The LMJ Nostalgia Pages


Food Boxes

In the mid-1960s, when I was working for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), sledging with dog teams was the main technique for working in the field. I was a geologist based at Halley Bay, a base located on an ice shelf and several hundred miles from the nearest rock. The most practical way for us to work there was for tractors to take out supplies for us in spring and to leave two depots (each little more than a stack of boxes and the odd drum) to support the four of us for the rest of the summer.

Figure 1. Our working area, inland from Halley Bay.

Thirty or so years earlier, Martin Lindsay summed up the basics of sledging in Those Greenland Days, his account of the 1930-1 British Arctic Air-Route Expedition to East Greenland: “The whole principle upon which sledging is built up is really very simple. Briefly, it is a game of pemmican-and-run. You take as much food as you can carry, principally pemmican, and then run fast as you can, so that you get back to your base by the time that the food has come to an end. If you are delayed by rebellious circumstances, you and your dogs go on short rations. Next you kill and eat the dogs; and then if you are not back again two or three days after finishing the last one, you will be unlucky.”

In our season we tried not to cut it as fine as that although we did have some awkward times. The two groups had agreed to meet at the depot for Christmas but on the 19th we awoke to a blow, as we called high winds. We cut back on the food and rations for ourselves and the dogs, as the nominal end of the food box was on the 25th. On that day the weather was as bad as ever, and I celebrated my first White Christmas ever with a short-ration scradge of meat bar. The blow petered out the next day and we reached the depot on the 27th, to join the other two for a belated festive dinner from a box of tins packed for the occasion by one of the cooks. That was in the easy weather of midsummer; later in the season we found that things could be much closer to Lindsay’s description, but that’s another story.

Figure 2. Pyramid Rocks depot, with part of Cottontoppen behind. Depots on snow were definitely a second best; they were hard to find in poor visibility and prone to collapsing, having items blown away, becoming buried, or several of these together.

In this situation, the BAS boxes of sledging rations were a major feature in our lives. In my case, in the summer of 1964-5, the four of us working in Heimefrontfjella lived off these for a season of 205 days. (We were beaten by Geoff Lovegrove and Tony (alias Patrick) Haynes who worked in that area during the next summer and extended it to 218 days. That is surely a record that still stands!)

We referred to these rations as manfood (to distinguish it from the equally important dog food) and it came in plywood boxes with a lid that was hinged along one of the short sides. This lid had bent-over metal edges to keep out drift (blown snow) and when shut it could be secured by tying two short pieces of lampwick. The dimensions were about 20 inches long, 13 inches wide and 9 inches high, and the weight seems to have changed over time as the contents were revised. In old sledging reports where the weights were mentioned one can see a range from 52 lbs to 57 lbs, at least.

Figure 3. The Bird Rock depot, a cluster of boxes (mainly manfood and Nutrican dog food) and spare Nansen sledges. A depot on rock was far more convenient and secure, so long as tractors and sledges could drive right up to it as they can here.

Figure 4. Food boxes in the Bird Rock depot, some unused and some being re-used for other purposes (those painted black hold my geological and photographic equipment). The drum holds avtur, which we used in place of paraffin for our Primus stoves. (Unlike paraffin and diesel fuel, avtur stays fully fluid at low temperatures.)

Each box held supplies for twenty man-days, or ten days for two sharing a tent. In ten days a team of nine dogs would consume 135 lbs of Nutrican and so most of our sorties from the depot were planned as twenty days, to give a good travel radius without an excessive load at the start. It was convenient that a five-gallon jerry can of avtur lasted about that long, for cooking and warming the tent in the evenings, although in cold weather or during long lie-ups it would need to be used sparingly.

The most basic food item was the meat bar. There were twenty of them, and according to the label they weighed five ounces and reconstituted to fifteen ounces of meat. For our evening meals we would boil two of these up into a slurry that we called “scradge” (as we also called most varieties of stew when on Base).

The varieties among the ten two-pint packets of soup changed somewhat each year, and most depots contained boxes of more than one vintage (they were not always taken from the dumps on Base in the order of arrival, and might later be moved from one depot to another). The result was that one could often find old boxes which gave some unfamiliar treats, especially in the soups.

