Friday drinks at the old station

Friday drinks and carpet bowls in the old station powerhouse, March 2003.
Friday drinks and carpet bowls in the old station powerhouse, March 2003. (Photo: G Barton)
The old auroral observatory being removed for conservation in Australia, March 2003.The old station at Davis, with the toilet block in the foreground, March 2003.

23 March 2003

An integral part of Australian Antarctic station culture, and one of those regular events that holds together the little communities through the long year, is Friday drinks. Each week after work it is hosted by a different volunteer in a different place. Last week Jim did the honours in his former home, the old station.

Davis was first established in 1957 as a row of interconnected huts built on a rock-strewn slope overlooking a small beach. Despite the site having been selected hurriedly and without much knowledge of the area, the choice was in some ways ideal. For instance, there is an excellent anchorage just offshore, and for most of the year there is reliable sea-ice to travel on, held in by offshore islands and grounded icebergs. On the other hand, the old station lies across the prevailing wind on a leeward slope, perfect for getting buried by drifted snow.

Jim had already left the drinks outside to cool (they were moved in later when they began to freeze) and had had a small heater running inside to alleviate the chill. When I arrived, the game of carpet bowls was being laid out for general entertainment.

We were in the former powerhouse, one of the largest of the old station's small, one storey buildings. The bowls curved erratically across the uneven surface, the floor having been irregularly lifted by the ice that has accumulated just beneath it.

Expeditioners last lived here about twelve years ago. The old station has been abandoned since then, most of it untouched while evaluations were made of its possible heritage significance. It has deteriorated to the point where it will probably have to be removed, fulfilling a commitment to leave nothing behind in Antarctica. Some of the more recent additions to it have already gone. To maintain the rest in functioning condition would be very expensive, and arguably pointless.

But on this day we still found much of interest, despite ice on and under the floors, peeling paint, and general decay. Jim gave tours, and the stories started to come out.

In winter snow built up to roof-line, and only a few outside doors did not block up. In the event of a fire, escape would very likely have had to be through roof hatches. Windows could be opened on to the solid snow behind, and little caves excavated there to make convenient fridges.

The toilets, two of them side by side in a yellow shed a few metres away, were the notorious 'gas crappers', whose solid contents (liquids went elsewhere) were disposed of by gas-fuelled incineration. Occasionally there were explosive accidents, resulting in singed backsides and hilarious embarrassment. Getting to the toilets in winter involved walking down a narrow snow tunnel illuminated by a string of lights suspended in jam jars. When the wind was in the wrong direction, strange odours wafted back into the station.

The dongas (bedrooms) were small, and separated from the corridor by curtains. There was no disturbance through slamming of doors, but woe betide the expeditioner sneaking away from a party early: his aggrieved companions might then resort to donga dancing, cavorting on the flat roof just above the sleeper's head until he returned to the social throng.

Water was constantly in short supply, having to be made from snow collected and melted laboriously every week. Each man could have a weekly shower, provided it did not use more than a single bucketful of water. There was once a water-saving competition to see how long it was possible to stand not having a shower: the winner went for seven weeks.

There was little privacy anywhere. When the first woman, a doctor, wintered at the station a special sleeping compartment had to be constructed for her (with its own shower) in the surgery.

Nowadays, dinner on Fridays is usually delivered to the drinks location. Pizzas and chips duly arrived from the kitchen a hundred metres away, just as the last tour returned to the old powerhouse. Despite the welcome hot food it was cold in there. I went back to the new station for a hot bath, and to reflect on the contrasts between the conditions experienced by those early expeditioners just a few years ago, and by ourselves, their relatively pampered successors.