South Pole Diaries 1995    


24th January 1995

From Michael Ashley.....

Upon arrival at the airport, we suited-up into our Antarctic gear and prepared our luggage for loading onto the aircraft. Ten other people were flying with us this morning: some were employees of Antarctic Support Associates, some were wintering-over, two Kiwis were destined for Scott Base, other people were scientists (`beakers' in Antarctic terminology) like ourselves. After a couple of hours waiting around, during which time Sam the working-dog checked us and our luggage for drugs on three occasions (the only time he hesitates is when sniffing John's suitcase - probably as a result of Ludwig, John's poodle), we board the Hercules C130 aircraft. We notice that this aircraft is not ski-equipped, which means that we will be landing on the ice runway about 20 km from McMurdo. Without skis the flight-time is shorter (7 as opposed to 8 hours) due to the reduced air drag.

The inside of the C-130 is very spartan: there is hydraulic plumbing everywhere, cargo lashed down to whatever those little things in the floor that you lash cargo down to are called, and military-style webbing seats for the passengers. The co-pilot cracks jokes about in-flight movies and frequent flyer miles and then leaves us for his spacious cockpit. Despite only having 12 passengers, the C-130 is full of cargo, and we are crammed in like krill.

When the engines start we reach for our ear-plugs to shut out the deafening noise. Then we realise that what we had heard were just the fuel pumps, the real engines are many times louder. Just when the noise level reaches a crescendo, another engine starts up, and so on until all four are humming furiously. The engine exhaust seems to be directly ducted to the ventilation system, resulting in tropical temperatures and a strong smell of Avgas. Eventually, the aircraft begins to rumble down the runway, the throttle is opened, and with a tremendous shuddering and vibration we lift into the sky. After fifteen minutes in the air the shuddering and vibration have continued unabated, and a couple of flight engineers appear with worried looks and poke at various mechanical sub-systems with a 1.5m-long aluminium rod. Ten minutes of poking later, with no improvement, the two shrug at each other and return to the palatial cockpit area.

I am writing this part of the diary on my HP palmtop computer. It is now 5 hours into the trip, and squinting out from one of the half-dozen tiny portholes we can see that the sea is 90% covered in ice.

After 6 hours flying-time we spot huge cliffs of ice on the horizon.

After 7 hours we begin our decent to the Pegasus runway, and 15 minutes later we touch down at latitude -78 degrees. Scrambling from the airplane and turning right (left leads into the propellers, as a sign above the hatch indicates), we are dazzled by the brightness of the Antarctic scenery and the bitter cold of the air. Actually, it was one of the warmest, calmest, days that McMurdo has had recently, but it sure feels cold to us Sydney-siders. The temperature was probably only -5C, although this is just a guess. The drive into McMurdo-proper takes another half-hour, passing New Zealand's Scott Base on the way.

McMurdo is a sprawling collection of buildings built over many years. In some respects it resembles a mining town. It hums with the sound of fork-lifts and bull-dozers, and a ship being unloaded from the port. There are about 1100 people living here at present - that number will dwindle to 144 by February 23 when the last plane takes the remaining summer workers out.

John and I were assigned a room in the ``Hotel California''. We have a filling lunch at the canteen and settle in to our room. John hangs his Antarctic parka up on a wire coathanger, and the parka and coathanger promptly drop to the floor as the hook on the top of the coathanger straightens out under the weight of the parka.

A climb up nearby Observation Hill gives us a panoramic view of McMurdo and its vicinity. The country around McMurdo is very hilly and picturesque, rising towards Mt Erebus, the upper reaches of which were obscured by clouds. We are impressed by the fact that only 10 hours earlier we were in Christchurch, and, despite the earlier description of the flight down, we both feel better than after an economy-class ride in a 747 from Sydney to Los Angeles.

In the afternoon we learn from the flight manifest that we have been allocated seats on tomorrow's Pole trip at 3pm, one day earlier than originally planned. If we can sort out the communication issues, John will be interviewed at the Pole by Andrew Olle on Sydney radio station 2BL on Australia Day, January 26.

It is now 9pm (sorry about the continual changes in tense, it all depends on when I write the entries), and the sun has hardly varied in altitude since we landed. I am going to try to send this message off via the internet connection in the Crary Science Center down the road. Next installment from the South Pole?