Life on Commonwealth Bay

December 15, 2009

It’s Dec 14, a special day for those of us lucky enough to be in Antarctica. On this day, 98 years ago, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first person to reach the South Pole. He was wearing skis and heavy fur clothing and hauling his gear behind a team of dogs (many of which became dinner throughout the journey).

Almost a century later, as I look around our little camp at Cape Denison on the edge of the Antarctic ice shelf, overlooking the penguins of Commonwealth Bay, I can see how much has changed: high-tech waterproof fabrics and Velcro have taken over from fur, Skidoos have replaced the huskies and hand-held GPS can pinpoint our position to the centimetre.

Living in tents
One thing, however, has not changed: sturdy canvas tents still serve as ideal accommodation on the ice, even in the windiest place on Earth, right here at Commonwealth Bay.

My tent is pitched right on the edge of the bay, where our team is working to conserve a historic wooden hut that was built a few months after Amundsen won the race to the pole. It was home to another Antarctic explorer, Australian scientist Douglas Mawson, who was more interested in the “other” South Pole, the magnetic South Pole which, unlike the geographic one, can move about.

Our sleeping arrangements are shared between the bunk house and tents. Six people have chosen to sleep indoors and four of us have chosen to live in single polar tents, allowing us the luxury of space and spectacular views.

In deciding to sleep outside, we had to take into consideration the ice melt which will occur during our stay and could saturate our temporary homes and the harsh katabatic wind that blows through Cape Denison.

Photo by Marty Passingham

Our neighbours, the Adelie penguins, come by frequently to stop and stare – it’s a fantastic sight. In the early hours of the morning you can see the penguins sleeping on the ice, scattered just metres from our tents, and icebergs drifting across the bay in the distance.

Living in a tent in Cape Denison is an incredible experience and most likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So no matter how cold it is outside it’s a real pleasure to step out of my tent and take a moment to appreciate my surroundings. Although the wind is noisy throughout the night, the experience of living outdoors in Antarctica compensates for any temporary discomfort.

It’s always light in the tent at this time of year, when the sun never really sets, but my eye-shades are not necessary. It’s too cold to keep your head outside the sleeping bag. The only place to get a reasonable night’s sleep is to be burrowed deep within my sleeping bag with only enough air to breath.

We are now in our fifth day at Commonwealth Bay, at 67 degrees of latitude where the average temperature swings between minus 13 and 5 degrees Celsius and the average wind blows 50 knots (120 kph).

Our days are busy, packed with heavy physical work, great food and lots of laughs.

Dr Peter Morse, official photographer for the Mawson’s Hut expedition, has entertained us many times with his evening presentations. On one occasion he spent about a half-an-hour giving us a lecture with detailed diagrams on Antarctic toilet etiquette which was extremely amusing.

We had a magical moment tonight just after dinner when one of the carpenters, Mark Farrell, shouted ‘Orcas’ and sent nine of us scrambling out of our main camp dwelling, the Sorensen hut, toward the ice-edge where we saw about 20 Orcas on a hunting party pass right under our eyes.

It was interesting to see the penguins scramble up onto the ice, as though they knew their lives depended on it. Within minutes of the whales passing, the penguins playfully tumbled back into the water. It was an awesome experience for all of us.

Stay tuned for how we live and what we eat in my next blog.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Hi Pauline

I’m genuinely curious about the bit on toilet etiquette. How does that work over there?

Posted by cindys | Report as abusive

WOW Pauline – its sounds like an amazing adventure!! Cant wait to hear more!!

Posted by Leizza | Report as abusive

Pauline can’t wait to see the photos and hear more. It sounds like a cracker of a time.

Posted by eddiea | Report as abusive

Great post. Wonderful pictures. Stay warm when you can.

Posted by natinbrazil | Report as abusive

cool…wish i was there enjoying the summer with all of you!

Posted by jborrow | Report as abusive


Posted by RockCandy | Report as abusive

Amazing..Pauline, what a place.

Posted by Tirtho | Report as abusive

It is an amazing life experience you have Pauline.

Posted by Tyta | Report as abusive

Hi Pauline,
There we were under the stars and under the wonderful Sydney Bridge enjoying the delights of Ripples for Tony’s birthday and thinking of you as you explore a world far removed from ours. Your great descriptive pieces have us enthralled and it sounds like you are making the most of this experience. Love and good wishes from us all in the Eastern suburbs!

Posted by Phyl | Report as abusive

[…] Base at Commonwealth Bay was ready by February 1912. Mawson went exploring in the Far East of Antarctica but both his fellow […]

Posted by 100 Years On: Douglas Mawson and Australian identity forged in the Antarctic « Woolly Days | Report as abusive