Summer days at Davis

View from the Davis Station Leader's office.
View from Jeremy's office, January 2003. (Photo: J Smith)
Inflatable rubber boats being launched from the Davis boat ramp, January 2003.Expeditioners bottling their home brew.

7 January 2003

The rippled surface glitters between loose, flat, white floes. A few Adélie penguins stand and lie on one of the larger floes, others swim in the water, sometimes landing for a few minutes to shake themselves and strut a few steps on the brown beach 100 metres from me. The icebergs on the horizon beyond two dark islands gleam brilliantly, and the pale blue sky is marked by only a few distant streaks of grey cloud. The Australian flag in the foreground flutters languidly in the breeze. It's a lovely day at Davis and this is the view out of my office window, a view to both inspire and distract, a view to maintain sanity amidst the sometimes frenetic activity, sometimes stress, sometimes tedium, that is my present life.

If I lean over to the window, in a recess because of the thickness of double wall into which it is set, and look left, I can see two more flags on adjacent poles. One is British, in honour of four expeditioners here of that nationality rather than for the result of the fifth test match yesterday; we've had German, Russian, Canadian and Dutch flags flying in past weeks. The third pole carries the green ANARE pennant. Beyond them red-clad figures fuss about red boats on the small wharf at the end of the beach, preparing for a cruise offshore to measure underwater noise of outboard motors as part of a seal disturbance study.

Although the weather at Davis is delightful, there is cloud across the brooding ice plateau to our south, preventing helicopters flying there. There is an overdue job to do up there, deploying a magnetometer 150 kilometres inland, but as we can't do that today, the helicopter pilots will have a well-earned rest after their exertions of the past two very successful days of moving people and gear to and from remote study sites. The machines themselves could do with some maintenance and cleaning as well.

The flying of the last two days exploited an interval of near-perfect weather. Two people who had set up a seismometer and collected geological samples in the faraway Hay Hills had been waiting for a helicopter pick-up for a week and were starting to run short of food. Another two were awaiting transport to distant Beaver Lake to take water samples for a microbiology project. Yet more helicopter work in that direction was required by a third group of six glaciologists camped on the Amery Ice Shelf. In two days all of that that was achieved, and the helicopter program that was falling behind was brought back on track. Weather influences everything here, and when it smiles it is amazing how much can suddenly be achieved after days or weeks of frustration.

Yesterday the weather favoured another large though somewhat less hazardous operation, pulling cables from the station to the 'ant farm'. An array of 144 VHF radar antennas is being set up to probe the upper atmosphere at the head of Heidemann Bay a kilometre from the station. About thirty of us walked across the rocky terrain with black cable looped over our shoulders. It was a pleasant diversion in the fine weather, with the temperature a degree or two above freezing point and the wind light: it was hot work rather than cold, an uncommon reversal. But, after all, this is the warmest month of the year. The physicists were so gratified by the success of the job that they will shout the drinks at a barbecue being put on after work on Friday in the trades workshop.

Last night drinks were shouted on the spot at another good job well done: bottling the home brew – lager, stout, 'black and tan', and a little experimental cider. A group of us formed the production line, adding sugar and fermented beer to bottles, and capping, labelling and shelving them. The bottles themselves are washed and re-used indefinitely, and have been collected from various sources over many years. A lot of them are Chinese beer bottles, brought from Zhong Shan station down the coast in one small example of the broad-ranging cooperation between us: we would take and use their empty 'Reeb' bottles, incidentally saving them from having to return them to China. Unfortunately the supply has ceased, as the Chinese are now provided only with canned beer, so these green bottles have become relics of the past, like so much in this station.

Some relics are on the way out, for better or worse, including part of the very fabric of Davis. The old station is the original row of huts placed here in 1957 when Davis was established, and added to over the years until being abandoned when the new station buildings were progressively constructed during the 1980s. At present, we are dismantling the younger, peripheral parts of the old station. One meteorological hut is to be returned to Tasmania for preservation, and most of the rest is being demolished for return as rubbish. This will leave only the oldest, original huts for a later decision on their future.

One of the carpenters involved in the demolition, Jim, lived in the old station for a winter twenty years ago. He has interesting stories of life there, collecting and melting snow for water, using the notorious gas-burning toilet, patchy and brief communications with Australia, and very little in the way of the rules and regulations covering almost everything with which we are all too familiar today. How much life here has changed over that short time! Would I have enjoyed it more in those days, or less? It's an impossible question of course. In those days I was a younger, different person – and probably would not have been appointed to come here at all!

Summer is altogether a pretty hectic time. More than seventy expeditioners are resident at Davis. A further 35 are in the southern Prince Charles Mountains 650 km to the southwest, ostensibly independent but passing through Davis on their way in and out and so impinging significantly on Davis resources and organisation. A wide variety of science, operational and support projects is going on simultaneously. It's all going reasonably smoothly, and of course most aspects can be left with complete confidence to those expeditioners directly responsible for them. Nevertheless, it is necessary to constantly review progress, adapt plans, and ensure that nothing is being forgotten. And of course in the midst of it all there has been Christmas, New Year's Eve, and the plethora of other social and recreational events necessary for maintenance of good morale and spirits, to say nothing of personal concerns about people at home, their health and happiness, and relationships with them.

I wouldn't like to miss any of this. Life here, busy though it is, is full of variety, joy and satisfaction. There is only one thing that I presently regret, and that is not being as free as I would like to get out into the Antarctic wilderness at this time of benign weather, but that will change soon. This week both our field training officers are out with remote science parties ensuring safe operations in remote and hazardous places, but as soon as one of them returns (hopefully in a few days) the field training program will resume, followed by search/rescue training, and I intend to be fully involved with both. It will be a holiday as well as an education, and a chance to renew contact with the harshly beautiful and always fascinating local Vestfold Hills landscape and environment: more variety, interest and delight to add to what is already a remarkable varied and interesting job.