Our research campaign for 2003 - 4 has now begun! This year, the University of New South Wales will be engaged in our most complex ogistical exercise yet, with two teams going to the South Pole and two to Concordia Station at Dome C.
I am part of the first Concordia team. Our job is to get in to the Station as early as possible in the season, find out why the AASTINO (our remote laboratory) is no longer transmitting messages to us, and fix it. (Or, if the problems are too serious, at least diagnose what's wrong so the next team can bring the right bits with them to fix it.) The other half of this team is Dr Anna Moore, an instrument scientist from the Anglo Australian Observatory. As well as being possessed of all the skills that the title "instrument scientist" implies, Anna is also talented in an area in which I am sadly deficient - the ability to communicate with computers in a meaningful way. Given the dominant position that computers have come to occupy in the AASTINO (ie, it won't work without one), my continuing poor relationship with software in any of its manifestations would otherwise pose a major impediment to the success of this expedition.
Our flight from Sydney to New Zealand yesterday was uneventful, although the Qantas check-in staff did baulk at the 74 kg of luggage I placed on their scales. In the end, after the usual explanations about going to Antarctica and having all kinds of stuff to carry (including 6,100 resistors to replace the ones the space aliens stole last year), I escaped with a relatively minor excess luggage charge.
I was actually somewhat late in checking-in, as I realised at the last moment that I had forgotten our full-colour multichannel Tektronix digital oscilloscope, and had to swing past the University to collect it. Leaving this behind would have been a disaster, as it is the only one of the three of us that is fluent in both French and Italian. (Admittedly its conversational repertoire is rather limited, but it also speaks about six other languages which means you can leave it set to Chinese when you want to annoy the next person who's going to use it.) Once we landed in Christchurch we took the bus in to Whispertech, the folks who make our very fine Stirling engines. (Regular readers of the Antarctic iaries will know that out two Stirling engines, Sid and Nancy, generate heat and power for our AASTINO throughout the inter.) At Whispertech we collected some spare evaporators, glow plugs and Flame Ionisation Detectors, which we'll need to service the engines. In addition, Whispertech kindly threw in a spare fuel pump and a couple of other components which I don't immediately recognise though I'm sure they'll fit somewhere.
We stayed last night in the Sudima Motel, which has the advantage of being within walking distance of the airport. Anna and I are kitted out in Australian Antarctic ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear which, although adequate for the job, compares rather unfavourably in appearance to the very stylish red and blue ski-suits of the French and Italians ith whom we'll travel to Dome C. Sadly, in our orange/yellow freezer suits we look a bit like workers in a meat-packing plant or, perhaps more topically, like prisoners of war at Guantanamo Bay. We did get issued with some great parkas though, so once we get to Dome C we'll be better able to act as walking advertisements for the Australian fashion industry.
Our flight from Christchurch to Terra Nova Bay to the Antarctic coast was in a South African C-130 Hercules, operating under contract to the Italian Antarctic Program. Unlike the US and New Zealand Herculeses, this one has proper aircraft seating in forward-facing rows, complete with pull down tray-tables.
The pre-flight briefing was given by the South African load-master, who bore a passing resemblance to what Freddie Mercury might have looked like had he lived to middle age. He explained all the usual things about life jackets and oxygen bottles, and referred us to the card in our seat pockets that explained where the exits are. Despite the fact
that the card appeared to be from an entirely different aircraft, its very existence does mark a major step forward in the annals of Antarctic aviation.
The flight itself was fast (7 hours) and remarkably pleasant. We read, worked on our computers, and tried to identify edible items in our carry-on lunches. After a smooth landing on the sea-ice at Terra Nova Bay we taxied across to a small group of vehicles, finally coming to a halt in the usual flurry of snow that engulfed the whole aircraft as the
pilot engaged reverse pitch.
We spent only a couple of hours at Terra Nova Bay, just long enough to stretch our legs, take lots of photos, and raid the chocolate stash. Then we drove back down to the sea ice where not one but two Twin Otters waited to take us Dome C. There's about ten of us on this leg, and we'd all fit comfortably in a single plane if we hadn't also brought so much luggage with us. Flying to Dome C is always huge fun. Being unpresurized, the Twin Otter cannot fly too high without everyone being put on oxygen. So, from Terra Nova Bay you fly straight up to a cruising altitude of 10 - 12 thousand feet, cross the Trans-Antarctic Mountains, and then the watch the Plateau slowly rising up to meet you until you're skimming along at just a thousand feet or so above the snow.
We stopped half-way to Dome C to refuel at Mid-Point Charlie, an unremarkable spot whose sheer isolation underlines the vast emptiness of the Plateau.
Approaching Dome C to land I was secretly very relieved to see the shining green and gold AASTINO, sitting happily on its artificial hill next to the new station. One theory as to why it had stopped transmitting was that it had simply blown up, so at least we can now eliminate that possibility. Our total travel time from Christchurch to Dome C was just over 14 hours - a personal best for me and a delightfully smooth introduction to Antarctica for Anna.