Chilli transforms into lentil curry (?) for lunch. Proudly finish up counter by five thirty. It’s exercise time! Circuits, (kind of,) on low flattish rock (avoiding guano and puddles.) All four of us in trainers; jogging, squatting, lunging, star-jumping, sit ups, press ups and using convenient sized rocks as weights. Gentoos emerging from the sea, watch, not bothered, as we work up a sweat. Rick’s on for a curry, using a few ingredients from the boat shed – Base Commander’s privilege. While I’m reading e-mails, the radio above my head crackles! We have contact with the outside world! Oooh it’s Antarctic Dream! Our first visitors – they’ve arrived – they’re about to anchor – and they’re inviting us aboard for a shower. What an ecstatic notion?! We’re to be ready by eight thirty. Dinner is delicious. Then I’m being ditzy – what should I take? Shove clean clothes and toothbrush into waterproof sack, struggle into immersion suits, stumble down to landing and wait for the zodiac’s drone through the fog. It’s snowing. Unutterable joy arcing round underneath the prow, clearly reflected in the icy ink, and climbing into the light and warm welcome. Delightful evening, blissful shower. Up to the all-wooden bar, smiling faces and pisco sours. Rick does his introductory talk about Port Lockroy’s history, and tomorrow’s landing.
Lots of questions. Lovely people flock round, all curious about four Brits in a small wooden hut on the Antarctic Peninsula, running a museum and Post Office… Helen and I, both warm-cheeked and excited, model the ladyfit t-shirts as best we can. Several folk force fresh fruit upon us, which I can’t help but fondle. Time to go, out across the dark water, home. The island is quiet, the penguins still.

Haircut on the beach at low tide. Penguins halt and move on.

November 27, 2007 at 6:37 pm | Posted in Rachel Hazell, The Practicalities of Everyday Life Out Here | Leave a comment

13th November

Ship is not coming; ice blocks their passage beyond our safe haven. Grey water rippling. Penguins are all crashed out from their nocturnal swims.

Tudor observed them at 2:45am, gathering by the water’s edge, quorate around one hundred, they launched off before the next group assembled (in ten minutes) and again they are away, diving and feeding for twelve – eighteen hours. When they come back, propelling up and out of the sea, they preen and shake before returning to the nesting sites. Dare the Stairway to heaven with Helen; it’s steep and the last step is ginormous. When will I brave it alone? Shovel snow from deck and swing into it, heaving and tossing high over the bank, hopefully avoiding ramp and gentoos around the flagpole. Helen is on the opposite side, hacking at ice with a pick. Hot work. During tea break, I discover that my hairdressing appointment is at midday. Vidal Baboon has had a cancellation. Boil up water and scald head in a bucket. The salon is a chair, set on the beach at low tide. Walk down with wet conditioned hair (which freezes into attractive dandruff.)  Helen takes documentary shots and issues encouragement. Vidal’s fingers are sporadically immobilised by the frosty nip, so he has to pause and blow on them. Passing penguins halt and move on. Twenty minutes later, the deed is done; I’m shorn.

Retreat to bunkroom and whack on heat. Tomato sauce soup for lunch, followed by a game of liar dice. Go down to the ice sculpture garden as we’re out of water. There’s a second adelie… but they don’t appear to be talking to each other (only ten metres apart.) The blue ice shapes are magnificent, multi-hued, multi-textured. Gazing into the shallows I see a crustacean, which looks interesting. Helen removes boots and socks, rolls up thermals, steps straight in and plucks the creature out!

It’s a poorly isopod, more used to deeper waters. Helen, lying down, discovers a constellation of bright starfish. Rick’s still running errands, fixing aerials – we call him over and he joins the Helen Annan Nature Walk. We see sea urchins, snow-snakes (pinky/purple squiggles) sea fleas, shrimpy things, multi-millipedes, lots of limpets and orange woolly anemones. Much adventure en route, rock climbing, iceberg surfing, (Tudor) snow caving, (Rick) and pausing to watch penguins, catching new angles and perspectives of our little island. Think a lot about St. Agnes on the Isles of Scilly (rounded rocks) and ‘The Summer Book’ by Tove Jansson (island as microcosm.) The final section of circumnavigation looks too hard-core for me, so I reverse up the Stairway to Heaven and plod in Rick’s footsteps instead. Essential tea time! At several points this afternoon, the others have stared askance at me, mistaking new haircut for a new person altogether. Can’t resist a pee amongst marooned icebergs, watching gentoos dripping gold in this evening light as they porpoise. While Tudor prepares mystery feast, the remainder go through the motions of a yoga session, warming up slowly and groaning at our stiff shoulders. The Mexican dinner with the same diminishing resources is excellent. Chilli con carne, refried beans, strips of stir-fried pork and tortilla chips. Extraordinary. Mini slide show of recent photos from me and Helen. Another day in icy paradise.

