Friday, 25 December 2009

Christmas Message From Antarctica


Hope you are all having a wonderful day and enjoying yourselves. We had our Christmas last Saturday as today the first ship arrives with the parts for the new Halley Station. The picture above shows us in our chef's whites just before th meal was served. It's going to be all go from now on as the base shifts to 24hr working. However, the driving crew had a bit of time on their hands to make the world's biggest snow sofa.

Which was then used for the Halley Christmas Card which is sent to all the other bases in Antactica

I'm in the second row, 6th from the left, doing my best orange penguin impersonation....I assumed it would be cold out you can see from the shirtsleeved ones....I was wrong!

Love to you all.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Meet The Team

Thought you might be interested in hearing about my usual day....just to prove that it isn't all fun, fun, fun down here!

5.30am...alarm goes off.

I put my clothes on top of my pyjamas and go to make a cup of tea in a thermos mug. The put on outside gear and head off to the picnic bench next to the signpost. I sit there drinking my tea and have a couple of fags before returning inside.

I have to get to the shower before 6am as after that time my fellow five female colleagues start fighting over getting in there.

After my shower I put my normal clothes back on, dry my hair in the ladies' room and go and get more tea. At 6.45am I chnage into my kitchen gear and head off to the kitchen.

At 7am I start to prepare stuff for the morning break (here they call it the 'smoko' - and according to Wikopedia 'the term, meaning a short work break, is believed to have originated in the British Merchant Navy and was in use as early as 1865. The term is still in use in the British Merchant Navy today.'....and in Antarcticia!).  Various delights for the morning smoko include, bacon, sausage and humburger rolls, cheesy toast, veggie burgers, spagetti or beans, 2 soups and bowls of tinned fruit. I also prepare take away boxes for the Garage and Ops guys who have their morning smoko in the garage. We are catering for about 60 people now and that number will double when the 'relief' arrives - (the relief are the ships The Shackleton and the huge Russian cargo ship The Igarka). The Igarka arrives on Christmas Day whilst The Shackleton arrives 10 days later.

The Team - (from left) me, Ant, John, Chris and Alan

At 10am the Morrison (constructors) guys have their smoko and at 10.30am the BAS staff have theirs.

Once the smoko prep is done my attention turns to the lunch menu.

Lunch consists of soups, speciality breads, 2 meat dishes, 1 veggie dish, 1 potato or starch dish, 1 veg and we make use of any left overs from the night before for more options.

After lunch attention turns to the afternoon smoko which consists of cakes, traybakes, biscuits and toasted teacakes all of which are made overnight by the night chefs.

Whilst the BAS and Morrison people devour their dinner of 2 meat dishes, 1 veggie, 2 starch, 2 veg, sauces and 2 desserts we clean down the kitchen, sweep and mop the floors. We have a team of domestic helpers called 'The Saints" who tidy up after the meals, do the washing and generally keep the whole base clean and tidy. This always smiling team got their name courtesy of where they come from........ St Helena. And just for those who think they learn nothing from this blog.........

Their island was named after St Helena of Constantinople and is an island of volcanic origin in the South Atlantic Ocean. It is part of the British Overseas Territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristran da Cunha. Saint Helena measures about 10 miles by 5 miles and has a population of 4,255 (2008 census).
The island has a history of over 500 years since it was first discovered as an uninhabited island by the Portuguese in 1502. Britain's second oldest remaining colony (after Bermuda), Saint Helena is one of the most isolated islands in the world and was for several centuries of vital strategic importance to ships sailing to Europe from Asia and South Africa. For several centuries, the British used the island as a place of exile, most notably for Napoleon Bonaparte, Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo and over 5,000  Boer prisoners.

Anyway these guys are was a job done by the Argentinians until they decided to square up to Margaret Thatcher over the Falklands. Since then all the domestic guys have come from Saint Helena.

Now where was I?

At 8pm we get to rest our aching feet and sit down for the first time in the day to have our dinner. After which I change into my normal clothes and head to the bar for my two small tinnies!!!!

Bed by 10pm in bright daylight!.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009


What excitement! The bit of paper went up on the noticeboard saying that the first 16 people to get their name on the list would have a day trip out to see the Emperor Penguin colony at Caboose. After a bit of eye gouging and hair pulling I managed to be number 2 on the list! This trip was going to make use of all my survival gear and I spent the evening before working out just how many hours I was going to set aside to get all my gear on....including the 22 thermal vests my Mother had given me for Christmas.

