Frozen in time

Walkley Award winning print journalist, Jo Chandler, visited Antarctica this summer on an Australian Antarctic Arts Fellowship to file stories for Melbourne-based broadsheet The Age, and undertake research for her new book about climate research in extreme environments.

During Jo’s three and a half week visit she spent nine days in a field camp at the Bunger Hills, near Casey, working with scientists conducting aerial surveys for whales. She also filed stories on ice core work at Mill Island, the ICECAP project studying the ice structure and geology of the Aurora Subglacial Basin, Law Dome and Totten Glacier, ocean acidification, a range of human interest stories, and two blogs for National Times.

Jo’s new book will draw on her Antarctic experience to examine climate science, in Antarctica and the reefs and rainforests of tropical Queensland, through the stories of the people and the work occurring at these frontiers. It promises to be a ‘reflection on the spiritual and personal journeys people take when they go to wild places’ as well as ‘an adventure story, a thriller, a romance, a buddy movie, a comedy, a biography of the character of scientific communities, and an exploration of human motivation and capacity.'

The following ‘Letter from Antarctica’ was first published in the A2 section of The Age on 30 January 2010.

When I finally lie down to sleep it will be morning, almost breakfast. But I’m a time traveller — what’s another ripple in the continuum? In a place where the sun shines bright at midnight, the laws of space and time, and the conventions of human ritual, become riddled with wormholes of possibility.

And so it is that at dinner time I pull a snug woollen beanie on my head and plaster my face pale with sunscreen. I slide on sunglasses and a pair of thick gloves, hoist a hefty survival pack on to my back, buckle up, and set off into the icy wilderness rather than joining the others in the mess tent. Instead, main course and dessert are stuffed in deep jacket pockets — cheese sandwich to the right, chocolate bars to the left.

I unquestioningly follow the lead of a bloke I barely know, but who is soon my friend — in extremity, fraternity. For now it’s enough that he has a grey beard and the easy authority of the-man-in-charge. I settle contentedly in his footsteps.

Cookie — Graham Cook — is the outgoing leader of the Antarctic science settlement of Casey. He has completed a rare trifecta: three winters spent governing the communities of Australia’s most remote outposts, the others being Davis and Mawson.

Now, after another 15 months on the ice, he’s between yearning to leave and dread of it. He has forfeited authority to the incoming leader, and is savouring a farewell indulgence: a ‘jolly’ — an expedition for the heck of it. It’s the lightest burden of responsibility he has carried for a long time. Just he and me.

We are walking inland across the Bunger Hills, East Antarctica, from a village of tents strewn on the shore of a frozen bay, the summer base for a scientific whale survey team.

Cookie has his co-ordinates locked on a GPS nestled somewhere within his many layers, but for now he’s happy navigating by gut, recognising the lakes and peaks he just scoped from the air on the low, sweeping flight in to our field camp aboard the C-212. He’s finding a scenic route rather than following the blinkered dictates of the set waypoints. It may add a half-hour or more to our walk. But then we have all night.

Our objective is to visit and explore a 55-year-old Soviet ice station set up at the height of the Cold War.

Our route is just eight or nine kilometres each way — but it’s rough, so maybe three hours walking each leg. It tracks the meandering path of a long-departed glacier.

The essence of the rocks scraping and clattering under our boots might date back more than 2.5 billion years. Their present form was rendered as recently as a billion years ago by cataclysmic heat and pressure. ‘They're not the oldest rocks on the planet,' a geologist will later tell me. ‘But they're not far off.'

Time — geographic, human, personal — feels as messed up as the jumble of rocks. Great lumps of rosy garnet and black basalt; huge crystals melding coral and green; the glint of mica within bodies of dull grey. We pick up rocks like prizes and wonder at them together.

We scramble over the peaks and plough through the odd drift of blizzard, following an estuary up past the point where the water turns from salty to fresh, falling down from a great lake. This is the rarest of Antarctic landscapes, having shed the all-encompassing skin of the ice sheet some 30 000 years ago. It provides a refuge for the toughest of mosses and the hardiest of birds.

It’s midnight when we find the cluster of weathered buildings the Soviets called Oasis station when they built them in 1955. A year later they handed them to the Poles.

The decayed station has been occupied sporadically in the decades since, each expedition leaving behind its relics — outmoded technology, rusting tanks and leaking fuel drums, tins of fish, cigarette butts and empty vodka bottles.

In the dining room we find a collection of 78s with ‘CCCP’ stamped on red labels and a wind-up gramophone that reawakens ghostly choirs, strident marching bands and a soulful soprano. Time is frozen and fluid.

Almost three hours later we pause in the last of the nothingness and Cookie urges me to read the landscape and the maps and find the way home. To my surprise, I do.

We lower our voices as we walk back into camp so as not to wake the others — it’s just after 3am. The sun is as low as it will go and the light is soft, with a hint of the confused colour of sunrise bumping into sunset.

We drop our packs, pour shots of Baileys into glasses over handfuls of blizzard snow, and toast the return to familiar dimensions. Already feeling just a little nostalgic.

Jo Chandler