Colour, light, darkness

Antarctic summer peaked last week, with daytime temperatures reaching five degrees. In front of the station, the sea ice is still cracking up and melting, especially at the tidelines. On the hottest days, turquoise melt streams gushed down the ice plateau behind the station and the 5km walking loop on the ice became soft and rather treacherous.img_e0350 (1)IMG_0382.jpg

Now things have changed again. It’s only two weeks since the summer solstice, but already I can feel the season’s turn. Temperatures are dropping, puddles and melt streams refreezing. We’re still experiencing 24-hour daylight, but in the wee small hours the sun dips low, light turns gold and shadows stretch long over the sea ice. Official sunsets return in 10 days.

IMG_E9301.jpgFour pretty major things since I last wrote. A few weeks ago Jane and I finished the first draft of book one in our middle grade fiction trilogy – 33,000 words written jointly – a tale of four kids on an Antarctic adventure that becomes a fight for survival. I’ve never actually written with someone else – sitting side by side and writing alternating chapters – and it worked really well. Completing a draft was further than I’d expected to get. In fact, it was exhilarating.

Secondly – I survived survival training. It was relatively benign, given the warm time of the year, but it pushed me. Jane, Amy and I spent three days out in the field learning how to ride quad bikes on ice and snow, how to retrieve a stuck quad bike, how to put up an emergency tent between two quad bikes, how to sink snow anchors and ice screws, how to make a pulley, how to use an ice axe to get out of sea ice if it collapsed beneath you, how to assemble and use an emergency stove without incinerating self or others.

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On the second night in the field I slept in a bivvy, which is a fancy name for a large yellow plastic bag, aka the chip packet. Given I haven’t slept on the ground in a million years, I was nervous. In fact, it was beautiful lying on the rocks watching snow petrels wheeling around the cliffs above me, and then tucking down into the bag and actually managing to sleep for a few hours.

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Straight after survival training we repacked, turned around and headed out on the quads again for a jolly – another night in a field hut, this time purely for fun. Wrapped up the next day with a long walk up a scree slope in high winds, during which I mentally composed farewell messages to my loved ones in case I expired. (For some reason it doesn’t look nearly as scary and steep and windy in the photo!) Then set out on the journey back to station and experienced what happens with thick cloud cover – it becomes physically impossible to discern depth on the snow, and therefore very difficult to ride. Something I’d heard described but never experienced.

Out in the field I felt euphoria, terror, frustration, exultation, and most things in between. In some areas I surprised myself with capability, but in many more I struggled – mostly in keeping track of the vast range of gear that I had to carry and manage, and also in facing physical fears.

Back from the field, exhausted – and straight into Christmas. Getting into the spirit, helping with meal and decoration prep, sending messages home. The station makes a massive effort for Christmas, but it was always going to be a hard time – the gathering of my clan every second year is something I really love, and missing it was sad. Then just before bed on Christmas Eve I received news that my cousin Peter had died very suddenly of a heart attack while visiting Australia from his LA home. I haven’t seen Peter for a long time, apart from our interactions on facebook, but I felt heartbroken for his family. His elderly mother was waiting for Peter to fly to Ballina for Christmas – the first one they would have spent together in years – and he died in Sydney at 5am Christmas morning without seeing her. It was tough news on day that already held challenges.

The sea ice in Horseshoe Bay has been cracking up, rotting and melting in the past few weeks and it mirrored my internal landscape. I was just over halfway through the season, interacting with other people almost every waking hour, under the gaze of 24 hour daylight, in a stark and stripped down landscape. Sensitivities and vulnerabilities magnified, and it was hard to distinguish reality from my own reactions. I felt isolated, left out, adrift. Difficult emotions became even harder to manage in these conditions – with a small group of people day and night. I spent a lot of time flailing around, trying to get back on an even keel. Moments of darkness were interspersed with times of great beauty, fun and friendship, but I was struggling.

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Long conversations with trusted loved ones at home helped hugely (thank goodness for the satellite phone system), as did Jane’s patience in listening and helping talk through things. And I became aware that the station is a watchful place – in the best sense. After I disappeared into my room for most of a day, I was greeted by gentle inquiries about my wellbeing, from people I wouldn’t have expected to notice my absence. By New Year’s Eve I was very touched by the relationships that have been forged here – and the reminder that I’m not the only person in the world who has vulnerabilities. My respect increased for the people who do this over winter, in darkness, isolated with an even smaller group.

And this all led to a brilliant night of fancy dress, dancing, air guitar, snowflakes, and high jinks to see in the new year, in one of the old huts in the original station. An absolutely joyful celebration.