Reluctantly agreeing to hair cuts

November 27, 2007 at 6:35 pm | Posted in Rachel Hazell, The Practicalities of Everyday Life Out Here | Leave a comment

12th November

I’ve been snoring, quite rhythmically, and keeping Tudor awake, despite his painting marathon yesterday. Sea is rippling, wafting larger bergs into landing site. Crunchy snow. We hope a ship is coming in tomorrow.

So the paint-spattered cardboard is bundled up, dust swept, dribbles removed, stains scrubbed and omissions touched up. I’m assigned to sparkle up/groom lounge and science room. Many grubby corners excavated and much delicate wiping with a damp cloth, and remembering where artefacts had been hung before we moved them to decorate. Enjoy systematically going through all the bookshelves with the duster. Who’s been reading the entire works of Proust? Pile of 1950s magazines and plenty of the same era’s Reader’s Digest if we run out of literary matter. Finish by sweeping, including all low down nooks and crannies.

The science room contains an extravagance of material for such a small space; an array of historical, scientific and personal artefacts, with the Beastie (hugely important in the realm of Ionospherics,) in the middle. Carefully move each item, wonder what it is and how it works, clean/dust it, and shelf, and replace. Try to absorb and learn as I go
along: International Geophysical Year, Whistlers, the ozone layer, weather data… wowee. Screw information plaque and hardware onto dark room door. Sweep around there, and where Rick’s been tidying the workshop bench. After tea, down to the boat shed with Helen so that Tudor can explain his stock storage system to us i.e. Port Lockroy caps are behind this stack of boxes, at the bottom. The thought of re-stocking in a hurry, between ships is terrifying. Flee to warmth of bunkroom and write. Helen verifying shop procedures, so salmon carbonara (tastes great looks yuk) is slightly late, thus all the more gratefully received. Takes a while to heat up tonight. Having problems reaching anyone on the HF radio, and no news of the ship due tomorrow. Helen rushes in announcing a new visitor – Hello adelie! He’s looking anxious too, and wanders disconsolate, me following with a camera at a respectable distance. Oh it seems so lost. We’ve been here two weeks; no visitors, no fresh supplies, no shower… and d’you know? It’s ok.

Reluctantly agreed to have hair cut (by Vidal Baboon, one of our local hairdressers,) two days ago, but haven’t got round to it. One chilblain. Helen has brought ‘Poetry Please!’ and reads one to us in bed.

I’m thinking of poetry and missing it

November 27, 2007 at 6:33 pm | Posted in Assistant Post Mistress, Dreams and imagination | Leave a comment

11th November

Clear skies overhead, dark black over Anvers Island. Still still. Chilly to gloss and my first coat drips. Cold and melancholy, by twelve am I’m eager to volunteer for warming soup making. Attempt Moroccan style couscous and tvp stew, with nutmeg, apricot and mixed fruit… it lacks er flavour (meat!) but has heartening effect. Complete lounge painting with second coat of gloss, lost in thought through bursts of Madonna. I can vaguely hear Tudor and Helen discussing past relationships. More contemplation. Take slop bucket. Watch penguins. Standing on the doorstep, talking to the others as they’re painting porch; suddenly notice that a lonesome chinstrap is peering about a few metres away, looking out of place and a little anxious. Have an hour before dinner cooking to catch up on typing this. More of a mush for supper – corned beef, mixed veg and baked beans stirred up, with mash, flowed by rice pudding. It’s very odd this limbo time of waiting and wondering if and when a ship will arrive. Painting is not busy enough for my wandering mind. Stiff shoulders. I’m thinking of poetry and missing it. Mention this to Rick and he reads me some; Robert Service in the Yukon. Just right. Good night.

The Antarctic Juke Box

November 27, 2007 at 6:32 pm | Posted in Assistant Post Mistress, Dreams and imagination, Life in the snow, Rachel Hazell, The Practicalities of Everyday Life Out Here | Leave a comment

10th November

Make porridge after gentle ball gyrations and the best outside pee – the water absolutely dead calm and snowflakes falling. Supposedly warmer. Into chilly overalls after teeth and dishwashing, to finish scraping the genny shed entrance, then sanding, then undercoating. Listen to lounge music, then Lemon Jelly on loud – we’re all out painting hall/porch walls and ceilings. Corned dog and sardines for lunch, with chocolate. Rick’s sweetie of choice is liquorice and there’s only a limited supply, so the others have to sneak pieces. Three giant petrels noisy around the apple turnover wedge of berg out front. Nine cape petrels were there the other day. Lumps of snow slide off the hut roof with a whumf, intermittently. Finish first undercoat. Take slop bucket to sling into the sea and take an hour walking back – the penguins are so distracting. Click zillions of photographs. Sheathbills are doing the love thing on the porch roof – tricky when the lady underneath is standing on one leg and her tail feathers are in the way. Snow is slushier…must be warmer then?! Two mins to reply to e-mails, then down to chains landing for a snow wash surrounded by glassy cold sea, bergy bits sparkling and icicles hanging round this outdoor bathroom. Not adept at washing bits without ice ending up down long johns. Glistening sights. Cold nose. Trumpeting gentoos. It’s Saturday Night and we’re going ‘out’ after Rick’s feast… I mean, we’re going out of the bunkroom and into the museum lounge, where the gramophone needle is sharp and ready. Tudor dresses up, Saturday night BAS style in shirt and proper shoes. I ruffle up hair, put on stripey jumper and pink lipstick. Helen has new thermals on, and Rick a smart Port Lockroy top. Top tunes include:

‘Run Rabbit Run.’
‘Takes Two to Tango.’
‘I Whistle a Happy Tune.’
‘The Lady is a Tramp.’
‘Blow the Wind Southerly.’
‘When i’m Cleaning Windows.’

and my favourite for marching…

‘Oh Ain’t it Grand to be in the Navy.’

