Saturday 15 March 2008

The Expedition Ends..

So this will be my last entry on this blog for the Antarctic trip of a lifetime. A bit late I know, but this is the brief story of our trip back home (The delay in this entry due in the most part to being back at work and the ‘Real World’).

We had a 3.45am call to be at the main Laws building in order that everyone could be checked in and ready for boarding the flight. An unearthly time to be raised from your bed, particularly when the display readout of the weather data read a cool -24.6 degrees Celsius!! (which with the also displayed wind speed of 5.3 knots resulted in a wind chill of approximately -33 degrees!).

The ‘Flight’ we were to board was not exactly a comforting business class affair, but consisted of a 2 stop trip in a 1942 DC3 ‘Dakota’ via Sanae (South African base) to Novo (Russian Base). The plane arrived the previous afternoon and had sat on the ice overnight, the first task of the day then was to find enough methanol from the base to de-ice the wings. For those of a nervous disposition when it comes to flying, the combination of iced wings, 1942 build date, Canadian crew and extended flight over the most inhospitable environment on the planet did not look good. Still, no one seemed to be suffering such nerves, at least not outwardly. The feelings were of anticipation of seeing Antarctica from the air and delight at getting away from Halley after several months for some.

Personally I was looking forward to the chance of flying over Antarctica, greatly looking forward to getting home to my family, but also sorry at having to leave such an awe inspiring place.

My relatively short trip to this most incredible continent has left a lasting impression. It is easy to see how those who are regulars here get hooked with the need to return. Even the relatively bland (by Antarctic standards) flat ice shelf of Halley grips you. The creaking of the dry powder snow and ice beneath your feet, the crystal clear air filling your lungs, and unlimited visibility totally unspoiled by any pollution create a surreal environment. It is deathly quiet save the mechanical clanking of machinery when the essential machine based tasks are undertaken. Standing on the raised platforms of the base buildings, in silence, looking some 20 miles or so to the horizon with the sun beating down on you through the cleanest air you have ever breathed, makes you think about many things, not least what a stunning place it really is.

As equally lethal as beautiful at times, the speed with which the environment can change from clear dazzling sunny skies, to howling disorientating snow storms, is amazing. Go out at the wrong time, or unprepared with the wrong clothing or equipment, and fail to follow the essential safety procedures, and death will be waiting round the corner, a corner you don’t realise is there because the winds push you around and around without you knowing. No means of tracing where you have been or telling where you are headed, just an endless white canvass with no contrast, you could fall down a crevasse or walk into snow wall you had no idea was only feet in front of you.

The early morning temperatures!

So, enough thoughtful reminiscing, to the trip home..

We zipped across the ice to the plane on a sledge pulled by one of the base skidoos, fully loaded with 18 passengers and luggage. A close inspection of the aircraft revealed that yes, it really was that old, and it really was a no frills trip.

The steep angle of the fuselage, resting on the adapted ski wheels made getting in difficult, snow covered muckluk boots and smooth aluminium floor made for interesting efforts to get to your seat. Seats that were similar in build to an ancient deckchair.

Engines cranked an last waved goodbyes to those from base who had come to see us off. We skipped across the ice surprisingly easily and much smoother than I thought it would be to lift into the skies heading for Sanae.

Three and a half hours of flying in the most basic of aircraft I have ever been in and we were flying over the South African base. In itself this felt like an achievement, the strong fumes of Avtur aviation fuel had filled the plane throughout the trip, I am not sure if the sleep that many had was due to the early morning start, or was induced by inhaling the fumes!

Sanae is as different again to Halley. Its location is on the actual Antarctic continent (not just a moving ice shelf), and it is perched atop a 200ft cliff, surprisingly close to the edge. We turned and landed alongside the base and were greeted by several of the winterers left there for the long dark months ahead.

The first task was to roll over several drums of Avtur to re-fuel the plane. Jumping in to this task suddenly made me aware again of how tough things can be here. Suddenly exerting yourself by pushing along a 45gallon drum of fuel though deep soft snow shouldn’t be that bad, but as I neared the plane my lungs were burning. Heavy exercise breathing in air at around -25 or so degrees hurts. I was left with an irritating cough for the rest of the time we were re-fuelling.

