Here’s an inside story from Antarctica. An epic mission for the Antarctic Treaty to the world’s most remote places…
The most ambitious inspection tour ever undertaken by the Australian Antarctic Division….over ten thousand kilometres of travel.
When polar neighbours drop in for more than just a visit…
It keeps us honest as well. If we’re going to be a part of the Treaty and inspect other people’s stations and activities, I think it’s a good reminder for us to be really careful and environmentally clever with what we’re doing on our stations.
A journey to the end of the world ….
There’s not many experiences like that on the planet these days. The vastness of Antarctica, it’s an incredible experience, and it’s really unique.
That leaves you with a sense of wonder.
Right, did that really happen? Was that like a big huge dream? Or yeah, that did actually happen, and we actually did do all of those things.
G’day, I’m Mark Horstman from the Australian Antarctic Division. Come aboard as we head south.
It’s early 2020, just before ‘lockdown’ and ‘pandemic’ became everyday words.
An Australian team of four is travelling across the eastern half of Antarctica. Their mission? To inspect stations of Germany, China, Russia, Belarus, and the Republic of Korea, under the Antarctic Treaty.
The Treaty system allows us to actually undertake inspections and look at those nations to make sure that they’re complying with the peaceful scientific research that’s required.
Kim Ellis is the Director of the Australian Antarctic Division and he led the treaty inspection team.
I also think it’s much more than just the idea of checking on someone. It’s about reinforcing the collaborative and cooperative relationships we have. We did official inspections of six different stations, but we also did official visits to another six stations. And they were equally important. We were there to establish long-term collaborative relationships with those other nations.
The journey starts in January, flying south from Christchurch in New Zealand to their Scott Base and the nearby US McMurdo station on the edge of the Ross Sea. This area is known as Terra Nova, named for the ship that carried Scott’s fateful expedition in 1910.
While we were in the Terra Nova area, we were able to fly out to the Italian Station, Mario Zucchelli and use that time to then visit to do inspections. We visited the Italians but did inspections on Jang Bogo, which was the first inspection ever undertaken on that station.
Jang Bogo is a Korean station.
Go and visit Gondwana, which is a German Station, and then also visit Inexpressible Island, which was a brand-new Chinese Station. We were able to inspect those, conduct the first inspections in this remarkable piece of land that is actually where Scott stepped off on his expedition into the South Pole. We were actually at Mario Zucchelli for two weeks, waiting for the weather to clear, and that’s a characteristic of Antarctic travel. Frantic activity to get to a place and then you wait until the weather clears, not just where you are, but where you’re going. I can’t think of a better station than the Italian Station to be stuck for two weeks. They’re absolutely charming people, very welcoming, terrific food, and in this amazing area with a chance to visit lots of different areas. We went and saw a New Zealand field camp on the Priestley Glacier, which was again, remarkable people doing this amazing body of work.
Ok, you’re probably going to need a map at this point, and you’ll find one on our website at antarctica.gov.au. From the cluster of stations in the Terra Nova area, they flew a couple of thousand kilometres east to Australia’s Casey research station and then to Davis research station.
And from Davis we were able to go to two different places. We went up into the Plateau to visit Taishan, which is the Chinese Station. Again, first inspection ever conducted on that station. That’s very high altitude, very cold, minus 25 to 30 degrees, 40-knot winds, a really challenging inspection. But again, great people, very welcoming.
From Davis they also visited the neighbouring stations nearby, the Russian Progress station, the Chinese Zhongshan station, and the Indian Bharati station.
From there we flew onto Mawson Station. I’m not supposed to have favourites, but it is one of the most beautiful stations we have, and one of the oldest stations in Antarctica. And then from Mawson we flew on from there onto the very tip of the Australian Antarctic Territory to visit two quite important stations, Molodezhnaya, which is a Russian Station, it’s been established since the 1960s, and then onto to Vechernyaya, or Mountain Evening, which is the Belarusian Station.
Of all the inspections that we’ve conducted over the years, this is the most ambitious and it’s the most wide-ranging geographically.
Dr Phil Tracey says Australia has done 10 inspections since the Treaty was signed in 1959. As a senior policy officer with the Australian Antarctic Division, Phil was part of this one.
It took me to places that are very, very seldom visited by Australians, or many people at all, and it took me to regions of Antarctica that I haven’t seen before. From a personal perspective, very interested and very excited to be part of this one. From a professional perspective, I think this is a really substantial and significant inspection activity. It’s a really large contribution by Australia to the collective efforts by Treaty parties to conduct inspections and to understand the activities of everybody, and to share information about how we operate in Antarctica. The opportunity to go to places like the very eastern area of Australia’s operations was absolutely fantastic. It’s a place that Australia has a strong interest in and conducts science in, but we don’t get over there very often, it’s fair to say, and so it was a real experience to see that part of the world.