The pack of porridge oats was not marked with its weight, and the contents surprised me the first time I saw them. Rather than loose flakes of rolled oats there was a rammed mass that I had to scrape with a spoon to get enough out for breakfast. Still, that must be how they could fit in enough for ten days.

As for biscuits, I made no note of how many there were because we rarely ran short. The biscuits seemed to be different every year and the latest ones we had in 1964 looked very like the Rich Tea variety back in Britain. Rumour had it that the fat-rich recipe specified by BAS caused problems for machinery and that each manufacturer would have one go at producing them, after which they would not want to do it again.

Figure 5. The contents of a BAS food box laid out. Photo by Geoff Lovegrove.

Someone who had been on one of the bases on the Antarctic Peninsula told us that no one there was considered a true sledger until he knew how many holes there were in a sledging biscuit. (The implication was that he must have been out long enough to have experienced many days of lying up, until in sheer boredom he had counted the holes – and done it enough times for the number to become fixed in his memory.) This was a new one to me, so I checked several different food boxes, with at least three different brands of biscuit, and found that although the holes were laid out in different patterns the total was 35 on all of them. Was that perhaps part of the BAS specification?

The butter, too, always outlasted the ten days. Usually there were two of the six one-pound tins left to be divided up among the dogs when we moved on to the new box. In 1964 the dates on the tins were important as the consignment of food boxes that arrived a year before I did had much of the butter rancid in the tins. There had not been enough spare butter in similar-sized tins on Base to replace it all and so half the tins in those boxes still bore the ominous date-stamp “9/62”. We now replaced those tins when we encountered them, while the dogs ate that batch as readily as any other.

We had twenty-five teabags, and so usually a bag was dunked for ten seconds in each mug. Twenty of the bags were used in giving us a brew each evening and morning. The other five could give a late-night drink or an extra mug during lie-ups although in a long lie-up the used bags would have to be carefully put aside for the next drink. By that time the teabag would have given the equivalent of four pints of tea and although the later servings may have been a little weaker we were grateful for what we had.

Figure 6. Lewis Juckes in tent, posing as if preparing food and hoping that it will not be too obvious that he is stirring nothing but water. Food box in its normal tent position, with some items out for ready use. Clockwise from the front: Terry’s Oliver Twist chocolate, meat bars, bottle of pickle (a "goodie", not part of the rations), shiny tin probably containing dried onion, open tin of butter, green-topped tin of teabags with an open pack of biscuits on top, tin of Nespray powdered milk, opened tin of cheese, and a buttered biscuit. The candlestick stands on a box of sugar cubes.

To go with the tea were two one-pound tins of milk powder – full cream in most of the boxes we had in 1964-5 and skimmed in most of the boxes used in the next season. The four one-pound packs of sugar cubes, so I was assured, worked out as nineteen and one-fifth cubes per person per day. At the time it sounded an improbable number and I made a mental note to check and work out the true figure. As the months in the field rolled on I realised how little I had understood about sledging and lie ups, or the time available to contemplate such questions and follow them to completion. By then I too had spent long lie-up hours examining all the labels, trying to read those that included a French version – and checking the sugar maths. The cubes were packed in four small cartons, each with 96 cubes, making 384 in total. A box contained twenty man-days of food, and dividing by this gave 19.2 per day – as I found on several lie-ups, and as the fellows the previous year had doubtless checked more than once during their summer. How could I have doubted them?

When manfood boxes arrived on Base they contained a one-pound tin of cocoa but in the sledging tradition that we followed very little of this was used. Thus in most boxes it had been replaced by a similar tin filled with “lemonade powder”. While sledging, each morning we filled our Thermos flask with hot lemonade to drink during the day. Anyone who did want cocoa as an evening drink could easily get enough from the few boxes that had not been modified, and one tin could last a long time.

Cheese from the two twelve-ounce tins was mainly used as a treat on buttered biscuits, while a small tube of Marmite provided an alternative. The one-pound tin of bacon was traditionally saved for a lunch on a lie-up day – and was usually a disappointment as there seemed to be far more fat and grease than actual bacon. Even more of a treat were the twenty-four two-ounce bars of chocolate, half of them milk and half plain. Together with chocolate saved from that issued on Base, this could give us one to eat while sledging and another as a luxury in the evening.

