Time flies in Antarctica.

Casey station

Antarctica February 2008

Time has flown. A month has already gone by here at Casey, where I have been guiding arts fellows and scientists in the field and helping with various projects on station.

I have just finished a week helping the aircraft ground support to break down the skiway and pack up for winter. Our last Airbus flight came and went in early February and with it went our aircraft engineers, pilots and aircraft ground support officers or AGSOs — that’s where I fit in.

In early February, the ice breaking ship and Antarctic station supply vessel, Aurora Australis arrived here at Casey to pick up its end-of-season expeditioners, refuel and re-supply stations with food and amenities. On it were my three arts fellows and I couldn’t wait to finally meet them after so many emails backwards and forwards.

Summer has come and gone, and now winter is on our doorstep. Last week we had our first snow for the summer, periods of darkness are now a reality and temperatures are much cooler then normal.

I had a two-day overnighter with my three arts fellows at Wilkes station. Nick Hutcheson a visual artist, Lynette Finch a historian writing a biography on Syd Kirkby and finally Craig Cormick a research writer. Also with us on this trip, a wonderful man named Bill Burch.

Bill wintered at Wilkes station in 1961 at the tender age of twenty-two. He is now sixty-nine and there is not much left of the old station, but Bill's memory brings it alive with his stories, and I could sit and listen for hours.

The hut we are staying in is the only building in any kind of livable state. Almost all of the out buildings are under snow and ice after forty-seven years of blizzards and drifting snow. When the temperatures rise and the snow melts, some of the old station rises from its icy tomb and we get a feel for its past when it was a thriving community.

Bill had many good stories and you could tell he was touched to be in this place again after all those years. For him it was not just any old place, but a place that was a mile marker in his younger years. A place that had changed him for the better — nothing he really said, just a feeling I have.

We had a beautiful ski trip across snow that reminded me of white meringue and crossed the paths of curious penguins, graves of fallen expeditioners laid to rest and old oil drums still blowing around from over two decades ago.

We had a cozy fire that evening and drank station-brewed beers as Bill told his engaging stories. He reckoned it was pretty damn good beer compared to the stuff they used to drink, although he did say they would occasionally come up with a good batch. After a few beers everyone was tired and we decided to call it a night.

Three out of the six of us decided to bivvy outside (no tent, just a light little bag that your sleeping bag fits into). It was −7 degrees. Now it’s starting to get cold. I had two sleeping bags and my down jacket and beanie on, and slept comfortably.

During the night as we lay sleeping a grumpy penguin on his usual track to the rookery stumbled upon us. Well we were just in his way so he didn’t just simply walk around but decided to give us a couple of pecks, sending a squeal from one sound-asleep arts fellow, Craig.

In the morning we woke at 6:00am so Bill could be interviewed from his old station via iridium satellite phone by an Australian radio station. The next day we went to another field hut called Robbo’s.

This hut is near beautiful sculpted sea cliffs, giant blue bergs out the front, lots of noisy penguins and ancient moss beds, the only green plants in Antarctica. We had a lovely day practicing ‘self-arrest’ or stopping on steep snow slopes, topped off by walking around the coast and lunching on the sunny deck of the hut.

The following day Nick and I skied to another hut called Jack’s Donga. Twenty-five km of beautiful coast line and a cracker of a day. The others, Craig and Lynette, didn’t know what they were missing. Just as well because they had a heap of research to get done on station. (Yes, my bloody blisters popped up again on my feet, as if I needed them.)

Not much to see inland but the bergs all out on the coast were blanketed in beautiful evening light and the hut was a welcoming sight.

We descended down to the hut finding the slope was a sheet of blue ice scoured by the winds, which made for tricky skiing as the surface kept changing from ice to hard, crusty snow.

Once inside the hut, we cranked the gas heater on to warm our toes and melted snow for sweet tea. We then feasted on some two minute noodles, cheese and vegemite sandwiches, our tea and chocolate bars. We made it back to station that night in time for dinner which was a bonus after skiing all day.

Day five and we took two inflatable rubber boats to Shirley Island, which is a penguin rookery — smelly, noisy and very exposed to winds. Freezing our whatoozies off in 15km-an-hour winds and −8°C made us walk faster to keep warm and we managed to walk around the whole island in four hours. Skuas buzzed over our heads, they are large sea birds similar to a pacific gulls, and feast on little penguin chicks. They don’t appreciate us wandering too close to their chicks. I had a near miss to the back of the head.

We met our pick-up and had dinner on station.

This is the night when everyone on station lets their hair down. All the re-supply and refueling is finished and the old station leader hands over to the new incoming leader. It is a very touching ceremony.

Then its time for the end of season bash, a big party as all the summer expeditioners will be leaving Casey and the winter expeditioners are left on their lonesome, It’s a tough time for everyone. Casey has become such a tight-knit little community and everyone looks after everyone else. The most unlikely characters become best friends and people meet people and stay best mates for life.

Anyhow you know the rest of the story, sore heads and a frantic packing to get taxied out to the ship for our departure on our way to Davis station and then on to Mawson station. A forty-day round-trip ship tour.

As we are waiting for our boat everyone is having mixed emotions. Some want to stay, some want go and some don’t even know what they want. A few tears and lots of cuddles as we leave behind our latest, greatest new friends. Some for life, some for a summer… none the less no matter how many times you climb on that barge to leave you always feel sad to go. All the winterers waving goodbye and blowing kisses and some fighting back tears of new found loves sailing away. As the ship blows her deafening horns to sound our departure we cover our ears. Then we see all the flares going off from Casey station. It’s tradition and a way of saying goodbye.

As I stand out there on the ship deck watching Casey fade away into a speck I feel tears rolling down my cheeks and freezing in my sunglasses. I’m always moved by the people and the place. Every time I leave I never know if it will be my last…

Arriving at Davis station

My Arts Fellows and I were on the first barge off the Aurora today and no sooner had we got on station then we were whisked away in two helicopters to Brookes Hut in the Vestfold Hills. It is situated on a beautiful fjord with fingers of land jutting out all along its shores.

As I didn’t pack any of our gear (it was already done for us) a few necessities were missing, like water, Nicks drawing board and personal bags. So the helicopter made a special trip to drop it off to us.
The winds were already quite strong and the forecast was for it to pick up even more over the next couple of days, which it did. But we didn't let that get in the way of some serious sight seeing, and we walked all around the surrounding area.

The lakes were beautiful turquoise and some were frozen solid while others gathered large waves at the beach with the strong winds.

We discovered mummified seals and birds, and sun-bleached bones throughout the hills. Navigation was tricky as the Vestfold Hills all look the same. Luckily it was easy to get your direction by simply walking to the top of a peak and looking for the water. We didn’t even need to pull out the compass.

The winds made for a bit of entertainment as you would step off a rock and be suspended in mid air.

We were supposed to go to Platcha Hut the next day but helicopters couldn’t fly due to the strong winds. Not that day or the next day till late. We played numerous card games but no one could quite agree on the rules for any of them, so we abandoned the card games and told stories, ate food and joked around after many walks.

Finally the last day the helicopters were coming and we busily packed up and flew out to Davis station where the elephant seals hung out on the beach and were smelly and noisy—farting and gurgling sounds heavy in the air. We had to stay at Davis station that night as the ship had to pull up anchor and go off shore because it was too windy to hang in the harbour where it could get pushed up on the rocks. So, I slept on the floor that night as did many others because no beds were available. We departed the next day at midday. Quickly saying goodbye, we turned and headed for Mawson station.

Mawson station

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 …