First night out

The ice cliffs of Vanderford Glacier.
The ice cliffs of Vanderford Glacier. (Photo: J Smith)
Rocky coast, ice floes and penguins at Peterson Island.Trevor and Andrew at the melon hut on Peterson Island.Adélie penguins hurry across to see us.The American flag held by Trevor and Andrew, on the cairn on Peterson Island.

7th December 2004

Jeremy Smith, Station Leader

I've had several day trips off station - walking to Shirley Island to see the penguins, going by Hägglunds to Wilkes and to the primary skiway, by Nodwell to Robbo's, and by helicopter to both Jack's and Robbo's - but in all of the six weeks I've been at Casey I hadn't spent a night away. Nor had I visited the southernmost corner of the 'kingdom', the Browning Peninsula area. These deficiencies have now been rectified.

It was mainly a recreational trip, although we also collected an old drum of fuel and checked food stocks at two huts. Andrew, our chef, acted as trip leader and also looked after the food. He had had no difficulty getting a couple of volunteer stand-in chefs at the station for the next day: everyone loves the hand that feeds them especially when it is done as well as he does it! Clinton, wintering mechanic, was driver and saw to our vehicle needs, and while he was about that, he also collected our grey water drum. Trevor, summer carpenter, saw to the first aid kit and some other odds and ends. All that fell to me, apart from seeing to personal survival gear, was the communications.

We were due to leave at 10.00 am on Sunday morning but the forecast was for winds rising that afternoon, so to make the most of the better weather, we decided to leave earlier. I was up by 8.00 am for a quick breakfast of toast and coffee, then grabbed my pack that had been largely filled the day before, and went down to the operations building to collect a couple of radios. The others were nearly ready too, and we soon trundled out of town in relative luxury inside the big Nodwell. Normally we would have taken the smaller Hägglunds but those were all nearing their service times and we are short of engine oil for them until our resupply voyage next month, so the Plant Inspector asked us to take this wide, heavy but relatively spacious and comfortable vehicle instead. No problem!

It was a smooth, fast ride (25 kph) for the first bit, up the bulldozed road through the snow as far as the turnoff to the skiway. Then we cut off right, with only a few canes, occasional old track-marks, and of course the GPS (geographic position system, using satellites to track position and progress) to lead the way across the white expanse. The sastrugi – hard linear ridges of crusted snow – were at an angle to our line of travel, and we lurched across them with varying degrees of violence depending on whether Clinton had seen their true dimensions in time. In places, the blue ice was snow-free and provided intervals of smoother travel. Writhing wraiths of fine snow hissed across the surface in the stiff wind.

The wind eased off as we turned right again, and after some 50 km of travel we dropped down to the rocky outcrops of the Browning Peninsula. Off to our left we could see the ice cliffs of the Vanderford Glacier, extending off for some 20 km to the south, above a glittering dark sea. The hut was across the first icy ridge to the west.

With the weather holding, we were anxious to make the most of it so at once we emptied our packs of inessentials, shouldered them, and set off on foot. About four kilometres lay between us and Peterson Island. We walked variously on weathered bedrock, erratic (glacial) boulders and stones, frost-heaved valley sediments, snow and ice, through undulating terrain marked by rocky hillocks, frozen lakes, long snow ridges, and finally a narrow channel across which the sea ice still extended unbroken. A blue iceberg was trapped mid-channel, and penguin footprints marked the sheets of blown snow that partly covered the flat surface.

We headed for a bay on the other side, where we found the first of three, separate, somnolent Weddell seals. Once on the island itself, our way took us across some low-lying rocks and snow to a deep bay, along which we moved heading for Peterson Hut and a historic site nearby. When we came to a cliff with wheeling Cape petrels settling occasionally on the ledges where they were nesting, and in the foreground some loose floes with penguins riding on them, our progress stopped for several minutes of entrancement and photography.

More penguins came hurrying up to meet us, apparently being so interested in us (though soon lying down on their bellies to view us in more comfort) that they refused to dive into the sea and be photographed while so entering their primary habitat.

So we moved on, up a steep snow slope (lucky the surface was melting and soft providing good foot grip, for the slide had we lost control would have ended in the sea) and over the cape ahead, to find the green melon hut beyond. After checking the food and other supplies there quickly (for we were concerned about the forecast approaching high winds) we looked for the historic site which we knew from the map was just a few hundred metres away.

We didn't know what to expect, but it turned out to be a cairn, within which was a green copper pipe with a screw cap. Opened, this revealed a small American flag (with fewer stars than its modern equivalent), and a copy of a statement to the effect that a landing had been made at that point by officers of the US Navy in January 1948 (nine years before they established Wilkes Station (later replaced by Casey) just up the coast, for the International Geophysical Year). No sooner had we opened the canister than the wind gusted down, threatening to blow away the historic contents as we spread them out to photograph.

Fortunately that big gust was only an isolated precursor to the winds that then held off for another hour and a half, long enough for us to return to Browning Hut in comfort, though with some tiredness. Within ten minutes of our return, the hut was being shaken by the blast. Clouds were twisting above in an angry display of atmospheric instability, and snow from the plateau blew past the hut dusting the rocks and smoothing their outlines.

Although we had all drunk the contents of our water bottles during the walk, we were now in a parched state; the cold dry air, combined with panting exercise, quickly sucks the moisture from a body. So rehydration was our first priority, just as soon as we had melted some snow on the gas stove. Then we could relax with games of chess, magazines, and later bottle of wine to go with dinner - steaks followed by chocolate cake. It pays to travel with the chef!

It was warm in the hut. It is made from insulated panels left over from the construction of the station, and holds its warmth well. And besides, the temperature outside was not particularly cold (apart from wind chill), only a few degrees below freezing. So I was hot for the first part of the night, and had to kick off the sleeping bag, until in the wee hours it cooled down. We woke to a radio sched with Casey, then had a lazy breakfast while the wind still roared outside though with steadily diminishing intensity.

We managed to get away at 1.00 pm. The return journey was uneventful, except that for a period on the plateau we had near-white-out conditions. When the light is bright but the sun is hidden behind cloud, this disorientating condition results in loss of visual definition of the surface. Drifts and depressions become invisible, as does the horizon. Blowing snow further hindered vision, and Clinton slowed down to less than 10 kph, but still we hit a few bumps pretty hard. Except for the marker canes that occasionally loomed out of the whiteness it was almost like flying, with the cracked windscreen showing a blue sky and small clouds above a bigger white cloud through which we seemed to be moving.

We got back with half an hour to go before dinner, a delicious Thai meal cooked by the volunteer chefs. There wasn't much to do: refuel the Nodwell, take the solid and liquid human wastes to the treatment plant (nothing stays out in the field), return the radios and the first aid kit, see to the rubbish and uneaten food, and have dinner, a hot shower, and then a good sleep. We had had been away less than 39 hours, but what a fine break it had been. What a privilege it is to be able to enjoy such an experience as part of one's everyday existence!