Extraordinary tone – an acoustic glimpse of the past. Our dancing impersonates the penguins on purpose and maybe not. Layers of thermals are removed due to enervating music. Since needle requires changing  for every record, the evening progresses elegantly… until i-Pod and speakers replace the hand-winding, and bopping continues, steaming up the windows.

Shifting horizons

November 27, 2007 at 6:30 pm | Posted in Assistant Post Mistress, Life in the snow, Observations in Antarctica, The Practicalities of Everyday Life Out Here | Leave a comment

7th November

Awake in the night, cold bones. Lie still listening to the others breathing. Warm up by morning, so don’t want to leave cocoon. Peppermint tea and porridge. Washed up, washed self, phew. A loving e-mail keeps me warm all day. Start preparing the museum lounge, well one wall and two built-in benches, using a one-inch scraper all round. Surprised to get really into it, even asking if I can clean up inside the bench, where no-one can see. Cheery but tired by lunch – beans on toast with a very special treat – three slices of chorizo, yum. Small discussion on the first ethical dilemma in Helen’s book… end up talking about suicide options Marie Celeste style instead. V. chuffed to have finished the undercoat by six thirty. (How my horizons have shifted?!) My turn to cook – the others are already planning to order a takeaway, cheeky.
Resulting curry is good enough for Helen not to add Tabasco. Cooking with frozen tins of mush is an acquired skill that one can hardly expect to master at the second attempt. Hair is reaching unwieldiness close to dreadlocks. The others vote to shave it off. Aie! I’d lose my identity, wouldn’t I? The thing is, there may be a hair-washing opportunity in ten days time…but can’t depend on circumstances/weather. Hmmn. Will ponder another night at least. Rick has a pain in his lower back, which gets him a Deep Heat rub AND out of the washing up. Hope it wasn’t the yoga.

Tudor accompanies me up the Stairway (the gulls are  waiting – bleurgh!) and I accompany him to chains landing to pour out the slops bucket, too heavy to hoist up and over the hill. Now the snow has ceased, fresh wind blows plum dark blooming clouds across behind Anvers island, throwing white bergs and snow lines into the foreground. The penguins are building nests and lovemaking (as they were even during blizzard.) Looks like krill is returning. So hot in bunkroom –   at eighteen degrees Celsius  – the hottest yet. Step into cooler lounge to tear brush through tangles. Eeeoou. Painful ten mins later, hair has gone frizzy and big… no need to cut it off yet. The comms guy rope is slapping intolerably against our roof. Helen braves the gusts as we’re all tucked up in bed and heroically fixes the irritation as sleeps takes me, warm and toasty in double sleeping bag.

Wind blusters round this shed. Helen makes a mini snowman.

November 27, 2007 at 6:27 pm | Posted in Dreams and imagination | Leave a comment

6th November

Wind in wrong direction for pee. (Considering the dangers of splash-back is not ideal early in the morning.) Toast, fresh sliced from Helen’s bread is highlight of breakfast! The trouble with not getting dressed and going straight away, is the cold seeps in… Glossed the shop’s kick boards – thought it may take all day, but finish by lunch. Helen sweeps and dusts museum kitchen and touches up magnolia. Tudor sorts through the stationary cupboard, which had accumulated a wealth of oddments.

Rick tinkers; helping, fiddling, multi-tasking, but mostly cleaning his drill bits. Oh no! E-mail brings news that the Nordnorge, due tomorrow, will not make a visit – there is still an unmanageable amount of ice in the Gerlache Strait. Disappointing. We were SO ready (and so looking forward to fresh water and clean clothes AND seeing our expedition staff/crew friends again, of course.) News sinks in. I’m shocked somehow. Ok, back to painting and more maintenance opportunities. But we’re ok; enough tins, enough ice. Crack on. More magnolia finishes off the science room. Helen polishes copper snow melter. Sweep. Tidy. Spend an hour typing this onto Rick’s computer, since mine is not responding to charging, nor affectionate patting. Gosh writing about what happened on 27th October is part of our old world. Disheartened for no good reason. Prime moment for exercise. Me and Helen persuade Rick to join us. Tudor’s nose is stuck in Falklands fighter pilot book. Again, a challenge to practice yoga at three degrees Celsius, hard to take socks off. Warm up initially and un-yogically, bouncing around to Basement Jaxx. Spend an hour bending and stretching in narrow spaces on three sides of an old generator! Rick says this room is warm and sun-filled in the summer (the floor is also amuck then with guano from the soles of many passengers feet however…) We are hopeful of motivating each other to continue this regime, knowing how hard that may be when we’re busy.