A tin of dried onions and another of dried potato powder (“pom”) gave a bit more variety to the evening scradge but were rarely used up within the ten days. Whenever I opened a tin of pom I found my mind recalling a tale by one of my sledging companions who had done his military training in a tank regiment. He told me that they discovered that pom tins fitted neatly down the barrel of a tank cannon. If they then fired off a blank round the result was a pleasing white cloud, and by aiming at a nearby tree they could produce an instant wintery effect. Was there any way we could conjure up this spectacle in our sledging environment, I wondered? If there was, I never discovered it.

Finally, there were two containers of salt, two small tin openers, and some vitamin C tablets – a bottle with one hundred in each of the new boxes, and bottles of fifty in some of the older ones.

The key items were porridge in the morning followed by the meat bar and soup in the evening, plus cheese and biscuits later in the evening or during lie-ups. On the first lie-up day one would start feeling hungry by mid-morning, and lunch would be the tin of bacon. With more lie-up days lunch would be either a few buttered biscuits or a single meat bar which meant an undersized scradge in the evening. On rare occasions we would have one or two meat bars saved from earlier days, though this was unlikely while sledging. Even better were the days when we could open up some “goodie”. These were food items that did not feature in the manfood box but were brought along as extras, perhaps a tin of corned beef or kippers, a sachet of instant dessert mix, or even a tin of peaches. These were in the Goodies box in the depot, with enough for one or occasionally two per sortie.

Many Fids made suggestions for changes to the rations (mine was to replace one pound of butter with a pound of honey) but although BAS listened to them they had two arguments for leaving things unchanged, so long as suppliers and prices permitted. First, many suggestions were personal preference, and the next Fid might well make a suggestion in the opposite direction. Second, although the calorie content did vary somewhat with time, in the range around 3,900 to 4,200, they took this seriously and rejected any suggested change that would lower the value of that time. This explained all the butter, as an overall fat content in the region of 50% was needed to keep the calories in the range they wanted. They also defended the calorie count from the other point of view – the number of days the box could support. Fids sometimes talked of “stretching” a box, eating a bit less each day so that it could last them say twenty-two man-days and keep load weights down or allow them to reach that distant destination. BAS made it clear that they disapproved. It might be true that the rations could seem more than ample during easy days, but when things turned difficult we could often find ourselves wishing for larger helpings every day.

Those travelling in tractors tended to have smaller appetites than dog-sledgers, and often had quite a bit of food left over at the end of the ten days. After the tractor party set up the depots for us in October 1964, before they left they generously gave us a large bundle of leftovers which were mainly meat bars. Extra meat bars were always in demand; they might allow an oversize dinner after a particularly hard day, they eased those hungry lunchtimes during lie-ups, and they could be carried on geological days for a snack as one roamed over the outcrops.

Figure 7. Two tin openers from a food box. Good thumb strength was necessary to pierce the metal, and to continue cutting.

The tin openers were wonderful little devices, barely twice the size of a postage stamp and with a hinged blade for flat-lying storage. One of the essential devices in our tent life was the pot-lifter (none of our pots or pans had handles of their own), and tied to the handle of this with a length of string was an equally important tin opener. No need to hunt for it, when the need arose!

For some of us these openers took some practice before we could use them reliably, and it was important to remember that the result could be less tidy than with a larger model even of those days. In September 1965 I was sledging with the base doctor, John Wilson, and we had come to an end of a food box. As outside man I went out to feed the dogs in the afternoon while John as inside man prepared to open the three remaining butter tins. He would then pass the solid slabs of butter out to me, to cut up with the shovel and feed to the dogs. After several minutes John had not appeared at the tent entrance and so I stepped closer and called to him. No reply, so I gave a louder shout. When there was again no response I just chuckled and moved off to find some other task. At that distance he must have heard me clearly and the only explanation was that he chose not to reply. I guessed that he was sulking over something and wondered what I had done or said that had upset him so suddenly. In any case I was not greatly worried. Working in extreme conditions it was easy to get annoyed over some trivial item and then to realise the folly of it only a few minutes later.

