20 July 2013

Cook Wanted at Scott Base, Antarctica

Back in 1959 I was a member of a NZ Alpine Club expedition to the area just east of the Beardmore Glacier in the Ross dependence area of Antarctica. After we arrived at Scott Base we spent about ten days preparing and testing our gear before being flown further south. While there we became acquainted with the Scott Base cook, known as Willy. Willy was a feisty Scot, who disliked Americans intensely and had a weakness for scotch whisky. One night when we had a visit from the American Admiral Tyree, a US Senator  and others from McMurdo Sound base, Willy burst into the mess room, shouting abuse and threatening the Americans - much to our embarrassment. He was manhandled out into the snow and left to cool off.

Robin Oliver with Willy the cook

While we were away to the south, Willy performed even more and it was decided that he was unsuitable material for wintering over. One of the NZers had to return to NZ and happened to notice an advertisement in the NZ papers for a new cook for Scott Base. This news got back to Willy who went on strike. He took his  large supply of whisky over to the McMurdo rubbish dump where he established a trading post from his abode in an abandoned packing case. McMurdo was free of any spirits and Willy had no trouble trading his whiskey for food until he was put on the next flight out of Antarctica.

This happened about the time I returned from our field trip south. I say "I" because I had been stranded at the Beardmore Depot after a plane crash and the rest of our team had returned to NZ. So Scott Base was without a cook until the new cook arrived from NZ.  I was asked if I would like to earn some money by acting as cook for Scott Base. Being a poor 22 year old University student at the time, I told Jim Lennox-King (the Scott Base leader) that my cooking skills were somewhat basic - but I'd give it a go. Someone taught me the essentials of gravy and bread making and so started the busiest job I ever had. There were about fifty based at Scott Base and they were usually very hungry for the  remaining weeks I was cooking prior to returning to NZ on the Arneb.

BLS, the Scott Base cook(second from right),  in the Mess Room with some of the Scott Base staff

There was no room for me at Scott Base so I had to live on my own in a polar tent outside.  Despite the cold my hours were such that I had no trouble sleeping.  My days started at 4am when I rose and made my way over to the kitchen where I cranked up the ovens and started making bread. This was followed by breakfast - cooked of course; then lunch (not for everyone as many had made lunch for outside excursions) and after a brief respite in the afternoon the main dinner for the day had to be prepared. After this my day ended about 8pm - back to sleep in my cold tent.

All the time I had to plan about three days ahead because everything perishable was frozen in a snow cave in a slope beyond the Base and had to be chipped out of the ice and thawed out. I had a 'house mouse' to help most of the time. One evening, I'd just got off to sleep when I was woken by two Americans. They had caught a big Antarctic cod through a hole in the ice and asked If I'd cook it for them. I wasn't keen but the promise of sharing what was to be some delectable fresh fish was the turning point.  We had a great midnight meal while the Base slept!

There were other adventures. An American tractor had lost its load (a big packing case and sledge) into a crevasse on the Ross Ice Shelf. Kiwis never miss an opportunity so we harnessed up the dogs and raced out to the site, armed with crowbars and hammers. We climbed down to the packing case and jemmied it open to see what might be inside.  It was full of tins of green peas.  Undeterred we loaded up the sledge and made several trips back to Scott Base. I heard that they were still eating 'our' peas several years later.