Having landed the coolest job on Earth, Ben Kaye tells Sarah Freeman what life is really like surrounded by ice, with only three strangers for company.
Ben Kaye is sat in a Nissen hut, some 8,000 miles from home. Out of the small window he can see ice, lots of ice, across the water there’s a snow-capped mountain and the only sign of life is a huddle of penguins in the distance. Welcome to the Antarctic.
Last year when Huddersfield-born Ben beat 140 other hopefuls to land a post with the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust it was dubbed the ‘coolest job on Earth”. The charity was set up to conserve the area’s historic buildings and, along with three complete strangers, Ben had signed up for a four-month spell during which he would also be kept hard at work counting penguin nests and franking mail at the world’s most southerly post office.
At the time, the 28-year-old was working as a senior engineering project manager for Vdotcom in Birstall, Leeds and to many of his colleagues at the IT company it seemed like the perfect sabbatical, far away from the usual nine-to-five demands. However, Ben always knew the reality – living in the middle of a 1,600-strong penguin colony with few home comforts and only limited contact with friends and family – would have its challenges.
For a start there was the journey to get the western peninsular – three days on a boat via one of the roughest stretches of water in the world – and then there was the fact that he would not so much be living on the island as marooned.
“There isn’t really a way off, but it’s strange how quickly you become accustomed to the place. After the first week it felt like we’d all been there for months rather than days and if there are times when you are feeling a bit down, honestly, all you have to do is look outside. I’d seen so many photos and videos of the Antarctic before I arrived, but nothing could have prepared me for actually seeing it with my own eyes. The scenery is truly spectacular, it really is a very special place.”
The base on Goudier Island is staffed by AHT during the austral summer, Antarctica’s tourist season. From November to March, cruise ships and tourist boats stop off at the island’s main hub Port Lockroy to see the penguins, have their postcards franked with an Antarctica stamp and get a glimpse of what life was like for the British scientists and explorers who first set up camp there following the Second World War.
Bransfield House, where Ben and the rest of the AHT work during the day, has been preserved pretty much as it was during the 1950s, which means no central heating, no mains electricity and no running water.
“Life is pretty basic, but that’s also part of its appeal,” says Ben. “We work seven days a week and, to be honest, there isn’t enough time in the day to worry about the things you haven’t got. Recently, on a rare day off, we went to visit a nearby American research base, which is home to 45 scientists looking at Antarctica’s marine ecosystem. It’s a bit different from the few small huts we have here and they were just as shocked to hear that we don’t have running water, flushing toilet or wireless internet as we were by their big screen television and outdoor hot tub.”
One of the biggest challenges for the team, which also includes Florence Kuyper, from Holland, St Andrew’s University graduate Flo Barrow, and Kath Leavy, from Neath, has been adapting to life in a place where the sun never really goes down.
“It was bizarre to see in the New Year in near daylight and it can be difficult to know when to stop working. You can find it’s 10 or 11pm in the evening and you’re still going. We tend to be much more controlled by the weather rather than the time of day and conditions can change really quickly. When the weather’s clear we will do as much maintenance work as we can as we know the next day might bring howling winds.
“While there is no such thing as a typical day, we learnt early on that routine is very important in getting things done and we have a rota to allocate who is on cooking, cleaning duty, who’s writing the base diary and who has drawn the short straw to empty the toilet bucket.”
Before he left, Ben reckoned island food was the one thing he was least looking forward to. A delivery at the start of the season brought them five months’ worth of tinned meat, vegetables and soups, but a few months in and necessity has already proved the mother of invention.
“We get the occasional fresh food from passing boats, but when you’re reliant on tin food, you tend to get a bit experimental,” say Ben, who managed a Christmas dinner of meat pie, pumpkin and, of course, Yorkshire pudding. “The other night we made savoury bread and butter pudding with tinned chicken in white sauce, chorizo and a generous pinch of herbs and spice. I’m not sure I’ll ever eat again back home, but when you work long hours, often outdoors, everything tastes great.”
Much of their work is involved with the museum and ensuring the base is in better shape when they leave than when they arrived. However, Ben and the rest of the team are also collecting data on behalf of the British Antarctic Survey, which is carrying out a study to see if visitors to the island are having an impact on the breeding success of the Gentoo penguins.
“We have around 600 breeding pairs which nest in a number of rookeries,” says Ben. “One half of the island is closed to visitors and that acts as our control colony. At the start of the season we count the number of nests and eggs and then later the number of chicks which have fledged. The egg count is the easiest bit as they don’t run around, but I suspect the chicks will be a little harder.”
As the weeks have worn on, temperatures on Goudier Island have risen and as the snow has melted a little it has exposed some of the remnants from the whaling industry, from wooden boats to metal moorings.
“Each week it seems that another one emerges from the snow and it does give you a real sense of this tiny island’s place in history,” adds Ben, who while clearly relishing the back to basics approach of life in Antarctica admits he did pack a iPod and a Kindle among his thermals.
“I haven’t had much time for reading, but the iPod has been great,” he says. “You can’t beat a sunny day, painting on the roof and listening to music, you almost forget where you are until you look up and see the landscape. Music and reading offer the kind of escapism you need no matter where you are in the world.
“Despite there being only four of us living on the base, it really hasn’t been that hard living without external contact and I’ve never felt too isolated.”
So accustomed are they to the simple life that the team turned down the offer to spend New Year’s Eve drinking champagne on a nearby super yacht, preferring instead to remain on the island with the crew of a significantly smaller vessel who had decided to take a detour to Antarctica on their way from Scotland to Australia. In fact the only thing Ben has really missed, aside, he stresses, from family and friends, is his beloved football club, Huddersfield United.
“I get occasional results from passing ships, but no team news or league tables, so I will have a lot of catching up to do when I get back,”says Ben, although given the club is currently 17th in the Championship he may end up not having missed much. When he does return in the spring, thanks to the fish-eyed lens of Google’s street view which recently took a peak into Bransfield House, Ben will be able to keep track of the island’s goings-on, but he already knows that he’s going to miss the place.
“Words can’t really describe what it’s like to live out here for a while, I do feel really privileged.”
Varied history of harbour
Port Lockroy is a natural harbour which was discovered on Goudier Island in 1904.
The harbour was used for whaling between 1911 and 1931 and during the Second World War it provided a base for the British military. After the conflict it continued to operate as a research station until 1962.
In 1996, it was renovated and turned into a museum and post office, which is staffed for part of the year by the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust.
The organisation is looking for candidates to work the 2013/14 season. The closing date for applications in April 26 and for a full job description go to www.ukaht.org.