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Five days into 2019, I feel mostly out of the woods. I’m back in the joy of being in this incredible place. Jane and I are well into developing the TV series, so the excitement of creative expression is back. Some other creative ideas – perhaps in other forms – are starting to bubble up inside me. It has been a hard time, but perhaps an important balance to the jubilation of the first half of the season. And all part of the journey of being here, exploring and understanding what it is to live and work in this sublime and intense place.

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Time’s moving very fast now. Winterers are starting to get organised for the journey home, schedules are being drawn up, paperwork for cargo submitted, days being counted down. There’s really only three more weeks of station operations to go. And then a long month on the ship…

I wish you all the very best for 2019.

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Sundays on ice

IMG_9645I’ve been at Mawson for a month, during which time we’ve got to 24 hour sunlight – the photo above was the last sunset. I’m hoping not to count days and weeks until I leave again, but it’s hard to avoid. The four month fellowship, which felt so long before I left home, feels surprisingly short here, especially now I know how much of it is taken up with ship-time. The weeks are flying past and the ship returns at the end of January. Jane and I will be shuttled across to it in short order, to free up bedrooms for the incoming winter team who’ll be working to unload cargo and fuel for about a week.

But that’s a way off still, and now it’s the weekend, and the sun’s streaming in my bedroom window I’m just back from walking on the ice.

Although people are rostered to work Saturday mornings, once that’s done the weekends are for jollies (trips off station by Hagglunds or quad bike), games, movies, walks, special events, rock climbing, spa, catch-and kill-feeding (helping yourself from the substantial leftovers in the fridge or subsisting on cereal and toast so the hard working chef can have a day off). It’s also much-needed down time, to lay low and chill out.

Weekend activities that I’ve been part of so far: Pictionary, Cranium (which is a mix of Pictionary, Charades and play dough), cards, pool and killer darts. Formal dinner last night with wine, linen table cloths, multi-courses of delicious food and everyone unrecognisable in fresh, ironed shirts. Last week there was a Mexican fancy dress party (with outdoor bath) in the old station buildings – no stinting on the costumes, sourced from the vast array of dressups hiding in the cellar of the Red Shed.

And then there’s weekend adventures, even for those of us not yet authorised to go out ourselves. For these we rely heavily on Mark, our good natured Field Training Officer, who must accompany any untrained people when they leave the station.

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We travel by Hagg way up onto the plateau between three mountain ranges, drilling holes and setting cane lines to mark the safe routes. Mark drives the Hagg, navigating to the waypoints with a GPS and calculating how many canes are needed along the route. We rookies become a well-oiled machine, leaping out of the Hagg one side at a time (otherwise the wind rips through the vehicle), scratching in our cleats over the blue ice to the back door, getting out the ice drill. Amy drills the holes, adding an extension to reach down a couple of metres. Jane gets out the bamboo cane and sets it in the hole (a deep and beautifully blue well going down into the ice). We shove the ice shavings back into the hole and I pour in a few glugs of water, which will freeze the cane in place. Everything returns to the back of the Hagg, we jump inside again, proceed three hundred metres, repeat. Each time, standing and looking around at ice stretching to the horizons, rocky mountains, and frozen sea dotted with icebergs in the distance, under the flat white polar light. I can’t express how joyful this day made me.

Another weekend: A two-Hagg run across the sea ice to Bechervaise Island, eight of us shuttling containers of food and water to last two penguin researchers the six weeks they’ll spend living out there, unable to return to station once the sea ice melts. Enough time to scramble around the island and explore, and check out the male Adelie penguins, sitting patiently on the eggs in their rocky nests, having a two week fast until the females return from foraging and the pairs switch over. The penguin researchers have the world’s best cubby houses – a melon hut, a shipping container, and two googies which look just like they’ve landed from outer space. I wanted nothing more than to spend six weeks living in a googie too – staring out at the icebergs, surrounded by penguins hatching their chicks.

Today: the ever-patient Mark guides us on a 2 hour walk up the ice plateau behind the station. It’s warm and sunny and beneath our feet slender crevasses give us a peek into the deep blue heart of the ice. We drill holes and put in a few more canes, which gives us a sense of purpose. By the end of next week I’ll be able to do this walk alone or with others and I’m imagining it will replace the gym as the daily exercise.

For the rest of today – a movie later on, and now working on the Kris Kringle. This is a major station project – everyone draws someone else out of the hat, and the challenge is to make the gift by hand, right here at Mawson. This is easier for some people – carpenters, say – than others (such as… writers). A visit to the carpenters’ workshop and the mechanics’ shed the other night showed me the incredible lengths to which people will go to make something special.

The pressure’s on and I must get cracking. Over and out from Mawson.