Did everyone know you were coming?
With the inspection regime, the protocol is that we don’t generally let people know we’re coming until we’re reasonably close to arriving. We managed that within sort of a logistic and a safety time frame to give them enough time to be prepared for us. But ideally, the inspections are seeing what you’re doing on the ground, as a normal day-to-day practice, not as a prepared practice. Where we did official visits, and where we relied on the support and accommodation, and clearly, we gave them much more notice for that, and that’s again, in that spirit of collaboration. Every nation that we went to, regardless of how much warning we gave them, welcomed us with open arms. There was no part of any of the stations we went to where we were restricted in access. And we were bristling with cameras. We were really interested. We had a million questions. No question was left unanswered and in fact some that they couldn’t answer on the ground, because they were too technical, we received follow-up documentation shortly afterwards. There were really no limits to where we went or what we did.
Was there any particular station or place that had the greatest impact on you?
I’ve had a really long-standing desire to see Molodyozhnaya itself, and that area. That station was the Soviet Union’s largest Antarctic facility, and I think the Russians still refer to it historically, and probably now, as the Capital of Antarctica for their program.
Molodyozhnaya, now that’s a fascinating place. We’ll come back to that one in a bit. But first, who else was on the team?
These are incredibly intelligent and capable people. Our Antarctic Treaty specialist, Phil Tracey, Phil absolutely understands not just the technical aspects of the Treaty but the nuances and the policies behind it and was able to steer us on a really clear course. Justin, who joined us from the Foreign Affairs and Trade, highly attuned lawyer, very smart, very capable. Our field expert, Chris, has worked in most places in the world in the most remote and extreme environments and is the nicest person you could possibly work with. He kept us all safe the whole time.
Chris Gallagher, Psycho nickname, my role is Field Support and Emergency Management Coordinator in the operations section.
Do you want to get called Psycho on a podcast?
[laughs] I don't mind, that's what I was called on the trip, but I can go with Chris to be a bit more professional, formal.
All right. What's your Antarctic experience? How many times have you been south?
Well, I've been down quite a bit. Like I've been going down for the last 26 years, so I've done three winters and 15 summers.
On this trip, as with others, Psycho was responsible for the team’s safety.
Everyone was very open and receptive and listened very closely to each other, and supported each other really well. So it was one of the key safety benefits of our team was the real closeness of us all. When we were doing the inspections, Kim was taking the leadership role, which was fine. That’s what we agreed on, and that worked very well. He’s the Director. He should be doing that role. But then everyone was more than happy to listen to me. When we were in the field, if there was something we needed to consider or think about, everyone was very open to listening. So it was really a very good, tight team. We’re all very close.
But none of this ambitious mission would have been possible without the aviation hub near Davis station.
Hello, my name is Jenn McGhee, and I’m a senior aircraft ground support officer.
Half a day’s travel by snow tractor from Davis station, across the sea ice and up to the plateau, is a ski landing area called Woop Woop.
Jenn was responsible for constructing, maintaining and managing the 1600 metre skiway on the snow.
So we look for a good area that looks like a workable spot to put our runway, and we always face it into the oncoming weather – which is usually to the east – and then we measure out a rough area for the runway we would like and get to work levelling that snow. It’s usually a 10 day recipe we like to make, and that’s drag beaming, grooming, tilling, and pushing snow until we get a nice consistency, and then we’ll do final trim with the blade, and till the surface to get a good runway condition.
Most of the flights were on planes called Baslers, old-school DC3 twin props chartered from a Canadian aviation company. They shuttle between the Arctic in the northern summer, and Antarctica in the austral summer.
The Kenn Borek aircrew, they work all over Antarctica, so we get quite a lot of praise from them actually when they come and work with us and they have to do turnaround. So if the Kenn Borek crew on the Basler do a Casey to Davis to Casey in a day, that’s quite a big day for them right on their pilot duty hours and so our turnaround for them at Davis Station has to be really slick. We have to get their cargo off, refuel them, get their new cargo on, passengers on, and turn them around roughly in an hour, and with minimal crew and minimal infrastructure we really manage that well.
But flying for long distances over Antarctica isn’t always as glamorous as it sounds.
it wasn’t so much the length of the flights, the intercontinental aircraft we use are a Basler BT-70. This is a re-engined DC-3. And in fact, we found out halfway through our travel that the aircraft we were flying in had been a pathfinder at D-Day. It gives you an idea how old these aircraft are. Now, I’ve got no concerns about the safety. They’re a very strong aircraft, they’ve been re-engined and re-avioniced. The problem is that when you’re flying at very high altitude over the polar icecap, you need to go on oxygen. These aircraft use a cannula system, so it’s like you’re in hospital. You have this ice-cold oxygen that these little tubes go up your nose and that’s how you maintain oxygen during the flight. For hours on end? For six hours at a time, with ice-cold oxygen pushed up your nose. And they just reassure you that the cabin service - we had an engineer in the cabin, the service was not part of his ethos, eating leftover sandwiches from the last station and drinking ice-cold water with oxygen going up your nose, it puts flying in a whole new perspective. Suddenly wearing a mask on my flight to Canberra doesn’t seem bad at all.
