Sixty years ago, Edmund Hillary led a team of 23 men to build what would become Scott Base to support both the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition – in which Hillary reached the South Pole on a Massey Ferguson tractor – and International Geophysical Year scientific projects.
On my first visit to Antarctica, I spent 12 nights at Scott Base, making daily excursions to historic huts and field camps around Ross Island and in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. Antarctica is the coldest, driest, windiest and most remote continent on Earth. But it’s not just the physical environment that makes this place remarkable. In my experience, Scott Base – perhaps through a combination of necessity, common goals and some psychological vetting of staff – is a wonderful microcosm of sanity, hard work and collegiality.
The base sits on a gentle scree- and snow-covered slope at Pram Point, near the southern extreme of Ross Island’s Hut Point Peninsula, some 40km from the peak of Mt Erebus. Across the peninsula, a brisk 30-minute walk in good conditions, is the much larger American base McMurdo Station. In his book Innocents in the Dry Valleys, then Victoria University physicist Colin Bull described his first look at Scott Base in 1958 as “a compact group of yellow-painted flat-roofed buildings, some of them modified from ‘reefers’ [refrigerated containers] from a meat-packing plant, spread out on the scree slope”.
Peter Barrett, a Victoria University emeritus professor of geology, who has been to Antarctica more than 20 times, first visited in 1963. In the old base, the corrugated-iron tunnels connecting the buildings were at outside temperature, so “you always knew you were in Antarctica”, he recalls. “With the new base, it was really like a motel – once you got in, you could take off your outdoors gear and dress as if you were in Wellington.”
Today, the base is still the distinctive green – Resene Chelsea Cucumber – chosen in 1965, but much else has changed: the diesel generators have been replaced by a trio of wind turbines at the top of Crater Hill behind Scott Base; you can phone or email home any time you want; and there’s an excellent coffee machine in the dining room.
It’s a busy, often noisy place – as well as the occasional seal bark from down on the sea ice, there are scientific parties loading up gear, McMurdo’s monster trucks driving past, helicopters and skidoos hauling people and provisions to field camps, and planes landing or taking off at the nearby ice runway.
But one key thing hasn’t changed: as Bull pointed out 60 years ago, the views are “superb”. My favourite spot at Scott Base is the lounge, where the giant picture windows look south. In the foreground, Weddell seals and their pups bask in the sun, next to cracks in the sea ice among the pressure ridges. Across the ice – a faint ridge marks the point where the permanent Ross Ice Shelf meets the annual sea ice – is White Island, Black Island and Minna Bluff. Far beyond that, the South Pole.
To celebrate its 60th anniversary, Scott Base is hosting an Antarctic first: a TEDx event. This week, 10 speakers will give TEDx talks in the recently expanded Hillary Field Centre. The scientist speakers include marine geologist Professor Gary Wilson, who studies Antarctic past climates, and geophysicist Professor Christina Hulbe, who leads a research project on the Ross Ice Shelf, so climate change and sea-level rise from the melting of the Antarctic ice sheets are likely to be key topics.
On January 20, in keeping with the base’s 1957 origins, Scott Base will host a special morning tea, “loaded full of 1957-themed foods”, says Antarctica New Zealand’s general manager, communications, Jeanine Foster. Expect “sausage rolls, savouries, lamingtons and other hearty food to keep the guys and girls charging on”. There’s no chance of getting the sausage rolls wrong, says Foster – they’ve never gone off the menu. “They’re a true Scott Base staple.”
TEDxScottBase will be broadcast on Antarctica New Zealand’s website on January 22. www.antarcticanz.govt.nz
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