The next day us group of entripid explorers met up with Niv (a climbing expert) and a giant Snow Cat which was pulling 2 sledges....the first carried nothing but would act as a snow barrier from the blizzard created by the Snow Cat's tracts for the second sledge on which 8 of us would have to travel....I say us....but having firmly ensconced myself in the Snow Cat's cab...I mean them....

It took just over an hour to get to the drop off point from where, to my horror, I realised we had to walk the rest of the way......fancy that! Bloody hard going I tell you....Oh yes...and not only walk we had to all be roped together as a spot of cravass jumping was called for....I don't remember that being on the list! I have to say that jumping those 24 inches felt like a great achievement. I can see you sneering from here...right...leave this blog right now, put on every piece of winter clothing you've got, add an axe and climbing helmet, tie a piece of rope around your waist, attach it to the nearest two human beings and go and jump 2 feet pretending there is a 60 foot drop beneath you.....go on...

You can come back my point?

When I got to the edge of the ice cliff overlooking the colony I just couldn't believe my's amazing, unbelievable, exciting, emotional and bloody noisy...believe me penguins can only shout and scream at each other.

And then there was a spot of ice cliff descending.

It's not so cold now so the pengiuns don't feel the need to huddle in tight little groups anymore and can stroll around. On land they are comical, in the sea they are majestic.

We are told not to approach them but obviously the penguin council have not issued the same advice as they curiously look at us and slowly come to examine the strange creatures that have invaded their sea-ice beach and then as quickly as their curiosity comes it evaporates and they get on with whatever penguin business is at hand.

It is all so timeless.

We had about a couple of hours there before it was time to climb back up the cliff and make our way back to Halley. The trip home was pretty subdued. We had all experienced something that was wonderful and I think all of us just got lost in our thoughts.

Anyway I was so lucky to get this trip as it looks like it will be the last for nobody knows how long. That 2 foot cravass jump had, within 4 days, turned into 6 foot. And it looks like that part of the ice shelf will break off at any point and career into where the penguins have their colony. And that will be a disaster for the penguins chicks...they're not ready yet. They won't be ready until all their baby plummage has gone.

I just hope they have more time than the scientists here say they have.

I'm feeling pretty emotional .....

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Update Time

Well folks...I've been here nearly two weeks now and I haven't written to you for ages. My apologies. I have so many excuses to fall back on! Firstly just settling into a new routine and new way of life has been pretty exhausting...just going for a fag takes 3 days...get all outdoor kit on (1 and a half days)...venture into whiteout, light fag by placing half way up sleeve, whilst avoiding setting oneself on fire (10 minutes), stagger back in to kit room and take all outdoor kit off (remaining time to 3 days). I tell really isn't worth it. However....for those of us going through the menopause,,,Antarctica is THE place for hot flushes.....sheer bliss...solved within 20 seconds!!!

The other excuse is the internet here which has about 10% of the capacity of an average broadband connection...most of us brought laptops with many of us in fact that the Coms guys had a fit and promptly banned all internet use by personal laptops. Which means we all have to share 2 can imagine the queues.

Anyway excuses over!!

During the induction training I got to drive a Snow Cat and a skidoo (vital skills for Chefs I think you will find). The snow cat is huge and I never thought they would let me drive it seem that here you just ask if you can and then they say 'on you go.' We had to practice hitching sledges to the back of it then driving around before depositing the sledge back. There are a few skidoo types some very fast others slower..... all seemed good to me.

My first few days here were spent getting to know the layout of the place and getting stuck into getting the Law's kitchen ready. As you can imagine with 5 of us there was a lot of 'excuse me' going on as we got in each others way. We finished at about 9pm each night and then I tucked into my 2 small beers and went of to bed since I was starting at 6am to make bread. Everyone here has a alcohol ration of 2 small beers a day which doubles up on a Saturday to 4 small beers. So that's my alcohol consumption down by 90% at a stroke! I think I might start stashing them and then have an almighty blow-out and probably end up having to be dug out of a snow-drift!

Sleeping can be quite entertaining. Sometimes the wind is so strong I can feel the building moving and I continually panic myself with waking up and wondering what the time is as it's daylight....but then it's always daylight. I am not sleeping very well!