After giving him ten minutes to cool down I crawled back into the tent and found John all apologies although his explanation was by no means what I expected. He had been opening the butter tins, cutting around the circular top and bottom panels with our tiny tin opener and then trying to push the butter out. With the food box in the tent only separated from the snow by the groundsheet, items in it were always cold and often frozen solid. In that condition, it was not surprising that the butter seemed too hard to slide out. He placed both thumbs on the top disc of metal and gave a mighty push – at which the butter suddenly shot out, his thumbs followed, and both were sliced by the sharp edge of the opened tin. For some seconds he gazed at the blood running down his hands, partly angry with himself for the carelessness but also in indecision – which hand should he use first, to bandage the other one? That was the moment when I shouted to him and, as he now told me, he had not trusted himself to give a civil reply. By now both thumbs were neatly bandaged, which must have been a difficult job one-handed, and I in turn was sorry that I had not looked in earlier when he could have used some help.

Figure 8. Dai Wild surveying and Tony Baker noting the readings at the eastern end of Heimefrontfella, November 1964. The green box in the sledge load is a recycled food box with the radio fitted into it. The U-box, holding the sledging utensils, is another such box painted silver.

The containers too had important uses, and some were in tins sealed with a strip of adhesive tape. The sugar boxes came in a broad shallow tin that went beside the primus and served as our gash tin. The best bowl available to us in the field on those rare occasions when we wanted a wash was the biscuit tin, but the most important was the porridge tin. After one had slid the carton out of its tin, deep and narrow, that went between the tent walls on the dirty right-hand side, ready for use as the pee can.

When we began sledging in earnest we soon learnt to make a careful check of these porridge tins, both at the start of a trip and before dumping an old pee can and trusting to the one that would be in the next food box. Earlier sledgers encountered this too, as shown by an entry in a travel report of “New ‘undoctored’ ration box started – the porridge can leaks!” It was not oatmeal that was filtering down on to his sleeping bag through the poorly-soldered seam. (BAS Report AD6/2Z/1962/K2, entry for 3rd November 1962.)

The contents of the older ration boxes interested me from the start, and in particular the chocolate. The latest ones had both milk and dark chocolate bars, Cadbury’s and Terry’s respectively. Originally BAS used only Cadbury’s but at some point when the price of raw materials rose the companies had reacted differently. Cadbury’s, we were told, reduced the size of the bar whereas Terry’s maintained the size but raised the price. The BAS hierarchy, with their obsession for avoiding any drop in the calorie content of the rations, switched to Terry’s Oliver Twist bar for the dark chocolate but could find no milk chocolate equivalent and stayed with the smaller Cadbury’s bar.

The Cadbury’s chocolate bars in the old boxes were indeed slightly larger but what caught my eye was that they were marked as “by appointment to His Majesty”. That monarch had died more than ten years earlier! These, I thought, should surely be more desirable after the fashion of ancient wine discovered in a forgotten cellar, and I found that they had a taste quite easily distinguished from the newer equivalents. Next I noticed that even these came in two different styles as shown by the slightly different script on the labels. With a bit of practice I could soon pick out differences in taste between these two vintages, both for the milk and dark versions. Before long I had become a chocolate snob, able to distinguish all seven of the varieties that were available to us during that season.

When I got back to Britain in 1966 it took a dozen or so dental appointments before all the cavities in my teeth were filled.

The label on the meat bars told us that in addition to reconstituting the dried meat into a stew they “could be eaten dry as a munch”. At an early stage I tried this, crumbling a corner off one before dropping it into the pan, and found it pleasant enough in taste and texture. However, the meat bars as we knew them were a relatively recent component of the rations. Only a few years earlier there was a completely different bar known as HF6, and according to a Halley Bay travel report of 1962 (AD6/2Z/1962/K4) the first sledgers to encounter meat bars declared them to be “far more palatable than the HF6 bar”.

I first learnt of HF6 on an early trip in the mountains when we opened an old box that I had specially selected for the chocolate. To our dismay there was no cheese in it, and instead of meat bars with their strictly rectangular sides there was something completely new to us. This was a near-black slab with a greasy or waxy appearance, in a foil tray and looking as if part at least had been molten when it was poured in. At first this seemed an opportunity to experience yet more of what the earlier sledgers had known but when we had tasted it we were less happy. We spent a while trying to think of a good description for the taste and texture, and the winning suggestion was a mix of equal parts of meat bar, Marmite, and soap.