Learn of another cancellation; the ship bringing the Rockhopper film crew has mechanical problems, so they’re not coming just now. What’s going on!?! Ho hum. Tudor dozy, Rick’s dinner delicious. Wind blusters round this shed. Helen makes a mini snowman (without us seeing her) by the kitchen window – several penguins admire it.  All unexpectedly weary.

Port Lockroy

November 20, 2007 at 1:54 pm | Posted in Observations in Antarctica, Penguins | Leave a comment


Penguins walking by the kitchen window

November 19, 2007 at 6:29 pm | Posted in Assistant Post Mistress, Dreams and imagination, Life in the snow, Rachel Hazell | 2 Comments

5th November

No bonfire night! N.B. Don’t lick your fingers or rub your eyes with antibacterial hand-wash gel. Yuk/ouch. Wind still blowing. Up for an outside wee. Snow has drifted some, still falling. Penguins all away swimming, just a few stragglers. Ball exercises and wildlife report reading. Gloss coat of magnolia in the Science room. Really hard to achieve neat edges cos the paint is so cold; fingers not working so well. Dixie Chicks and chatting to Rick about motivation. Then finishing off the puddle at the bottom of tin on a wee patch in museum kitchen with Tudor and Helen, talking about what to do on return, babies, travelling, employment decisions… Turn last night’s lasagne into hearty lunch soup. Helen worried about rolled oat supply. Me worried about peppermint tea supply. Back to preparing kick boards of shop for painting, after finishing franking (and Scottish dancing with Rick and Helen; Gay Gordon’s, Dashing White Sergeant, and Strip the
Willow…) V. blustery and cold outside, Rick puts heater on for morale and necessity (gloss sticky and drips more at zero degrees.) He’s being extra supportive and considerate today.  Cups of tea. Funny to see penguins walking by the kitchen window. Oh but we’ve run out of water, (some of it has been tasting odd, like burnt fried food)  so all four of us face the elements armed with ice axes, washing up bowls and shovels. The tide is up, so must dig down through snow overhang (risky) and fish out mini bergs blown into the bay. Some of the ice chunks are so huge that Tudor has to bash them with an axe on cardboard on the hall floor. Scoop up right-sized chunks and sweep up shards. Nearly finished reading ten years worth of wildlife reports. Helen makes bread. Tudor cooks dinner. Beer o’clock is early and the banter is coarse. V. fine kedgeree despite lack of tumeric, parsley etc. Lychees and chocolate mousse for pudding. Don’t we eat like royalty?! Play cribbage – first since we arrived – Rick and I neck and neck… I only win because my cards are scored before his. Then out to marvel at snow drifted penguins aarh. Grooving to Rolling Stones increases temperature, as does Jagermeister. Computer dead; woe is me.

Snow shovelling to warm up; tap dancing lessons

November 19, 2007 at 6:26 pm | Posted in Assistant Post Mistress, Observations in Antarctica, Penguins, Rachel Hazell, The Practicalities of Everyday Life Out Here | Leave a comment

4th November

*Happy Birthday Sebastian!**

A proper sleep in! Awake at eight thirty. Happy to have loving replies in my e-mail inbox. Mooch around after half an hour’s yoga and swiss ball in museum lounge – a challenge with socks on, and too cold to relax, but worth it nonetheless. Turn on computer for the first time since we arrived; the screen stays dark… wait for it to adjust to ambient temperature… still nothing… try not to panic, nor consider the disastrous implications of no personal computer for the season; no music, no photos, e-mail addresses… Tudor suggests that battery is flat and can be recharged when the generator is next on. Hmmm. Anyway, food shelf sorting/cleaning needs finishing. Discover all sorts in dark and dusty recesses – so much chilli powder, so many frozen tins of baked beans… A cushy job compared to the others, who are prepping museum kitchen and science room for decorating; there will be no opportunity once the ships come sailing in. My but it’s cold! More snow shovelling to warm up, and Helen conducts first lesson in tap dancing; very effective for increasing circulation in toes. We’ve been fantasising about spam fritters (well, a Sunday fry up…) Tudor knocks them up in a jiffy, plus a side order of baked beans, mmmm. Red overalls on to sand and undercoat wooden partition wall, lots of obsolete electric cables to manoeuvre round, funked up by Jamiroquai. Helen’s getting sore arms tackling kitchen ceiling. Tudor is rationalising the massive wooden crate of medical supplies; unpronounceable names of drugs we’ll hopefully never ever have cause to need. Being official Penguin Monitor I am reading through wildlife reports. They were started ten years ago by BAS biologist Norman Cobley, as Port Lockroy provides a unique opportunity to assess human impact on the island gentoo colony over each Austral summer season. I am a little daunted by the obvious experience and expertise illustrated over the years but attracted to the systematic nature of survey. My eyes will tune into the observation… not sure about working out percentage successes though. Fabulous Helen TVP lasagne followed by compo ration sachet of “Custard with mixed fruit.” Remarkably good. Most of the food we’re eating has the texture of semolina – yes everything – especially thrice frozen tins… learning to love oh yeah learning to love… Gentle music, reading, postcard writing. Every time the kettle has boiled more ice chunks are slid in to melt. Relaxed and warm inside (91% humidity down from 98%) bright and the wind picking up outside.

