Rothera and home

The operations division of BAS is conservative to the point of absurdity. If something worked well for Shackleton, they generally throw up their hands in horror at the idea of using anything else. We still cook on primus stoves when we're camping, paraffin pressure stoves that are essentially identical to those used by Nansen in 1893. The tents are made of that miracle of modern techno-fabrics: errr, cotton. We are still - I kid you not - issued sheepskins to sleep on. As a minor concession to the 21st century, we do get thermarests to pad them out.

Perhaps it's remarkable that they ever got round to trying out planes at all, although it was less than 15 years ago that they finally got rid of the huskies from Rothera, and then only because they were forced to. But once they found a plane that worked on skiis, they stuck to it like glue. As result, life at Rothera sometimes feels like being stuck in an air museum. The Twin Otters BAS uses were designed in the 60's (and I wouldn't be surprised if the ones we are using now were pretty early models), and when one turns turtle on landing, as occasionally happens, the bits are scraped off the ground, shipped home, and lovingly rebuilt. The last Twin Otters came off the production line 20 years ago, so you can't just pop down to the corner shop and get a new one. The Dash-7 is no spring chicken either; it stopped production at the same time.

The ten days I spent at Rothera after I returned from my digging expeditions were rather like living in an air museum. One of the Twin Otters had disappeared off to work out of Halley for a while, but the Otter that had been kitted out for Ground -Penetrating Radar and Gravimetry surveys made it's way back to base to be stripped of the survey gear. Another was surrounded by mechanics and met men, getting fitted out with weather instruments for some meteorological experiements, and the fourth was busying ferrying fuel around the depots at the southern end of the peninsula. Another two Twin Otters from ANI - the only commercial operator in the Antarctic - passed through, their season of ferrying tourists around already drawing to a close. Then the German Dornier passed through en route North from the Germans research station, Neumayer; a strange looking bird with a hooked nose. We had a visit from the ANI Basler too. Basler's are even more ancient than Otters and Dash's - they are in fact slightly modified and re-engined DC3's, an airframe that was designed in 1935! It's bizarre that it can be commercially viable to keep running a plane that is over 70 years old. I'm sure if aviation fuel was taxed, as it jolly well ought to be, someone would build something more modern and fuel-efficient in a jiffy. The amount of fuel that passes through Rothera to keep these pterodacytls flying is quite worrying to anyone with the slightest environmental conscience. Every barrel is stamped 'Exxon' in big black letters. At BAS we do world class environmental research.... and it's all fuelled by oil bought from a company that has a disgusting record of distorting the evidence for climate change... which we are largely producing. It's a topsy turvy old world.

Anyway. I didn't have an enormous amount to do at Rothera. My boxes had to be sorted and packed, for they were sent back from the field in dribs and drabs, with heaps of scientific clatch stuffed in at random, now mixed witrh large amounts of snow - during blizzards the white stuff always manages to worm it's way into what looks like perfectly hermetically sealed boxes. That was a few days work, but I was able to take it fairly easy. There was plenty of time for getting out - I went skiing when I could, though it had been a warm summer for Rothera, and all the snow on the ramp behind the base was melting quickly. The glacier ice underneath was pocked with melt holes and dirt blown from the rocky ridge above, and at times it was like skiing on gravel. We took a boat trip out to one of the nearby islands one day too, where groups of elephant seals were belching and farting on the beaches.

At last though the alloted day to fly back North came around, so after breakfast the eight of us that were due to fly trooped over to the apron in the light falling snow to board the Dash. We got in, and waited. And waited. Some beacon or other hadn't switched on, to guide the plane back should it need to return in a hurry. They got it fixed, but by then the snow falling on the wings had begun to melt and refreeze, for the plane had been stored in a nice warm hanger overnight. The pilots didn't like that, so the plane was towed back into the hanger to melt, and we trooped back to the base to get some coffee.

An hour or so later we tried again. We all boarded, and after much faffing we taxied up to the runway.... and turned round and taxied back again. Quite why, I dunno, 'cos two minutes later they decided that all was well after all and we were in the air.

We were heading back through Chile for a change, so 5 hours later we landed at Punta Arenas, and had a night there before we caught our scheduled flights back through Santiago and Madrid. It was a horribly long slog, for we had breaks of 4 hours at both airports. It was 36 hours after we left Punta Arenas that we finally got back to Heathrow; to traffic jams, darkness, money, newspapers.... all sorts of unfamiliar things. The newspapers were screaming dire warnings about the weather forecast for the next day. '7 inches of snow to paralyse Britain!!'.

7 inches?

Pah. That's nothing.

Click on the pictures on the right to see the full image.