Half an hour later we agreed that it was not only unpleasant to the taste but very hard to keep down. Soon the other fellow had to dive outside as his dinner came back up, and although I kept mine down it was only done by sitting bolt upright, propped against a tent pole for several uncomfortable hours.

We couldn’t decide on the cause of this. Earlier sledgers would have lived on a scradge (they would probably have called it a hoosh) of pure HF6 day after day, and presumably they managed to get it down and keep it down. Had ours gone off, perhaps, thawing and refreezing as the sun heated the boxes intermittently over several years in the depots? Luckily we had brought with us some of those extra meat bars from the tractor party. With that plus some raided from what was to be the next box, at least the scradge for the next few evenings was more palatable with only half HF6 in the blend.

Once, during a lengthy lie-up, I spent some time trying to find new ways to use the foods that we had with us. Two obvious candidates were the potato powder, which we rarely used up, and the butter that was also freely available. Could I make fritters of some sort; pom patties, one might say?

I mixed up the powder with water, shaped a portion, and began to fry it in butter. Within seconds it was disintegrating and simply blending into the melted butter. I abandoned that, wiped out the pan, and tried frying dry – only to have it stick and then start to burn. As a last attempt I melted half a tin of butter and tried deep-frying the fritters; again they just broke up and blended in to give an oily sludge. It seemed a pity but it was just not possible.

The scraps from the failed experiments weren’t wasted – the dogs gulped them down without hesitation.

A couple of months later, while we were working at the eastern end of Heimefrontfjella, Russ Russell and I camped beside the tent of the only other people within a couple of hundred miles in any direction. With a chance to socialise, the four of us gathered in one tent for a natter. It wasn’t long before the subject of food arose, and moved on to the recipe variations possible with the contents of a standard ration box.

“I reckon we’ve tried just about all the combinations there are,” I commented, thinking of how Russ and I had tried adding cheese to meat bar scradge, pom powder to soup, and so on.

“You think so?” Dai Wild sat up straight, something clearly on his mind, and turned to the food box. “Let’s see if you’ve tried this one.”

I immediately realised how rash my claim had been, and tried to retreat. “I don’t mean anything ridiculous, like salt in the tea,” I pointed out.

“See what you make of this,” Dai murmured as he got out two biscuits and spread each with a generous layer of butter. Then he turned to Tony Baker.

“Pass me the oranges.”

Oranges? Before Russ or I had time to query this, Tony was handing over a new bottle of fifty vitamin C tablets. Dai shook them out on to the lid of the box and began carefully placing them on the biscuits and pressing them into the butter to give a grid of four by six on each biscuit. That left two spare pills which he passed to Tony, who swallowed both with a swig from his mug of tea. Dai picked up one biscuit, bit into it, and offered the other to me.

It was just as one would expect, crunchy and rather acid, but by no means unpleasant and certainly it was something different. I had to admit defeat. Before the season was over I had tried it again once or twice out of boredom during long lie-ups.

Nearly a year later, on the 1965 spring trip to the mountains we had a group of three dog teams and three tractors. One of the dog drivers was Tony Haynes who had come down as a cook but had transferred to being a field assistant, and at one extended halt during the one-month journey he passed the word that he would be hosting a lunch for the dog-drivers. There were soon half a dozen of us, fitting easily into the tent and chattering away while he was busy with the primus.

“It’s all ready,” he announced.

We sat upright to watch him serve it, and I could see the obvious items – scrambled egg, made with powder, and some bacon from the tin that was in each food box. What were those other items, though?

“Are those frittery things made from potato powder?” I queried.

He confirmed it and my mind baulked at this fact. A year earlier I had spent much time on failed experiments with pom and had convinced myself that frying patties made from it could not be done. Now Tony, with his training and experience as a cook, seemed to have done the impossible. I needed to know more.

“How do you stop them from breaking up, or sticking to the pan?” I asked him.

“What happened when you tried?” was his reply.

I should have taken more note of the wicked gleam in his eye. Instead, I saw a chance to tell one of my stories from the previous year. It was rare enough for anyone to ask for them and so I gave the long version, finishing with a dramatic plea to Tony.

“So, can you please tell me how it’s done so that I can make them during the next lie-up?”

Tony would have none of that. Such matters were trade secrets, he told us, specialised techniques only to be used by those who were full members of the cooking fraternity. He could not possibly reveal them to amateurs such as us.