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Time moves differently here

Twenty three hours of sunup today, 18 minutes more than yesterday. When the sun’s below the horizon it isn’t dark, just less bright. In a couple more days we’ll be in round-the-clock Antarctic sunlight.

Time feels at once endlessly stretching out, and in short supply. It’s hard to recall if something happened this morning, or three days ago.

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amy and us in hagg

So I find that it’s a week since I travelled to the emperor penguin colony, on an unforgettable Thursday. Two Hagglunds all-terrain vehicles to carry eight of us over 50 kilometres of dimpled, rippled frozen pale blue sea to reach Auster rookery.

Amy the diesel mechanic drives the Hagg that Jane and I are riding in. On the land side, the blue slopes and cliffs of the Antarctic ice sheet. On the ocean side, scattered icebergs in shapes and sizes and magnificence that make me gasp out loud.

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Seeing emperor penguins breeding in the wild is incredibly rare and precious. Am I really here? Hard to believe what’s unfolding around me.

We stop several times to drill into the sea ice to check its thickness. The season for travelling by Hagg on sea ice officially closes on 25 Nov, and is extended on a trip-by-trip basis. The Mawson winterers have been coming out once a month since June and have watched the emperors arrive, court, lay eggs, and hatch their chicks. This is the last visit for the season, before the sea ice is too unstable for vehicles.

IMG_0588We park the Haggs 500m away, strap on our ice spikes, and walk between towering blue ice cliffs to reach the penguins.

And there is one of the most beautiful sights of my life, accompanied by the melodic sound of thousands of twittering chicks, the soft trumpeting of the adults bouncing off the walls of the blue canyon, and a backdrop of deep Antarctic silence.

And also – rotten ice, penguin shit (that I end up lying in), the frozen bodies of dead chicks, and constant flight surveillance by the skuas that live off the colony. Beauty and reality.

The wind dropped to almost nothing, the sun shone. Us visitors kept our distance, sat or lay quietly, took photos, contemplated, marvelled.

To have had this day…

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Station Life at Mawson

IMG_0468IMG_9125My alarm bleeps at 6am and I open the curtains and peek out. It’s been light for half a day already, which can really wreck the sleep patterns…IMG_9289

I hop up and pad down the hall to the galley to grab a cup of tea. The chef’s already well into her daily routine and breakfast is laid out ready for the early birds. Back to bed for half an hour of tea and writing. Then I tap on Jane’s door and we head to the gym – one of the few ways we can get some aerobic exercise within the limitations of what we can do on station before we’ve been survival-trained and can go on longer walks. Get the heart rate up on the treadmill, cross trainer and bike, while enjoying the outlook across the frozen sea.

Breakfast: serve yourself porridge, bircher muesli, fruit, cereal, toast, IMG_9296and knock up a coffee on the espresso machine. Check out the day’s weather (looking out the big triple glazed windows, or reading the digital notice board). Mornings are generally windy with the katabatic winds coming down from the polar plateau. Catch up on day-old news printouts lying on the tables or flick through one of the communal ipads for something more up to date.

8am – everyone in high-vis gear gets up from the tables and heads to work. Of the 32 people on station, the majority work in trades and they head to the workshop or other locations to do maintenance, repairs, rebuilds and all the other work that keeps the station warm, watered, lit and in touch with the world.

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Jane and I bundle up in down jackets, beanies, big boots and gloves and trudge 100m up the hill to our office in the old aeronomy building – which looks very worn on the outside, but has been fitted out as a new office space inside. We’re temporarily sharing with surveyors Matt and Brad (shown here ready to head outdoors for some carefree surveying). They’re good company, though undoubtedly bemused by some of the conversations as we plot the kids’ books. They’ll be heading back to Davis in a couple of days, leaving us with the aeronomy building to ourselves.

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10am the bell goes for smoko –hot meal with soup, bread and other warming and solid mid-morning foods, important for those working outside in the cold, very bad for those of us sitting down all day.

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Another two hours of work before lunch – on offer are lots of salady type dishes, bread for sandwiches, and leftovers that you can heat up, cold meats and the like. Then back to work, until knock-off time at 4ish. Jane and I generally go a bit longer. 5ish there’s a bit of bar activity with home brew, or a good time for a quick stroll.

Six is dinner time – fantastic hearty delicious meal with plenty of meat and IMG_9316vego options and outrageous desserts. The food isreally, really great. Plus the Naughty Corner is on standby and fully stocked for anyone feeling faint from hunger.IMG_9155

Evenings – hanging out in the common areas – the bar, the pool table, armchairs by the big windows looking out at this incredible landscape all around us. Daylight is long and winds tend to drop, so evenings are beautiful for walking around the rocks of Horseshoe Harbour. There’s often a movie in the cinema room, a game of pool to be had, cards, board games or darts to be played, lazy chatting to be done.

