April 06, 2016

Suffolk Norfolk Life Ray Thirkettle

West Norfolk electrician Ray Thirkettle, late of this parish, is really looking forward to the winter.

No, you’re not reading a back copy of SNL by mistake. Six months ago, when Ray was a career electrician at King’s Lynn’s QEH hospital, winter was de-icing the car on a frosty November morning in Heacham.

But since late November, he has been attached to the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) on South Georgia, a remote island in the south Atlantic, a thousand miles of cold blue water east of the Falklands and about the same north from the icy northern tip of Antarctica. Fully supported by wife of 32 years, Pauline, he has seized this chance to fulfil his lifelong dream. Thirteen months at the cutting edge of science.

Equipped with a spirit of adventure, his OU Science degree and plenty of spare underpants (last time he went down under for BAS he forgot to pack any) his ‘summer’ is now over. The nearest it’s got to Heacham is an occasional boat trip ferrying scientists around a South Atlantic bay (weather permitting); a view of seals… glaciers and penguins (blizzards permitting) and the prospect of snow remaining high up over the mountains.

So why is he looking forward to a long sub-zero winter beginning in March?  Well, believe it or not, he wants some peace and quiet.

Summer in South Georgia is, like Heacham, its busiest time. This year, along with the native penguins, South Georgia pintails, and Pipits (the world’s most southerly songbird) Ray has seen flocks of visiting scientists; natural history film crews; builders renovating the old whaling station of Grytviken; two surprise visitors from Nordelph West Norfolk delivering his New Year copy of the EDP (with a front cover feature about himself in it) and what Ray calls ‘the helicoptering rat people’.

Rat people? Is Ray seeing things? Has something in the daily home-baked bread gone to his head?

No, rat people doesn’t mean some fabulous antipodean hybrid of man and rat. It means the South Georgia Rat Eradication Project which arrived in January in three clattering helicopters, bringing a truck and18 extra people, doubling the number of trucks on the island – to two – and almost doubling its population!

The world’s largest and most ambitious rat eradication attempt – which has since successfully cleared the entire island - headlined BBC news bulletins in January and remains a news item at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-30922255

The presence of rats was monitored with traps - known locally as ‘Rat hotels’- and indicator stations containing a knob of peanut butter flavoured wax, which apparently, rats find irresistible.

Serviced by the ‘Shackleton’, 90 tons of a special bait were dropped from hoppers slung underneath their 3 helicopters, requiring 300 drums of fuel in an ecological restoration projected to take at least two months. Rats and mice were unwittingly introduced to the island by sealing and whaling ships as early as the 19th century and have caused devastation to the native bird population.

The most telling indicator of success is a noticeable increase in some bird species. The South Georgia Pintail and South Georgia Pipit are now seen in numbers. Petrel and Prion species are expected to follow and the long term hope is that many Albatross species will return to South Georgia to breed.

So one way or another, Ray’s summer escape has been a rat race. He is now looking forward to sharing his winter desert island with just his eight fellow BAS employees and the four resident government officers.

The BAS is there to assess and manage our response to climate change. The retreat of the rugged and mountainous island’s glaciers, for instance, has implications for us all. BAS is also there to pioneer modern sustainable fishing. – the reverse of the island’s previous function as a whaling station ( Grytviken, pictured) pursuing practices Ray judges by modern standards as “revolting”. Whale bones still haunt the area.

The BAS base is self-sustaining, using a state of the art British Hydro-Turbine (pictured) to supply free electricity. Ray spent one inclement summer day, happily indoors, restoring this heart of the island’s community life, when it jammed up with stones washed in from the inlet. His technical expertise in servicing this turbine will be at a premium during the long dark days ahead.

It’s not all work. Jolly Christmas parties at the base were captured in outdoor pictures of glorious snow-capped summer mountains. Not a bad little escape from the Christmas madness. And, whatever the weather – even in summer the boats are often kept in harbour – the views are never less than spectacular. Then there are the informal regattas. An island boat club has been formed!

Ray’s previous stint– at Halley station on ice, Antarctica – attracted world-class chefs looking for an adventurous addition to their CV. The food is more prosaic on South Georgia, with each member of the team taking it in turns to cook.

What’s on the menu, I ask- Fish? Seal? King Penguin? Whale? Yeti? Rat?

Not these days. It’s more likely to be the seals eating Ray – either natural inquisitiveness (pictured) or, more recently seal pups needling the hands that weigh them.

But no-one goes to South Georgia for the cuisine. Today (and tomorrow and tomorrow)’s menu is cheese, pizzas, stews, hot pot and (Ray’s speciality) macaroni cheese, courtesy of cooking lessons from Pauline (an excellent cook) prior to his posting.

An ocean of powdered milk too. It takes four days to sail from the Falklands to King Edward Point. A boat too far for the milkman methinks.

The base canteen is running low on syrup and it’s an awfully long way to the shops! Tins of pears are still popular but the same cannot be said for the asparagus soup. There are rumours that gallons were fobbed off on all the summer visitors (who liked it- there’s no accounting for taste) but Ray “couldn’t possibly comment.”

Ah that frontier spirit! Shackleton would have been proud. He is buried on the island, facing the South Pole (see picture) as he requested. “Though there are conspiracy theories,” says Ray mysteriously.

Perhaps he is expecting something dark and ghostly to descend over the expats this winter. It would make a great down-under version of Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’. Will they survive? Will they save the planet? I’ll keep you posted.

You can continue to follow Ray’s progress through the entire extended stay (15 months) until his return here

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