First impressions from Antarctica

Letters from Antarctica

First impressions from Antarctica

January 30, 2021
min read
Alec and Jan Forman
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British Antarctic Survey (BAS)
4th November 1973

Dear All,

As the aircraft are due to fly up to meet the ship in about a week, I thought it was time I sat down and wrote my first letter to you from ‘The South’. Another good reason for writing today is to wish you a ‘Happy Birthday’ Mum. It will be a bit late by the time this arrives, sorry I forgot to say so in the air letter which I hope has arrived by now, from that you will know, I had my first one from Jan. I was the first in the air party to get one, only six days after we arrived here not bad aay! Also had a very pleasant surprise when I arrived in Punta Arenas, just before we flew South from Toronto, Dave, one of the pilots, gave me an address in Punta Arenas that mail could be sent to, although short notice I sent a telegram to Jan telling her, and was pleased to find a 14 page letter waiting for me in Punta on arrival. I hope you got all my cards en route Toronto to Punta, I sent a card from every stop, as you can see it’s quite an epic flight and according to our pilots we had exceptionally good weather on route, we could see the scenery below, all the way.

From the cards you will know my adventures on route to Punta. From there the last leg continues over the Straits of Magellan and the many islands which make up the tip of South America. These islands I have never seen anywhere, looked so hostile, rugged peaks covered in snow & ice almost to shore level, separated by numerous channels of ‘black’ water, we left S’America about 40 miles west of Cape Horn which we could just make out through the mist, seeing the ‘White Horses’ on the sea one can believe all the stories of rounding the Horn. As soon as we left land we were flying above the clouds for about 5 hours until a break appeared in the cloud and Bert, my pilot, said, there’s your first icebergs. Almost at the same time we spotted the coastline of Antarctica, a little earlier than calculated but bang on course, good considering we’d been flying on the compass for 4–5 hours, 2hrs of which I was driving! Next point to find was Argentine Islands, another BAS base where I did my postman bit, while Bert descended the aircraft from 10,000ft down to about 200ft I got in position by the rear doors, as we flew over the base he flashed on the cabin lights, my signal to push open the door with my right foot and kick out the mail bag with my left. Right on target they told us by radio.

And so onto Adelaide where the whole base, all 8 of them except the radio op turned out to see us land, all of them eager to see the first fresh faces in 6 months and get their first mail for that time as well. There’s a great bunch of chaps here, first of all the most important, the cook Roger, he does marvels with almost all tinned or dried food. Next there’s Big Rog’ he’s the weatherman ably assisted by Ian who’s also a weatherman. Chris, the doctor, whom I ‘visited’ on my arrival for a cold cure, no doubt the effects of going from jungle to ice cap in less than a week, that’s gone now, anyway. Mike he’s the Radio Operator, he’s my hero at the moment, first he walked all the way up to the airstrip to deliver my air letter from Jan as soon as it came and he also fixed my camera flash unit. Gordon is the diesel mechanic looking after a generator, International Crawler Bulldozer, 2 Snow Tractors also on tracks, 2–½ skidoo’s and a Fox Track similar to a skidoo, but not as posh. ‘Malky’ he’s a General Assistant cum tractor mech, cum dog driver! It’s his second time down here, first time as a tractor mech, second time they could only offer him G.A. He gave us a very good demo on crevasse rescue the other day. Last but not least Jim, he’s base commander, he’s not here to keep us all in order, although he’s even an inch taller than me! but keeps the paperwork and general base coordination running.

We also have 22 huskies outdoors, and a pet puppy who is soon to live outside too so that she doesn’t become too spoilt indoors to become a worker.

As for the base itself I’ve included a photo for ease of description. The main hut on the right has almost all the comforts of home, entering it by a door on the extreme left as you look at it, you pass the coal bunker, into the hats coats and boots room, down the corridor first on the right is the radio room, full of flashing lights, bleeping noises and crackly voices! Next on the left the ‘Scadge Palace’ (Scadge is F.I.D. for dinner) Aga Cooker and various assortment of cupboards etc. On the right again the ‘Bar “Ye Olde Complet Fiddi” white walls with nailed on beams and ‘olde’ structure, very effective. Also in here, is the record player with a good selection of records, ranging from Handel’s Messiah to Led Zeppelin! Not forgetting a most important occupant of the Bar, ‘Tommy’ the coal stove, he has a mind of his own, one minute it roars away like mad the next it goes out. Leading off the bar are doors into ‘The Peril’ a general store with you name it, it’s in there. The other door leads to the Doc’s laboratory, weather room and drying room. Into the corridor again and the dining room watched over by The Queen & Duke with many pictures of Princess Anne, this year’s pin up girl! They’re looking for another now she’s getting married. Next on the right is the library with a terrific collection well over 2,000 books I reckon, covering a wide range of subjects. At the end of the main corridor the door on the left leads to the bunk rooms, each capable of accommodating four, but only 2 in each at the moment. Down there is also a darkroom for photo developing. The other side is the bathroom with shower above (five gallon drum with tap, watering can hose welded in the bottom!) Next door is Chris’s surgery/post room, he’s also postmaster for Adelaide Island!

The surrounding scenery is quite spectacular, best view from the airstrip, which is about ¾ mile and 400ft up from base which stands by the sea, ice in winter! To the North the ‘Piedmont’ a 400ft thick ice shelf, stretches away separated from the sea by shear ice cliffs. To the East, the island mountain range is 15 miles away, but towering above to 8,000ft it looks only a stone’s throw away. To the South you can see the mountains of the Peninsula, mainland Antarctica, a very impressive coast line. Immediately off the southern tip of Adelaide Island, is Avian Island, a penguin colony where they’re just beginning to return after their mysterious winter trip to sea. To the East, open sea dotted with icebergs and ice flows, in the distance 90 miles away Alexandra Island again looking remarkably near.