A couple of days ago 3 of us chef people went out to the perimeter of the camp to get some supplies. How many other people do you know that have to adorn survival gear and ropes just to walk to the cupboard? I am still coming to terms with my unfitness and found that the only box I could carry across the snow and up onto the Law's platform was the crisps...well somebody had to do it. I hope to progress to powdered milk next week.

Enough said....tomorrow I shall tell you about my trip to see the Emperor Penguins....

It's an epic!

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Time To Go

First stop after breakfast is to the local BAS agents who have all our extreme weather kit waiting for us….20kgs each to be precise. This is the first time I have seen my kit having sent my vital statistics via email to Cambridge a couple of months before. I fear something has got lost in translation…everything is way too big and my survival trousers are at least 12 inches too long in the leg. Step up the Base Doctor who let me borrow a pair of hers. I feel faintly guilty about that suppressed smile in Heathrow now.

Next comes the flight briefing and this is the moment when I realize that it’s all deadly serious. The Russian cargo plane is full of cargo and 60 passengers. Apart from the 18 of us there are teams from Finland, Australia and India who are also being flown to the Blue Ice Base at Novo from where each team gets picked up by their respective Bases. Everything is fine except for us lot going to Halley. We are told that because of the weather we have 15 minutes to transfer all of our cargo and baggage from the Russian plane to the Halley plane or risk being stuck at Novo for a week… a tent.

Additionally we are told that the Halley plane can take 12 people plus all cargo or 18 people and some cargo…so if we wouldn’t mind, during that 15 minute period, would we decide which personal items and which pieces of weather gear we wanted to take because we couldn’t take it all….only half of it to be precise. The stuff left would be brought on later….about three weeks later. We are to take off in 12 hours time….swine flu jab permitting.

And yes we really should have the swine flu jab. Unfortunately however there appears to be only 3 doses available in the whole of Cape Town…and I didn’t draw the short straw!

This is the interior of the Russian cargo plane with attached portaloo. In flight entertainment consisted of documentaries (with subtitles) and a little Russian guy handing out sandwiches and tea and coffee. The rumours of vodka and caviar didn't come to fruition. That's me sat under the Canadian flag. Please do not zoom in on this picture as I am not looking my did zoom in didn't you?

6 hours later as we neared Novo everybody indulged in a mass strip as summer gear was swopped for winter gear.
The landing was pretty smooth but deafening with an ever increasing crescendo of high pitched shrieks.

Standing on top of the plane's steps I shall never forget the view...the land of the Ice Queen..and for a moment I didn't notice the cold. Then it hit me and it felt as if the skin on my face was on fire.

We loaded all of Halley's kit onto a sledge which was then towed to the side of the Halley plane and as quickly as we could, with Antarctic gloved hands, started to sort our two bags each into one bag. We were then told that we had more time than had been thought and could go off to the little yellow catering tent for a cuppa....bliss. The tent was double lined and was like a steam room inside.

Arriving back at the Halley plane the pilot was a little confused as to why we had sorted our luggage into two piles. After we had explained our previous instructions he just shugged, said "Russians!" and told us to bung it all us sorting out our undies in -10 had been completely unnecessary.

This picture is of the "Great Sort' we had to do when we arrived at Novo. The stuff next to the plane is what we decided to take whilst the remainder is on the right of the picture. In the background you can see the Russian cargo plane.

We would have to fly to Troll first (A Norwegian station) to refuel so we could get to Halley. I loved this experience as the plane skidded about the ice both on take-off and landing and I was surprised how unafraid I was. However it was a bit scary taking off from Troll when the pilots did an immediate turn around and landed again because two cables on the plane's skis had not been removed which meant the landing gear couldn't fold away once airbourne. We nearly had to refuel again!

On arrival at Halley all our gear was loaded into a trailer which we then jumped on to be towed off to the Station. I am in the Laws accommodation block sharing a room with Julie. I have the dubious honour of being on the top bunk. I still haven't figured out a ladylike way of getting into it. At the moment the floor seems a better option.

So far we have dined on bacon butties, a full lunch, had an induction and a tour of the perimeter by skidoo and santa sledge.

Fantastic fun!

