Vonna Keller at Mawson station, 2008
Well I've left the last of the Antarctic continent behind me, no more ice breaking, the last of the bergs only a memory. Now into grey unruly seas. After a most extraordinary summer working in the field at all three Australian polar stations, I can't start to describe the wonderful people I have met and the new friendships I've made. Some for the summer, others for a life time. So many new discoveries along the way.
I felt like one of the first polar explorers to set foot on this icy continent we now call Australian Antarctic Territory. Mawson was the most spectacular station of all that I have encountered.The first explorers must have been gob smacked when they first set their sights on the Frammes Mountain ranges, jutting out of the white featureless plateau off in the distance, even as their ship was still breaking through the ice, making its way towards the land's edge. They busied themselves with the enormous task of constructing Mawson station, one of the first of Australia's Antarctic outposts, where they would learn to depend only on each other and their sled dogs for company.
I tried hard to imagine all this as we too were ice breaking through the meter-and-half-thick pack ice 20 kilometres off Mawson station. Advancing only one measly kilometre in four hours of bashing forward and chugging back. I stared at those same lonely mountains in the far off distance imagining the nervous energy of the dog handlers as the dogs raced along on the wind scoured, blue, shinny ice: frightened themselves of being run over by the large sleds that were uncontrollable on such a polished surface and also very aware that large crevasses loomed around every corner (if there were corners) covered by only inches of hard crusted-over snow waiting to swallow them and their dogs whole as they unknowingly crossed over them in their pursuit to discover Antarctica's unknown treasures.Although my Arts Fellows and I traveled in a Hägglunds and the early explorers traveled by dog power or another tracked vehicle designed by the Americans called a Weasel, I continually tried to put my mental energy into that of an early explorer and, in some funny kind of twisted way, I too felt like an explorer myself. Never having been to or navigated at Mawson station, let alone the looming ranges beyond. (I however, have a shinny GPS, finely detailed maps and it is the year 2008.) Still, I found some of that nervous, yet exciting energy that they too must have felt. We navigated our way to Mount Henderson in the Frammes Mountains, not deviating from the GPS heading because those same crevasses that Mawson and his crew so dreaded loomed all around us. Once at Mount Henderson there was a small hut located on the edge of a 700 metre drop. The hut was cold and wearing one's down-filled jacket inside was a must – the small space heater didn't even melt the ice inside.
Down in the valley below lay a couple of beautiful frozen turquoise-blue alpine lakes called Henderson and Hanging lakes. Hanging lake actually looked as if it were suspended in mid-air on the side of the rocky cliffs. A magical and peaceful place. A place where large sheets of ice hang down from the sides of the mountain hundreds of meters above, leaving you to wonder if, after thousands of years, today was the day when it would let go and come crashing down right on top of you as if you were just a spec of dust … Yes, I guess my mind does wander a bit out here, but what better place, I ask myself.We then flew by Helicopters to a mountain called Fang Peak in the spectacular David Range mountains. The name says it all. It quite resembled a wolf's fang – sharp and pointy. As we flew in, we encountered winds that were stronger than those recommended by helicopter safety standards and my body felt electric. When the pilot, whom I might add is most seasoned – it's his fortieth season in Antarctica (yes, forty) – said 'I don't like the feel of this … ' landed in a tight little bowl at the foot of Fang Peak, I felt all the more electric. It was even more windy as we landed and I watched as the other helicopter whizzed in at a sharp right hand bank and skidded along the ice to an unstable stand-still. Next was our turn and we banked hard right and did a little spin as wind rushed off the side of Fang itself before we landed. I could do without that kind of excitement! As I jumped out and began to collect our gear out of the storage lockers on the outside of the helicopter I felt a sense of relief. Craig, one of the arts fellows had to hold on to the helicopter doors so they didn't get ripped off in the strong winds. We ran back and fourth with survival gear as the wind tried to snatch it away. Then it was time for the helicopter to depart and we jumped on top of our bootie to keep it from getting scattered across the blue ice. As I watched uneasily, it spun around in an attempt not to be blown sideways by the wind rushing from Fang Peak and the tail rudder headed right for us. I quickly abandoned the pile of survival bootie, grabbed Craig and dived out of the way. The helicopter was off in a flash, not even realising what had just taken place, and our survival gear was strewn across the frozen ice. We fell down with laughter as the adrenaline raced through our bodies – glad to still be in one piece.
The winds were still quite high and I laid my head down for a well-deserved sleep. This hut was much warmer than Mt. Hendo hut. I felt cozy and soon sleep snatched me away. While I was asleep the fellows had a walk and a poke around the area. Craig named a small but enticing peak after himself. I don't think he was serious but you can't tell with Craig. He is a writer with unruly hair, good attitude and is famous for his bad taste in jokes. We decided he was only allowed so many a day, but I think he always exceeded his limits.
Nick is an Arts fellow too, a visual artist. Originally from the UK and now living in Melbourne, he has a quiet but quick sense of humor and loves a good laugh and adventure.Last, but not least, there's Lynette, a historian from Queensland, writing a book about Syd Kirkby's life. Funny, she lived next door to one of my best friends in a small town there. We hit it off straight away. She is good humored, has a quick wit and is fun to hang out with. After a long hike we enjoyed our two bottles of home brew. We had two for each night out. It was like a ritual. Hey, and I'm not one to break with tradition. Next day we set off on another adventure down to a melt stream and wind scour with crampons and ice axes. The ice was so hard that we couldn't get the axes to even chip the surface of the polished blue ice. The crampons bit into the ice a little and we went as far as we could before it became unsafe. The day was like any other except one thing, today there was no wind. Not a breath! Very unusual to have absolutely no wind on the Mawson plateau. So we relished the day and chugged along in the Hägglunds on our way to Rumdoodle Hut, which is supposed to be one of the best huts in Antarctica. The fellows had a go at driving the Hagg and loved it.
We followed the GPS to the beautiful Masson mountain range and when we arrived understood why everyone loved this hut so much. We spent tireless hours exploring, climbing and taking photos around the Fearn Hill area. There were amazing polished blue ice scours, and glaciers with melt water pouring off and releasing giant chunks of million year old ice. The scree that the ice lands on heats up and melts it from the ground up so it looks like ice blocks sitting on stools all about the foot of the glacier. Some you could sit at like a table, while others were as big as houses. It was a visual wonderland and ice made strange moaning and gurgling sounds, melting and cracking, that made us stop in our tracks and take notice.The sun set and the Aurora that followed quite possibly made it the most spectacular 24 hours that I had spent in Antarctica. The next day we all felt a bit tired and scratchy-eyed after our late night watching the Aurora dance around the sky and behind the mountains like a beautiful piece of silk flapping in the wind. We now were off to Mawson station and navigating via GPS – the barrels that were once on the GPS line had long since flowed with the glacier 500 metres to a kilometre away. We ended up hitting a piece of sastrugi that made everyone come out of their seats. Craig bumped his head on the roof which he wasn't too happy about. Then the big slope down to the station on slippery blue ice where it didn't matter how much break you put on. I just had to keep it straight and head for the first patch of snow I could to slow down. Whew!! That was as much excitement as I need for one day. We then spent the next four nights in a pyramid tent just on the outskirts of Mawson station with the winds howling up to 75 kilometres an hour. I could hardly walk against them. It helped if I carried a heavy pack.
Well, the ship beckons. There is no avoiding her call, we must go and bid our farewell to Mawson and her ghost of the past …