I was horrified at the possibility of missing out on some method of producing a new variant on the sledging rations, and babbled away that the secret was equally important to our quality of life while sledging. My appeal to the others to join in and persuade Tony, telling them how useful they would find it, failed to move them. Meanwhile Tony was still rambling on about the glorious history of his profession and how their recipes would be devalued if they got into the hands of the bunglers surrounding him.

At last I got the others on to my side although they had a different reason. They had sat through my story but they felt that the final section was missing; Tony had to provide that. We all badgered him until he agreed – but he too wanted to play the showman, and insisted that he would not tell us. He would only demonstrate the method. Also, he pointed out, preparing this meal had used all the pom from their current food box.

“I’ll get some more,” I exclaimed and scrambled out of the tent before John Wilson, half-owner of our rations, could object.

Using our supply, Tony mixed up a couple of patties. I watched closely as he warmed the dish being used as a frying pan but he was giving no clue as to what would follow. Then, suddenly, he sprinkled more pom powder into the dry pan, popped the patties in, and they cooked without sticking. As always, it was so obvious once one knew. I thanked him but felt that my image had taken a knock and that it was time to show the others that I had a full season’s experience of sledging rations.

“Now, I’ll show you another variation that you can do with the sledge box food during your field season. Have any of you tried this before?”

I buttered a biscuit, opened the bottle of vitamin C tablets, and began to press them into the butter in a grid pattern.

“You aren’t going to eat those, are you?” John asked in a shocked voice. I just grinned at him.

“Don’t you realise what that will do?” His voice was now urgent. “You’ve been told that the body can’t manufacture vitamin C when the intake is low. That’s true, but it can switch into a sort of economy mode where it makes do with less than normal. A sudden high dose of the vitamin can set it back into normal mode so that an intake level that was adequate suddenly becomes deficient. There have been cases of people on a diet low in vitamin C where a single large dose caused them to go straight into scurvy with all the symptoms.”

I kept smiling but my mind was frantically balancing the two options. The possibility of scurvy symptoms was frightening but if I backed off now my image could suffer irreparably. I finished laying out my grid and crunched cheerfully on the biscuit. The onlookers were not as impressed as I had hoped.

The thought of scurvy had struck deep, and for the rest of my time in the field I made sure that I took my ascorbic acid tablet every day. I also kept my eye open for signs of scurvy but never saw any of the symptoms.

A month or so later we were again gathered in one tent by the Bird Rock depot, with plenty to talk about as we’d just been through ten days of lie-up for high winds. Again the topic of food arose, and this time it branched on to suggested changes to the official box contents. My hobbyhorse at this time was the tin of cocoa powder.

“They could cut that down to a fraction of the size, or only have that in some of the boxes,” I declared loudly. “After all, no one is ever going to get through all that cocoa in ten days.”

Geoff Lovegrove looked up from a parallel conversation group, at that moment discussing possible future lead dogs among the youngsters in the teams.

“We get through all of our cocoa,” he told me.

How could this be? I thought back to when I had tried using more of it and had concluded that one would simply run out of milk long before all the cocoa powder was used up. Now a different possibility occurred to me: instead of drinking more and more mugs of it to finish the cocoa powder, one could just make them stronger. How much cocoa could one feasibly dissolve in a mug of hot milk?

This led me on to an earlier memory, several years back in South Africa when I had been a member of the Isipingo Angling Club. For one of the contests, on a chosen weekend each month a team would fish for six hours on a specified stretch of coastline. Then we would gather at an agreed spot for the weigh-in, and often one or two of the cars would have to wait for some time before the last one turned up. There could be some conversation to pass the time, and with the end of the war barely a dozen years earlier it was not unusual for some of those reminiscences to be brought out.

Most of the others in the team had served in the war, mainly in the North African campaign, but I realised that these tales were not for telling in public. This was a closed group discussing their private memories and I knew that I was being granted a rare privilege in hearing such talk. It was also clear to me that my position was precarious. If I said the wrong thing, such as seeming to question someone’s tale, I would once more be one of those outsiders whose presence brought such sessions to an immediate halt. This became frustrating when I wished that I could follow up some of the yarns to get more details, and one in particular had me intrigued. This came up regularly when one fellow recalled his time on ships where he had enjoyed the naval cocoa or “kye”.

