South Pole Diaries 2000/01



Monday 4th December 2000

From John Storey.....

Prof John Storey enjoying a skidoo rideSunday evening saw us wolfing down an early dinner and walking down to the skiway to climb aboard the Twin Otter to Dome C. The Twin Otter is a remarkable aircraft, able to take off and land on a handkerchief. Because of this they've built a short Twin Otter skiway just a couple of hundred metres from the dining room. (The Hercules runway is many times longer, and is much further away to put it on thicker ice.) We were delayed from taking off for a few minutes while about twenty Adele penguins wandered across the skiway. Normally birds are a real problem around airports because they get sucked into the engines once you're airborne. With penguins this is not an issue, you just have to steer around them on the ground.

We then had a most enjoyable flight. The Twin Otter has much more space (per person) than the Herc. It has windows---lots of them. You sit facing forward, as in any proper means of transport, whereas in a Herc you sit across the plane in long rows, your boots crushed against someone's shins and someone else's boots delicately resting in your groin. In the Twin Otter the noise is tolerable without earplugs and flying at 500 feet gives you a great view. The fact that it only flies at half the speed of the Herc is no problem because you're having so much fun.

After about 2 hours we landed at "Mid-point Charlie" to refuel and stretch our legs. Here the enormity of the Antarctic plateau began to sink in: we'd flown over a completely featureless landscape for two hours and still had two hours to go, and Dome C itself is barely half-way across the plateau. Mid-point Charlie is exactly as I had imagined it---a short skiway delineated by 44-gallon drums and black plastic bags full of snow, a cluster of fuel drums, and a small patch of yellow snow.

We arrived around 1 am only to find that Dome C considered this to be 8 pm, which wasn't such a bad thing because we then had a second dinner. Dome C is a wonderful place; from the air just a tiny group of buildings in the middle of absolutely nowhere. The word "dome" implies some kind of geographical feature, but in reality the ground is flat to within 50 metres elevation over a 75 kilometre radius of the station. There are around 35 people here at present, mostly Italians, somewhat fewer French and a handful of other nationalities. There is one woman. The atmosphere is very friendly, the food is terrific and the sky is unbelievably clear and blue. It's a great place for an observatory!

We've been allocated part of a laboratory that the EPICA ice-drilling folk had planned to put ice cores in until their drill got stuck 800 metres down last year. At present it's -20C in there; we've turned the heaters on and it should be quite toasty by the time our instrument arrives.

This morning the station paramedic grabbed me and clamped a thing on my finger to measure the amount of oxygen in my blood. The resulting reading was apparently such that in Sydney under normal circumstances they'd hurl me into hospital and put me on life support. Here, at 3,800 m pressure altitude, such readings are considered only as a mild source of amusement for the medical staff. They write them down in a little book along with your pulse rate and weight, no doubt to be eventually published somewhere in a learned treatise on whether or not Diamox is a Good Thing.

An unfortunate effect of the lowered oxygen content in the bloodstream is that your brain functions poorly at best. One side effect is a loss of judgement. You can write something that you think is incredibly amusing, only to find that the Microsoft Humour Checker has just underlined it in red and the little twisted paper clip thingy is ostentatiously throwing up in the corner of your screen. I guess I just have to learn to live with that.

Speaking of Microsoft, things had gone so well today that I even attempted to connect my Mac to the NT network. I had brought with me a clever little piece of software that I knew would make the task trivial. Anyway, with the help of the station IT guru we got the Mac and the NT server to recognise each other (the server even allocated me an IP number!), but apart from trading insults the two computers steadfastly refused to communicate. Plus ca change...

Late this morning saw the arrival of an overland traverse from the French coastal station of Dumont D'Urville. These traverses are known locally as "raids"---a term that implies we were about to be sacked and pillaged. If so we were in big trouble, our only means of defence being a bandsaw and the nuclear powered icecream makers. Fortunately these raids are entirely friendly and bring with them all the heavy supplies for the station. This one consisted of a couple of dozen large trailers and sleds, pulled by massive Caterpillar tractors. This trip had been unusually slow, taking 14 days instead of the usual 11, as a couple of tractors had broken down and had to be left along the way for later recovery. Most of the station came out to watch the arrival and to greet the new-comers. For the rest of the day the various containers were unloaded and stacked on berms. Many of these goods will be used in the construction of the new station.

Just after dinner the Twin Otter appeared again on the horizon---first the small arc of a vapour trail, then a black dot and finally the bright orange and white plane slithering down the skiway. It brought with it our instrument (SUMMIT) in five boxes, some fresh food, and what appears from the labelling on the boxes to be a French experiment. Each flight can carry up to about a tonne of stuff. Within fifteen minutes everything was out of the plane and loaded onto a skidoo or into the bucket of a bulldozer. Our lab is now piled high with stuff---tomorrow we will unpack and get to work.

By the way, the high-tech electric toilets turn out to be a great disappointment. From the description on the boxes I was expecting technology so advanced it could only have been reverse-engineered from the dunny of a captured alien space craft---possibly involving antiproton beams that would turn the waste material into pure energy and incidentally provide power for half the station. Alas, it is a simply a cremation process that sends puffs of unpleasant-smelling smoke out the chimney. Always black smoke, never white.