“We could see pack ice were a multitude of enormous floes rendered tiny by their distance below us formed an irregular patchwork as if some giant had scattered pure white confetti on the surface of the ocean.”

Mawson welcomes Theo

The news that I had a place on the 2014–2015 ANARE (Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition) felt like those few seconds in an airliner when it climbs out of the top of the overcast. As the cloud thins and disappears the light grows stronger until sunlight streams in through the windows and lifts the spirits. Looking forward to the certainty of good company and a good life during the expedition, adventure, and not having to think beyond the end of the expedition. Walking up the gangway in Hobart normally banishes the cares of the world.

Everything in Antarctica depends on the weather. Aircraft in Antarctica follow ‘Visual Flight Rules’ (VFR) which basically means the pilots have to be able to see where they are going. There is no air traffic controller equipped with radar to direct the pilot. There are no radio beacons for the aircraft instruments to lock onto and there is no ILS (Instrument Landing System) to enable landing in low or zero visibility. The runway is often a white strip set in a white landscape. This means that for flights from Davis to Mawson the weather has to be good at both stations which is rare. It is quite normal to be delayed for a week by the weather. In general there is no fog and not much chance of rain and in summer it does not get dark. But, there is cloud, wind and snow. Cloud cover over snow can obliterate the horizon and create a ‘white-out’ which destroys all perception of scale and makes it impossible for the pilot to judge his or her distance from the ground. On a completely white landscape lit by diffused sunlight nothing stands out. Crevasse fields, icebergs, ice cliffs, sastrugi (sharp ridges carved in the ice by the wind) and snow covered hills all merge into a white nothingness. GPS satellite navigation helps with finding the destination but good visibility is usually crucial for take off and always essential for landing.

So, there is a scheduled date for the flight and usually the weather is not good enough but it might be in a few days time so we all clean our rooms and pack. Then we might be told to be ready tomorrow. There is an expectation that expedition members will wash their own bed linen on their day of departure so we get up early and wash our sheets. Next the weather changes and the flight is postponed but we might be going the day after tomorrow. The sheets go back into the washing machine again after two days then the expected good weather does not happen and so it goes on. Those sheets get really clean. It feels like camping in a departure lounge. There is a dreadful temptation to ask anybody who is connected with flying, AGSOs (Air Ground Support Officers), pilots, meteorologists, station leader, when she or he thinks the flight might happen. Since all the available information has already been disseminated this temptation has to be resisted and potential passengers just spread rumours amongst themselves. Eventually, just as I begin to unpack a few things ,somebody pokes their head round the door and says “be ready to go in half an hour”. Well it is not always exactly like that but the gist of the foregoing description is true.

Flight FBAAP3 from Davis to Mawson was no exception and after two weeks waiting for the weather the AGSOs drove us across the sea ice to the waiting Twin Otter aircraft. The Twin Otter is often described as a sort of aerial Land Rover because it can land and take off almost anywhere but in reality it has a much more pleasing and sensual shape than a Land Rover. People have been known to take a Sunday walk across the ice just to look at a Twin Otter.

On take-off, each of the two pilots puts a hand on the throttles so one covers the others hand. It somehow gives a sense of security when you see it. I wonder if it would take two people holding the steering wheel to drive a Land Rover on ice.

Passengers, pilots and luggage share the same cabin with the cargo in the middle of the aircraft between the passengers at the back and the pilots at the front. One or other of the pilots looked back to smile encouragingly at us passengers every once in a while. The cabin was not cold but intriguingly, frost formed on the inside of the windows.

The view through the window revealed landscapes and seascapes of ice. We could see pack ice were a multitude of enormous floes rendered tiny by their distance below us formed an irregular patchwork as if some giant had scattered pure white confetti on the surface of the ocean. In many places new ice was forming as floating island shards of grey whitening towards the edges, pressing together and overlapping. Sometimes the shadow of the aeroplane could be seen below crossing the gargantuan white icing sugared wedding cake of snow-covered fast ice. Towards the end of the flight, stretches of blue ice inscribed with lines of embedded snow sped by and then we passed the mountains near Mawson and so, into the airspace above the station. After almost exactly two and a half hours in the air there was a roar from the engines and without even a hint of a jolt the aircraft skis touched and ran across the pebble ice near the West Arm of Mawson’s Horseshoe Harbour.

Refuelling operations began and nice people in Hägglunds gave the passengers rides in to the station. There were chocolates on the bed.  

Theo Davies

Mawson Station

November 2014

Clean the webcam day

Here at Mawson we have a webcam located on our main transmission tower. This tower carries a number of antennas used for various radio communications both around station and out into the field. It is also a great location for the webcam due to the height and visibility around the station. Visitors to our website will be familiar with the webcam which provides regular updates of the station and the surrounding area.

From time to time the webcam is moved and seems to point at strange places around the station. We are often asked by staff in Hobart to get them a shot of a piece of infrastructure or as was the case last week, of the sea-ice landing area and the planes as they land. 

With aircraft operations in play it was necessary to climb the tower and give the webcam a bit of a clean. The first question (as asked by my mother-in-law a few days ago) “Why does the camera get dirty when Antarctica is so clean?”. While everything down here is clean we still get bits of grit blown down from the mountains and the surrounding exposed rock areas which become embedded in the camera housing. As such, every now and then we need to give it a quick wipe over.

Before we climb the tower there are a bunch of safety checks performed to make sure that we are safe while working at height. The Australian Antarctic Division provided us with extensive training in Hobart, Tasmania with one of our training courses involving tower rescue. As such Andy and I are both kitted out in a full set of climbing gear in anticipation of a possible rescue. Understandably we don’t ever want to use our rescue skills but as shown in the pictures below we trained in Hobart all the same.

The view from the tower is like everything else at Mawson — unbelievable! Our colleagues at Casey, Davis and Macca are often heard (in their lower moments) muttering “I wish I was at Mawson”.  But I digress…

The climb takes a lot longer than the actual cleaning of the camera as it’s important to stop, rest and of course grab a few photos as well. At all stages of the climb I am firmly attached with a safety harness and safety gear and if I were to let go I’d hang there (quite awkwardly) until Andy came to rescue me.

The photos below show the view over the station, out to sea — complete with ‘bergs — and toward the plateau. It is quite a different view to be looking across rather than up at the wind turbine and seeing the plateau behind it.

After the work is finished the climbing gear is inspected and ‘signed off’ as being acceptable and suitable for further use. Just another day in the office. #amazing!

Mawson station webcam