“So thick, you could stand a spoon up in it,” he would tell us, with a fond sigh at the memory.

Was that a physical fact or just poetic licence? I had clenched my jaw to stop myself asking, as it could easily be seen as questioning his honesty – and he was quick to take offence at the best of times. Instead I had resigned myself to the fact that I might never know the answer – but was the answer here, right now at Bird Rock in this tent? Remembering the teasing response from Tony Haynes when I asked about his pom patties, I worded my question carefully.

“Er, Geoff – how strong do you make your cocoa? How much powder do you put in, per mug?”

The group on the other side of the tent was already back on Whisky’s possibility as a leader but Geoff turned in my direction again.

“Oh, we don’t drink the stuff. We put it in the porridge.”

Well, I walked straight into that one.

Then there were small customs that evolved, part of the relationship between the sledgers rather than essential techniques. Kevin Walton and Rick Atkinson describe a camping routine (definitely set on the Antarctic Peninsula rather than our conditions, and in an unspecified year although Walton was there in the late 1940s) where the inside man has tea and buttered biscuits ready for the outside man when he comes in after his own evening tasks, taking care to give him only unbroken ones (Of Dogs and Men, 1996, pp 114-116). In Wally Herbert’s version, probably around 1956, the outside man would have come in to find cocoa in the mugs and his chocolate ration on his rolled-up sleeping bag (A World of Men, 1968, p 111).

We were more relaxed on these matters; although our inside man would have tea ready, any snack was up to the individual. The chocolate had been shared out when we started the new food box (and of course we had brought extra stocks saved from that issued on Base), and anyone preferring buttered biscuits would get his own.

And after the contents of a food box had been consumed, the boxes themselves could have a life of their own. They were reasonably sturdy, they had a good lid with a convenient fastener, and most importantly they stacked well on a sledge. Underneath were four plywood feet, spaced to match the stringers of the Nansen sledge and prevent the load from slipping sideways during travel, and on top were two wooden rails with the same spacing as stringers so that even a two-high load would sit securely.

Figure 9. Nansen sledge being prepared for the field season, with Phil Cotton applying linseed oil to the timber during the winter of 1964. The stringers are the longitudinal strips on which the load will be placed.

Thus almost any item in the sledge load might be stored in an old food box. Each field radio was mounted in one, another made up the U-box (for camping Utensils), the slabs of Nutrican dog food would be transferred to one as the original container was awkward and inconvenient once opened, and I kept my geological equipment in one besides storing my samples in a series of them.

As with the contents, the boxes themselves changed with time although not as often. I found an example myself, when storing Nutrican in them. I had heard that one could fit 72 slabs in a box, and after some trials I found a stacking pattern that achieved this. That was in 1964-5; when preparing for the 1965-6 season I chose a good box with no damage, a more recent one, and painted it for easy identification on the load. But out in the field, when I came to fill it with Nutrican I could no longer get 72 slabs in – how could that be? Then I realised: the newer boxes had a pair of thin wooden reinforcing strips that were fastened along the inside of the top of the long side panels, and these reduced the space inside by a small but crucial amount. Eventually I did find a packing pattern which allowed the lid to close with 72 slabs, but it took an awful lot of trial and error.

Figure 10. Food boxes showing the feet, spaced to match the stringers on a Nansen sledge. The strips on the lid have the same spacing as sledge stringers, for a two-high load to stack securely. Damaged feet sometimes had to be knocked off if they interfered with the stacking. These boxes were used for items that I brought back to Britain at the end of my two years.

Figure 11. Food box from the 1960s being used for souvenir storage (with a copy of a BAS Base Report on top) in the loft of a modern house. This box is one of the later type, with wooden reinforcing strips along the inside top of the long sides. Photo Phil Cotton.

Even when the time came for us to leave the Antarctic behind, those handy boxes could still be with us. For possessions being taken home at the end of one’s stay down south, some such as my geological samples were already packed in those boxes and for other items like documents and souvenirs they could be the most easily available containers for those who had worked in the field. Even back in domestic Britain, with their convenient size and stacking ability many Fids are still using them for general storage more than half a century after the rations within them were consumed.

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