Out and about in the Vestfold Hills
Being a weather observer in Antarctica can have its drawbacks. There aren’t many. The hours can be unsociable (handy for those non-morning people among us) and although the work is varied and mostly entertaining, it is widely acknowledged that any bad weather experienced while on a jolly is the sole responsibility of 'Met'. Perhaps it's because Met has a direct line to the people who 'create' the weather (forecasters in Tasmania), or perhaps its because some people forget to put their weather orders in early enough before their jolly… either way, bad weather is Met's fault.
So, setting off on a jolly in driving snow, poor visibility and zero surface definition… at night… is generally not a good sign. Clinging to (some may say misguided) hopes and dreams of calm clear weather, we set off Saturday evening after shift all the same. With Shane at the wheel, and myself providing some excellent back seat driving, we arrived at Brookes Hut in the late evening as the soft snow just began to abate. There was enough time for a nip of port to warm the bones and a game of cards before we fell into our sleeping bags exhausted.
Sunday, we awoke to a bright though cloudy morning – the snow from the previous evening having cleared – and after a coffee and sausage wrap (some genius forgot the bread) we set off in search of Deep Lake. The preliminary signs were good, with a spot of blue in what appeared to be clearing clouds and yes, no wind! Deep Lake didn’t disappoint, showing us crystal mirrored reflections of our patch of blue sky above the Vestfolds on the opposite side of the hyper saline lake. Even in the −20oC temperatures, not a shard of ice will form on this lake. Too salty they tell us.
After photos of the lake from every possible angle, we took the Hägg out to Iceberg Alley hoping to spot some Weddell seals ripe for the pupping. Keeping a safe distance, we spotted a couple who graciously posed for the two-man paparazzi before we jumped back in the trusty Hägg – ducking and weaving our way through Long Fjord via Ace Lake apple to eventually arrive at Platcha Hut – our base for the next two days of our adventure. The sky had cleared to an astounding blue! Blue sky on a jolly? Surely not! The evening began with oysters lovingly prepared by chef/chauffeur Shane, who, after conceding to a game of Scrabble, fell asleep across two beds just as an aurora sparked up over the hut.
We awoke early on Monday eager to begin the day’s adventures and keen to see if the blue sky we had enjoyed the previous afternoon had indeed stayed blue. As the uncharacteristically weak katabatic winds abated early, it was my turn to demonstrate my superior Hägglunds handling skills. We meandered slowly over to Breid Basin to revisit some of our SAR rescue skills, stopping at any interesting bump and lump for the obligatory photos. Light cloud and no wind meant cold hands and big grins as we again climbed aboard the yellow steed, steadily exploring every nook and cranny on the north side of Long Fjord.
That is where Shane spotted it. Johnstone Lake. Sitting quietly, flat and bare, just aching to be explored on… ice skates.
The episode didn’t last long. It was accompanied by forty year old skates, ski poles and raucous laughter as we wiggled and stumbled wildly, slowly and with arms a-flailing from Hägg to middle of lake and back. To a bystander we may have looked like two baby giraffes trying to take their first steps… on rollerskates… on an oil slick... The necessary photoshoot concluded the relatively painless session before we piled back in the Hägglunds, new-found calf muscles aching.
We crossed Pioneer Crossing to reach Lichen Lake, located in a protected area of fresh water lakes which have frozen clear to trap bubbles coming up from the bottom of the lake. It makes for the most beautiful patterns underfoot. I found it a very humbling experience sharing in such natural beauty accompanied by blue sky, no wind and Antarctica's patented all-encompassing silence. We explored. And we took photos. Of bubbles. Lots of bubbles.
Back at the Hägg it was time for warm tea, cheese and biscuits and a quick reccy up along Tryne Fjord and the old land crossing before heading back to Platcha Hut for tom yum and more scrabble… Ok Shane, no more Scrabble.
And the sky? Still blue…
Tuesday we awoke sore and still grinning over the previous day’s adventures. While Shane tended to some work commitments I introduced Platcha Hut to the humble vacuum cleaner. They became well acquainted. After a quick pack up it was back on the sea ice taking advantage of BLUE SKIES and NO WIND, this time off to park and walk up Stalker Hill, famed to have some of the best views in all the Vestfolds. Under the neverending blue skies, the views over the clear frozen Lake Zvezda and Bisernoye all the way back to the sea ice and icebergs were well, pretty astounding. Easily the best weather you could ask for to climb one of the highest peaks in the Vestfolds.
The area around Platcha entertained us for hours (satisfying Jen’s obsessions for fresh water lakes and bubbles! So many bubbles!) before we realised we should make a move in the direction of Bandits (with another brief sideline into our new found passion for figure skating at Pioneer Crossing). From here I find it necessary to point out that clear skies + little wind = very cold temperatures in Antarctica. In the shade of Pioneer Crossing I retreated to the warm Hägg to drink warm tea and quietly admire Shane’s quickly improving skating prowess. The key, he found, is tying the boots up tightly.
When we did finally make it to Bandits, tired and hungry for the gourmet lamb rack we’d been saving for the occasion, the sun was dipping low in the sky. Bandits Hut sits atop a hill on an island at the end (or mouth depending on which direction you approach it from) of Tryne Fjord. Over time, a series of icebergs have become trapped/locked in be the sea ice and islands; the result of which is a spectacular vista. As the sun dipped lower in the sky and our eyelids drooped lower on our faces, we realised that the light being cast on the bergs by the colourful sunset was about the best you could ask for. Lamb rack was placed into warm water for our return (to stop it from refreezing), Canada goose-down jackets donned, camera gear collected and off we set to the icebergs.
The results were spectacular. The pastel shades of the sunset reflected from the plateau painted the bergs in pinks and purples and blues. We spotted one lonely Weddell enjoying the glow of last light, took hundreds upon hundreds of photos and returned to the hut on twilight for that sumptuous lamb rack. Exhausted from three full days of the best Antarctica could offer, we slid into our bunks as another aurora began to flicker and snake across the darkening sky.
Wednesday we awoke to a slight breeze at Bandits, with another glorious day of clear skies, we headed straight to the Hägg and spent the day exploring the icebergs from Bandits through to Mikkelsen’s Cairn, and then finally weaved our way back towards Davis taking time to stop (at the frequent insistence of this snap happy writer) to take photographs of ice forms each unique and so photogenic! You’d think after a year in Antarctica these behemoth bergs would lose some novelty. Not so! As the sun began to begin its daily descent towards the horizon we found ourselves at the Jade Berg, awash in the pastel shades reminiscent of the previous day’s end.
We returned to Davis. Speechless.
It is hard to shake the overwhelming positivity from this trip for Shane and myself. The weather; clear skies and little wind… in this place…. wow.
Blue skies on a jolly with Jen? Unheard of!
With just under a month until the ship is due to take us home from Antarctica the focus from everyone on station is mainly on everything off station. It’s trips like this that make you understand why people, indeed why WE were so drawn to this place, that remind each of us as expeditioners just how important this place has become to us, how lucky we are to be here, and just how life changing moments like this can be. Wish you were here.