Introducing Fanny and Pickle

November 19, 2007 at 6:23 pm | Posted in Blogroll, Dreams and imagination, Observations in Antarctica, The Practicalities of Everyday Life Out Here | 2 Comments

3rd November

We all thought it was going to be a cold one, the wind blew up, but it wasn’t too chilly really. Wake with the expectation of leaping into action, but there’s no ship on the horizon. It’s about three degrees (plus wind chill). Back into bags with tea and muesli. Rick reads, Helen knits, Tudor thinks. I write: I’m scared. Last night I was kind of close to tears – scared that this is hard and we’ve only just begun. E-mail from ship – eta three pm. Relaxed pottering = much happier. We have the luxury of not rushing, finishing off labels, tweaking. Tudor is brilliant at ‘Display’ – his family used to run a department store.

Prepare for the rush by tearing sheets of stamps, and wrapping First Day Covers in protective wrappers. Rick and Tudor are fixing up the Penguin Study Area’s ropes and posts (so that human impact can be monitored with control colonies. Shovel snow from front decking in order to increase circulation and warm up, which takes minutes! First on-site lesson in radio use for Fanny and Pickle (for that, inexplicably, is what this season’s postal staff have been named,) involving wandering about going “Wot? eh? What button? Can’t hear you! Over and out!” etc. Funny. We’re sure to get the hang of it soon enough. Helen counts out float, and places stamps, paper bags, credit card machine etc on the counter. I prepare an emergency snack box for under-counter guzzling and bottles of quenching water. We’re ready to be there for maybe five hours without pause. We’re waiting…and waiting… and waiting… getting hetty- keep going to the door and peering out. Finally take tea on the veranda. Rick checks e-mail; ship is not coming – impossible to negotiate ice in the Gerlache Strait. Oh. So we can finish glossing the walls… Ah ha! We can also start our Post Mistress duties: Mail that was posted here at the end of last season, after the PO ‘closed’ in March, together with all the new postcards from the Nordnorge, need cancelling without delay!

Hurray! Much excitement and anticipation. First we apply hundreds of stamps to prepaid mail (i.e. a bundle of postcards with enough dollar to cover postage.) Helen ensures date correct on the rubber stamp. Cameras at the ready and we’re off, stamping away and laying out the cards so the ink will dry in this temperature, and not smudge. Every so often, consulting PO instruction manual for guidance re. Non British Antarctic Territory stamps, special issues, Philatelic collectors items, not to mention how each stamp must be ‘tied’ to the envelope by the cancel. I LOVE it! Setting up a system, music on, singing away to hits from the 80s…peeking out of the window to see penguins, glacier edge and sheathbills running round in circles. Bliss. Nearly done by six thirty, and no more room to lay them out. No ship means no fresh water, so down to the rocks at low tide, to chip ice from a berg that doesn’t taste too salty. Five washing up bowls full later, clamber back with the ice picks. Minus one degree outside… no chance of it melting; the bowls will cool down the bunkroom tonight. Squat on rock by water’s edge for first Antarctic alfresco pee, staring at limpets in the pools thinking ‘Bloody hell! Here I am!” Shiny icicles on the overhang contrast against diorite rock. Big Saturday Treat: It’s Fray Bentos Night! Rick’s favourite; with peas and potatoes, followed by rice pudding and raspberry jam oh yeah – the best feast, despite multiple freezings.

Stuffed, hot and fumey (from heater and Tilley lamp,) nice n’ fuggy.

Accompany Rick up to the loo. Gingerly climb down snow steps, balance on rock, chuck waste into high tide, wobble down to lower rock to swill out, slip, squeal and return up steps to where Rick stands smiling, saying nothing. Stop to admire lines of mountain ridge against bruised mauve sky. Sing to the gentoos as if this island is a cathedral.

