Home, work and away: In the Vestfold Hills and other amazing places

Hanger rats

The 17 of us have become great mates over the course of the last ten months or so, but that doesn’t stop us from wanting to get the edge over each other, and so competitions on station are always keenly contested. Such was the case for our recent “Hanger Rat” competition.

The rules were simple, take one of the balsa plane models, make it and see who could fly it the furthest within the confines of the green store. Because the balsa planes came pre-cut in a kit, and no sharp tools were required, the opportunity was also used to have a few Friday evening drinks and bbq.

There’s nothing like model aircraft for bringing out the kids in grown men and much fun was had just trying to get the rubber band powered aircraft to fly, let alone in something that resembled a straight line. After many failed attempts and re-jigging of aircraft, and despite a late charge from Keith, it was decided that Jeff had the most consistent aircraft throughout the evening and was crowned Hanger Rat champion for 2013.

Whoop Whoop weather station service

All of a sudden we only have a few months until the ship returns. The sun is back and it is time to prepare for summer. Up on the ice plateau behind Davis we have a summer airstrip carved into the ice, the Whoop Whoop skiway. As the name suggests, this place is pretty much in the middle of nowhere. From here all you see is wide expanses of ice in every direction. A few shipping containers are on site alongside machinery and the ambitiously named Whoop Whoop domestic terminal. In summer the aviation support crew (AGSO’s) spend much of their time up here, coordinating Basler and Twin Otter ski plane flights from other parts of the continent, and sending fuel drums, cargo and passengers back and forth between here and Davis by helicopter.

In winter we take the Long Fjord sea ice highway by Hägglunds before linking up to the Whoop Whoop connection road. One of the containers on site is the weather station slash toilet. This (no, not the toilet, that’s just a plastic bag in a bucket) was the focus of our visit. In fact the weather station has not been operational for several months. This is to be expected as while it has a couple of small wind generators to stop the batteries losing hope altogether, it really relies on the solar panels to keep it operating. I had some hope that our visit might be as simple as a battery change and a few performance checks of the equipment. But I should have guessed… Given that we have had plenty of sun lately and we still haven’t had any weather data come through on the radio link, it turns out there were other problems. Welcome to Antarctica.

I’d timed this visit so we would arrive in the afternoon when the katabatic winds were most likely to drop. Minus twenty is a lot more pleasant without 20 knots. One of the wind generators was turning freely but the other had sticky bearings and was stationary in the breeze. With the wind dropping off I took the opportunity to do the outside work and set about removing it for overhaul back at Davis. Easier said than done of course. I couldn’t figure out for the life of me how to detach the cable from the unit so I could remove it. I enlisted the brains trust and got Rich to help out. As the wind slowly dropped to nothing, we took out screw after bolt until it was in pieces and we decided to give up. Right about then the wind returned with a vengeance. It was a very cold exercise to put the thing back together just as we’d found it!

Along with a weather station that wasn’t talking to my field laptop, this stuck wind generator problem could wait until tomorrow. The morning coincided with office hours at mission support in Hobart. We made good use of the satellite phone as we worked our way through the problems. The weather station had forgotten all its settings (rather important things like who it was, and what it was supposed to be doing) but once we connected onsite to make it talk to the outside world, the rest of the programming (and other uplifting motivational stuff that the Bureau of Meteorology does for all its weather stations) could be done remotely thanks to Kheyan in Hobart. Meanwhile we amused ourselves by aligning the wind vane measurements to read true. This has to be done periodically when a weather station happens to be mounted on skis! We also did other performance checks with temperature, humidity, wind speed, and barometric pressure, just to prove that we do care for and value each and every member of our weather station family, even if we do let the batteries run a little low in the winter.

After our successful overnight trip away we returned to Davis this afternoon in time for roast dinner and Simon’s weekly documentary. Except for that great aurora last night, we enjoyed warm sunshine throughout and even drove the Hagg with the “sunroof” escape hatch open much of the time. It is also good to be able to go onto the Bureau of Meteorology website from my desk computer and see the first Whoop Whoop weather readings in months. I’m quite happy to say that it is still working at the time of writing. I should sleep well tonight.

Northern Trip

Another weekend off, and another field trip. With weekends getting fewer and fewer, the intrepid explorers on station are taking every opportunity to head out into the field to see the most of the Vestfolds and plateau as possible.

This week two parties headed out, Bob, Mal and Simon headed down to Grimmia Gorge and Cataract Canyon, overnighting at Watt’s Hut, while Rich and Gavin headed North to Wyatt Earp Islands and the plateau staying at Bandits and Platcha huts.

The Northern trip involves traveling on sea ice through icebergs with a wide range of shapes and colours before arriving at the northern boundaries of station limits at Mikkelesen and Sir Hubert Wilkins Cairns, both historically significant sites for Australia in Antarctica.

A weak aurora over Bandits Hut before heading up on the plateau to take in some different scenery. The look across the Vestfolds, brown with its criss-crossing black dykes contrasted with the white of the snow and ice.

After a long day on the quads, we settled into the light show for the evening at Platcha.

The next day saw a little more exploring of the inlets and fjords before calling into Deep Lake to take the monthly measurements. Deep Lake is 52 metres below sea level and is super saline, meaning that despite the water temperature being −16DegC, it doesn’t freeze over.


When one commences work with the AAD (Australian Antarctic Division), that is simply the first of the TLA’s (Three Letter Acronyms) that need to be learnt. JHA, NTR, FTO, ERT, MRU, FTT, SAR, are just a handful of the TLA’s that need to be learnt prior to arrival on the GWC. (Great White Continent. OK, so I just made that one up).

But the one that brings the most mixed emotions is RTA, Return To Australia. The apprehension of seeing family, friends and loved ones is mixed with the thought that our time down here is quickly coming to an end and the pack up process commences in earnest.

Still eight weeks away from the arrival of the BOT (Big Orange Taxi), and already rooms are being packed into cartons and the process of collecting, consigning, manifesting and sorting has begun in earnest. Just last week, the wharf area was clear, but is now a hive of activity as containers are placed ready for easy dispatch upon the arrival of the Aurora Australis.

Two “roads” will be prepared on the ice so that a constant flow of traffic will bring the coming years supplies onto station while allowing all of the RTA items consisting of personal belongings, recycling, rubbish and obsolete or replaced equipment to be loaded on the ship for disposal back in Australia.

Although there is still a few weeks before personal belongings need to be ready for packing into a container, the position of storeman is only a secondary appointment and so to make life as easy as we can on Tim, we are packing up any personal belongings that are no longer required so that he doesn’t have the 17 of us bringing all our cartons to him at once.