I’m going back to the desert. The cold desert.
This was the tweet that started it all, one evening back in November 2013:
I recognised Peter Gibbs from the telly – he is one of the BBC’s weather presenters – but we’d only tweeted 2 or 3 times, in the few days just before. Social media creates its own intimacy, of course, but that was still a startling message to receive. A stranger was telling me, in seven words, that something extraordinary had happened in his life, connected to a place I was about to visit. It’s a cool, journalistic word to use, but I was intrigued.
On 14th November, less than ten days before, I’d had a call from Ianthe Butt, an editor at the British Airways magazine High Life. I was already contracted by High Life for a story in Qatar, and was making my preparations – but that’s a phone call I’ll never forget. Ianthe told me they wanted to postpone Qatar and were instead offering me the chance to go, at a month’s notice, to Antarctica. They wanted me to write about it for them. I – literally – couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I didn’t get those kinds of phone calls. Those assignments went to other writers. I had to make my own luck.
But it was genuine. I said yes.
Then I started doing some research and sending excitable tweets – and Peter tweeted back. We spoke on the phone – for more than an hour, I remember. Stories poured out of him about his experience in Antarctica more than 30 years before, working as a graduate meteorologist at the remote British base Halley over two consecutive winters, his return to the UK in 1982 at the outbreak of war in the nearby Falklands, the drama of the scenery at Halley, the light, the silence, the sense of isolation, the monotony, the extraordinary science of ozone and solar storms and clean air and extreme cold, the mind-expanding wonder of living amid such natural power… It was mesmerising. The phone call, I mean. I hadn’t actually set foot in Antarctica yet.
But then I did. This was the result – a piece that, despite being asked to tweak in places to give the sponsor a little more prominence, I will always be proud of. Oh, and this for the BBC, which I loved.
My body got back from that trip on Christmas Eve 2013. I’m not sure my mind ever has, completely. Within days, with the stink of the penguin rookeries still in my nose, Peter and I spoke again, and I started to plan my return. We put together a documentary proposal to go back to the Antarctic, to have Peter tell his story for BBC radio, to explore the science then and now, and to try and evoke the location atmosphere in sound. As they say, the pictures are always better on radio, anyway.
Radio 4 shortlisted the idea, and then commissioned it that summer. Our discussions with BAS, the British Antarctic Survey – without whom it is impossible to reach Halley – were just turning to logistics, when this happened. Disaster, but fortunately without fatalities. All media visits for the forthcoming season were cancelled.
It’s hard to overstate how remote Halley is. You can’t get there independently. It’s not like some farflung oasis in the Gobi, or isolated village in the Andes, or islet in the Pacific, where you can fly to a city and, if you have enough time and local knowledge and energy and resourcefulness, you can find a way to get in, even if it involves days or weeks of trekking or paddling. Continental Antarctica is different. You might as well try to paddle to the International Space Station.
To get there, you need a national government to take you – and if BAS was going to spend British taxpayers’ money to take us to Halley, they had to guarantee maximum possible coverage in return. We started talking to TV.
The problem was always access. For nine months of the year, when it’s dark and cold, for all intents and purposes you can’t reach Halley at all. And those who are there can’t get out. All the science – and the crucial work of servicing the base, supplying food and fuel and equipment, and taking away rubbish for disposal and recycling – happens during the three summer months, from roughly mid-December to mid-March.
During that time, there are two ways in. A BAS ship makes two calls at Halley, one at Christmas, when those who have been wintering see their first major influx of visitors in months, and another in late February, when the summer scientists finish their work and depart, leaving the winterers for the forthcoming year alone. We could theoretically arrive on one ship call and depart on the other – but that involves a trip of around 8-10 weeks, possibly more. Doable by me – but not by broadcast meteorologists employed to do a job of work, or by TV editors responsible for hiring polar camera operators on a daily rate knocking around £1000.
It is also possible to land a Twin Otter on Halley’s little snow runway, but the only really viable route in – from the British base at Rothera – involves a ten-hour flight across the ice-bound Weddell Sea. It is, to put it mildly, not a routine hop. And the few seats on the few journeys Twin Otters can make each season are intended for those who are doing the work for which BAS exists – Antarctic science. Not documentary-making.
We wondered if we could charter our own aircraft, perhaps from Chile – Punta Arenas is a major Antarctic supply hub – or possibly from South Africa. I talked to some people. Oh yes, they said, and they emailed me some quotes. I’ll spare you the numbers. There were a lot of zeroes. TV shook its head.
It was curtains. Everyone – TV, radio, BAS – loved the pitches Peter and I had developed, but we simply couldn’t get to Halley to tell the stories. Commercial sponsorship was out, obviously – this is the BBC. BAS, who get a lot of media bids each year, began to turn their attention to other proposals. Their media deadline was approaching. Time was basically up. More than a year of hard, concentrated work to tell a story worth telling had come to nothing.
Then we got an email.
For their own reasons, to do with supply of engineering equipment, BAS had decided to add another ship call to Halley in January 2016. We could join it. Timing would be very tight, they said – we’d need to fly into Cape Town and out of the Falklands, and we would have only a week on base in between – but it could work. Did we want to pick up the threads again with TV?
It was an odd moment. After the ups and downs, and all the draining emotional energy expended on more than 12 months of thinking, writing, planning, negotiating and – worst of all – hoping, both Peter and I had given up. For self-preservation, we’d already told ourselves, and each other, that we weren’t going to get there. We were numb. Exhausted. Life had to move on.
But suddenly, everything was possible again. We hauled ourselves back. There was a flurry of phone calls and meetings. Within days, a renewed TV proposal was in with BAS. Shortly after, the news came through: we’d done it. BAS had chosen to support our proposal. After 35 years, Peter is going back to the place that sparked his imagination and shaped his career. After a comparatively insignificant 2 years, I’m going back to that wonderful, wonderful blue again.
The map is at the top – or click here for a large version. We’re flying to Cape Town just after the New Year, to join the ship. Then it’s ten days on the world’s roughest seas, crossing the Southern Ocean into Antarctic waters, to anchor off the white cliffs of the Brunt Ice Shelf. A week at Halley. Then eight days at sea back north to Stanley in the Falklands, to pick up the twice-weekly RAF flight, refuelling at Ascension Island on the inbound routing to RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. Five weeks away.
It still hasn’t remotely sunk in. After that one little tweet 18 months ago, I’m going to make some radio with Peter. There’s a TV crew coming along too; we’ll no doubt be working closely together, though that’s still to be decided. Bandwidth permitting, I’ll be blogging, tweeting, facebooking, instagramming, periscoping, youtubing and more. I can’t believe it. What an extraordinary privilege. I hope I do the place – not to mention the trust (and money) invested in me – justice.
I hope I can explain.
There’s less than 200 days to go.