It’s slippery and slidey and scary and the light is flat

November 19, 2007 at 6:20 pm | Posted in Assistant Post Mistress, Rachel Hazell, The Practicalities of Everyday Life Out Here | Leave a comment

2nd November

Colder. Awake at six for a pee – too early! Snuggle down for another hour. Inflate swiss ball, much to baffled amusement of Tudor, and wobble about improving core stability for a bit. We have one day to prepare Port Lockroy for first proper ship visit, which is happening a day earlier than scheduled. Much of morning spent dusting and moving boxes of stock. I leave the others to be anxious about how to display all the permutations of t-shirts (sizes, colours, shapes) – there are so many. At morning break I make tea wrong! Milk powder must be treated with delicacy to prevent scorching… Then an inquisitive sheathbill leaves a calling card, which I, not noticing, tread into soles of indoor slippers. Hmm. Oh and I’m also gutted to discover that there’s no sign of the wonderful nut bars sponsored by Eat Natural. Food packers don’t remember them. Apparently they were delivered… a mystery. Stomach is churning, adjusting to a change of diet; it’s impossible to include enough protein. Oh dear. Progress is slow, but continuous, sledging and carrying boxes up and down from boat shed to shop, snow softening in the sun. Feel like a cart horse, harnessed up. Slowly, slowly each item finds its place and receives a price label. Great Mulligatawny soup out on the sundeck suntrap, which has a wee seat carved out of the snowdrift. More and more penguins are settling back on to the island, emerging from the water, ruffling feathers, congregating at their nesting sites. Speedy snow wash, standing on warm rock down by the landing site; top half naked, then bottom, hugely invigorating. Feels good, except for stray drips of ice down thermal trous as I pull them back up! Back on the job, slightly frantic towards evening when there still appears to be hours worth of work ahead. Rick brings speakers through because we’re concentrating too hard to sing and lift our spirits. He also fuels us with tuna mayo pasta and spicy bowls of soup.
Inaugural trip up the Stairway to Heaven with loo and slop bucket. It’s slippery and slidey and scary and the light is flat. Clouds have covered us over. Thank goodness Tudor accompanies me, and kindly demonstrates how to balance on rock to swill bucket without waves lapping on feet. V tired and quiet. Bed around eleven.

The faint sound of distant avalanches

November 19, 2007 at 6:17 pm | Posted in Assistant Post Mistress, Dreams and imagination, The Practicalities of Everyday Life Out Here | Leave a comment

1st November

Helen leaps up wide awake this morning. She’s had the best night’s sleep because Rick taped his mouth up (even though, reputedly, he Doesn’t snore) just for us! We are so lucky. No-one keen to get going so we indulge in an hour’s reading/gazing. I commence some correspondence – cards made from the Dixie Overall packaging. This time is a luxury – soon the ships will be coming non-stop. The path to where our waste is chucked (The Stairway to Heaven…) needs digging out; Rick and Helen have already started by the time I’ve finished sorting e-mail. Water is so clear that rocks look like pebbles far below the blue. Rick demonstrates chuck n’ slosh technique – trick is to avoid splashback.
Yuk. Round to the landing place for more shovelling; path must be clear for each ship visit. Doesn’t take long with four of us – still needs tamping. Saw two avalanches; one on Mount William and one on the Fife Range, both so far away, we only hear them faintly. Amazing snow-smoke.

Second coat of gloss for ceiling of generator shed (the shop!) Helen, Tudor and I sing rounds, music hall and old school songs – anything that springs to mind. Each section takes one hour fifteen minutes, not that we’re counting or anything. Outside for fresh mountain air in between.

My curly hair is beginning to fester – have to wear hat a) for warmth and b) to avoid contact with painty beam. Finish by late lunch; noodle soup from Helen enhanced with sweet chilli sauce. Tudor continues on the beams. Helen attempts to achieve order under the counter and I do the same with the food shelves, which are full of crumbling bags of pasta and frozen tins whose labels are wet from condensation, lots of instant hot-chocolate sachets, crystallised jam, golden syrup and honey, stale biscuits, open bags of not-so-fresh coffee and anonymous sachets. Only manage to sort two shelves by six-thirty. I’ve been feeling scared today. There are so many things I don’t know about living this way. All the little essential courtesies that Rick patiently points out and Tudor drops into stories from Rothera. Really, I’m here under false pretences, with not a clue, but the desire to be in this most Spartan magnificent environment, to do a wacky job that, very loosely, ties in with my bookbinding work. Oh, and I’ve lived on my own for ten years. Mmm yes the curve is steep, with chocolate breaks on the way, I hope. Realising that it’s my turn to do dinner, I determinedly poke around hoping for inspiration. Commence with three tins of salmon, one of carrots, one of green beans, rice and some white sauce powder. Tin’s contents all frozen solid, then thaw out to mush. Fear disaster, but everyone’s generous, or merely ravenous. Bunkroom full of heat, funky music on, beer cracked open… Ah Helen decides we need pudding and tosses up pancakes; wow.

We’ve generated so much warmth that the heater is switched off! I can’t believe it! The cooker gas canister has run out, so Rick and I step down to the boat shed for a replacement. “You forget this is all outside here.’ says Rick as we trundle up the snow, avoiding clumps of penguins, rose light kissing the highest peaks and the snow quietly luminous.

Boogie about whilst instantaneously writing this. All tired and complete. Stand on door step and watch penguin pairs making out before bed.