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Tourist For A Day

Apparently the Russians won't fly us out because none of us have had the Swine Flu vaccine! The new Base Doctor, now dressed more appropriately, is engaged in frantic discussions with BAS in Cambridge about what to do next.

As for us we have decided to make the most of our extra day by taking a trip to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope. Passing through such places as Llandudo and Scarborough we came upon Cape Point.

As you can see it is a fairly steep walk up to the lighthouse. So I waited until most had set off and then legged it to a little tram that took me almost to the top. As far as I could tell no one noticed! Oh I am so unfit. I am really going to have to get my act together...thoughts of shovelling snow everyday into the melt tank for's going to kill me.

From the top we could see Boulders beach where later some of the guys swam with the penguins (never crossed my mind to bring a swimsuit along with my thermals) and Seal Island which has become famous for the great white sharks that deliberately beach themselves to hunt the Cape Fur Seals.
You will, no doubt, be relieved to know that I did actually walk back down!

And I came across my first penguin! I am a little concerned that the picture seems to indicate that I harassed this penguin into having its picture taken. I would like to say that it was fast asleep and not in the least perturbed.

Then off to Cape Point… do you think I might get a free year’s subscription to Paros Life with this picture?

What a fantastic day rounded off by watching the switching on of the Christmas lights in Cape Town by some big-wig from FIFA…the World Cup Draw takes place on Friday I am reliably informed.

Monday, 30 November 2009

I'm Off To South Africa

Heathrow's Terminal 5 is quite an experience. Very space-ship like and its video walls made me feel a bit queasy!
I had a bit of time to kill before meeting up with my fellow travellers from BAS and consumed with boredom decided to open up the presents my Mum had given me for Christmas....oh and look.....a penguin torch! Thanks Mum....I love it...and I am sure, despite having 24hr daylight, I will find a use for it! Having met up with my team I had to surpress a smile when the new Base Doctor turned up looking like she was about to climb Mt Everest. I wondered if she had forgotten that our first stop was Cape Town with temperatures in the 30's. As you know I wasn't looking forward to the long flight but it passed pretty quickly as I amused myself making rose wine out of as many bottles of red and white wine I could get my hands on.
On arrival in early morning at Cape Town I presented the immigration officer with my letter from BAS explaining why I was on a one-way ticket and we were speedily boarded onto a bus and taken to our hotel.

Which turned out to be a former 19th century prison.... Nice touch! Some of the windows still have the bars on them. It's called the Break Out...sorry...the Break Water Hotel and is actually very comfortable. After the 12 hour flight the bed looked extremely tempting but I was determined to make the most of my time and become a tourist for the day.

After a bit of discussion we decided to make the journey up Table Mountain. One person decided to walk up it which in this heat I thought was a case of extreme showing off or complete insanity....I shall be keeping my eye on him!

The fixed grin on my face reflects the complete terror of riding the cable car up to the top of Table Mountain. It started off quite sedately but rapidly speeded up whilst turning 360 degrees (twice) in its 10 minute journey. But it was well worth the angst. The views from the top were amazing and the mountain top cafe did a very good South African beer!

Having decended and returned the hotel I decided against a nap as I know that once asleep there would be no waking me. We are in the Wharf area of Cape Town and the local restaurants look fantastic.

Mainly seafood places all with glistening tanks of the local catch just waiting for you to pick your dinner....but being allergic to seafood I was more interested in a nice steak and rich SA red wine....sheer bliss.

And the added bonus of finding out we were to spend another day here...apparently the Russians won't fly us out tomorrow. I'll get over it.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

New Beginnings made it here!

Welcome to my blog. I'm going to be describing my experiences of what I believe will be the greatest adventure of my life. I hope you enjoy the ride!

I really didn't think about it.

BBC World presented a piece about working for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) who just happened to be looking for a chef to feed their staff at the South Pole.

Being able to throw together various delicacies (my Scotch Pies are legendary in Greece!) and harbouring a fondness for extremes I just knew this was the job for me. Having sold my business in Paros earlier this year I needed another challenge but this one was beyond my wildest expectations.

So I applied....or tried to...the site was down due to 'unexpected traffic'. It took me three days to log on and I assumed from this that the competition was going to be pretty fierce.