Saturday is a half day and everyone pitches in for station duties in the afternoon. Sunday is the chef’s day off, known as Catch and Kill – you fend for yourself from leftovers, sleep in, and take it easy.

Sometime around 11pm the sun sets… and rises again a few hours later, and the cycle repeats.

But now, the lunch bell has just gone… best be off.

 

 

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Crossing the Southern Ocean

What a two-week Antarctic voyage does:IMG_8700

Shakes you up

Lays you out

Slows you down

Turns you in.

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It was a surreal fortnight, carried across 5000km of ocean in the belly of the great metal beast – the Aurora Australis icebreaker – as she counts down the voyages to her retirement. The outer world disappears and daily reality is the little cabin, the long corridors, vast amounts of food served three times a day, ceaseless motion, and the choice to stay in or rug up and go outside. Seasickness tablets and the need for lots of sleep intensify the altered state.

Cabin D30 with me, Jane and Anna (seabird biologist on the way to live on an island with penguins for six weeks) turned into Malory Towers Upper Fourth. Honed our radio skills by creating call signs for each bunk, shared lollies, told stories, took photos, watched movies, giggled a lot and practiced getting into and out of our emergency clothing in less than 45 minutes.

Reaching the ice edge was as incredible as I remembered from last time – the expanse of grey tossing sea turned into the wonder of sea ice and scattered icebergs and the chance to spot whales, penguins, orcas, seabirds and seals.

IMG_0323After a relatively smooth and easy voyage, we got to Davis in record time. Most voyages were staying at Davis, and the small number of us going to Mawson then waited on the almost uninhabited ship for four or five days for the last part of our journey – but air. It

was a flight I’ll remember forever: two and a half hours in a little twin otter, flying over the Antarctic coastline – the meeting place of the continental ice shelf and the frozen sea. I spotted Scullin Monolith – the landing place of Ingrid Christensen who I wrote about in Chasing the Light – that was pretty special.

Amazing though the trip was, it doesn’t compare to arriving at Mawson Station. On that: more soon.

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Departure imminent

IMG_8632Going to Antarctica is one big roller coaster.

Arrived Hobart Sunday. Two days of training at the Australian Antarctic Division, which mostly consisted of graphic descriptions (with illustrations) of the various ways you can hurt yourself or die. Have now decided to spend four months entirely indoors, watching Antarctica through a window.

We’ve learned how to avoid hypothermia IMG_8658and frostbite, been BMX Bandits on quad bikes in the AAD’s back paddock and spent today cramming four months worth of clothing and work gear (including endless wonderful cold clothing items issued by the AAD) into three soft-sided bags weighing no more than 30kg. (I failed).

It’s 9.15pm and Jane and I are sitting in stupefied silence, aching from forehead to foot after quad bike training, trying to IMG_8668download the last few audio books and unsubscribe from a million email lists.

Tomorrow the daunting bit begins – setting out to cross the southern ocean. It’s two weeks in the wilderness, away from phone and email and internet – one very big ocean and perhaps the best way to ease ourselves out of the world and into this massive adventure.

It will all go quiet for a couple of weeks now… but think of me and I’ll be back in touch when we get to Davis Station, where we’ll spend a few days before flying over to Mawson in a twin otter.

Jesse xxxIMG_8637

 

 

 

 

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Living in Antarctica

It’s now official – together with screenwriter Jane Allen, I’ve been awarded the 2018/19 Australian Antarctic Arts Fellowshipone pager

This is the journey of a lifetime – setting out on one of the final trips of the Aurora Australis icebreaker from Hobart on 25 October 2018, voyaging for two weeks across 5000km of the world’s roughest oceans, then flying in a twin-engine aircraft the last few hundred kilometres to Mawson Station – the longest continually operating base on the Antarctic continent – to settle in for summer.

There’s no turning back – the only way home is when the ship returns 12 weeks later…

The plan?

Immersed in the reality of life on an Antarctic station – a first for a team of TV writers – we’ll set up a creative hothouse, working together to research, devise and write THE A-FACTOR TV drama series – an authentic, humorous and heartfelt look from the inside at what it’s like to live and work in Antarctica.

Our second project is COOL TEAM SIX, a series of junior adventure novels about six kids – one from each continent – who travel to Antarctica to save the world.

It’s exciting – life-changing – daunting – and wonderful. I hope you’ll come along for the ride. You can follow our adventures here, and on Instagram and Facebook.

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