June 21st is a special day across the world least populated continent for the hardy bunches of winter-overs smattered across the icy vastness. It marks the winter solstice, and the mid-point of winter, with the theoretical beginning of the return of the sun. The term the ‘longest night’ doesn’t mean much down here when it has been 24 hour darkness for the past three months. This day is the only of the solar based milestones in the winter season that is consistent across all stations, as the last sunset and first sunrise occur closer and closer to the solstice as you ascend in latitude. Being at the Pole, ours sunrise and sunset are the farthest apart ( around the equinox), whilst the stations that are on the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, or on the bulge of East Antarctica that fall outside the Antarctic circle, by definition never reach 24 hours darkness of night on the solstice
It is a time of festivity with galleys across the continent again pulling out all the stops, for in our case, a feast of gourmet creations and handmade goodies. Our feast consisted of entrees of specifically stashed sharp cheddar and cumin gouda, smoked trout dip, shrimp remoulade and salad rice paper rolls. Mains was a ensemble of hand made gnocchi with white truffle sauce, grilled bison steaks, greenhouse salad (with less meager rations this time around), filo wrapped asparagus and freshly baked buns. A dessert of Peruvian cocoa nib mousse tart left everyone satisfied.
Being a event that transcends all of the bases, regardless of size or creed, a longstanding tradition has been established to send greetings to all of the other stations on continent and those inhabiting the various sub-antarctic islands. Offers to join for dinner and ensuring festivities are sent in jest given the vast distances that span between the bases dotted around the continent. The thought of hundreds of other winter-overs turning up at your base is sort of like the offer for your mother-in-law to come and visit. Its nice to offer, but you hope that it will be taken as a gesture of the Antarctic spirit, rather than having them actually turn up and eat your limited supply of food to last the winter. Given we can only get about a couple of kms before our machines would seize up in the current conditions, getting to the nearest outpost of humanity – the Russians at Vostok – around 1200km away would be a long walk…
The mid-winter greetings are accompanied by photos of the various stations and their residents, some more sane than others. It is interesting to see the costumes that the endless night has spurred for some, whilst eyeing up the facilities others enjoy, or the group dynamics of the remaining male only stations. A few disparaging remarks are made by some about a few of the Sub-Antarctic islands whose temperate latitudes afford them grass, trees and the ability to wear shorts outside. Their place in the Antarctic winter over club is considered by some to be of dubious merit.
Our station photo was taken at the Geographic South Pole marker, with some faint auroras overhead. In itself it was a piece of logistic majestry. Getting the majority of the 48 of us together, dressed suitably and photos taken before everyone got too cold was a feat in itself. Amongst cries of ‘hold your breath’ to allow the moisture vapour from our breaths to dissipate and not have a photo resembling a russian sauna, whilst the cameras snapped away and we braved the cutting wind to try and eek out an exposed face and smile, we finally got a couple worthy to send out, before we could breath again and cover up from the frigid breeze.
One of the longstanding tradition at the Pole, a nod to recognise our gradually crumbling sanity eroded by sunless confinement to the same few locales and people, is to screen Steven King’s ‘The Shining’ after midwinter dinner. The gym was rearranged with the couches from lounges and the projector beamed the thriller whilst we huddled up to watch the classic. Different sweepstakes were tallied about who of us was most like to end up writing deranged memoirs about their ‘all work and no play making them dull boys (or girls)’, but thankfully we are yet to get anyone wandering the hallways with an axe.
Wait, wasn’t there an extra axe in the firefighters equipment locker? Here’s Johnny!