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.

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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.

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.

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.

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