Since being here we started off with 10 days of good flying weather, the aircraft out all day coming back to pick up stores and fuel, flying till 10 at night, as it’s still very light, only 2 hours of darkness at the moment for another few weeks and then it will be a constant day. After our good weather, 2 or 3 days of poor weather followed during which we serviced the aircraft, even that work we had to call off this last week, when we’ve been having very high winds, snow, hail, and heavy drifting. Today was the first ‘real’ good day for a week when the whole workforce turned out to dig the aircraft out of the drifts. During the ‘Blow’ we kept busy with checking stores, repairing skidoos and delightful jobs like ‘seal chop’ cutting up seals caught last year, to feed the dogs, pooh! Meat doesn’t decay but goes ‘off’ a bit to say the least! Dogs love it, they’re fed 7 lbs of it every 2 days. Seal chop is one of the base jobs on a rota system, along with water man which involves cutting snow blocks and dropping them in big tanks, one in the kitchen and one in the bathroom. The one that everyone looks forward to — haha — is ‘Gash Man’ this means doing all the main hut housework, first job of the day is washing up the breakfast things which is a help yourself affair. Then sweeping, mopping and tidying the bar & library. Making up and cleaning out the three fires. Make the tea for ‘Smoko’ (NAAFI break, 11’s) washing up afterwards, laying the table for ‘Scadge’, washing up afterwards! Afternoon ‘smoko’ and dinner tables to set and wash up afterwards! 12 people take some washing up after! I can appreciate the phrase ‘a woman’s work is never done’. The other one is weekend cook, the cook has every Sunday off, so one of us does the cooking.

I did mine 10 days ago, I had the midday meal solved by Dave the Pilot who made a Penguin Stew out of a pengy who chanced its luck with one of the dog’s. Pengys are very stroppy creatures, when they walk past the dog spans of course the dogs all start barking, well the pengys usually retaliate by squarking and sticking their necks out at the dogs, rather like geese. Well this one got a bit ambitious and the dog grabbed it and broke its neck, it hadn’t marked it otherwise, so in the pot if went. Very tasty it is, different, very dark meat, only similar meat taste is liver. For the evening meal I made a normal stew with potatoes & carrots followed by Instant Whip & oranges.

Most enjoyable day since I’ve been here was a flight out with one of the aircraft with a load of stores for a sledging team out in the ‘field’. We loaded up the aircraft with man food (10-day ration packs) and dried dog food (pemican) then took off and flew to Stonington Base to pick up some scientific gear they wanted, as there are many crevasses near that base the landing area was some 5 miles inland, the stores were collected from the aircraft by skidoo and dogs each towing a sledge.

Having transferred the stores the dog team set off, a dog team in full ‘flight’ is quite a sight. I had my first ride on a dog sledge the other day from the airstrip, 5 fluffy bottoms bobbing up and down, all the instructions are given to the dogs in Eskimo, all adds to the ‘Myth’ as they call it down here! To continue my flight, taking off from here, flying over the dog team, dogs going full tilt, driver hanging on for dear life and waving like mad. We flew out over the sea to gain height to get over the mountains which tower 8,000ft from the sea, viewed from the inland side all that is visible are small peaks, the valleys are under glaciation all the glaciers joined by snowfields to form the ‘Plateau’ mile upon mile of desolate wilderness interrupted here and there by old peaks and ridges. A snow field under one of these peaks Mount Andrew Jackson was our destination 2hrs flying away. As we neared it a flare went up from the sledge we were to supply, swooping low to look at the surface then circling and landing, we were greeted by two ‘explorers’ with their doggy’s which looked a real picture, spotlessly clean, bouncy fluffy balls of energy. Having unloaded, said cheerio, we took off and set course for Adelaide a little east of our outward track nearer the coast, with Alexandra Island in the distance, George V Sound on our left and Margarite Bay in front of us. I did an hour piloting on the way back, then checked our route from points on the ground, mountains like, Shadow Mountain, Boomerang, Faith, Hope, and Charity. The weather on route was perfect all the way except for the last few minutes, when we landed just before a snow shower, weather can change so quickly here.

A trip I’m looking forward to is in about 2 weeks time, for 10–14 days when Bert & I will go out into the wilderness to help the surveyors with map making. We’ll fly as near as possible to prominent features, land and then we’ll climb to the top carrying their theodolites & other instruments to take sightings on other high points in the area. For this we’ll be living out in tents, real explorer stuff, should be doing the same again in January.

Well I’m certainly glad I came, it’s all I expected and more, plenty to do work wise and in the evenings, as you can imagine I’m missing Jan something terrible but one can’t have it all ways, come two years time we’ll be together for good. Do you realize I only have 2 years and 12 days left in the army, no regrets, best move I ever made. It has given me a trade I can always rely on to get a job. After my research in Canada there’s plenty of openings out there for myself and Jan.

Well I reckon I’ll finish my news there, I hope everything is OK with everyone at home. Hope your new job is going OK Dad and you’ve found one Margaret, tell Janet I’ll bring her lots of pictures of ‘huskies’ back, and Tony that we’re having trouble drinking all this free beer!!

Again Happy Birthday Mum.

Expect the monthly newsletters will have arrived by the time this arrives, maybe even my 2nd air letter.

Before I forget, my beard is beginning to look quite respectable already and my long hair — Well !

So that’s your lot this time.

Love to All

Alec x

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