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.