“The situation of Base ‘W’ on Detaille Islend lying at the mouth of Lallemand Fjord, is one to evoke much admiration from those who relish the magnificent scenery of high mountain, glaciated valley, snow field, ice cliff and sea. Our arrival here was on such a day to show this wonderful panorama to best effect; the sea like glass, the visibility excellent, the sun warm and pleasant. In glorious weather, the bergs crackling in thaw, the whole scenery of the Loubet Coast presenting a formidable landscape and promising much for the eight future members of Base W.” These words, taken from T.L. Murphy’s general report for the season 1956–1957, probably best describe our arrival at Detaille Island and our astonishment at our new surroundings. Our appreciation of the stunning scenery was no less than that experienced by the men who first lived here in 1956.
After a gentle introduction to getting here, it is time for us to get cracking on with some work. On first arrival, we really enjoyed showing the island and hut to the National Geographic passengers we had travelled south with. They were all happy to see us in our new home for the next month and excited for the weeks that lay ahead, if not a little worried about the prospect of leaving us behind!
This season we have received special permission from the British Antarctic Territory Government to re-open the post office at Detaille Island so we were delighted to offer the passengers the chance to post a letter from Detaille and to hand cancel their mail – this is the first time that post has been sent from here since the base was last operational in 1959. And now Detaille Island which lies just south of the circle is the most southerly public post office!
Once we had waved farewell to the National Geographic Explorer we immediately set to work assessing the condition of the buildings. We were last here two years ago and the harsh weather conditions had left their mark on the buildings with a number of newly laid layers of felt having been ripped off by the winds. Damp and some mould had also crept into the building but otherwise we were relieved to find the hut in good condition. The hard work of our last visit had held up quite well. Our priority jobs for the duration of our stay here are to make the buildings and anemometer tower structurally secure and weathertight and to make a catalogue of the key artefacts. All of this whilst still maintaining the authenticity and feel that base ‘W’ exudes and for which it is so appreciated by the privileged few who visit here (see blogs from 1011 season for history of sledging base).
First things first though and our immediate priority was to settle in to living here for the next month. We have chosen the bunkroom as our living quarters and we are using this one room to sleep, cook and eat and it is now a cosy 3 bed studio apartment! Work started with organising the materials we had left behind two years ago and our immediate kit brought with us from Port Lockroy and by the end of the day we had a clean bunkroom, made beds (consisting of thermarest, sheepskin rug and sleeping bags), a working oven and food supplies left from two years ago mostly consisting of pasta, tinned meat and porridge! Cooking has therefore been a rather simple affair!
Early in the week the glorious weather continued so we immediately set about with outside works and quickly made good progress. Our time at Port Lockroy was well spent preparing some additional paint and other materials to keep us going until our main cargo was due to arrive a few days after us. The weather over the next few days was better than we could have imagined! This area is known as the Crystal Sound and it seemed aptly named as in every direction the water and snow-capped mountains were glistening in the sun. With the added (but welcome) distraction of countless seals floating lazily on drifting bergs, nesting skuas on their well camouflaged eggs and kelp gulls with fluffy chicks, we made the best use of this weather. Progress was quick and ‘smoko’ (as a FID would say but tea break to you and me) was enjoyed outside on the rocks with binoculars and cameras at the ready – we even spotted the odd ‘rock’ whale amongst all the real wildlife sightings’.
A quick breakdown of our work progress will give you an idea of what we’ve up to:
Day 1: Re-inforced existing foundations and shutter of the anemometer footings in preparation for concreting. This involved installing rebar into the existing concrete and fitting new drums round the existing corroding ones.
Day 2: Roof felt repairs and started big job of painting roof
Day 3: Painting continues
Day 4: Roof completed in a record 3 days! 130 square meters of roof painted using 8 cans (total of 40 litres) of tar to ensure the roof remains watertight for seasons ahead.
By day 5 we ran into a poor spell of weather and more like the typical ‘W’ weather we had been introduced to two years ago. Overcast, dark days with sleet and wind – lousy! We were expecting the remainder of our cargo on One Ocean’s vessel Vavilov and were excited to hear them over the crackling of the radio and see them anchor off in the distant mist and fog. We welcomed the passengers ashore whilst simultaneously unloading large quantities of cement, aggregate, timber and our new food for the season. Thank you One Ocean for your great support this season!
We worked out that we had moved 47 bags (each 25Kg) or a tonne of aggregate and cement and over 50 lengths of timber from the boat landing to the main hut during the morning ship visit whilst walking over wet and slushy snow – not an easy task! Big thanks is also offered to the many passengers of the Vavilov who helped by carrying our food supplies up to the hut.
After a busy few days working 12 hours outside we very much in need of a rest and spent the afternoon inside catching up with correspondence and other inside jobs, an early dinner and early to bed for all! Overnight the weather looked appalling but we persevered and in the morning sledged as much concrete and aggregate as we needed up to the anemometer tower in anticipation of some good weather. The weather improved in the afternoon so we decided to go for it and it was all hands to the deck whilst the weather was calm and still. Between the three of us we managed to get all four footings of the tower concreted and safely covered in just 2.5 hours just as the weather began to turn again. We are really pleased with our progress so far, having managed to complete some of the big priority jobs within a week. We couldn’t ask for more.
Our life here is simple but comfortable. One would think that it would be incredibly cold (which it is!) but we eat well, dress warmly and heat the one room we sleep in. The real problem is getting wet in the driving snow and rain, all our gear gets drenched and drying this in time for use the next day is always the most challenging task – that and of course having to sleep in the same room as all our steaming socks!
Operating the post office whilst we are living here has been a real thrill and on the 17th January we officially opened the Detaille Island Post Office marking 101 years to the day that R.F.Scott reached the South Pole. The post office is now in the glamorous setting of Base ‘W’ kitchen surrounded by packets of Bird’s Blancmange, cans of Scotch Dollar Oats and bottles of HP sauce from the 1950s!
It’s a privilege for us all to be here and to spend time living in this historic hut and we are grateful for all the fantastic support we have received from the men that worked here in the late 1950s. Over dinner our conversations often revolve around old base life and our curiosity in this day and age of satellite phones and email communication is quickly resolved. We have very much enjoyed reading the emails sent to us by the original ‘W’ boys and thanking them for their clarifications and added bits of information which have really added to our time spent here. We now know that Michael is sleeping in the bunk which has previously been home to David, Denis and Jim! Anna and Tudor are still waiting to find out whose bunks they are sleeping in! We know that the dogs were tethered in several places on the island, sometimes even on the sub island to the west of the hut now home to numerous hauled out Weddell seals, and that three coal stoves were kept burning in the base for the duration of winter. The men travelled to the Adelie colony south of the island known as the Beacon where they did astronomical fixings to determine position of the base and established a recording pressure reading tide gauge – all vital scientific work. Sadly the causeway that once connected Detaille Island to the Beacon has now collapsed and we are unable to walk across to the penguin rookery although we can certainly see, hear and smell them!
Well week 1 has been a productive and rewarding experience so far and sitting here on this Sunday evening with the winds howling outside we can only hope for a few more of those dingle days in the weeks that lie ahead.
With our warmest wishes,
Anna, Michael and Tudor