WITNESS: Back in time in Antarctica

Alister Doyle has has been working for Reuters as a reporter for 26 years. Based in Oslo, he has been environment correspondent for three years after postings in Britain, the European Union, Central America, France and Norway. He is visiting Antarctica and in the following story he describes his experience.

Reuters News Environment Correspondent Alister Doyle tries to figure out how to light a paraffin lamp in an orange tent during a night of training in Antarctica, Jan. 12. REUTERS/Stuart McDill Alister

REPTILE RIDGE, Antarctica (Reuters) - Away from the high-tech British Antarctic base, we stepped back in time to use tents, oil lamps and wooden sledges little changed in more than a century of exploration of the icy continent.

British experts still rely on low-tech paraffin stoves, wooden boxes and sheepskin mattresses similar to those used in the days when Norwegian Roald Amundsen beat Briton Robert Falcon Scott to the South Pole in 1911.

“Scott would probably feel at home if he came into this tent -- until he saw me in the corner listening to my iPod,” said Michael Chester, 28, a British field assistant to scientists at the British Rothera Base on the Antarctic Peninsula.

On Reptile Ridge, where jagged rocks look like the back of a lizard, we visitors spent a night camping out with scientists to learn how to survive in one of the most hostile places on earth.

The wind howled through the night in what sounded like a storm outside our two-man tent, though more experienced hands said it was just a breeze magnified by the sound of snowflakes drumming on the fabric outer wall of the tent.

Temperatures were just below freezing on the ridge, with a view over a bay studded with icebergs.

Skills include putting up the orange tent and then teasing a paraffin primus stove alight, making a meal inside the tent and learning how to send a “Mayday” radio message back to base.

The primus is little changed since it was invented in 1890.

I almost set the tent alight.

Wooden Nansen sledges, based on a Norwegian model borrowed from Inuit designs, are stacked around Rothera. They are favored by British experts over plastic or metal sledges.


The sledges are now towed by snowscooters rather than dogs, which were banned from Antarctica in 1994 as part of a treaty to curb environmental damage. Most gear is stored in wooden boxes.

“It works. This has been tried and tested over donkey’s years. Why change something that works?” John Withers, commander at the Rothera base, said of the contrast between the base and the older implements on Reptile Ridge a few km (miles) away.

The two-person rooms on the Rothera base have showers, chefs provide lavish meals three times a day. Staff can play pool, use the Internet or a digital library on the computer network. And they can relax drinking a maximum of two beers a night.

New arrivals like us have to go through several days of training in everything from crossing the runway -- “look left, look right, look up in the sky” -- to emergency first aid such as how to use a scalpel, inject a painkiller or sew up a wound.

“It’s very typically British to travel in parties of two people. That’s also why there’s so much safety training -- you have to know how to do everything,” said Michiel van den Broeke, 40, a Dutch polar meteorologist also camping out.

He said he had visited Antarctica before with Swedish, German and Norwegian groups. “They try to take a small base with them,” he said. “Americans also have much bigger field trips, with far larger tents and often generators.”

Many other nations including the Americans have forsaken traditional materials for high-tech plastics or metals -- all more expensive than wood.

“A wooden sledge will bend and adapt to the terrain. Metal is more rigid -- it can snap, and you don’t normally have welding equipment in the field,” said Gabriel Chevalier, 30, a Swiss geologist working as a field assistant at Rothera.

Among other old things, our tin of sardines in our wooden supplies box was labeled ‘best before 2004’. But when you’re trying to survive, everything tastes delicious.

-- For the British Antarctic Survey, click on:

Editing by Charles Dick