So one of the big risks is trying to mitigate "Okay, the weather seems fine where we are, but what about the weather halfway through the trip and the weather at the other end?" Sometimes there might be three, four or five different weather windows within the one leg of the trip that we have to try to align, or we have to get an agreement on.
With aviation the windows of opportunity can be quite small, but I think we’re well set up for it because we’re always on call and we’re always ready. So with the great forecasting we have available in Antarctica we really get great opportunities where we know when we’re going to be on so we’re on at that exact time. Preparation is the big key – forward planning and being prepared – so I think that’s why we do really well, when the windows are open, we just go for it.
The way you described the stations, the warm welcomes, the great people, the excellent food sounds a lot like Australian stations. What were the ones where you encountered the greatest difference?
Every station is different, and every station reflects their national culture. I suspect probably both the good and the bad of national culture and there was huge diversity. The American Station was very large and very complex and very fragmented. It was very focused on particular tasks run largely by contractors. The Italian Station was like an Italian village. The focal point of the whole station was one small room that had an ice cream machine and a huge espresso machine and cupboards full of cheese and chocolate. It was an extraordinarily social environment. And of course, the Russians, it was again very different. It was a small team but every Sunday we would all go into the bathhouse, and it was a big communal bathhouse and sauna to wash. Each took their own unique character and put that into their Antarctic Station. And the Australians are no different.
The team visited three Chinese stations on this trip, and for the first time inspected Taishan station, 2600 metres above sea level on the plateau.
It’s very high altitude and we had to undergo altitude training before we went up there. The aircraft when it landed had to immediately have covers put over the engines and generators running to keep the engines warm, it was so cold. The Chinese station team, we were the first visitors they had ever had. They had very little food left over, it was coming towards the end of their summer season and they had put on this amazing feast for us. It was sort of a late Chinese New Year celebration. We had lunch with them and then we spent a full day undertaking a detailed inspection of the facilities there. Taishan is a staging station for their traverse activities where they go up to Dome A.
At Dome A is an automatic astronomical observatory and weather station.
There was a lot of stored equipment and tractors there that we were able to have a look through, including mobile communication and accommodation equipment, as well as their flying saucer-shaped station, sitting there, bright red in the middle of the white of the ice.
There’s a photo of Taishan on our website – check it out.
Quite a unique station, their power generation is buried underground. And of course, each year the snow gets higher, just as an accumulation, so each year their chimneys get higher.
These are diesel generators chugging away under the ice?
Yes, buried under the ice. But to give them credit, as well as the diesel generators, the Chinese were doing a lot of work in renewable energy for their stations. There was a very clever run of solar panels that had panels on both the top and bottom, taking advantage of the reflected sunlight from the ice. And they had just installed a run of micro wind turbines, which again, clever because micro turbines are much easier to maintain and replace than the larger scale that have been used traditionally. Again, very interesting to see the way this was used. Terrific that there was nothing kept away from us, and touching at the end of the visit, they were very reluctant to see us go. They wanted us to stay the night, and our pilot was determined not to leave the plane there overnight.
I might add, all this bonhomie doesn’t detract in fact that this was a formal inspection. The lunch was great, and the hospitality was fantastic, but we were there to inspect each of these stations. Whether it was the Korean Station at Jang Bogo, whether it was the Chinese Stations, whether it was the Russian or Belarusian Stations, we were there to do an inspection. And we had a proforma, we went through the inspections, did it thoroughly, took the photographs and wrote detailed reports.
How important a part of the Treaty system are these inspections? Are they important as a glue that binds people together?
They really are. It’s probably important to note that they’re not seen as a hostile act, they’re a cooperative and supportive activity. They provide an opportunity for parties to showcase their achievements, highlight their activities, as well as letting other parties generally understand that the individual party is complying with the requirements of the Antarctic Treaty, and the Protocol on Environmental Protection.
