Antarctica Time Travel Exhibition

At the Russian Base some years ago they even banned chess as being too inflammatory, after one Soviet scientist killed his opponent with an axe. I think surviving in the wilderness can actually be compared to playing chess. The game is mostly in the mind, you must be aware of the whole picture, you must anticipate, adapt, advance and overcome. Recent studies have shown that some expeditioners who have spent a year in the frozen continent display characteristics of returning prisoners of war. My old teacher, Mr Judge would have been able to cope by teaching everyone Latin.

We are led through so many different rooms and facilities that I quickly lose my bearings. I can only wonder at the tremendous size of these man-made underground caverns.

Antarctica Time Travel Exhibition Photo Gallery

The work involved in maintaining them is obviously a feat of equal immensity. We are shown around one of the scientific research labs and talk to a few of the scientists there. Some of the station’s programmes include auroral observation, study of cosmic ray intensity caused by solar activity, as well as continuing ionosphere and meteorological studies. The computer room, or at least the one we visit, is filled with state of the art equipment. Yet it is strangely silent as if the complexity of its machines is self-fulfilling and they need no human hand to guide them. The games room on the other hand is full and pool is the order of the day. They even allow me a few strikes, just so I can tell those more expert than myself that at least I’ve played at the South Pole. There are plenty of computer games and videos to watch or use in the privacy of one’s own room. I am told the record for watching the same video is 90 times. There is also a well-equipped gymnasium, although few use it regularly after the initial burst of enthusiasm. The library has a scholarly presence of its own and there are rows of books relating to Antarctica and travel to other regions of every description. I offer one of my books On Top Of Africa, it’s accepted graciously and recorded in their visitor records.

We are told that they will be arranging to open the base shop later that morning at 11 a.m. especially for us. This is really great news as we are particularly anxious to buy cards and stamps to send from the South Pole. An opportunity that we are unlikely to have again and therefore not on any account to be missed. Whilst waiting for the shop we are invited to eat in the dining hall, mostly referred to as the galley. This is a revelation. It’s roomy with an open kitchen section, where you can have a variety of foods at most times of the day or night. It seems most people settle for junk foods, hamburgers, fries, Cokes, etc but as an healthy alternative there are all kinds of appetising food, including fish, steaks, varieties of vegetables. I am not very hungry but choose an apple pie and tea just to enjoy the experience of eating underground at the Pole. There are various labels everywhere stating DNF. It looks very officious but Wayne lets me in on the secret, it means ‘Do Not Freeze’. I am not certain if it’s an instruction regarding food or a friendly reminder to the scientists. It reminds me of Steve’s, ‘KW’. Most people had breakfast here earlier or in their rooms but many others still drift in and out all the time. It seems one of the pleasures is taking advantage of the round the clock facilities and the chefs seem willing enough to respond to whatever is requested.

Water, or the lack of it, plays the same importance here as at Patriot Hills. It still has to be produced by melting snow and therefore needs to be used carefully and rationed. Again there are instructional notices strategically placed. ‘Showers should be taken no more than twice a week and are not to exceed two minutes of running water’ (it’s obviously important to shower wearing a waterproof watch). ‘The water faucets (taps) are not to be left running while you are washing hands or brushing teeth.’ One imagines secret cameras spying on those showering or cleaning their teeth and these rules must add to the strain of living here. The waste that arises is thrown into a large septic tank and then freeze-dried naturally. Eventually it has to be transported out to a waste treatment plant. That’s why visitors are encouraged to show self-control and not to use the station’s bathrooms and toilets. I guess it’s either a matter of concentration or of constipation. Most people

I meet seem to be carrying more weight than is perhaps advisable. I guess that the routine of living the whole day in this very restricted place must impose tremendous personal strains, eating certainly would be one of the ways to ease the pressure. There are other ways of course and I enquire about the sleeping arrangements. There are a variety of bedrooms, some single, some double and others with communal bunks and beds, to suit every inclination. Sukow suddenly goes coy and switches the conversation. He explains that it’s rare to spend more than two seasons out here. Everyone misses the freedom of living in a city or town where it’s possible to catch a train, take a bus, or just go for a walk. Most people don’t realise what it’s going to be like living in such a relatively cramped environment and often become quite shocked after the first week or two. They start counting the days until their term finishes. Some can’t take it and have to leave earlier.

Sukow mischievously asks whether we would ever consider joining the exclusive 300 club. It sounds rather like the Mile High Club and could be tempting but fortunately it’s not really the season. During the summer period, half of November, all of December and January, and half of February, the temperature only gets up to -23 oC (-10 oF). In the winter when the temperature drops below -73 oC (-100 oF), some strip totally naked, step into the sauna heated to 93 oC (200 oF) and then race outside, still completely naked, to the South Pole marker. In fact, rather generously, you are allowed to keep your socks on to stop the ice sticking to your feet. Once at the Pole you can’t afford to dally, otherwise you’d suffer more than a loss of pride. During the winter the temperature often gets down to -79 oC (-119 oF), but is the coldest after the sun has set in March. Fortunately at the very lowest temperatures the wind is almost non-existent. In the winter when the wind blows, the wind-chill factor becomes known as ‘Don’t even dare to venture outside; if you do you won’t last more than a few minutes’. It has been said that Scott and his team may have encountered just such conditions in the March of 1912 which were a major factor in preventing them returning. Staff at the station usually find their way around on the outside by remembering which buildings and depots are where. Otherwise, as compasses are of no use, they might lock into the global positioning satellites (GPS) and work out the co-ordinates needed. Visibility can be reduced at times to perhaps a metre and it would be all too easy to lose one’s bearings and get lost. Somewhat surprisingly, there are days during the summer when it is possible to work outside in shorts although it needs to be very sunny without any wind. The warmest temperature ever recorded at the Pole was -20.9 oC in December 1968. That still sounds pretty cold to me! The average temperature at the South Pole in July (usually the coldest month) is -59.9 oC. Although there are no creatures that live at or near the South Pole, the skua bird has on occasion, been seen, having been blown off course by the fierce winds. It’s a bird to beware of however, as it will dive bomb anything, human or otherwise in pursuit of food. The poor penguin chick stands no chance and is a favourite target. Though the reputation of the skua is somewhat maligned, its willingness to eat anything helps to keep the Antarctic clear of those creatures which have died and would otherwise rot and decay. Its full name is the McCormick skua. The skua has a powerful homing instinct. Five were taken to the South Pole, tagged and then released. They all made it back to their nests after a 1,290 kilometre journey over this fearsome and barren landscape. A rather confounding fact is that there is actually another South Pole station. The original one. Now it is buried under the ice and primarily inaccessible. Building commenced in late 1956 and was completed by February 1957. Although it was modified and extended over the years, it was soon realised that it was not large enough and needed too many continuing modifications to warrant keeping it. Construction of the new and existing station started in 1970. Work was mostly carried out in the summer seasons, when new materials and supplies could be relatively easily ferried in. It officially opened for business in February 1975 and the old one closed off forever. A modernisation programme of the station started in 1997 and is expected to be completed in 2005. It’s rather an eerie feeling however, knowing that underneath the ice, just metres away, is a ghost station of laboratories, research and computer rooms, living and sleeping quarters, which are empty and vacant. All preserved within their own overwhelming bleakness.

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