Sunday, January 30, 2005

Crazy Dayz

G'day again,

it has been around three weeks, sorry again! Well, where do I begin? Back when I last chatted to you I had just been abandoned to my task by my boss, which was somewhat of a nerve-wracking thing. Three weeks on and, while not an old hand at it, certainly things are beginning to settle into a bit of a rhythm. I say 'a bit' because it has not been without its events.

To give you some background on this first story, in the first week ofJanuary, McMurdo base on the coast had a record run of hideously warm weather. This is not as pleasant as it sounds, warm on the Antarctic coast means thick fog, snow and nil visibility. We are about as far away as Brisbane is from Melbourne (and care about as much usually as Brissy folk would care about rain in Victoria). However, this affects us quite heavily in that not one flight flew from Mactown to Pole (or to Mactown fromChristchurch) for seven days. We lost about thirty flights. This is a problem as suddenly we are a week short on, well, food, fuel, loo paper,etc, not to mention a bunch of people who were to fly in for a week start seeing their days at Pole dwindle. The short story is everyone started getting very nervous. One consequence is that I get an email three days after Bill has left informing me that Justus' (the previous winterover, whowas due to fly in and train me) deployment had been completely cancelled, even though he was sitting in Christchurch ready to fly.

This certainly made me a bit, well, concerned. There were a number of things Bill and I had not got to, finished with the phrase "Justus will run you through that when he gets here..." So I girded myself the next day for a big fight with the powers-that-be, only to find it unnecessary. The email cancelling his deployment had not been sent to New Zealand in time to stop Justus getting on the plane! So he was coming anyway. Very funny stuff. However, they did curtail his stay from two weeks to four days. So, short story (well, it hasn't been, really, has it?), is that when he arrived - oblivious until I told him, of the controversy of his arrival - we had a very busy few days.

It was very fruitful though, we got some computer stuff solved, I filled in some dangerously large holes in my knowledge base, and he then left, leaving me with a present of a ripper new dose of the crud. Wasn't that nice of him?I have been crud-infested for about four days now and feel quite revolting. I am now thoroughly looking forward to all these new guys buggering off and leaving Pole refreshingly germ-free for eight months!

Last Saturday was the 2nd Annual South Pole International Film Festival(SPIFF). It was nothing short of sensational. Seventeen short films were shown, and I have to say that most of them were nothing short of outstanding. Comedy to serious drama and documentary, it never ceases to amaze me how deep the talent and creativeness runs in a crew here of just over 200. I had an unexpected cameo in the Introduction video. The organiser filmed nearly every 'foreigner' on base saying "Welcome to the SPIFF...blahblah" in their broadest home accent (or language) to give the"International" in the title some credibility. Well, I don't know how i get talked into these things, but I end up doing my welcome wearing nothing but my Australian flag, sitting in the sauna. Needless to say this went down well in front of most of the station. Worse still, he included some out-takes at the end that sound JUST TERRIBLE out of context...I won't go into it. Too embarrassing. People were rolling in the isles, cat-calls, the lot. I was hiding under a table, purple with embarrassment. Ah, the things Iget myself into...

So, things were cruising along pretty well the day Justus left. The next day, in a 'routine' bit of computer fiddling, I succeeded in making the main control computer (which talk to all the different bits of the telescope,instrument and data collection) stop talking to all of these things. Wasn't that clever of me? It of course was realised about ten minutes before I was needing to leave, and so I bounced around the room like a ping-pong ball forthirty minutes trying to figure it out. In the meantime I switched to a backup computer (one of the things Justus showed me, luckily) while I figured out just how much of an idiot I had been. This was unearthed the next day and things put arights, but it was certainly a vivid reminder of the complexity of the thing I run here.

On to social stuff, that day was of course Australia Day and the five Aussies on base invited everyone to a party we hosted in the bar. We had some Paul Kelly and AC/DC on - not one yank there knew they were Aussie, typical! - and there was even some VB to drink, unfortunately. It was lots of fun, included a welcome chat with the Aussie fellas about the current status of the cricket while the yanks sat around and blinked a lot, and finally a rousing rendition of the national anthem, which would have been perfect had we not got the giggles near the end.

It is only two weeks now till station close, which is amazing. The summer has gone very fast. You can feel it in the air though. Walking to MAPO is different, I can hear the hiss of the blowing snow on the ground, and the temperature drops about a degree each day as I walk from breakfast to work. The ice settles on things, and the sun is losing its power to clear it away. I feel the tiny, pretty crystals encrust my eyelashes, and my breath curls into frost on my cheeks and nose. My fingers and face are now feeling the effects of two months in the dry and cold. My knuckles are split like the clay edges of a dam in summer. My lips, somewhat frostbitten the other day, are sore, and raw. I am acclimatised now, and enjoy leaning on the roof railing while the cryogens fill the telescope, and feel the Antarctic sun warm me through my layers. I feel like a small moon, one half of me warm and daylit, the other frosty and chilled. I turn around to keep both sides even.

Last night we had the End of Season party. I have been so sick that I was very worried I would not be able to sing. Some strategic asprin-gargles and well, quite a bit of 'medicinal' single-malt scotch, and remarkably there was no problems! I sang with two of the bands, and since it was the last time to play with these guys, really belted it. It was great. We had the party in the new station - in a nearly-finished wing that I hadn't seen before, which was exciting. Songs included "Take Me to the River", "Shook MeAll Night Long" (that was for you, Nic!), "Black Betty", "You Outta Know"and dozens of others. I was very hoarse by the nights' end but had a ball.

Yesterday, we had another litte unplanned event - a power outage. At 7am Iwas woken by a loud rapping on the door and someone telling me the power had been down on the whole base for thirty minutes. I went from 0-100km/hr inabout 2 seconds. This is a bad thing for my little telescope. One, without power, the dewar doesn't keep cold, and so it warms up from 230mK and has to be cycled again. This isn't too bad. Second, if the UPS doesn't kick in for the telescope heaters, the outside electronics start to cool down. Below a certain temp and pop, whoopsie, dey all break and Jess really starts to earn her money replacing dozens of electronic boards. Third, if they turn the power back on, without me powering down the switches in the control room,things come up in a very bad state, and possibly blow some stuff up. I had my carhartts on over my pjs and I was out to MAPO in five minutes. This is not a nice start to a Saturday with a severe head-cold. I powered everything down properly and gave the ok for them to turn the power on. It certainly was strange to have the entire of the station's power kept off by my whim.Then I spent the morning getting everything back online! It will be much more eventful in the winter, so perhaps a practice run was a good idea.

Finally (haven't I waffled on?!), yesterday before the party, a select few people, connected by a single person, gathered for a small, now annual ceremony near the south pole. In fact, it is about twenty metres away, at the position the Pole was in the year 2000. This was the winter that our good friend, Rodney Marks, died here at South Pole. He was 32, a brilliant scientist, and bloody good mate. Now we leave an Australian flag flying at this spot, 365 days a year. The cold is harsh on fabric, and it tears and tatters. So each year in the summer, someone brings a new one down, and those of his friends that are here replace it. We did so, and then stood there and had a smoke (those who had 'em) because Rodney would drag on one even at -80C, and told our best Rodney stories. There were smiles on all faces, and a comment that Rodney would piss himself laughing if he saw us doing this, and so the quiet ceremony remembered him in the spirit of the man himself.

Have a good one, all of you. Look forward to hearing from you, thinking of you,
take care,

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