So cast your mind back to my adventures on the first day off the ship. We had headed out for our field trip just after dinner at the station. After seeing the jade iceberg, our little red Hagg trundled down the fjord to the place of our first overnight stay – Bandit’s Hut.
Like most of the huts (or maybe all) it’s made of shipping containers and held to the ground with heavy wires to make sure it doesn’t blow away. From the outside it looks like a tiny little box but inside it’s very cosy and homely, with bunks, a kitchen, a gas heater and a table (and I’m pretty sure it does have a toilet!). Like all the huts it is well stocked with food in case of emergencies – and visiting parties like ours take note of anything that’s run out and write it up on a whiteboard back at base so the next visitors can restock.
By the time we’d finished our evening of sightseeing, parked the Hagg on the sea ice and trudged up the hill a few times with all our things, surrounded by swooping snow petrels chattering at us to keep away from their nests in the cracks of the rocks, it was way after midnight. But the sunset was still glowing on the hills and it felt far too early to go to sleep. We’d left Davis after dinner, so didn’t need another meal, and it felt like we’d somehow created a whole extra day for ourselves.
Eventually after cheese and biscuits and chocolate and cups of tea we got into the big down sleeping bags that stay in the huts – toasty warm – and I tried to go to sleep. My first night on the continent – I was so excited it wasn’t easy to get to sleep – and it got cold in the hut (it’s too dangerous to run the heating all night because of the fumes) so I had to burrow further and further down into the sleeping bag and make a little breathing tunnel to warm the air up before it got to my nose. I could hardly believe I was sleeping (or lying awake) on Antarctica at last.
That was the first night I saw how sunset just turns into dawn. The sky stays really twilighty for hours and hours until eventually there’s just a line of yellow-orange on the horizon. Then an hour later the process reverses and the long hours of dawn begin and everything starts getting lighter. The sun is actually down for about five hours, but it’s never far away so it never gets dark and the darkest part only lasts about an hour. The formal term is ‘civil twilight’ which Karen the forecaster told me means there’s enough light to read by. What it also means is there’s really no chance of seeing the Aurora Australis (the southern lights – not the ship) at this time of year, because the sky is too bright.
Now I didn’t mention before but our party of four was really a party of five, as we had kidnapped someone else to bring with us. The someone else was ‘Stay’, the famous guide dog that’s become a mascot for Australian Antarctic Stations and is the subject of continuous kidnapping and smuggling efforts, with lots of stamps in his passport. Legends abound of Stay’s travels in Antarctica and other places. Laser Dave had managed to kidnap Stay from the mess area and hide him in the back of the Hagg. But more on Stay in a later post…
Anyway, we woke up slowly and late the next morning – I know I lay there for a long time because it was so warm in the sleeping bag and I was putting of the moment of getting up, getting dressed and going all the way down the hill to the tide crack. But finally we all arose, had some porridge for breakfast (I can’t tell you how good that tasted, with sugar and a bit of melted butter), tidied up the hut, took a few photos, climbed to the top of the hill for the view and the bundled into the Hagg. First stop, Caroline Mikkelsen’s landing place.
We bounced our way (you really get thrown around in a Hagg) over the sea ice and sastrugi to the Tryne Islands, parked up on the snow and started climbing up the rocks to find the cairn and flagpole that marks the spot. It took a bit of wandering around the Adelie colony, being careful to keep at the proscribed distances from the penguins, which are mating and nest building. In general they were much more interested in each other than us, but in a briefing at the station someone had said these guys have one bonk a year and they’ll be very cross if you disturb it.
Dave located the white-painted pole, which would have been quite tricky against the snow if you didn’t know where it was. However it was in a snow bank and right in the middle of the nesting Adelies. I’d been warned about that, and it meant we couldn’t actually go over to the pole or dig around in the snow underneath to look at the cairn.
One thing that made Dave such a fantastic guide was how relaxed he was and how he never hurried us to do anything. I said can we just hang out here for a while? And he said of course. We sat down in a space in the middle of the penguins and watched their antics for ages. If I’d known what I know now about that landing place I probably would have scrambled around a bit more and tried to see it from some different viewpoints, but as it was I just enjoyed it and took a few photos.
Then we headed downhill again and had a picnic on the snow by the Hagg before heading off for our next stop.
But back to the landing place for a minute. Did you notice I said we got to the Tryne Islands? Islands being the important word here. The flagpole is on an island about 4km from the mainland. If that’s the spot where Caroline landed, she wasn’t on the Antarctic mainland at all.
So was she really the first woman to stand on Antarctica?
More to come…