Penguin chatter heralds Antarctica’s ‘White Christmas’

December 26, 2009

Penguins’ chatter outside my tent woke me to Christmas Day in Antarctica, but instead of Santa’s sleigh there was just the usual run to ensure our human waste doesn’t permanently become part of this frozen wilderness.

TonySWith 24 hours of daylight it was, needless to say, very different from the traditional Christmas most of the ten members of the Mawson’s Huts Foundation living in East Antarctica are familiar with.

It was probably not the ‘White Christmas’. I would have imagined as a child growing up in Ireland and very different to the hot Australian festive season I have become used to, marked  by barbecues and often bushfires.

However, it was a fairly typical day for Antarctica, and for this icy plateau.

Here we are about 3,000 kilometres from the nearest part of the Australian mainland, working with a team who are trying to preserve the relics of the legendary 1911-1914 expedition of Antarctic pioneer Sir Douglas Mawson.

Mawson was lucky to survive that expedition, and basic though our living conditions may seem, they are a far cry from what he and his men endured.

On Christmas Eve we had smoked oysters on crackers washed down with a choice of red or white wine followed by lasagne. Some of us went out to the veranda and danced our way through 80s music to keep warm while watching penguins march in every direction under us and snow petrels glide in the sky above us.

Fortunately, the animal life didn’t seem too bothered by our dance moves.

On Christmas Day I woke early to the sound of penguins chattering right outside my tent. It was – 6 degrees Celsius outside but I could snuggle back into my polar sleeping bag and slept soundly for a few more hours.

Eventually everyone at our base, the Sorensen Hut, slowly emerged from their sleeping quarters and greeted one another while making some breakfast and hugging the kettle for light showers. A kettle of water is enough for a wash here.

I ate freshly baked Stollen — fruit bread — toasted with tea while listening to symphonic music in the background. One of the team sat next to me hand sewing a kite used for aerial photography. It tore the day before on its maiden flight.

Others checked emails, or prepared Christmas lunch in the kitchen, or went out for a morning walk. One member of the team, Peter Morse, admitted he preferred Christmas this way.

Xmas card“Normally I hate Christmas. It’s a huge relief when it’s over, but this year spending it on ice with penguins and friends will make it a joyous occasion,” he said.

Lunch was vegetable spring rolls followed by roast lamb and a selection of roast carrots, yams, onions and pumpkin with a specially saved selection of wines from New Zealand’s winegrowing region of Marlborough.

After lunch we each selected gifts from under our 40 centimetre plastic Christmas tree.

Christmas Day was rounded off by a Quad bike run to secure a trailer of human waste.

We did it in traditional style, jingling all the way to the sound of Christmas carols. One of our number, Mark Farrell, a heritage carpenter from Tasmania and veteran of the ‘poo run’, drove the bike after we hitched up the trailer.

Two of us wandered behind to make sure the cargo was well secured, both for the welfare of Antarctica and to ensure we did not get a drenching. It is all a regular event in Antarctica, where in order to preserve the world’s last great frontier, everything brought in must eventually leave, and that means everything.

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