The principal elements of the inspections are to ensure that the tenets of the Treaty are upheld, that firstly, that the stations are undertaking valuable scientific research. The first thing we ask is, what research are you undertaking? Can you show us that research? Let me have a look at your laboratories and the outcomes of your research. The second issue is to ensure that they’re protecting the environment, they’re environmentally sustainable. There’s a checklist of a whole range of things. Most of them extraordinary mundane and not particularly attractive, like your sewerage systems and your water treatment plants and your rubbish disposal, and your management of toxic chemicals or oils or gas or those sorts of things. There’s a lot of digging around in workshops and underneath buildings and in toilets looking at the way things work. The last principal area is about peaceful use. We looked to ensure that the stations are operated for peaceful purposes. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t military on the stations. And some nations, in accordance with the Treaty, use military logistic support to keep their stations going. It’s not uncommon to see military aircraft and Australia of course, uses C-17s from the Royal Australian Air Force to provide support to our stations, and that’s not uncommon. It’s just ensuring that that use is actually peaceful.
And what did you find?
Right across the board, as a broad oversight, we found nothing that would indicate breaches of the Treaty. All the nations were, to varying degrees, meeting their obligations to undertake meaningful scientific research to keep the place environmentally contained and were operating in a peaceful sense. And I can say quite confidently, we went and looked really hard. We took a lot of photographs and we looked in a lot of corners and we didn’t see anything that indicated a breach of the Treaty. That’s at the highest level. At the lower level, we found a number of areas that we provided advice back to the nations we felt they could improve, particularly in those smaller areas of environmental management.
Which brings us to Molodyozhnaya. It was opened as one of the premier stations in Antarctica in the mid-sixties. A massive station with hundreds of people, it was evacuated at the end of the eighties after the fall of the Soviet Union.
There’s stuff that had been left behind and abandoned. To go and visit their graveyard and see the coffins built out of steel above ground, because the ground is so hard, they couldn’t dig in them. To go to the airfield and see six Ilyushin aircraft still parked there from the eighties just crushed under the weight of the snow and ice.
I think it was important for Australia to be able to conduct an inspection there, and to make ourselves and other Treaty parties aware of some of the environmental challenges that face an operator like Russia. Many of those challenges are shared by Australia and other nations who have older stations in Antarctica, or are in the process of modernising those. But from a personal perspective, getting to that part of the world was very, very interesting, a real privilege, and fascinating to spend time interacting with the personnel from the Russian Antarctic Program. Russia’s very good at doing Antarctic operations, and having a significant amount of time seeing how they do that, why they’re successful in many ways in conducting their activities, and seeing also the legacy of the Soviet Union in Antarctica was fascinating.
Hundreds of buildings and vehicles are left behind at Molodyozhnaya.
Clearly, a huge remediation task to collect these vehicles and ship them all back. But it really was a bit like a museum. There were still calendars on the wall with the last dates ticked off at the end of 1989. There was still food in the cupboards and research notes on the tables. Clearly it had been a sudden and substantial evacuation from the station. And that presents a huge problem and as one of the ongoing tasks for human occupation in Antarctica is to ensure that as our research programs ebb and flow, that we’re capable of scaling-up and scaling-down our activities on the Antarctic continent to ensure that we protect the environment. And there are lessons to be learned from the Russian experience that we’ll be applying in the Australian experience in our master-planning for stations.
The Russian program broadly, and Russia as a government, is aware of and cognisant of the requirements under the Protocol, and like others, makes efforts to progress clean-up and other improvements to environmental performance. The personnel on the ground at Molodyozhnaya were well aware of some of the issues with the station, or the formerly used parts of the station, and were very open in sharing with us information and their views and providing us with access to all of those things that we wanted to see. There’s no sense that they’re in the dark about this.
The weather closed in and the team spent two weeks there, along with the seven Russians working at the station.
There were seven caretakers and with our air crew, there were seven of us, we doubled the burden on their chef. And never a word of complaint and we ate the same food as they did, borscht every day for lunch, porridge every morning for breakfast, mystery meat with rice every night for dinner.
We ended up breaking into some of our emergency rations that we had on our aircraft to share with them, which was helpful. On a future trip, as part of my planning, if I was doing another one, I'd bring some extra food just for those sort of times.
How much do you enjoy borscht?
I’m pretty flexible when it comes to food, fortunately, and the food we had was hearty, really interesting, enjoyable stuff. There wasn’t a great deal of variety, as is the case with many Antarctic stations, but the Russians looked after us really well and it was a great time.
They didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Russian. There was this strange dialogue using Google Translate that often didn’t quite capture what we wanted, but it was enough to get the message across.
What was sort of amusing at the Russian station was we were their children. So the Russian station leader would say to me "Can you get your children and take them up to the runway" and I'd say "Yes, we can do that". Just more along the lines of that slight change of interpretation of wording, but we thought that was quite amusing that we were his children. We were happy to do that and go along with it.
A stay at Molo also enabled a day trip, which for Psycho meant some risk management.
We did also have to cross a crevasse field when we went across to the Belarusian station. So we did have to cross a glacier, that was probably my biggest concern on the ground. But again we had good mitigation, as in we had good gear, equipment, some training, we had a guide and yeah, I think we mitigated the risk quite well.
