Short walk in the Vestfolds

Taking a short break at Lake Stinear.
Taking a short break at Lake Stinear. (Photo: J Smith)
Former shoreline and dolerite dykes, Lake Stinear.Brookes Hut in the Vestfold Hills.

10 January 2003

Davis is uniquely situated, on the margin of an extensive ice-free hinterland called the Vestfold Hills. These hills are among the biggest ice-free areas in the entire continent, most of which is deeply buried by an ice cap kilometres thick. They provide a recreational opportunity unmatched in other parts of Antarctica. Here, it is possible to go bushwalking – but without the bush!

And that is just what I did yesterday. Tired of five weeks spent mainly in the office, I took the chance to accompany John, one of our helicopter pilots, on his first Antarctic walk. He wanted to see the local scenery and needed a companion at short notice: say no more!

John made up his survival pack while I picked up a radio and first aid kit, and saw to the various protocols required of anyone leaving the station. These mandatory precautions sometimes seem like overkill at this summer season, but this is always a potentially hazardous place, and complacency is likely to be the biggest hazard of all.

Initially we followed a rutted, rocky road out of the station but soon struck off to the right, towards Lake Dingle. Except for the lake, and the occasional flying skua (a large brown predatory gull), the terrain looked Martian: not a plant anywhere, just sand, stones and scattered rocks. Ice-free areas in Antarctica are sometimes called oases, but that seems an inappropriate term: they are really deserts.

The rocks are scattered higgledy-piggledy across the landscape. They come from the east, many from under the ice cap visible as a brooding pale mass between the dark hills on the horizon. A few thousand years ago this whole area was covered by moving, scraping ice, and when it melted away to reveal the hills and holes beneath, it left them spotted with rocky debris.

We passed the end of Lake Dingle and began moving down the north shore of the elongate Lake Stinear. Named after two of the earliest Davis expeditioners, these pioneers thought they were the first people to walk here until they found a shotgun cartridge, a broken glass bottle, some weathered footprints – and realised that Russian explorers had preceded them.

We too found plenty of footprints (recent ones) for this is a popular route for walkers from Davis to Brookes Hut on the south shore of Long Fjord, the nearest of the field huts. There is no formed path, but successive walkers tend to take the same easiest line, which here runs along a bench some thirty metres above the water.

This bench marks a former shoreline, not of the lake but of the sea. After the ice melted from what then became the Vestfold Hills, the exposed land began to rise as its burden of ice was removed. As the land rose the sea retreated, in some places leaving behind isolated lakes of sea water. Evaporation then concentrated their saltiness and lowered their level. The surface of Lake Stinear is now 14 metres below sea level and the old shoreline along which we were walking is about 16 metres above sea level.

The opposite shore sloped quite steeply, revealing clearly the structure of the bedrock which is unimaginably old, pre-dating all but the simplest of fossil life-forms. Most of it is crystalline, brown or grey, but slashing through it are dykes of igneous dolerite forming black stripes across the bare hills.

Inspired by conspicuous geology we walked with few stops, turning away from the lake shore to cut across the undulating hills towards the hut. The weather was ideal, mild (around freezing point), overcast, with only a light wind. A few tiny snowflakes drifted past. Ambling along in these calm conditions was pleasant, even a little hot.

After three hours the hut appeared over the last hill, a small, weathered, red refuge. Another red structure was beside it, a round fibreglass 'melon' hut on a sled positioned as a temporary additional home for some seal biologists earlier in the season. Beyond these alien objects lay the fjord, choked by broken floes of sea-ice. In winter it is possible to walk, indeed to drive, up the fjord but at the height of summer the ice is rotten, useless and dangerous.

I went through the familiar routine: open the hut to briefly ventilate it, go round the back to turn on the gas bottle, then inside, light the heater, and put on the kettle. We established radio communication with Davis, and prepared a light dinner from freeze-dried ingredients. We read novels, played backgammon, chatted, and climbed early into our sleeping bags laid out on the waiting bunks.

The next afternoon we left for the return walk, taking a detour via Deep Lake. This was also a bay of the sea, confirmed to us by fragments of old shells around its former shoreline, but in this case the lake surface is now 51 metres below sea level, and its water is roughly ten times as salty as sea water. It never freezes, and the previous time I had been down to it, in winter, I measured its temperature, still unfrozen, at −16.5 degrees. An upright, graduated pole close to the shore is used to measure the water level, which fluctuates in response to climatic factors and is regularly recorded as an indicator of climate change.

We got back to Davis just 24 hours after we had left, with mixed feelings: the comforts of home were undeniable, but uppermost in my mind were the beauty and fascination of the wilderness behind me.