FOOC – Halley, Antarctica

My story for BBC radio’s FOOC (From Our Own Correspondent) on my journey to Halley, the most remote of Britain’s research stations in Antarctica.

Commissioned, accepted and recorded, but never broadcast. Script below.


I might be the luckiest man you’ll meet today.

Two and a half years ago I had the extraordinary good fortune to be sent on assignment to Antarctica. I remember bobbing in an inflatable boat in the blue waters of a cove in the Antarctic Peninsula as sunlight poured from crystal skies, flanked on one side by a mammoth tabular iceberg and on the other by a creamy smooth sweep of glacier, thinking: “I have to find a way to get back here”.

Almost unbelievably, I managed it.

Halley is the most remote of the UK’s Antarctic science outposts. Run by the British Antarctic Survey – and funded by the taxpayer – it stands on the Brunt Ice Shelf, a floating slab of ice several hundred metres thick in parts which flows off the continent.

It doesn’t matter where you start in the world, or what means of transport you have at your disposal – Halley is a long way away.

Flying in, on a series of short-hops by increasingly small aircraft, would have taken days – and more money than anyone was willing to throw at me.

So, starting from Cape Town, I spent two weeks on board the evocatively named Royal Research Ship “Ernest Shackleton”.

You’ll find not a single drop of brine in my blood, but I still seem to be immune to seasickness. As colleagues turned greener, I manfully wolfed down the full English breakfasts and increasingly creative cuisine dreamt up by Ray and Rab, our chefs, juggling fewer and fewer fresh ingredients as the days rolled past.

But they were also holding precious cargo back. Halley can only be resupplied during the short Antarctic summer, between December and February. It had been a month since the last ship call. So I don’t think it’s uncharitable to think that at least some of the jubilation from those at Halley when we finally arrived was because we were bringing boxes and boxes of fresh fruit and veg with us.

It was a whirl of Big Science, that week. Listening to ‘whistlers’, the eerie noise made by electromagnetic waves in the atmosphere as they travel along the Earth’s magnetic field lines. Playing with a Soyuz flight simulator, installed by the European Space Agency to test humans’ ability to retain knowledge in conditions of extreme isolation, as preparation for possible manned missions to Mars.

And togging up in a fetchingly quilted orange boiler suit and polar boots for the half-hour trek out to the Clean Air lab, where atmospheric chemist Neil Brough explained his work sampling the purest air in the world, as it sweeps in constantly from the faraway pole.

Life on the ice is more comfortable than in Scott and Shackleton’s day. There’s no chewing seal blubber, no “I’m just going outside and may be some time”. Halley was warm and spacious. Each bedroom has two bunks, but mattresses are soft and there are proper bathrooms. The dining area sports sofas and a pool table. Workspaces are as well-equipped as in a university science block.

And everywhere has big windows looking out onto the Great White Silence, as filmmaker Herbert Ponting dubbed Antarctica.

But you can go to the ends of the Earth, and not escape health & safety. Two colleagues and I asked if we might camp for a night, just for fun. It was minus fifteen – but that’s meat and drink for Halley’s tougher-than-tough field guides. We togged up and set out, with dreams of solitude, out on the base perimeter, perhaps, looking over the pristine emptiness of the ice shelf.

But the guides had had their orders. Our tent had been pitched within a snowball’s throw of the base. You could have walked out, crunched across fifty yards of snow, gone into the bar and be sat with a beer inside three minutes. But they gave us a walkie-talkie anyway, just in case.

It was like camping in the back garden.

Though, admittedly, my back garden doesn’t give a close-up view of a humming, glowing Antarctic research station, or a 180-degree horizon across an endless plain of ice.

And now, right now, the 13 “winterers”, as they’re called, are there at Halley by themselves, facing the Antarctic winter. Their next visitors will be in November. In the months ahead temperatures will drop to -50C. They can expect 105 days of complete darkness, when the sun doesn’t rise.

Think of them, won’t you?

Once to Antarctica was luck. Twice to Antarctica is privilege. On the ‘three strikes and you’re out’ principle, I think I should really call it a day and hang up my Antarctic boots.

But you never know. As a writer friend put it: “Once the ice gets you, you’re got.”