Just over the hill form McMurdo station lies New Zealand’s Scott Base, on Pram Point, Ross Island. In a lot of ways, Scott Base is the envy of McMurdo, with a interconnected base that doesn’t require going outside to get to work (important once the temps get really low), a much better food selection (in part due to the much smaller numbers being catered for), a shop with things more worth buying, and a bar with the pick of NZ wines and mainstream beers.
Subsequently, the Americans easily overwhelm Scott Base, which gets up to around 80 at its peak, from memory. This is in comparison to the 1100 that McMurdo swells to. Therefore, access to the bar is limited to one night a week (Thursdays) when most of the Kiwis retreat to their rooms apparently as New Zealand’s well decked out bar becomes the envy of the patrons used to more dour windowless sheds.
However, as a New Zealander who had ‘infiltrated’ the US Antarctic Program and was employed ‘over the hill’ in the medical department, as we provided medical services to the staff of Scott Base, it wasn’t too hard to snag an invite to dinner for myself, Scott my colleague going to the Pole with me, and Rob who is a NASA space medicine resident from UTMB – the institution that employs us and provides medical services to the US Antarctic program. Hearing people say ‘AnTarCtica’ with all of its letters, rather than the more common variant of ‘Anartica’ was refreshing. Dinner was a great change from the mass produced McMurdo, including Watties Tomato sauce, well garnished dishes and fresh cream on the cake. In the land of frozen and canned food, it’s the small things that make a big difference.
Scott Base has been established since the Transantarctic expedition of 1957, when Sir Edmund Hillary was enlisted to lay supply caches for Sir Vivian Fuch’s Commenwealth Transantarctic crossing. Hilliary, on the back of the first summit of Mt Everest four years prior, had a hero status, and leveraged this to his full advantage. His convoy of modified Massey Ferguson tractors started laying out fuel and supply caches for the second half of Fuch’s Trip for after he had reached the Pole and were to continue on towards the Ross Sea. However, Hilliary quickly realised that they would be in much closer proximity to the Pole that Fuch’s was by the time they laid the last cache. Therefore, with some audicity, and I’m sure to the frustration of his British backers, he motored on to the Pole and usurped Fuch’s goal of being the third group to the Pole overland (after Amundsen and Scott), and the first by vehicle.
‘Hut A’, one of the initial huts from the Transantarctic Expedition (TAE) still resides at Scott Base, now with Antarctic heritage protection status. Within it, lie several of the artefacts and remnants of the early days of Scott Base, with radios, photos of the Queen, outfits from the expedition, and a milkbox with a very dehydrated bottle of milk.
Scott Base is a pale green colour, for which the best explantion we could get was from Mac, the head of Scott Base. Apparently it was the cheapest paint available when the station was first constructed and it has since become distinctive enough to stick with it. Despite its kacky colour, the uniformity does make it quite pleasant to look at, compared to the hobspoldge of colours at McMurdo.
The interior of the base is decorated with some beautiful scenic shots from around New Zealand, which I’m sure in the depths of winter, when sunlight was last seen months prior, seeing a great shot of an Abel Tasman beach or a West Coast rainforest would be cathartic despite the monochromicity of the Antarctic landscape.
Outside the base, lay a small solemn statue of an unfurling punga frond, in memory of the 257 people killed in the Mt Erebus disaster that occurred close by, on the far slopes of Erebus on 28th November 1979. For many of the generation above me in New Zealand, our worst disaster in terms of lives lost when a DC-10 slammed into the side of the mountain as a result of navigational error, remains clearly etched in the public consciousness. The subsequent cover up of cupability of Air New Zealand, and eventual Royal Commission of Enquiry which discovered the “orchestrated litany of lies” regarding the true causes remains a famous legal standpoint for the seeking of closure for the families of those who were lost.
Scott Base has errected three wind turbines on Crater Hill, on the ridge dividing McMurdo station and Scott Base. Given the relatively consistent winds around coastal Antarctica, the ability to generate electricity year round. With the other option for power generation being the burning of diesel or other fossil fuels, having a sustainable option that does not require shipping thousands of litres of fuel through some of the most treacherous waters in the world, and then unloading it in one of the most pristine environments in the world is very advantageous. The plan was that it should reduce diesel use by around 463,000 L per year. As of yet, Scott Base has not been able to wean itself from fossil fuel dependency, especially given the austere conditions and the importance of heat and power generation for survival. Any power left over is fed in to McMurdo’s grid. At least it is a step in the right direction. It is such a juxtaposition of listening to science lectures on station about all of the ramification being felt in the polar regions due to science change. And then looking around the base and witnessing the dependency on fuels to heat us, keep us alive, and powered. As I heard someone put it, climate change science, 10,000 gallons at a time….