Whilst we were initially told we had no time to visit the base itself, suddenly I was aware of a group of people leaping on a sledge to be pulled by skidoo. As I tried to run over, it set off and a lucky group (including Phil) headed off to the base, the excuse of weak bladders used. I would have liked to have got an up close look, but it was not to be.

Anyway, re-fuelled, more waving goodbye, this time to our co-antarctic explorers from South Africa and we were off again, heading further north to Novo (it has a much longer, much more complicated Russian name, but I won’t attempt to spell it!), the Russian base used as a transit point for many Antarctic trips.

Heading for the Dakota

The Business class seats!

Approaching Sanae at the edge of the cliff

And the Sanae base

Farewell to Halley (in Orange!) from Sanae

We were told as we landed that we were the last to arrive for the flight out to Cape Town and that it would be leaving in about 20 minutes. So a quick disembarkation, some yellow snow breaks and were on the back of yet another sledge pulled by a very smart new 1.4 litre 4 stroke skidoo which was the subject of much interest.

Our next means of travel was a huge Russian Aleutian aircraft, similar to a Hercules, but adapted to carry passengers and cargo. A powerpoint presentation of the safety issues on board, the engines roared and we lifted off from Antarctica for now at least, for the last time. The flight was unusual to say the least. Almost unable to breathe with the hot air ducted under the seats, fed with Russian cheese and ham sandwiches which could have been used chock the aircraft wheels easily and no windows to look out of. A truly international mix were on board, people from Halley (us), the Norwegian base and even I believe some with American accents. To get out of the heat I moved to the rear of the plane, near the 2 toilets (which were 2 chemical containerised toilets strapped up to the plane!) to get some rest on all the baggage sat behind the seats.

The super skidoo at Novo

The Aluetian

'Basic' accommodation
The last Antarctic leg of the trip
6 hours later and we landed back in Cape Town, full circle in 6 weeks. Strange really, the trip down from Cape Town took 13 days on the Shackleton, using ancient and foreign flying means, we returned in just about 12 hours. Also difficult to comprehend, was the huge temperature swing encountered. Having left Halley at -25 degrees, we landed around midnight in the late summer of Cape Town where temperatures are in the +30’s. A 50 to 60 degree temperature swing in 12 hours, strange.
Back in warm Cape Town at midnight

So that is it. We are back, save some waiting to get flights out of South Africa at the busiest time of year, our expedition is over. I have good thoughts and memories, and many, many, many pictures to record my experience. I guess people will run a mile when I suggest showing my photos of Antarctica, I may end up boring everyone with my stories, but hey, why not?

If you have made it to the end of this blog entry, well done, it has rattled on more than I thought, guess the boring stories are here already!

An experience of a lifetime? Definitely.
Something I would do again? Definitely.
Glad to be back with my family? Definitely.
Glad to be heading back to work? ………..

Monday 3 March 2008

The New and the Old

Now that the first new module of Halley VI is clad, it is possible to see the differences of the new and the old bases clearly.

Taking my life in my hands once more, and going up in one of the 'Cherry Pickers' at full height to get some photos, I was able to get a view of the new module B2 in its new blue cladding, with the main buildings of the old Halley V base in the background.

The differences (other than the obvious external views) should be felt throughout the new base once completed. Halley V was built at the end of the '80's and feels like it. Building techniques, materials and standards were different then. The base has served BAS well, but the new upgrade should help the future base staff overcome some of the difficulties of living and working on one of the most hostile environments you can think of.

There is much more detail on how these subjects will be resolved on the BAS website: but life should be that much better for the new station.

So having got to a level of completion for the first season of build, the only post left will be to go through our trip home - an interesting route - which I will add as soon as I can.

The New and the Old

The Halley V main corridor - the main spine through the base, all rooms fall off this main route

The mess room of Halley V - all our meals including puddings served here!

The bar and lounge areas - drinking, reading, watching videos and falling asleep.