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Davis Station from bridge of 'Kapitan Khlebnikov', December 2002.
Davis Station from bridge of 'Kapitan Khlebnikov', December 2002. (Photo: J Smith)
The tourist ship, 'Kapitan Khlebnikov' at Davis, December 2002.Squirrel helicopter pausing for refuelling at Sansom Island, south west of Davis, December 2002.Jeremy Smith with Chen Yong Xiang, the Chinese Station Leader, at Zhong Shan station, south west of Davis.

December 2002

The following article was written by Davis Station Leader, Jeremy Smith, shortly after his arrival at Davis around 15 December 2002. Jeremy had earlier spent the 2001 winter at Davis as Station Leader.

After an absence of only ten months, walking the kilometre of sea-ice between ship and this Antarctic station felt like returning from a long weekend. The same weathered, multicoloured buildings squatted on the barren rocky slope, the same icebergs gleamed on the horizon. Familiar faces surrounded me, though their surmounting and surrounding hair had become wildly and variously odd. I got a small insight into how I and my companions here must have first appeared to them when they arrived.

The next four days was continuous pandemonium. This was resupply, as well as changeover. Laden vehicles and heavy plant moved repeatedly between beach and ship as a year's food, building supplies, fuel, and everything else needed by an Antarctic community was brought in, and a year's rubbish carried out. Outgoing expeditioners were packing, handing over duties, and concealing mixed emotions. Newcomers were staring, finding themselves overdressed in the summer mildness, getting lost, and trying to learn.

No sooner had one ship left than another arrived, an unusual conjunction at a place normally receiving fewer than six visits annually. Sixty tourists were circumnavigating Antarctica on a cruise ship. They were mixed by age and nationality, united by polar passion and significant wealth. Some wanted a short walk in the wilderness, others a chance to visit our tiny post office, many just a scone and cup of tea.

Before the visitors departed, I walked to their ship to take some photographs in the night sunshine, and was called aboard for a quick tour. The Russian captain insisted I join him in his cabin for vodka and smoked eel. The blue eyes above his grey beard had a delightfully wicked twinkle, and we enjoyed a lively conversation. We drank to every good joke and wise remark, of which there were many. The crew was advised by radio to delay raising the gang-plank, which I took to be a good time to suggest my glass be filled no more, noting that in any case the bottle was now empty. 'What, you think I have only one bottle?' he demanded.

Now all ships have gone but we still have aircraft. Two helicopters went with the resupply vessel to conduct fly-off operations at another Australian station, and were to fly back here today. However, one of them suffered an in-flight fuel problem and they have had to land on the plateau, to be precise on a 3500 feet high featureless waste of ice, aptly called Frustration Dome. The Twin Otter, fortuitously here on its way to the mountains to our south, is ferrying fuel, tools and a spare part, to save the helicopter party from spending any longer than necessary in a very cold, dangerous place.

This unplanned flying may help in one small way. The helicopter pilots' beds are still occupied by the Twin Otter air crew. Beds, even mattresses, are at a premium with nearly 80 people at this station built for half that. When the mountain geologists, all 35 of them, return in a few weeks, they will have to sleep in tents till the next ship can repatriate them. Even so they will certainly need showers, and both the water supply and the sewerage system are already overburdened.

The geologists are German and Australian with the odd Russian and American, their pilots Canadian. Based at Davis itself we also have Britons and assorted Europeans. The gender ratio is about six to one, providing few opportunities to economise on either beds or showers despite innovative suggestions.

With helicopter mobility we will have the chance to ease slightly the local population pressure as scientists and others get into the field. Students of lake biology will spend time drilling down to their water samples, glaciologists will position their instruments on moving ice, seismologists will establish listening posts on remote outcrops. A few people have scientific excuse for a cherished trip to our neighbours at the Chinese station down the coast.

Those normally confined to the station itself - the laboratory scientists and meteorologists, and the tradesmen, communications technicians, chefs, the doctor and others looking after home base - will also take their opportunities to get out and about. While the short summer lasts there will be recreational walks in the local hills, around half-frozen lakes and over permanent snow banks, sleeping in quaint but secure huts.

And of course there will be Christmas. Santa will appear, turkey will be carved, wine will be drunk, and after the meal (if the weather is calm), a semblance of cricket will be played. Watch out England, you are heavily outnumbered here, and in any case your recent form is not promising!

There is an automatic, genuine humanity in Antarctica. Go to any station or ship, of any nation, and friendship and assistance will be instant and unstinted. There is an unspoken recognition that in such an outlandish place we can only stay safe and sane by being fully cooperative, and anyway we are all outsiders and have no home turf to defend. It is tempting to think we provide a fine example to the rest of the world, until one reflects that all of us in this continent of ice are ultimately parasitic upon the rest of the world, however much we take care of ourselves and each other while we are here.

This article was published in the Guardian Weekly newspaper, 2-8 January 2003.