Happy Cold Year

In New Zealand the longest day of the year coincides with the lead up to Christmas, so the extra hours of daylight are often spent in a daze of end-of-year work dos, school prize-givings and last minute gift buying. The longest day in Antarctica is somewhat different. Although many stations have work parties and will gladly accept Visa for souvenir and gift purchases, south of the Polar Circle there is only one day and one night. Summer – or daytime – is science season, so teams are often out in the field, scrambling to collect data during the slim window of accessibility. That means Christmas, while still observed, is not such a big deal as it is back home. Instead, midwinter dinner is the big celebration, marking the midway point of the winter-over team’s time on The Ice.

The midwinter tradition has a long history: Captain Scott celebrated the holiday over 100 years ago. Fine food, speeches and elaborately painted menus all mean that the event is weeks in the planning. These days it is also a tradition to take a mid winter portrait of everyone on the station and share it via email with those at other Antarctic bases. Penguin breast is no longer served up as an appetiser, but the sentiment of celebration and the sense of belonging to a long line of hardy individuals who have experienced a southern polar night remain.

We recently had the opportunity to discuss such traditions with the Ukrainian team at Vernadsky station, on the Antarctic Peninsula. Prior to 1996, when it was sold for the handsome sum of one British pound, Vernadsky Station was a British base, known as Faraday. It was there that the Ozone hole was discovered, so it has a distinguished scientific history. These days the station is more famous for a different reason – it is home to the Faraday Bar, and the home-brew vodka on offer is widely held to be the smoothest in Antarctica. With a Christmas tree in one corner and a model palm tree in another, the bar has a homely living room feel. The artefacts on the walls tell stories of the yachts and cruise ships that have visited over the years, and the many rows of midwinter portraits that line the staircase put a human face to each year of the station’s life. The delight on the faces of the men when we arrived with several crates of fresh vegetables – their first since April – also made tangible the isolation that they had endured over the winter.

Back home the solstice dates often pass like any others, but just to our South things are done a little differently. Although it has a young human history, Antarctica has traditions that are just as important as those celebrated back home.


Bevar Christiania

A dragon, a fairy and a mythical tree guard the entrance to this land of pause. Bordered by water, a lone mallard keeps watch, paddling up and down the waterway with an upturned beak. The city may not pass. Beyond these walls of green the city drones, dives, flashes, moves, but here the hyperventilating of the metropolis seems a long way off. It is as if the earth is holding its breath while striking a yoga pose. Nestled against the canals of Copenhagen, this is the border of Christiania.

Lone poets litter the lakeside logs, some contemplating the ripples, others smoking under the thick canopy. Some sleep, bags clutched to their chests, beards matted, curled into the knot of a fallen trunk or a nest of long grass. They dream in saturated hues of the markets and vegetarian fare that characterise the commune just over the hill, dream of dragons and fairies and bicycles and snails. A giant floating frog-like sculpture observes all from his mid-moat mooring, taking everything in with his spotted hexagonal eyes. Following the meandering moat-side path, time slows down. It is not hard to find a spot and make a nest of your own. The frog takes note, then drifts and turns away.

Breathe. Let evening come. View the world from a snail’s perspective. This place smells of earth, of soil that has not been packed and shifted but left to ripen. It smells of growth and summer. A gentle anarchy prevails. It smells like home.

Planks of wood that have assembled themselves into small lakeside dwellings sprout technicolor vegetable gardens and bike sheds. Windows jostle for attention with mosaic entranceways and hanging gardens. Some call these illegal structures, some call them art. Others call them Home. They rise like phoenixes from the rushes, casting purple shadows. Gilded orange by the evening sun they look as if they may sprout wings and erupt at any second. This is prime real estate and eviction is always a possibility.

Build on military ramparts, each of these five triangular bays is a reminder of a hostile past. The topography is designed for conflict and sculpted for protection. Land torn from land, preserved as an excellent example of 17th century defence. Small fish agitate the surface as they dart after their evening feed. A slight breeze murmers to the rushes before replying to the trees. This green belt creates an insulation more effective than barbed wire or police blockades. The water acts as a coat check and worries must wait at the gate. There have been no raids, no shootings this month: the dragon and the mallard have been doing their jobs.

Folk music drifts through the trees and out over the lake, an invitation to return to the frazzled rainbow maze beyond. A bicycle workshop, markets, electric lighting and dinner at the old commune kitchen all beckon. The reeds let out a sigh. Dusk breathes shadows into the water, erasing the mallard’s silhouette. Waking snails. Leaving poets to dream.

The drive-by postbox

I was asked the other day what makes Ashburton unique, and there was one very special feature that sprung to mind. Not the town clock, not the giant flying fox, but the drive by post box. It’s like a drive through in reverse: pull into the specially built bay, wind down your window, deposit your one card application and tax return and take off again, all in one smooth action. It’s a wonder that every town doesn’t have one.

Call me old fashioned, but I really enjoy receiving mail and sending real live letters in return. When my sister came down to visit we had a ball, choosing postcards of local attractions such as the clock tower to send back to cousins, grandparents and assorted distant relatives. (Actually, all of the postcards were of the clocktower – but none of my northern rellies need to find that out). There’s something so very satisfying about starting with a ‘Dear Mum,’ scribbling small talk about the local attractions, slapping on a stamp and slipping the finished product into such a conveniently placed roadside structure.

Ashburton is also conveniently laid out for the local posties. As a flat town with straight roads, they actually have time to smile and strike up a conversation. Unlike the Auckland variety of post dispatchers, they’re not gasping for air having just battled another 45 degree incline on the fourth volcano of their mail run. Those who require geared bikes to do their job may be somewhat glad to hear that the contents of their satchels are dwindling. NZ Post is not. Battling to keep letter numbers up, the company has been in the news recently thanks to the humble stamp, with its cover price set to rise a whopping 16% to 70c this weekend.

Apparently kiwis are not utilizing the service well enough, but Ashburton is putting in a valiant effort. Mail is used for plenty of purposes down here, including reminding patrons of their library fines. I know this for a fact, because a bill for my tardy tomes arrived in the letterbox the other day. Having been raised in the eGeneration, constantly saturated with emails, the stern warning on an official letterhead took me by surprise. Still, it’s good to see that there are still some local institutions helping to keep our national postal service alive. It also gave me an excuse to write out a cheque, slip it into an envelope and do another drive-by posting…

Originally published in The Ashburton Guardian