Weekend Retreat

One of the things we sign up to when we accept a job in Antarctica is, that we will not be able to leave for 18 month, with the exception of a medical emergency of course. This means that for any holidays we might want to take we cannot just go on a little stint to Spain. And although we do have a significant amount of shoreline most of it doesn’t lend itself to a beach holiday, really – too many cobbles and the deckchairs tend to get blown away by the wind. However from time to time, even such a well-equipped station like Rothera feels a bit claustrophobic and after a very intense and busy summer period, it is often beneficial for the sake of our sanity to leave the station for a couple days. Fortunately Rothera comes with an Island Resort including authentic Antarctic luxury accommodation with a rustic touch.

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Located on Lagoon Island a small isle just a 30 min boat drive away from Rothera station (2 hours on an icy day or 20 min on a very calm day) lies Lagoon Island Refugee. It consists of two islands connected by a tidal path that provide shelter from wind and swell. On one of the islands a small hut was erected more than 20 years ago. It primarily acts as refugee for the marine team, in case the weather suddenly changes while boats are on the water and a return to station seems unfeasible. However it is also being used to allow people a mini-holiday away from station and has been in frequent use this year.

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For people based on station, spending a few days on the island is properly one of the experiences most likely resembling life in the era of heroic polar exploration. Preparations for an island visit are extensive and reach from sleeping system (– sheepskin, camping mat, sleeping bag and many layers in between that I frequently forget), to a seal-bite kit, water, fuel, food and of course a lovely, lovely poo-bin (no bathroom on the island). All of these things need to be piled in the boat, preferably with some space left over for people and upon arrival at the island carried ashore – basically if you are the kind of person that packs two big suitcases for a weekend trip to cover all eventualities – Antarctic travel is for you.

Once all provisions are safely brought on land, you get to wave the boat off and it is then and only then, that it starts to dawn on you, that you are in the middle of Antarctica on a tiny Island, the only shelter a small and admittedly very cosy one-room hut, no electricity, no wi-fi, no running water. Heating is provided by a reflex stove and cooking is done on a primer stove. Your only ways to contact the outside world is a VHF radio and an Iridium phone. Needless to say after dealing with a station bursting with people all summer long we were giddy with joy and spent a minimum of time on the most important tasks (essentially the Antarctic way of turning the heating on), before dispersing across the island to explore every nook and cranny and experience the wildlife – which was much more abundant than on the mainland.

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Weddell Seals are the cutest of all the Antarctic Seals

In fact, the island was brimming with elephant seals (these are the really big ones with the funny nose – that smell really bad) and fur seals (the ones that can walk on their flippers, and arguably almost smell worse than elephant seals and in many other ways very closely resemble one of those bad tempered tiny, yappy short haired terriers that always try to bite your ancle) and Skuas (also out to get you – especially if they just had chicks). The Adelie penguins offered a short respite from the more aggressive wildlife. Most of them were moulting at the time and the various stages of their plumage did provide some comical value.

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Adelie Penguins on their way up the shore
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Lagoon life – Photo credit: S. Gibbs

As night set-in we started to congregate in the hut for cups of tea and dinner. Cooking and eating by the glow of a tilleylamp is probably the cold weather equivalent to a campfire and has the same mesmerizing quality of making you feel warm and protected against the wilderness. Even if that wilderness is the Southern Ocean and its inhabitants are probably more than able to bulldoze over your accommodation should they feel like it – talking elephant seals here.

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No matter how adorable Fur seals are when they are asleep they are proper agressive as soon as they wake up. Talk about getting up on the wrong foot.

I am not sure sharing your sleeping space with four (for want of a better word) men does much for your ability to get a good night’s rest (however to their credit, I have to say, I spent worse nights in hostel rooms), yet it is certainly an experience to be told that they have their pee-bottle at the ready for any mid-night emergencies – if not it would be seal dodging on a dark, cold and cobbled beach.

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All in all a weekend on Lagoon island might not be a spa treatment, and you tend to leave more tired than you arrived (some more so than others) but it certainly gives you room to breathe, do a few cartwheels and re-discover the joy of living in this incredible and unique environment.

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