28th December: Halley Research Station

2005

This is a bizarre place – not scenic at all (in a traditional sense) just flat, and insanely white. The light is so intense its like the world has been deleted. The windows on the platforms all have thick blinds, the frames having added flaps of plywood to try and create a light seal – but still the glare seeps through like bleach.

I go round and round trying to find words and metaphors that will describe this.

Part of the problem is that it’s not actually a place. The oblivious, flat ice shelf surrounds the structures on all sides. There’s no topographical reason for the platforms to be placed here. Someone just decided – took out an empty white map and drew a cross. Because of windtails (banks of snow that form down wind of anything left on the surface) rather than huddling together the platforms are paradoxically far away from each other – like neurotic patients quivering in the middle of a field. The platforms look like miniature, ad hoc oil-platforms – each year they have to jack them up another meter and a half to stop them disappearing beneath the snow and each year the ice-shelf slides another 50 meters further out to sea. The whole thing seems insanely arbitrary, makeshift and pointless – perched like frozen insects on an iceberg waiting to happen. Globally important science is going on here, but somehow against the scale of Antarctica it looks slightly rediculous and frightened.

Part of the reason for the base to be here is to maintain a British presence. Like the scramble for Africa, Antarctica was carved up in case it turned out to be useful. In this instance, though, the carving was very neatly done with each country’s slice radiating out from the South Pole. Neat that is, except for the fact that Argentina, Chile and Britain all claim the same slice.

To bolster their territorial claim, Argentina flew in a pregnant woman to give birth on their base. The Chilean’s responded by bringing several couples to live, conceive and have children – and the British opened a post office. Perhaps in a misguided quest for normality, I got the postmaster (who is also the base commander) to open up the post-office. Housed in a metal trunk beneath his desk, I bought postcards of an ice-encrusted base beneath an aurora sky and stamps featuring a silhoetted Queens head floating above an ice-shelf.