It’s quite distinct, you do feel like you’re moving almost from one country to another. The transition with the biggest impact for me, I think, was spending time at Molodyozhnaya in a facility that felt different because it was established during the Soviet era, and it had a very Soviet institutional feeling about some of the buildings. Then we spent a day conducting an inspection of a Belarusian station called Mountain Evening Station, which was located around 20 kilometres from Molodyozhnaya. The Belarusian station is new. It’s a compact station, it’s very modern in its design because it’s only been established in the last few years and the, not quite culture shock, but the transition between the two was quite stark. It felt like we were stepping out of one culture into another for a day or so, and then back to the first.
More than a year later, all of the governments involved have had an opportunity to comment on the report from the Australian team about the station inpections. The final report has been shared with all 54 Antarctic Treaty nations. A link to it is on our website.
I think it’s terrific that the Australian Antarctic Division is taking the time and it’s a really important thing to be doing, it’s great to be able to support the project and also to get some good solid findings and see how we can improve how we’re living in Antarctica.
It was really good to learn, to see how other nations and probably even just how little some of the other nations can survive on and I guess thrive on without the latest and greatest of every type of technology. The Russians come to mind. They're a tough breed of people, and they will continue on, and they're very stoic in the way they go about their business.
I think it’s that is rare in the world these days to know that there’s a place that you can take off from an ice runway waving goodbye to your wonderful Italian hosts, flown by Canadians, fly for six or more hours over almost completely featureless white, climbing up and over the shoulder of the Antarctic Plateau, and then come back down into a relatively small coastal outcrop of ice-free rock where Australia has had a station for many years, and effectively back into Australia, a little patch of Australian culture and voices and friends and food. There’s not many experiences like that on the planet these days.
I think the whole operation in the Antarctic is built around the same spirit of cooperation and spirit of a single purpose that is the basis of the Antarctic Treaty system. This idea of peaceful, focused scientific research that actually is benefitting the preservation of the Antarctic, but also, much more global outcomes. Everything that happens in Antarctic has an influence on the rest of the globe. And we saw that as a very common theme in all of the places we went to. These people love Antarctica, and they understand what they’re doing there, and we saw that everywhere we went.
Additional audio: Ryan Osland, The Australian
(king penguins, gulls and waves)
We’re about halfway between Tasmania and Antarctica.
Macquarie Island is a plush green mountain range rearing up from an often lumpy ocean in the middle of the Furious Fifties.
I suppose you could describe it as a bit like living in some sort of nature documentary, Attenborough style of event. In that there is just so much life packed in so close.
3.5 million seabirds and 80,000 elephant seals can’t be wrong.
It’s also home to a tiny community of around 14 scientists, tradies and rangers.
It is quite a surreal feeling to see that ship leave the shore. You look around at each other, and there'll be 14 of us, and you think this is us. This is it for the winter.
Visiting just once a year, the icebreaker Aurora Australis is a lifeline for food and supplies.
Refuelling just means life. If you don’t get the fuel there, you can't stay there pretty much. It provides everything, it provides power, the light, the heating, the whole lot, all comes from the fuel.
Resupply - a little word for a massive operation.
G’day, I’m Mark Horstman, from the Australian Antarctic Division. Come behind-the-scenes for our annual resupply of Macquarie Island, or Macca, as it’s fondly known… (helicopter sounds) …one of the world’s most remote places, at its busiest time of the year, and find out what keeps people coming back.
(ship noise, wind and waves)
It usually takes 3 days to get from Hobart to Macca on the Aurora Australis… (Ship noise, wind and waves) …but going full tilt to beat bad weather and huge swells, you can do it in 2. Running the resupply in 2019 - and radiating calm - is voyage leader Anthony Hull ('Hully').
Yes, a given day can be quite challenging. I think promoting a controlled calm exterior is important when you're in these leadership positions because that filters through the rest of the teams that you've got working, so that's a key attribute, I think, in any management team. But in saying that, some moments get quite hectic and you might have helicopters, you might have people on the water, you might have cargo moving on the water, so once again that safety element of everyone is key.
From the ship, Hully works with his counterpart on the island, outgoing station leader Ali Dean. (tussock in wind) For her, resupply is the last major duty before returning home.
I’ve been here for the past year, almost to the day, and I feel really lucky to have spent that time in such a wonderful, wild place.
In fact, Ali has been a winter station leader at most of the Australian Antarctic research stations.
