South Pole Diaries 2001/02



Friday 11th January

From John Storey.....

Photo by: Jon Lawrence Lunchtime on Thursday saw us out at the International Antarctic Centre, Christchurch. After changing into about 10 kg of Extreme Cold Weather Gear and adding a further few kilos of paperbacks, cameras etc into our parka pockets, we lumbered around to the departure area to check in.

This year the pre-flight briefing included not only the Antarctic safety briefing, but also a C-130 aircraft briefing which detailed all the many things that can go wrong in flight and how little you can actually do about it.

There was also a demonstration of how to put on the EPOS (Emergency Passenger Oxygen System) that is used in case of depressurisation. The EPOS is a plastic bag you stick over your head (with the silver tape to the back - or maybe it was to the front), having first undone it from 25 layers of packaging, identified tab A and pulled the red button (or maybe
it was blue). You then listen for the faint hissing sound (over the roar of four Hercules engines and the screams of the other passengers). If there is no hissing sound there is no oxygen and you will suffocate if you put the bag on your head - maybe you should have pulled tab A and simply admired the blue button.

I much preferred the briefing we were given at McMurdo a few years back, that went something like. "If the plane depressurises you will quickly lose consciousness, because you won't be able to figure out how to use the EPOS. But don't worry, we'll be diving at umpteen thousand feet per minute and you come to again shortly."

There was also a most implausible life jacket that looked for all the world like a horse's bridle. When you pull tab A there are big yellow things that shoot out and keep you afloat. It wasn't clear why you would want to keep afloat, with the water at -2 C.

After the briefing came the usual delay while they tried to find a plane with all four engines working. To fill the time we were shown a video on the NZ Antarctic program, which was a lot of fun. Unfortunately, when it finished, the TV switched automatically to a local station which was carrying an advertisement explaining how much trouble you save your loved
ones by purchasing a prearranged funeral package. We all wished we'd paid more attention during the EPOS briefing.

Photo by: Jon Lawrence Finally at 7 PM the Hercules headed out onto the runway. Inside some 50 or so passengers were sitting in four rows facing each other, on webbing seats only slightly too narrow, and with knees touching those of the person opposite. Enormous night-lunches - each one enough to feed a family of 4 for about a week - were handed out to everyone and this added to the congestion.

A couple of hours into the flight people had started to rearrange themselves, with elbows resting on other people's faces and big white "bunny" boots pushed against anything soft that wasn't part of your own anatomy. Sleep was clearly impossible and it would have been too dark to read, except that Bob Pernic had a beaut little headband with white
light-emitting diodes on it - sort of a high-tech version of those things coal miners used to wear. This cast enough light not only for Bob to read his book, but for everyone else in the vicinity as well.

About four hours into the flight the crew demonstrated their sense of humour by winding the cabin temperature up to around 30 C. Everyone removed as much clothing as they could while still retaining basic decency, and the compartment became a huge tangled pile of legs, feet, parkas, boots and heads - none of which could be confidently identified as
belonging to anyone in particular. Unfortunately the person sitting next to me had the build and general dimensions of a 200 kg gorilla, reducing my personal space to well below even my modest requirements.

Many people clearly wished they'd listened to their mother's advice and taken up a career in real estate. In fact, the person opposite me was reading a book on how to make a fortune in that very field. His lips were moving as he read - he'll need to learn not to that if he's going to make the big time in property sales (maybe that's in chapter 4 of the book).

After nine hours we landed at McMurdo - this was perhaps the longest and most uncomfortable of the 30 or so Hercules flights I have done to date. At least we didn't have to use the EPOS.

The ordeal was not yet over, as it takes a further 45 minutes to travel via Terrabus (a humungous Canadian snow-bus known locally as "Ivan the Terrabus") to McMurdo itself. There we were treated to a further hour of Arrival Briefing (none of which I can recall) before being allowed finally, at 6 am, to stagger off to our allocated rooms.

There, a pleasant surprise awaited me. "Woof", my roommate, had anticipated our late arrival and had made up my bed for me. Woof is one of the station carpenters, and clearly a very considerate bloke. (Normally you have to make your bed on arrival. This is often complicated by the fact that they've given you three pillowcases but only one sheet,
two sheets and no pillowcases, or all the right things except they look like they've been used to slaughter a couple of seals on the day before.) I collapsed into bed as Woof headed off to do a day's work making boxes for field teams.

Today (Friday) in McMurdo it is beautiful - crystal clear, a temperature of around zero, no wind, and warm sunshine. I'm wearing less than I was when wandering around Christchurch yesterday. In the bay (McMurdo Sound), two large US Coastguard icebreakers are smashing through a passage for the one cargo ship that will arrive later this month. Watching them crash through metre-thick ice while traveling at a fast walking pace is pretty awe-inspiring. Huge, bus-sized pieces of ice are hurled to one side, then satisfyingly crunched by the propellers as the ship passes. One of these things would be useful to clear a path through the four-wheel-drive boofheads in Sydney next time I want to ride my bike.

We're scheduled for "bag-drag" at 7 PM tonight, which probably foreshadows an early morning departure to South Pole.

Our traveling companions include the Brothers Pernic (Ed and Bob - Bob is the site manager at South Pole for the astronomy project; Ed is the last in a long line of people who've tried to get the TEG working, and is busting to see the Stirling engine) and Wilfred Walsh - a PhD graduate from UNSW Astrophysics.



Further Information