Happy to be here

November 19, 2007 at 6:12 pm | Posted in Assistant Post Mistress, Blogroll, Dreams and imagination, Observations in Antarctica, Penguins | Leave a comment

31st October

Toasty toes, still chilly nose. Slept well, up with the joys at six thirty. Peek out the door on the way back from bucket to see thin pancake ice, and the penguins so still, gathered on Bill’s Island, that they look frozen. Kettle on and back in the bag. Today’s mission is to sort out the PO/shop room (The new Generator Shed) before stock goes in.

Everybody else has unpacked into their underbunk storage boxes – I’ve been putting it off (fears of too much stuff) – seize the day and attempt to make contents of pink Harris tweed holdall, blue canvas bag and two boxes of personal stuff make sense and fit. Meanwhile Helen tackles the First Aid/Cleaning cupboard, which contains an abundance of ancient Lemsips, numerous toothpaste tubes, rolls of cling-film and cigarette lighters. Decamp the four hundred sets of ‘Iceberg Library’ postcards to shop – delighted that they’ve made the journey here too. The decision has been made to paint the shop. The day is so blue and still and wondrous outside that we are easily distracted. Move boxes to far end, lay down opened out flattened cardboard in lieu of dust-sheets. Helen is assembling optimum nut snack and muesli supplies down at the boat shed, misses initial horrid sanding (makes up for it later) before transforming last night’s curry into soup of the day. Instantly dusty hair ooh but I’m loving these overalls – family would be amused to see me now I think. As we’re running short of water (we had seven jerry cans full from the Nordnorge) Helen and Tudor go down to the blocks of ice on the low-tide shore and chip chunks off with pick-axes, to melt in the boat shed (always warm and wood-smelling.) A battle-scarred young male elephant seal wearily tries to haul out onto our icy shore, evidently needing to lie low – he sleeps all afternoon, ignoring the penguins and us. Stand still in the beauty, I’m so happy to be here. Right: Painting.
Up a ladder with a pot of white undercoat, singing show tunes and an impressive eighties repertoire (Helen’s word-perfect to Wham’s ‘Bad
Boys.’) We are weary-bodied but cheery. Helen sad for a second when paint first sullies her overalls. Tea-break on the ramp, watching leopard seal pretending to be a rock, and avoiding possibility of sheathbills shitting from overhead (as is their wont.) Finish painting by six. The light on the ice is calling; stand and click. Tudor’s cooking up a feast all from tins – a culinary skill that the others all seem to have mastered – a kind of lasagne, very good. As it’s Halloween, we have wondered about ducking for apples, but since there’s only one, we resort to Helen’s festive whiskey and ginger wine. Open computer for the first time, it shuts down, too cold. Trouble lighting both Tilley lamp and heater tonight, finally cosy. Almost (!) too hot in bed – prickly toes – and can’t reach to take socks off zzzz

We sit out on old church hall chairs in the snow for a cup of tea

November 19, 2007 at 6:05 pm | Posted in Assistant Post Mistress, Book art, Dreams and imagination, Life in the snow, Observations in Antarctica | Leave a comment

30th October

Stir around five am. Over the next few months I’ll try to describe Rick’s snore, but today there’s more important stuff to depict. Snug as bugs in our caterpillar cocoons, condensation running down the walls.

Rick puts the kettle on. Bladder has been bursting for the last hour at least, but since my nose, the only part of body out of sleeping bag is cold, trip down Baltic corridor, through Genny Shed, to the bucket, is not appealing, but finally essential. Ah but tea’s ready and Rick’s making porridge. It’s the Scottish salty kind – but good n’ warming, and especially good with shavings of frozen honey and dried apricots – yum.

Eight o’clock aah the first tender boat full of visitors from the Nordnorge is on its way. Run around moving boxes from the lounge, uncovering protective plastic from the science room and transferring artefacts from safe back to their places on the museum shelves. (Marco the German Expedition Assistant has successfully managed to twiddle knobs in correct sequence – Hurray!) Wonderful to see familiar passengers; their responses are a mixture of aghast and admiring. Prop myself at Bar in lounge and merrily explain how there’s no electricity or heating here. People I’ve never spoken to wish us luck and a happy season. One man even returns to the ship, insists the boutique is opened, and sends back a large bottle of Jagermeister – our first gift, for medicinal purposes, obviously. And Mairi bestows her sheepskin hat and two apples. Once we’ve said goodbye to Nordnorge, unloaded remaining supplies and watched her slip behind the ice walls of Neumayer Channel, we sit out on old church hall chairs in the snow for a cup of tea. The task ahead of us: to stack and store this box mountain – finding a home for 600 boxes. Tudor has a plan. It takes hours and hours, in between pauses for cups of tea, with macaroons (half-inched from ship when T went to check the hold) smeared with dolce de leche. Basking in the wonderment of working up a sweat next to the swimming penguins in an iceberg water garden. Lunch is oatcakes and corned beef (dog) – which never tasted so good. By six thirty every single box has found a home (albeit temporary) and the tarpaulin is bare; fold it up, liberating that patch of snow back to the gentoos, who mull about, and swiftly settle back. It’s beer o’clock! But I’m behind with this, and reluctant to shut the door on the day, so I stand on the threshold writing until fingers too cold to hold pen. Curry for dinner, cooked by Rick. All food here tastes like Nectar of the Gods, perhaps because it’s been a long while since such physical labour. This meal, being hot, thaws us out from the inside. Dreamily cosy in our bunkroom (kitchen, bedroom, living room combined, in 5 x 6 metres) now that the propane heater is on. Helen knits, Tudor washes up and I’ve been nominated to start the base journal, we’ll take it in turns day by day. Not sure when I’ll have time or battery power to write this, so apologies for delay. All rosy-cheeked and curried up, cosy in and Rick starts to snore.