(tussock in wind)
I’ve had an excellent team here this year. So, there was 14 of us over the winter. And, I can’t think of a problem that we had, other than the pipes freezing, at one stage. I love the station leader role because it’s all-encompassing. So, I get an overview of everything that’s going on station. I love that. From cleaning the toilets to our helicopter operations. It’s wide-ranging. When I first went down south, I was a geologist. So, I went in as a scientist. And, I could see how dynamic stations were and just how everything had to come together, to actually make things happen. And, that’s what I love about being the station leader. I make things happen.
(sound of walking with Kat Panjari)
Incoming station leader Kat Panjari is also no stranger to spending a winter on an Antarctic research station, but she is new to Macca.
My first impressions are just how embracing this island is. It instantly felt like home. It almost has a farm-like feel about it. There's tractors rolling by. There's agricultural-type buildings around the island. You can feel the layers of history on the island, and the scale of it; feels like a small village or a small town, and a community feel about it. So even though it's potentially a very hostile environment, in the middle of the Southern Ocean, it's green and it's a lovely place to live. So I instantly felt at home, which is quite different to being on the continental stations, which can be a little bit more hostile and a little bit more difficult to get used to. So that's been a really lovely surprise.
As the resupply swings into action, helicopters carry sling loads from ship to shore. (Chopper sounds) Amphibious vehicles called LARCS rumble up and down the rocky beach, ferrying cage pallets from the Aurora’s cargo hold.
(LARC sounds; walkie talkie in Green Store)
Some of the first cargo to come ashore is food, which has the new chef Kerryn Oates fully occupied.
We're currently in the green store at the moment, unpacking a year's supply of food. We've many hands, doing a chain gang.
Q: What does a year's supply of food look like?
A: A lot. We're probably looking at about maybe 12 cartons of tinned hams, 20 cartons of tinned tomatoes. We also have maybe 60 to 70 cartons of frozen meat. Just masses of amounts of food, because we don't want to run out through the year, so we probably have more than we need, but it'll all get utilised because people also eat more in the cold weather.
Q: When does the next lot of food arrive? How long do you have to plan for?
A: The next lot will arrive in about 12 months' time.
(chain gang sounds)
As the cage pallets are fork-lifted in, they’re unpacked by a small army of willing workers passing boxes hand-to-hand.
We're doing pretty good. The last two days, we've probably received about 80 per cent of our stores for the year. We've still got a little bit to go but yes, many hands make light work.
Q: It's all hands on deck when it comes in, isn't it?
A: It is, and it's fantastic, but that's what this is all about, the team and the community and everybody helping out when they can.
(chain gang sounds)
Lots of toilet paper and toothpaste to keep us going for the winter, so resupply at Macquarie Island is just that little bit more complicated because we are on an island, because we rely on ship to shore transport and because of the prevailing weather conditions, which just add an extra element of logistical manoeuvring.
(LARC driving up beach)
Remember those LARCs? Well, a Macca resupply is unique for using these ‘boats with wheels’, and the small group of people with the skills to drive them, called LARCies. James Doube is one of them.
I don’t know exactly how many resupplies of Macquarie I've been involved with, but it would be something in the 20s, and there’s others in the group with similar sort of numbers of these voyages. So yeah, it is a fairly happy get together of the group, and at least half of us would be the same in any voyage.
Q: What is it about a Macca resupply that makes LARCs essential?
A: The surf would be, in one word. So, Macquarie Island lies really in the middle of the furious 50s as they're termed, and Australia got a little bit short changed when it came to harbours on our islands. If you go well to the west, you get Kerguelen, which has got these magnificent sort of long gorge like fjords in to it. You go across to the other side to the east, and the Kiwis have got islands with magnificent harbours, and Macquarie Island’s stuck here in the middle, as basically a single strip that runs nearly north south, with no useful harbour at all. There’s no nice little super sheltered bay to bring a barge in to. So, we need a vehicle that can carry cargo through surf, and a LARC really is about the only thing that’s out there, that can do that.
Q: How much cargo have you carried this voyage?
A: Oh, it’s an endless source of debate between us and the helicopters, but of course we carried far more than the helicopters.
It ends up being 128 tonnes ashore and 86 tonnes back-loaded…but who’s counting?
(theme music; elephant seal sounds)
James is also trained as a biologist and a medic. What keeps him coming back though, in any role, is the nature.
The oceans around here are tremendously productive, it’s why all the seals and penguins and everything are down here. But they don’t really, well some of them do, but many of them don’t really like sitting on the ice, for the same reason that we don’t like sitting on the ice. That is that it's rather cold and unpleasant. So, everything that wants to be down here for the food, but doesn’t want to sit on the ice, has to pick these very small pieces of land, these last little specks of green, before you get down in to the land of white. They're all packed in together, and so it’s a pretty amazing variety of wildlife.
