Waiting for the Russian ship to leave Hobart and head south took a few more days that planned but repairs had to be done and the extra time in Australia gave me a chance to consider how crazy I was to leave my wife and family for most of the year with no possibility to return until next summer. I happily said goodbye to certain elements of big city life like the 'Passionfruit flavoured decaf regular skinny latte' Which means expensive crap coffee and milk spiced and some synthetic flavour of the month. This ingredient of the modern world I truly find silly and will not miss.
Hobart still seemed to me a cute, small city but growing steadily in size and diversity under the impressive Mt Wellington. In early January it was fresh, funky and busy with its summer tourists as well as a small but stimulating arts festival. Down by the Salamanca dock area I strolled around the popular market and the festival drinking a little beer with Hobart friends as I waited and churned over a pile of confusing sad excitement in my head.
Once on the ship there was no turning back. The massive Amderma cargo-moving icebreaking beast was 177 meters long, flying a Russian flag but actually made in Finland in the early 80s. My cabin on that slow lumbering ship was cosy and all my own, the toilet seat was even padded to protect my delicate bum and I got herrings for breakfast every Monday morning. It was 'all good' and luckily no one whistled onboard which would have caused wind to pick up and a storm to appear. This old sailors belief was adhered to it seems as the crossing was like cruising over a pond which is usually not the story on the Southern Ocean. The various working ship smells of fuel, potatoes, fresh bread and old socks perfumed the decks along with brisk air aplenty. Days got bigger as nights almost evaporated and the thermometer dropped. Polar birds flew by, penguins appeared, whales in the far distance were spotted as well as seals luxuriating on the floe ice and a massive iceberg 45 kilometres long. Routinely the ships routine became the ships routine as I sailed through a few books, wrote, sketched ideas, watched icebergs and thought of Argentina each day.
As soon as we arrived at Casey station thirteen intensive days of resupply began. 730,000 litres of fuel were pumped through a 1.8 km long fuel line plus tons of food and gear all moved by barges and cranes. Not easy work anywhere.
At Davis station I had a fine dinner with Senor Clobbs an Antarctic scientist friend who has spent many a summer down South and I also managed to visit the sculpture garden that I set up in there in 2003. The works had weathered as was to be expected and the local penguins seemed to enjoy the art so all was in order. I pleasingly discovered additions to the garden in the form of over a dozen simple rock arrangements constructed nearby. Vertical piles of rocks had been gathered and set along a small path leading to an old weather data box. Minimal earth art in style or maybe just funky cairns? Not that it mattered, as they were subtle and looked totally happy there.
A few days latter we anchored off Mawson station near Horseshoe Harbour on February the 18th. Thirty-one days after leaving Hobart. That was my 17th crossing of the Southern Ocean and as I said bye and thanked the Capitan of the Amderma and all onboard I felt like the end of a very long commute to work had ended and now it was time to settle into a little studio on the outskirts of an enormous white continent with a total winter population of less than 700 people scattered across 40 isolated Antarctic stations.
The Ship sailed north after a few days of busy resupply and left myself and the other 15 Mawson winterers waving goodbye with flares as we all considered our self-imposed exile. There is no way out or in for anyone for the next nine months. This is a teeny village enshrouded by extreme weather that will forbid outside activity for some months due to cyclonic katabolic winds, whiteouts, blizzards and very un-tropical temperatures. A sort of yearlong Big Brother Television situation now begins without the hidden cameras, excitable wannabes and pathetic antics. It will be much more real than reality TV I am afraid.
I have placed myself in a strange situation, as for me to stay in one place for many months is something I have not done for over 2 decades. Many people find security, safety and comfort in a single location called home. A concept that I lost for a long time but recently I attempt to gingerly adopt Argentina as a home. I call La Consulta my base at this stage so home seems like the next obvious step. Until I return to South America I shall train myself to stay put with the help of this isolated studio located 67° South. Ridiculous behaviour without a doubt! I should get a proper life or a proper brain or both in fact.
My art supplies have been located and a science building charmingly called 'Wombat' I have seized as my studio. I now adapt this space by filling it with art gear. The massive support from Art Spectrum who supplied the painting equipment for this residency must be thanked enormously. 1000 Thanks!
I will paint, sew, draw, write, photograph, film and doddle my way through a mixture of experiences over the coming months, some dark and some light so off to work I go as the first Australian Antarctic Arts Fellow to winter-over. (www.aad.gov.au)
Antarctic station life is a little like living in an airport, which may explain why I like the environment. Polar stations are always ready for emergencies, safety is routine, governmental in manner and logistics, watching the weather is primary as are communications, strict quarantine rules are obeyed, there is even a tiny cargo container set apart for the evil smokers just like those little rooms found in many airports. Unlike airports there are no border facilities to be seen, no customs, no duty free shops, no multinational junk-food stalls selling local penguin pie and seal sushi and the human traffic is miniscule even compared to a tiny airport.
This icy lifestyle is more like being at sea but the water outside my cabin is firm and white. We hover over solid sea or dark ancient Gondwanaland boulders. The station is a gaudy flotilla of boxy crafts lashed together by metal utility pipes and blizzard lines all floating on the white snow and wind-blasted rock. The huge wind turbines are like masts that generate energy for us to stay afloat on this inhospitable topography. Its not the type of sea that you can wallow, dive, and splash about in with a fruity cocktail in one hand. It is hard and unforgiving. We move only as the earth moves on the good ship Mawson but sometimes as I drift to sleep the raucous blizzard tricks me into thinking that I am on my way someplace.