Spanish Antarctic base Gabriel de Castilla

28th January 2019

It is amazing how quickly a mystery place becomes home.

Only six days ago I arrived here from the Spanish polar research vessel Hesperides, having climbed down the terrifying rope ladder wearing a dry suit made for a giant which made me feel claustrophobic and unable to move my limbs or head.

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Entering Port Foster through Neptune’s Bellows

Reading my diary from that night I remember that my first impressions of the Antarctic Base Gabriel de Castilla were not entirely favourable.

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First glimpse of the base from the ship

Dr Harpenslager – Sarah, and Dr Jackson – Michelle, and I had been waiting all day to come to land and were tired and anxious, when at last we set foot onto the black sooty gritty shore of Deception Island all was in chaos. People were arriving and people were leaving, there were green fork lift trucks zooming around in clouds of dust, prongs aloft dangling great plastic sacks containing people’s luggage, scientific supplies in crates, and somewhere our bags, kit, beer and wine rations and perhaps most importantly, somewhere our boots.

Boots located at last, we clambered into a zodiac on the beach to wrestle ourselves out of our ships issue dry suits and into our coats and shoes.

I nearly cried at this stage, it had been a very long day and sometimes the unknown can just be too much. I felt exactly the same as when I first went to boarding school but I know a sobbing eight year old is more acceptable than a blubbing grown up field work assistant half out of a dry suit.

Two large portacabins make up the main living house of the base, it was boiling hot and filled with what seemed like a hundred jolly people all milling around and drinking beer, eating jamon and speaking Spanish. We discovered our tiny bunk room which hadn’t been cleaned, broken wardrobes and coverless duvets. Us three women were to share the room with Mohammed who had also come from Ushuaia on Hesperides, there didn’t seem to be any concern about this at all and when we mentioned that we would rather be in an all female dorm the answer was No.

Everyone is crammed together, windblown cheek by sunburned jowl.

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Our room

I was fairly horrified to discover the four showers and four loos, all in one room with four basins for 32 people. No proper doors anywhere, and no locks, and no opening windows – they are all blocked up against the midnight sun.

Now, five days later, as I type these words I am shocked to discover that I am describing these horrors with some sort of fondness.

At first it seemed crazy that this whole set up is run by the army and that you have to do everything on schedule – quite an infuriating Spanish schedule which includes many hours spent eating and drinking – but actually if you just give in to the rules and forgo any sense of personal space or autonomy; well it’s really quite nice.

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Michelle raising the flag with Mayor Juan Jose

Who needs proper walls or a choice of time to eat or sleep?

And they have very good wine here, we didn’t need our supplies at all.

Now I have my own personal Viking life saving dry suit – number 26 – and my own personal shelf for my slippers, carefully named by Manuel with his label machine; I am a proud part of the system.

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BvP Michelle and Sarah wearing our own Viking dry suits

Every day when we go out on a hike into this incredible and freezing landscape to collect sampIes from geothermal sites I know I am lucky to be here, I’m living on the edge of a volcano just off the Antarctic peninsula. Everywhere I look is another view to fill me with wonder.

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My favourite landscape view so far – I thought Ravillious would like it.

The hills are a dun colour like a dark Weimaraner with dustings of black, brick red and mustard coloured stone on top, flashes of vivid green where the moss grows on the hot bits, sapphire blue lakes and clouds of sulphur smelling steam spurting up here and there.

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The ground is a sort of grit which keeps making me think of Monty Don stirring a lovely free draining potting mixture on his zinc table. Every hill you go up you can look down to one side and see the sea with maybe a whale, or a penguin colony and on the other side is the centre of the volcano filled with water, a round harbour protected from the worst of the weather outside.

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Lake Irizar

Every day when we turn around after a hard morning in the field and set off back to the base and I see this motley collection of brightly painted portacabins, shipping containers and fiberglass igloos I feel that we are going home.

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The base from Stonethrow Ridge

I never knew I was so adaptable.

Further along these lines of self discovery… I was under the impression that I was a fairly organised, prompt, precise sort of person but it turns out that compared to a group of research scientists and acting army personel I am in fact a chaotic, slapdash illogical whirlwind of inefficiency.

That crowd of a hundred people we encountered on the first night has shrunk to the reality of 32 named individuals, all incredibly interesting people doing interesting things. 12 Army and 24 scientists all run on a strict Spanish army schedule:

At 8am you are awoken by music chosen by those on cleaning duty that day then breakfast, work, tapas, three course lunch with red wine, siesta, bit more work, drink time, two course dinner, table football tournament and lights out at 12.

I am so much fatter than I was six days ago.

The food is amazing and the two chefs make delicious fresh bread every day. Today I am on cleaning duty and I helped Ines to make the bread.

It’s all a bit surprising really.

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BvP making some dodgy loaves for lunch.

5 thoughts on “Spanish Antarctic base Gabriel de Castilla”

  1. This is the best email to get on this rather cold and dreary Tuesday. Josh at home feeling ill (although I think he probably should be at school)

    You are SO good at writing and I can picture it all so clearly.

    I am so pleased you are having a good time – of course i knew you would! and a bit of self discovery too!!! B, what will you be like when you return!?

    Miss you heaps. Love you Clem xxxx

    ________________________________

    Like

  2. ‘I am in fact a chaotic, slapdash illogical whirlwind of inefficiency’…… my absolute favourite line! ! love you you chaotic whirlwind! xxxxx

    Like

  3. Wonderful episode- I am in awe of your adaptability!
    One question…is there beautiful, warm, volcanic water to swim in?
    Hope you are managing to get some drawing done in between meals…
    Looking forward to next post

    Like

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