In addition, from a vegetation point of view, these are the last bits of green, and so things are right on the edge of struggling, to get enough light and keep themselves going through the winter. So it has pretty unique plants as well, and both the plants and the animals, don’t really have much in the way of terrestrial predators. Naturally there’s almost nothing here. So sure, if you lean over the top of a seal and say boo, it will get a fright, but as long as you give things a little bit of space, most things have got other things to worry about other than you, so you’re remarkably tolerated in their environment, which is really nice.
(elephant seal snoring)
That’s the relaxing sound of an elephant seal snoring. Kat Panjari is keen to meet the locals and explore.
(sound of walking with Kat Panjari)
The thing I'm most looking forward to is our ability to go down island and to walk across those peaks and onto that plateau, which I can barely see under some low cloud cover this morning, and to spending time in those field huts and supporting the rangers to protect this amazing nature reserve.
And that’s the thing – Macca is listed as World Heritage and strictly protected as a nature reserve by the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service. But more than a century of visiting ships left a legacy of feral pests. Cats, rabbits, mice and rats overran the island and threatened wildlife – until 2014, when Macca became the first island in the world to successfully eradicate four invasive species.
Having seen the island for the past year, and then pictures of what it was in the past, before eradication, you can see the changes are remarkable.
Ali Dean, surrounded by tussock grass rippling in the wind.
I’m not very tall. I can now get swamped by tussock that was bare hillsides just a few years ago. And, I think everyone that comes back to Macquarie can see the benefit of the eradication programme immediately, without the thought of rats in the huts and the station, as well.
Keeping it that way is a remarkable duo of dog handler Sue Robinson from Biosecurity Tasmania, and a lively fox terrier cross called Nui.
Nui is an expert at detecting the faintest whiff of rodents… (Nui snuffling) so he’s very excited to see what my fluffy grey microphone cover has to offer.
Since Macquarie Island became rodent-free, which was around 2012-13, we’ve got to be incredibly strict on our biosecurity, to make sure that rats and mice don’t return to the island. Part of the whole process, of which there’s many stages, we have a trained rodent dog to check the cargo before it leaves, as it’s on the ship, and we check the ship and then we also check the station and then receive all the cargo, to ensure that no rodents come back to the island.
Q: So, resupply is the busiest time of year for you? You've got everything coming through your shed here and Nui’s running his nose over all of it?
A: Yeah, that’s correct.
Q: How many tonnes do you reckon? How many pallets? Are you keeping count in your head?
A: I'm not sure of the tonnage, but it’s around 150 items, like pallets and bundles and different things come in, yeah.
Q: Is there a trick to making Nui think that any pallet could be the next one?
A: Yes that’s right. You can't just have a dog working for no reward, and the way they're trained, it’s all reward-based. An actual rat or mouse is a reward for a rodent dog, they get very excited when they smell that, and maybe even get to chase it. But clearly that’s not going to happen here. So, during the process, every 10 or so pallets, I'll put a little vial of rodent scent, I'll get someone to hide that, and it’ll be hidden in a pallet. Then Nui will come along and he’ll go whoa, I got something, and so he goes in to his response, which is to dig, sometimes to bark. He’s rewarded with a fluffy toy, it’s on a rope, so it’s a tug toy, and it's a fluffy thing, and for him, it’s nearly as good as a rat. So that’s his reward, and he knows that if he finds his target scent, then he gets his favourite toy.
Sue first came to Macca in the 1990s to work on eradicating cats.
The seabirds just came back in droves, and that was one of the most amazing things to see, and essentially inspired me to work in the area of removing pests off islands. I've been involved in several other island projects since then. Part of that work is to ensure that the biosecurity is maintained once we have got rid of pests.
Beyond cargo, there’s another side to resupply.
Welcome to pure science fiction down at Macquarie Island.
Kat Panjari shows me into the warm well-lit fan-forced world of the hydroponics house.
Here we are at the warmest, greenest interior on the island.
Q: Is this your home away from home, do you think? Is it going to be?
A: Oh yeah. In the depths of winter, this is the place to be. It's green, it's warm and it's quiet. You can almost hear things growing. So it's a lovely little refuge to pop in each day and do some gardening.
Q: I'm guessing you're a keen gardener or are you just starting out?
A: No, I do have a bit of a green thumb, so it's lovely to be part of that down here. So let's open up the seedlings today. And the pak chois have grown overnight, which is wonderful. So here we have a tray of seedlings that we're trying to establish during resupply so that we can then plant those out for the winter. So we'll just give them a bit of a water. So we've got the tomatoes growing. We've got some cucumbers, some rocket, two types of lettuce - a cos. We've got some pak choi and then I've just planted some basil, some tiny tomatoes, some spring onions and some sage.
Q: Because your fresh supplies won't last forever, will they? How long before they'll run out?