Minke whales to starboard!

November 19, 2007 at 6:03 pm | Posted in Assistant Post Mistress, Observations in Antarctica, Rachel Hazell | Leave a comment

29th October

Wake early, although not up when an excited Tudor knocks on our door at 6:45 (more than a few people confess to have been wandering around in pyjamas at dawn, too busy looking to sleep.) Up to deck seven, front row seats for an ice spectacle. On our way to Cuverville Island past picture postcard wonder. Intended landing no good, on a little further to Danco, where the water is glassy crystal and the gentoos fly beneath it. At breakfast, a surprise; Franz informs us that since the Captain plans to deliver us to Port Lockroy TONIGHT, we must make ready, and open PO/Shop for business at eleven am! arrgh! Hurry hurry! Make labels, load trolleys, arrange goods and our customers are upon us, three deep, in constant waves. Trying to remember prices, reaching over for t-shirts, channelling credit card payers to Helen, selling, selling selling ­ single stamps, First Day Covers. An astonishing blur for one and a half hours, when there is a slight lull for lunch, so we eat in relay, vacantly staring. Finish at two. Takes an age to pack up and cash up.

Then we have one hour to do everything we need before leaving the ship: ­ shower, pack, check internet, phone home, except there’s no signal (must be big mountains in the way) until the last five minutes. And now that we’ve had the PO onboard, everyone wants to talk to us and tell us interesting things. Impossible to focus, too many urgent distractions.
Finally, last panicky e-mails are sent. Tannoy announces minke whales to starboard: ­ all rush out, and there they are, blowing in the middle distance, five in a row, in this champagne glow of evening, nearly at our destination. Oh and then orcas to port, a mother and baby. That nearly makes my day, but a six minute telephone conversation tops that (despite Rick banging on the door because it’s time to take luggage down to hold!) Up on deck four, the team of four expectantly waits for the first glimpse of Goudier Island. We’re rounding the south end of Neumayer Channel, and there it is –  a small black oblong that is the boat shed and a small corner of Bransfield House just visible. Jumping up and down, it’s so beautiful and the evening is so perfect and the whales have dipped by. Dress up in layers and life jackets, hand in our cabin cards, sign off our accounts. Somehow we’re ready, the passengers are hugging us, and wishing us luck. Down to the tender deck, where most of the expedition staff are robing up to help, and the crew are smilingly light-hearted about transferring nearly nine tons of  cargo. Personal luggage on the first boat. There are sculpted icebergs and the water is deeply clear. A sinuous single leopard seal extends his curiosity. And the gentoos are everywhere.

Rick steps ashore first. Snow heaped all around. Penguins shift in response. Such excitement walking up to the red door (carrying beer – interesting priority, but we don’t want it to freeze and explode do we?), which is half obscured by drift. Rick kicks and heaves the door open – no it’s not locked – and there we are, home! Now the work starts, boat after boat, laden with boxes, negotiating rocks + ice, reaching the shore, unloading along human chain onto massive tarpaulin. This takes two and a half hours of back aching, feet freezing humping with much humour and good will. What stars they are! Helen and I weak with weariness, giggling and collapsing laughing. All the while hardly believing it; the penguins, the light, this mountain silhouette…this small island is to be our world for four and a half months. Carry on ’til the light diminishes and the captain of the ship says ‘Enough! Stop!’ Only three/four more loads, can deal with them tomorrow. Moving to wave goodbye and thanks to Expedition Staff at the loading place, in the gloaming – four of us in a line. (Forgot to mention that we’re all wearing fantastic Dixies red padded overalls.) Waving and walking back up the slope. Nordnorge’s beam picking out shards of ice in between which the boat navigates safe passage back to ship. Soon so dark inside the hut, and I don’t have anything so practical as a head torch (only four shades of lipstick) so locating which boxes have sleeping bags, pillows, pillow cases is not straight forward. Sink into fleece liner inside mega-thick sleeping bag, wearing two pairs of socks, windstopper fleece and pyjamas (I’m the only one who bothers changing; seems a small but necessary nod to decorum) on top of a Thermarest and sheepskin, over-laden with coat and pashmina scarf on top. Shelf above hung with long johns and thermals damp with fresh sweat. Nose and toes are cold, all else warm. Asleep first, leaving Tudor and Helen taking over from Rick in attempt to open the all-important Base Safe.

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