Antarctica

Week 1 Christchurch to McMurdo - Back to Antarctica

19th October - 25th October 1999

My arrival in Christchurch was not as organized as I'd hoped. For reasons such as my late PQ, I was not met at the airport when I arrived at 2am! Of course the information about where I was staying was to be given to me by the person that was to meet me. If it hadn't been for the guard turning the tele on every time I turned it off, sleeping on the lounge in arrivals wouldn't have been so bad.

My Antarctic experience really began when I called ASA (Antarctic Support Associates) at 8.30am to let them know I was in. Would they like to come and get me? From then on everyone was very nice to me, and organized everything perfectly. I was met 10 minutes later, taken to the Antarctic Center, and very soon was in a room in the CDC (Clothing Distribution Center) with 50 others watching videos on ECW (extreme cold weather) gear. We were then hearded into room to try all this junk on, make exchanges for sizes, and return stuff we didn't want.

Once this was finished ASA had organized my accommodation at the Windsor (near Cathedral Square). In a zombified state I caught a shuttle to the hotel and wandered around Christchurch for awhile. The deal with deployment is that you are sent a fax the night before which tells you when to be at the Antarctic Center. Well by the time I got back, after having a nice big vego dinner washed down with a beer I could hardly keep my eyes open. And the fax hadn't arrived yet. So I went to lie down for a few minutes and promptly fell asleep. I sort of remember the hotel lady trying to wake me up to tell me I had to be outside at 4.15am, but the alarm at 4am was very unwelcome. The hotel had nicely given us a packed breakfast to go.

The luggage you take down is categorized into 2 types. It's very similar to a commercial flight. You have checked luggage and hand carry. I think the trick is to have as little of both as possible. You arrive, find your ECW, repack everything, make sure you have the required ECW in your hand carry, and get dressed in your ECW. Then you queue, dragging your luggage behind you. Unlike a commercial airline, these airline staff wear fatigues. They not only weight your check luggage (145lb limit for winterers), but you also. You are given a boarding pass to hang around your neck, and you get to watch someone jump up and down on your bags to force it into a cage pallet. This is done before 6am and coffee!!

Then we wait. The cafeteria at the visitors center was open for us to buy breakfast. But otherwise you discard many layers and wait in the lounge. Sometime later we are briefed on stuff I had trouble concentrating on (probably the safety features of the aircraft), and finally we queue again to get onto a bus to be taken to our aircraft.

Our aircraft was a C-141 jet. I'm sure there are more uncomfortable ways to travel, but I haven't experienced them yet. Our squashed bags are in the back half of the aircraft, and the front half has two aisles along the length of the aircraft. These have webbing bench seats on each side - four rows all told. We are seated so that our knees and feet interleave. There are only a few windows, and they are not easily reached. The best way to stretch is to stand on your seat. Together with wearing ECW, ear plugs because of the very loud engines, and cramped conditions, it's like sensory deprivation for 5 and a bit hours. But we were given a nice lunch (ha!) in a brown paper bag.

Finally, and not soon enough, we landed. I could tell because I felt the deceleration and some bumps. We were told we had landed on the sea ice runway at McMurdo, that the weather was a bit cold, and when we get out we should get in the waiting busses immediately. Outside was beautiful! The sky was deep blue. The sea ice was blinding white. The air was crisp and fresh. There was ankle high drifting snow. And the surrounding mountains looked majestic.

I've been told that after Casey I wouldn't like McMurdo. But after 4 days there I decided I liked it a lot, and there are still heaps of things I'd like to do there. I wouldn't winter there though.

McMurdo is a small township, MacTown. There is a main central building with the kitchen, admin, shop, and heaps of other stuff. Around this is quite a lot of buildings with power poles along the streets ruining all the views. There are places to eat and drink (other than the main kitchen were meals are free), a shop, a gym with a small basketball court, and climbing wall, and a church (the Chapel of the Snows). And if you run out of money, they take credit cards and there are two ATMs.

I was staying in room 313 in building 209. I was sharing with only one other person. The room was very comfortable, and we shared a bathroom with another room. Most of the other SP crew were staying in bunk rooms at Hotel California. My ice time got me better digs. I also got a swipe card for the Crary Lab because I'm a beaker (scientist), and thus never had to queue to use a computer. Well someone has to get preferential treatment! If I'd been across the corridor I'd even had a view almost as good as my Casey donga.

The McMurdo environment out of town is very nice. It was colder than I expected. I forgot it got cold in Antarctica. There was plenty of snow around to make the place look nice. It is also in a mountainous area, with Mt Erebus behind the station (not visible), Observation Hill in the station area, Mt Discovery, and the Royal Society Range visible across McMurdo Sound. These are the sort of views you could watch all day.

My favorite part of McMurdo is the history. On station, at Hut Point, is Scott's Discovery Hut (built by Scott's team in 1902), and the cross in memory of Vince. This was the first place I went. I went down with Darren and Zach and spent some time wandering around, taking pictures, and being awe struck. Unfortunately we could not go inside, as this is only allowed under special circumstances (arranged visits etc).

I was especially lucky as a trip was organized after dinner on Thursday to go up the coast on the sea ice to Scott's Cape Evans Hut. It was a wonderful evening to go on a jolly. Mount Erebus had a small steam plume, and the low sun gave everything a nice glow. We traveled in Deltas (sort of like a Nodwell with huge wheels). We stopped a couple of time to look at interesting things, like the Kiwi camp on the ice, a Weddel seal, and the scenery. But I has hanging out for the hut.

The Cape Evans hut was where most of Scott's journeys departed. Having read much about it, it was still a surprise that it just like I'd imagined. It has the stable out the back for the poor Manchurian ponies (with hay still in the stalls), and tools in the garage area (for the motor sledges), a pile of blubber for the blubber stove, and lots of food and personal items in the living area. The bunks have bedding and clothes on them, and the tables are covered by items like they were used yesterday. There is a very famous picture of Scott's 19?? crew around the main table and it made my heart miss a beat to see this picture so clearly in my mind and be looking at that very table with the empty chairs around it.

Around the hut are relics of the expeditions that stayed there. The Stevenson screen (for meteorology measurements) could be used tomorrow. There is the remains of a poor dog chained to a dog post. And up on the hill is a cross in memory of some of Shakletons men. And there are wooden boxes of miscellaneous supplies scattered around.

Back at McMurdo I was doing a bit of work. We spent a day doing aircraft rescue training. I went to lectures on waste management and outdoor safety. I did a few hours volunteer work in the shop. But otherwise I was just waiting to head further south.

It was announced that we would be leaving on Monday morning. Schedules were posted and bag drag was Sunday. Bag drag is another one of those things to try and forget. The process involves taking all your gear up the hill to the MCC (Movement Control Center), and having it weighed. You are given all your details for the flight, and for your arrival at SP. If I'd got organized I'd have got transport, but instead I dragged my bags up the hill in 3 trips. I'll put more effort into the transport next time!

At a more reasonable 7.45am I arrived at the MCC to check in. Again we queued, and then got on a bus, and then waited some more. This time we were flying LC-130 (a C-130 with skiis). I found this to be much more comfortable with more room to move down the isles. There were windows that we could get up and look out of and see the views of the Trans-Antarctcia Mountains. The flight was a more bearable 3 and a bit hours.

When we got out we were standing at the bottom of the world!!

To be continued .......

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