The Poo run

December 17, 2009

As I trudge toward the edge of the Antarctic ice shelf, the thought of tumbling over and down into the icy waters below is bad enough.

Orcas patrol the coast, looking to devour seals and penguins and — presumably — clumsy humans stupid enough to fall into their path.

Expeditioners Mark Farrell (R) and Marty Passingham ferry their fragile cargo of kitchen slops and human waste to the edge of Commonwealth Bay. One man uses a rope to belay the other man, to stop him from falling in the bay.

But there is an even more horrifying prospect: to stumble over the edge while trying to empty gallons of human waste into the Southern Ocean.

As I stand there, wrestling a large bucket of excrement to the edge of the precipice, ready to empty it into the bay, I imagine the embarrassment of meeting my maker carrying a bucket of ‘poo’.

Expeditioners Marty Passingham(R) and Mark Farrell at the water's edge

The ‘poo run’ is part of the daily routine at Cape Denison, where I am taking part in an expedition to restore and conserve a near-century-old hut built by Australian explorer Douglas Mawson, whose 1911 voyage to the Antarctic was partly funded by Reuters.

This normally involves removing the kitchen-slop bins and toilet bins, tying them to a sled and dragging them to the ice-edge to empty them into Commonwealth Bay, a practice sanctioned under Antarctic rules because of the small amount of waste and the impracticality of removing it from such a remote site.

Mark Farrell prepares to lift a bucket of waste.

Due to the strong winds today, one of the team kindly offered to drive my cargo down on the back of a quad bike. When we reached our destination, he tied a rope around my waist and gave me instructions on how to safely empty the contents of 10 people’s daily ablutions into the water.

Thankfully, I completed my maiden garbage run without incident and people are still sitting close by, so I cannot smell too bad.

Hygiene is, as you might expect, an important topic in a place as remote as Cape Denison, officially the windiest place on Earth on the coldest continent on Earth.

Yesterday, Dr Peter Morse, official photographer for the Mawson’s Huts expedition, spent a half-hour telling us about ‘the poo pusher’ he had designed for that most important of daily rituals.

It’s a rough piece of timber with a circular piece of wood at one end which does exactly as the name suggests. This equipment can be found right next to the ‘poo bucket’, a unisex device that also does no more and no less than its name suggests.

Just in case of any misunderstanding, there is a message spelt out clearly on the bucket’s wooden seat: “Don’t piss in the poo bucket”.

Peter, a university lecturer with an obvious flair for the dramatic, also revealed the obscure secrets of using the camp shower. Unfortunately, someone later severed the shower’s electrical cord by mistake so some of us remain the great unwashed.

Due to the physical demands of camp life, it’s necessary to eat well so three hearty meals are available every day. There are some excellent chefs among this year’s Mawson’s Huts Expedition so the food has been excellent. Breakfast consists of porridge, muesli or freshly baked bread, toasted. Dinners have consisted of fish pie, home-made pizzas, spaghetti bolognaise, lamb or fish sumac.

This is a big contrast to the food that Mawson and his men survived on. Their usual fare consisted of whale blubber, penguin meat and seals. They often waited on a seal to emerge from a hunt, then slit open its stomach to retrieve the contents, usually squid. They would eat the squid first and save the seal meat for later.

For me, it’s time for a beef curry and fruit lassie.

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