As the morning light seeps through the blinds in downtown Ashburton and stains the fridge golden, it’s hard to believe this is the same sun that stood watch over my entire Antarctica trip. It’s a good place to start a narrative though because although most of the trip was like an action movie on fast-forward playing out in a giant freezer, the sun stayed lazy and took its time.
During the summer months it never gets dark in Antarctica so in some ways it is like walking right into a Dali painting, the kind where the sky hangs like treacle and melted clocks prevent the future from ever happening. For my 14 University of Canterbury classmates and I that didn’t matter, because we had made it to The Ice for our two week field trip and were in no hurry to return home.
Upon arrival the first thing that struck me was the noise. Antarctica is renowned for its great silence, but we were welcomed by the rumbling engine of our C17 and serenaded by The Beatles on our way over to Scott Base. Not exactly the coldest of tunes, but it set the scene for what would be an interesting few weeks.
After two days of field training at Scott Base we climbed into two Hägglunds and made our way out to the deserted ice shelf at Windless Bight. We were being treated to the ultimate polar experience, camping in the same sort of polar tents Scott and Amundsen used on their race to the pole. The weather must have been prewarned about our desire for authenticity because on day two the wind picked up, visibility dropped to 50m and the wind chill let us know what ‘cold’ really meant. Hunkering down and weathering the storm whilst reading the diaries of explorers who did the same was somewhat surreal.
Luckily the storm was short lived and we had brilliant blue skies under which to conduct our science over the next week. Measuring snow density, doing a seal census and doing a geological survey were all on the menu and designed to give us a taste of what field work in Antarctica is really like.
Spending a day out on the sea ice reading seals’ tags was a highlight of the trip and the closest we got to Antarctic wildlife, save the two very lost penguins who visited out camp at Christmas. Whales sing underwater symphonies, but Weddell seals out-zane Led Zeppelin. Their calls ricochet like electric guitars under ice in ways that the drab speckling of their blubber and rock-pool shine of their eyes would never have you believe. Rock-stars in disguise, they party to the underwater trace, enticing those more accustomed to the whales’ sigh to change the channel, dare to experiment, live a little.
We did a lot of experimenting over the course of the trip, mainly with layering and unlayering clothes. While the nights required down jackets and inevitably led to frozen boots, the reflected light created a far better sun bed than any white sand beach and some days the sun felt warmer than back home. That may have had something to do with our black thermals soaking it up and causing us to pose as if we were in an advert for Speights as ‘Southern Women’, but being hot was not something I expected to experience in the coldest place on earth, not even in summer.
Back home in NZ everyone knows that summer equals sunscreen, and it’s no different in Antarctica. No different except for the fact that there is no ‘no burn’ time and protection is essential even at 2am. It was a bizarre feeling to be reaching to the SPF100 well past midnight and even stranger having to remember to dab it up into your nostrils because of the strength of the reflected UV rays. It was equally bizarre to be digging a snow cave at 1am and still have our pit lit up like a stage. We figured the whole sleep thing could wait until morning and the hyperactive sun did nothing to dissuade us from that view.
Santa, however, did. The next morning was Christmas and we were woken by his cherry ‘ho ho ho’ booming through our snow palace. It was time to get up and about, dig a Christmas table to sit around, partake in Shackleton’s finest whiskey and warble tunelessly about the white Christmas we no longer had to dream about. The Whiskey was a replica of the bottles found in Shackleton’s hut and perfect for making toasts to explorers past and present, especially given that we were celebrating exactly 100 years after Amundsen and Scott’s race to the Pole.
History played an important role in the trip and our last stop was Scott’s hut at Cape Evans. It was from there that Scott and his men launched their fateful expedition in 1911, bound for the South Pole. Packed full of artefacts that had been painstakingly restored, the detail of the place was astounding and the hut was full of memories, concentrated within the white landscape in the one wooden structure. Standing inside, the term ‘frozen in time’ took on a new meaning, but it was also a reminder that our time was coming to a close.
I was struck by the amazing light, where the shafts of sun seemed to hypnotise the dust, trapping it in limbo. That light has stayed with me as an indelible memory of my time in Antarctica and my longest day, even as the sun slides off the edge of the fridge and is gone.
Hanne Nielsen was a student on the University of Canterbury’s Postgraduate Certificate in Antarctic Studies course over the 2011/2012 Summer, run by Gateway Antarctica. Article originally published in The Ashburton Guardian. Photo: Peter Wilson