A: Yeah, look, we'll have fresh fruit and veg - we can make it last for perhaps five or six months if stored correctly and if we're lucky, but then you do miss the crunch of a fresh bit of vegetable, so being able to grow crunchy lettuce or capsicum or spinach or rocket and just get those fresh flavours of the basil and the sage and the juiciness of a tomato. It means everything to the wellbeing of an expeditioner, particularly in the depths of winter when there's not a lot of light around to be able to have things that you've grown to hand over to the chef each day. It gives them something to kind of stimulate their design of the menu as well, so they try to keep it based around the fresh produce that we can provide them.
And the other thing, with the light and the warmth, you know, we have been known to drag in a deck chair and a good book and...
Q: And a potted palm.
A: ...and to sit amongst the foliage and just take a little bit of time out. Yeah, it's a lovely environment to be on station.
Nearby in the surgery, the station’s sole medic Dr Kate Kloza is busy unpacking and repacking.
Unlike a medical facility in Australia where you call the medical technician in and they come in and fix your - or do the service on your x-ray machine or your blood testing machine, we don't have that at all here. We have wonderful tradespeople that can do the basics but not that maintenance, so that has to get swapped out on the once-a-year resupply. We only have the resupply time to get that done so it's a fairly quick and - but important effort.
Q: After all the hurly-burly of a week or more of resupply, what's it like when everything's packed up and the ship's weighing anchor and heading for the horizon?
A: You can feel the whole station take a big sigh of relief. People start to feel, I think, a sense of ownership of the community. We start to bond even more tightly than we already have as we find ways to work and live together, and what our community standards are going to be.
What’s a bit different this time is that Macca is the first research station to have a wintering community of 7 women and 7 men.
I'm super excited about it. This is the first time I've had an even split of gender. Normally - well, I shouldn't say normally. Previously, my winters, I've been in a significant minority, including having done a winter as the only woman. The change in dynamics, I think we're a much more natural community having that even balance. I'm really quite excited to see the differences in how we come together as a community.
Back on the ship, the final act of resupply is nearing its end.
One-and-a-half kilometres of fuel hose is being rolled back up after successfully refilling the station’s giant diesel fuel tanks. Brad Collins has been supervising operations like this one for more than a decade.
This year we waited three days I think for the weather window to turn up, and then we drag the hose from the ship, back to shore, set the hose up on shore, do the connections up, put anchor points in place at different points, north, south, to hold it in the right orientation and stops it drifting about. Connect it up to the ship and then go through the checklist and start the pumps.
Q: So, it’s a real dance, it involves a lot of people doesn’t it?
A: Oh yeah, there’s lots and lots of people involved in refuelling here at Macquarie, or any other station. Off the top of my head, I think it’s about 30 people here, involved in refuelling.
Q: How did you go this year? What was the volume pumped and how much was lost?
A: None was lost, which is really good, and we pumped 100 litres short of 240,000, so it’s 239,900 litres we pumped to shore.
And while we’re on numbers, the 16 day resupply also supported 11 science and construction projects, including the early stages of planning the station rebuild.
(people in the mess hall)
Ironically, as the person in charge of the resupply, Hully was one of the few to not actually land on the island this time.
Yes, it would have been nice to visit station, but that's a busy place during resupply, so the opportunities to do something on station wouldn't have been as I experienced in the past. So, in some ways, I was very happy just to be sitting here and doing the role on the ship.
Q: Is that what keeps you coming back, that satisfaction of making things work?
A: It's a good question, the motivation. I think if I could answer it just sitting round in the mess now and hearing the amount of noise that's there and the happiness and the conversation to me says that all the projects that were here on this voyage have met their objectives. So I think there's a sense of achievement for that to happen because everyone's come and achieved what they wanted to do, so I think that's a real reward.
It's time to go. The Aurora Australis starts to quiver as the engines rise in tempo and the ship pulls away from the island.
(expeditioners talking on deck)
From a hilltop, we see orange smoke drifting from some old flares, as the winterers remaining on Macca bid us a traditional flare-well.
(reactions to flares)
It’s a bitter-sweet moment for Ali Dean and her team as they stand on the ship’s deck gazing back at their home for the last year.
Q: It’s at the end of a hectic resupply, is it a quiet sense of mission accomplished, or woo hoo?
A: It's a bit of woohoo and a bit of relief there too, because it's a very tense time, resupply. Just getting it all done and getting it all done safely.
Q: What is it about the small communities in the sub-Antarctic and Antarctic that keeps you coming back?
A: It is the can-do. It is the sort of just - the surprise at what a small group can accomplish if they put their minds to it. Just a huge skillset that you have.
Q: Will you be back, do you think?
A: Who knows? I never think about whether I'll be back but I always leave something to do when I - I never try and do everything in one trip. I think you've just got to enjoy what you do and think, "Maybe I'll be back." I'd love to. It's a fantastic place.