Thanks to all the bloggers who have left lovely words of appreciation on the site. It has been very encouraging to hear how interested you have all been. During the journey back I have had regrets about the short time I actually had to do the things I wanted to – the narrow windows of good weather and the resupply organisation priorities meant that I had no time to review my recordings and work on getting the best sound, and wind has marred a lot of the sounds I was looking for. So I am happy that even the small amount of what I have achieved has been stimulating for the imagination. I will now be spending time going over the material I have to see what I can make of it. Certainly the Centennial program is something that would not have happened without the focus and meaning of the voyage itself, and that is something I hope to build on and present many more times at home during the next few years of the celebrations.
We are rolling home quite speedily now, but will not make up the two days we lost due to the poor visability and blizzards at the end of resupply at Mawson. Most of the people on board are in a kind of let-down or relaxed holiday mood after a strenuous season of work, or they are busy catching up on paper-work and writing articles. We are losing one hour each night for six nights, which is a most peculiar adjustment and turning up for meals has become rather haphazard.
Bird life is still quite active, with a large albatross seen this morning around the ship for a couple of hours. Yesterday I marvelled at the dipping of the small shearwaters – they use the wind from the waves and swoop suddenly so close, making my heart leap as they disappear from sight for a moment as they change angle. I learnt that these little birds can dive up to 60-70 meters underwater to catch their food which I think is quite extraordinary. As the size of the sea birds increases, their diving depth decreases – the largest albatross might dive up to 2 meters – their wings are heavy to move underwater. Other small birds get up to 20 meters.
westlake at mawson
The following recording is from the Mawson concert Alice gave last week.
Nigel Westlake “Antarctica” with some reading of C.T.Madigan’s Diaries from the 1911 – 1914 Australasian Antarctic Expedition led by Sir Douglas Mawson.
Alice will be playing the complete Mawson program at the Antarctic Music Festival on June 26th 2011 at the ANU School of Music.
We are well and truly on our way home now, rolling on the swell, and this morning left the last distant sight of icebergs behind us. On reflection now my Antarctic experience already takes on a dream-like quality – so short the number of days on land compared to the sea adventure.
I feel though that I have seen the continent in its two guises: when it is cloudy and blizzardy then I felt an overpowering sadness and a sense of age beyond my comprehension – as though the ancient rocks have been abandoned by the other continents seeking more verdant climes millions of years ago, and Antarctica has been left in a bandwidth beyond the human scale of life, smothered in desolation under extraordinary deep layers to wait or to hold frozen forever; on sunny clear days, beauty sparkles, pastel colours dance reflected, and the splendour of the ice and snow cover has a beguiling seductive smile that makes one blissfully comfortable and at peace with being there on sufferance, a tiny insignificant outsider.
Last night I spent hours gazing through the little hole right in the front of the ship, the place from which I took the icebreaking movie on the voyage out. Sheltered but pitch dark and solitary, I saw the ghostly icy blocks and ‘pancakes’ looming towards us and grinding under the ship, with the 3 search-light beams ahead watching for bergs and ‘bergy bits’. Mesmerizing, and a magical way to farewell the quiet Antarctic waters. Today has mostly been spent sleeping and reading, although I do confess to a small amount of practice and – writing a small piece inspired by the Mawson Station landscape.
Alice in Mawson
Back aboard the Aurora Australis, Sunday, I can start to assimilate and look back on my experience.
Friday was again too gusty to fly or go outside much, but Saturday was fine and clear, and helicopter operations got into full swing. Highlight of the day was a very adventurous photo shoot – an opportunity we didn’t want to miss with my blue harp on the ice. Concerts over, I thought it worth the risk: a once in a lifetime opportunity. Temperature was around -7C, and by the time we got going the wind was 30knots, which equals a Windchill factor of about -20C! I put my thermals on under the evening gown, a scarf, woollen gloves and snow boots with boot chains while Tom and Martin researched a suitable ice shelf on the edge of the bay. Then Chris gingerly manoeuvred the ute with harp on down over the rocks. Everything went pretty quickly because I wasn’t sure how the harp would handle it, and my ears started freezing off, but I am looking forward to seeing the shots. Later in the day the winds eased back again considerably, and I would probably have really been able to play out there – but in Antarctica you have to take the windows of opportunity offered and not count on anything as it’s never exactly what you expect. They call it the “A factor”. I hardly dared check on the harp once we got it back – I let it acclimatise in the cold room first and got myself a cup of tea – but when I checked the tuning it was bang on pitch – not a bit sharp and seemingly unconcerned!
In the afternoon the ceremony for the interment of the ashes of Phil and Nell Law was held – unfortunately inside because of the gusty weather, but it was a nice ceremony in the same location as I had presented my concert, with the view of the bay behind. I played Sitsky’s Fantasia ‘Antarctica’ and ‘Dark Eyes’ which was Law’s favourite piece to play on the accordion.
Later I was treated to a trip up towards the plateau behind the station in a Haaglunds (Haags for short) a mixture between a tractor and a snowmobile. The sun melting the top layer of snow and the cold wind meant that the vehicle soon started to slip and slide, and eventually we got out before the summit for a walk. The surface was very beautiful, with glimpses of clear blue frozen water beneath the white surface. Tricky to walk on even with boot chains (these are like car snow chains and fit snuggly over the bottom of your snug Canadian snow boots), in some parts the surface was sheer ice with only little ridges to keep one from slipping down the large sweep to the bay below, or so it seemed. A sensational view over the icy bays and rocky outcrops in the only sunny day of the stay, the icy bay reflected blue as though it were melting.
All my bits and pieces of equipment and harps were to travel on the helicopter back with me, but when I turned up with the big harp on the ute we discovered the area for the harps had been filled up with luggage, and there was no time to rearrange. So I had to leave both harps behind and fly off into the sunset feeling a little fickle. I have been assured they will arrive on the next flight, but that “A factor” is a little worrying; today the flights have again been cancelled due to snow…
Dawn Concert at Mawson
From the Mawson Station website – This week at Mawson: 4 March 2011
This week we saw Mawson station transform into Mawson Concert Hall as Alice Giles fired up her harps for our entertainment. It really was something to behold. The program went for about an hour and there were plenty of eager listeners who showed up to experience this unique Antarctic concert.
red shed – concert venue
view from the red shed window
Alice entertains Mawson Station.
(Photo: Dave Morrison)