To be honest I was a bit daunted - not by the descriptions of the harsh environment, long hours and isolation but by the 26 page application form! It wanted the usual stuff about qualifications and previous experiences but also wanted what to me seemed like essays on my experiences of living in isolation and being part of a close knit team etc. I was beginning to see why  the closing date was 3 months off.

I reckon it took me about  week to complete the form and then it was a matter of waiting. I knew I had the right skills and background for the job but what lay in the back of my mind was my age. I'm not quite over the hill yet but looking at the BAS's website all I could see were photos of decidedly youthful people! And yes....I read all BAS's PC stuff about not discriminating due to age and so on....but it's all bollocks really isn't it? Susan said if I got an interview I'd get the job....I wasn't so sure.

The deadline passed.....nothing. Then the telephone was Susan's dad (I'd used his UK address for correspondence). He told me that a letter had arrived about an interview with BAS. The only problem was that the letter began "Dear David"......

A call to BAS confirmed that I had actually got an interview and once they realised I was living in Greece offered me the chance to interview over the telephone but I really wanted to meet these people and see what the job was all about. I had three days to get to Cambridge ....Praise The Lord for Olympic Airways (some say).

Made it! The interview, which was preceeded by a full medical (which I may or may not go into later!), was pretty run of the mill although one of the questions did leave me a bit baffled - "What is your favourite food?"....I became concerned that the little known fact of my favourite being Angel Delight with condensed milk had become public knowledge and that the panel feared this diet would not nutritionally sustain their workforce...however I muttered something about meat and two veg and think I got away with it.

The next day, at Heathrow Airport, I got a call from BAS to say that I had the job. I was to be the summer chef  (November 2009 - March 2010) at Halley Station Antarctica and my primary role would be to cater for the 60 South African construction workers who would be building the new Halley VI station (of which more later). I would be on permanent night shift (considering  the Antarctic summer has 24hr daylight this will be a strange experience) working 9.30pm to 9.30am 6 days a week.

So people..... all BAS's PC stuff about not discriminating due to age and so's not bollocks at all!

This is me outside BAS's HQ. If you zoom in on the picture you can make out the names of all the husky teams that worked for BAS up until the 1990s.

Following on from my interview in September I returned to Cambridge in October for a 3 day induction course. The first day was spent on intensive first aid. Although Halley does have a resident doctor everyone is expected to know how to do the basics. I was really looking forward to the next couple of days as I knew I would be meeting the people that I would be travelling and working with.

The induction days were fascinating, fun and a bit frightening. The fascinating bits were hearing about the science, environment and all the logistical aspects. A fact that has stuck with me is that it costs 10 quid to send a can of baked beans to the Antarctic (Angel Delight would be a lot cheaper) and I have mused just how many cans of baked beans I consist of............

It was fun meeting with the catering team I would be working with. David, an Antarctic veteran with 7 tours already under his belt, Chris a newbie like me and Ant an established wintering chef (these guys do 18 months on the ice). John, the current wintering chef obviously wasn't there! I really like these people and I think we are going to work well together.  I am also reassured a bit by the experience of Alan and Ant...they have been there and done it.

What I began to realise was how casually I was taking this new job. As I listened to the various speakers it began to dawn on me that I was about to travel to the highest, driest and windiest continent where the sun could burn your skin and retinas within a matter of minutes, where your skin could freeze without you even realising it was happening, where the Skuas will attack you just for the heck of it. Apparently it feels like being hit by a frozen chicken. But what is getting to me most is the journey.

I am not that keen on flying...I'm going to have to get over it. The journey is a 12 hour flight to Cape Town followed by a 7 hour flight to Novolazarevskya - an Antarctic island. This part of the journey is done by the Russians...apparently they are the only people who will fly large cargo planes onto ice runways. Finally another 6 hour flight by a small Otter plane to Halley. I am really not looking forward to this bit.

But the time has come to get on with it! Susan bought me a bag that had the words printed on it 'Never Stop Exploring"...I think she's having a laugh!

I left on the night boat from Paros to Athens to fly to Scotland so I could spend a few days with Mum in Mussleburgh and have a early Christmas meal with the rest of my family.

And the thoughts are beginning to come - What if I can't acclimatise to the kitchen life? What if I disappear down the world's biggest crevasse or I find it takes 3 hours just to boil a pan of water?

Time to find out I guess. I leave for South Africa tomorrow.