Kiwis among penguins

While others dream of a white Christmas, for Josie Debenham it’s guaranteed. She won’t find any holly to deck the halls, but she can celebrate Christmas where the sun shines around the clock and the chances of meeting a penguin are pretty high.
The 34-year-old from Queenstown works at Scott Base, New Zealand’s only Antarctic research station, perched on a low volcanic headland at the southern end of Ross Island. It’s 3,500 kilometres south of New Zealand and 1,350 kilometres from the South Pole.
The base consists of a number of green-painted buildings linked by all-weather corridors. It was opened 60 years ago by mountaineer — and all-around New Zealand hero — Sir Edmund Hillary, who in 1953 became one of the first two men to summit Mount Everest.
Hillary’s Hut was the first building constructed at Scott Base and was built by a team led by Hillary himself in 1957. It was from here that he started his expeditions to become “the Kiwi among the penguins.”
The majority of scientists who study sea ice and penguins head home for Christmas, and most of those who remain are domestic staff like Debenham and others who keep the station running.
While 86 people from different nations live there during high season,numbers are now down to around 60, which means the team can get some rest before the busy season peaks again in January.
Antarctica is as far as Santa can possibly travel from his home at the North Pole, but there is still a lot of Christmas cheer.
A fully decorated tree graces the base’s dining room. “We don’t have any carolling, but we certainly play them through our local Scott Base Radio station,” Debenham says.
As there aren’t any shops around, Christmas on the ice is naturally less about consumerism and more about creativity.
“Secret Santa has long been a tradition at Scott Base,” Debenham says.
“Everyone is allocated someone to make or create a gift for,” she says. “We have lots of talented people here so there is always an amazing range of handcrafted gifts exchanged.”
Another tradition is the sending of Christmas cards and messages to other bases and stations in Antarctica.
The main Christmas celebration at Scott Base occurs on December 23. Everyone finishes work at 1 pm in order to have an early Christmas dinner at 3 pm, followed by Secret Santa. Then the whole crew treks over to the neighbouring American base McMurdo Station, 3 kilometres down the road.
The US research centre and logistical hub is the largest community in Antarctica and resembles a small city, with up to 1,200 scientists and staff.
Christmas feasts have changed a fair bit since explorer Ernest Shackleton came down to conquer the ice.
“The celebration of Christmas was not forgotten,” he noted in his logbook during his 1914 expedition. “Grog was served at midnight to all on deck. There was grog again at breakfast, for the benefit of those who had been in their bunks at midnight.”
This year the crew at Scott Base are in for a special treat.
“Our resident base chefs… are cooking our Christmas dinner and they have drummed up a massive feast for us including turkey, ham,venison, lamb, beef roast, vegetables and salads,” Debenham says.
“For dessert we’ve got some great Kiwi Christmas staples such as strawberries, cherries and pavlova, along with Christmas puddings, lamingtons and truffles,” she adds.
Christmas Day is a day off for everyone at Scott Base, and many people will head out to enjoy the dramatic scenery.
While in the depths of winter, in August, the temperatures drop to an average low of minus 36 degrees Celsius, in the Southern Hemisphere summer they’re relatively mild, with an average temperature of minus 4 degrees Celsius.
The views are impressive. Antarctica’s only active volcano, Erebus, looms in the background, while pressure waves of ice rear up. People might go walking, do some skiing or just relax, Debenham says.
Christmas is just a couple of days after the longest day in the Southern Hemisphere, which means that the sun never sets. This makes Antarctica the perfect place to celebrate the midsummer solstice. But there’s just one drawback.
“I miss my family and friends, but being able to celebrate with my Scott Base family and in Antarctica is very special and more than makes up for it,” Debenham says.
— dpa