Monday, 4 February 2019

Muggle flying & Quidditch in Antarctica


One of the perks of the job, and for many a highlight down here, is the opportunity to go on a Twin Otter co-pilot flight. I got the shout the evening before that I was next in line; that in the morning I was down to be the co-pilot for the flight to Fossil Bluff. Naturally I was pretty excited about this, the only downside being that my friend Blair was leaving for the UK on the Dash-7 that very same morning. It was a slightly rushed goodbye, and I was actually sat in the cockpit of a Twin Otter as I watched his plane take off. Rothera is a place of comings and goings, and it wasn’t really something I’d anticipated of been prepared for. You meet a lot of people, form friendships quickly, and before you know it they are out into the field for weeks or heading home. Listening to others who have been down before you do get more accustomed to it, but initially I found it quite difficult. The flight to Fossil Bluff takes about 1 hour 40, and it was a straight there and back run this time – only stopping to drop off a few fuel drums and provisions. Once we were airborne and levelled off, Andy’s voice came over the headset, “It’s your turn to take control of the plane, I’ve got some paperwork to fill in.” And pretty much just like that I found myself flying a Twin otter across Antarctica. To be honest, all I had to do was hold the controls level, but it was still one of those moments where you think, ‘wow, this is flippin’ cool!’ The weather might have been crapping out a bit at Rothera, but further south there were blue skies and amazing views. We were probably only on the ground at Fossil Bluff for 20-30 minutes – enough time to unload and have a chat to Jake and Rich. I also went to visit the pee flag, but soon realised as I got my flight overalls half way down that it was going to be a bit of a faff. I’d either have to take them off entirely, or get them covered in pee. With neither being a particularly attractive option, I decided that I’d just have to exercise good bladder control on the way back. Perhaps the strangest thing about flying the plane was that once airborne you got next to no sensation of the speed you’re travelling at. This changed slightly though when Andy took the plane down to approximately 100 metres above the ‘ground’, and flew close enough to see seals and a mass of blocks which were locked in icebergs. I was soon landed back at station, off the plane, and pretty much straight into the late shift. Certainly not your average morning off before work!

As Christmas approached I was keen to organise what would be Antarctica’s first ever Quidditch match. It was something of a tradition I’d started at the hostel in Borrowdale, and now I wanted to take it to the world’s most remote continent. I didn’t think I’d have a problem getting enough players; Rothera is about a captive an audience as you can get! I also had the lure of history on my side; a chance for people to add their names alongside the likes of Amundsen, Shackleton, & Scott – Antarctic firsts and pioneers. Jess, as Station Leader, wrote a full and comprehensive risk assessment for the match, and it had to be the best document of its kind I’ve ever read. Favourite bits include, “Brooms must not be used as weapons.” & “Curses are restricted to muggle swear-words only. Spells and hexes are disallowed.” I thought the most difficult part might be convincing someone to be the Golden Snitch. I had initially tried to talk Cam into doing it, but then discovered he would be out in the field. I then approached Alex (aka blonde Jesus), & without too much resistance he agreed. However, when I spoke to him later on he seemed slightly concerned….“K, I’ve been doing a bit of research into golden snitching, and it looks like they get kneed in the balls quite a lot?” I assured him that I would specifically mention that in the category of foul play when I delivered the rule briefing. After a few postponements due to the weather and muggle flying, we finally took to the runway to play the match on Sunday 23rd December. We had enough players for there to be subs, enough mop handles for broomsticks, and a Big Bird costume (essential polar clothing) for Alex to wear as the Golden Snitch. We learnt two things pretty quickly; just how knackering Rothera Rules Quidditch is, and that Kate Stanton is probably unrivalled anywhere in the universe when it comes to competitiveness! She later confided that she had to stop playing board games as even that got too far out of hand. Unfortunately for my team (Gryffindor), Kate was playing at the Slytherin Seeker when the Golden Snitch was released onto the pitch. Callum put up a good battle to be fair, and for a long time it seemed like Alex might elude them both for the rest of the afternoon. But eventually Kate was able to capture the sock (containing a tennis ball) from the back of Alex’s pants, which gave Slytherin the overall victory. Everyone seemed to really enjoy it, and miraculously the only injuries were to a couple of the broomsticks.

Christmas in Antarctica was, for me, memorable and special. I hadn’t thought too much about how I might feel about it; I wanted to enjoy it, and not dwell on the fact that I was a long way from home. I went for a Christmas Day run with Tom L, three laps of the runway before heading out on a recreational boat trip. It was possibly the perfect day for being out on the water – it was flat calm, still. The grey skies meant that there was no glare, so the towering icebergs were reflected clearly in the water. In fact, at times, I wondered if the reflection had more form than the real thing. The Chefs had cooked up an amazing Christmas dinner, and it was so lovely to share it with friends. A little later in the evening I went up to the Ops tower for scheds. Kate Doc had set up the keyboard, and a small group of us assembled to sing Christmas carols over the radio to the field parties. I’m not sure if it was interference over the radio, or the fact that they’d been living in the middle of Antarctica in tents for so long, but apparently we sounded pretty good! Boxing Day was back to work as normal, or as normal as life gets down here.

“Once in a while you remember exactly where the hell you are.” In this instance I was stood with Bav on the deck of the Laurence M Gould, an American research ship, just off the West Antarctic Peninsula. It was windy, snowing, and we’d been chatting, belting out the American national anthem, and trying to figure out our place in all of this. I certainly didn’t have any answers, but was yet again filled with a sense of awe, and a gratitude for everyone and everything that had led me here. We were part of a group from Rothera (including scientists doing CTD water sampling) who had the opportunity to go aboard the ship in a PAX exchange – the American scientists went ashore for tours of the station. Dee was on a lower deck photographing tanks of krill, while Scott, Sarah, and the others were enjoying the Americans’ hospitality (especially the stash of real, chocolate milk we found). When we all got back together I asked Bav & Dee about recreating that scene from Titanic. Contrary to the numerous suggestions, I didn’t mean the iceberg bit, nor the being drawn like a French girl, and certainly not the car scene. We went outside to the front of the ship, and yelled to the vast expanse of ocean that I was the king of the world. If you ever get to try that in the Southern Ocean, you’ll find out just how far from the truth those words feel; how laughable a sentiment in a land that humbles. It was not the first time here that I have been brought to a standstill – a sudden and overwhelming halt, both mentally and physically. For a second there is no movement at all, and then the thoughts begin to creep back in amongst the silent wonder. If I’ve dreamed of anything, I’ve dreamed of this. The beauty of the wild places, the mystery of life so complete it becomes the answer.

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