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.
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.
Four 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.