This week we hear about a unique ‘Happy Feet’ moment for a lucky few; and not such a restful night’s sleep for one expeditioner at Mawson.

Did you see the emperor penguins?

A common question when speaking with folks on the topic of travels in and about the great southern continent is ‘did you see the emperor penguins?'

Alas, too many times I have had to simply say ‘one or two'. Not so on Sunday!

Mawson’s blue and yellow Hägglunds, under the leadership of Captain Pete Layt and First Mate Doug McVeigh saw to it that another six expeditioners were taken out on a glorious, crystal blue still day to Auster Rookery.

As if the three hour bumpy journey out over the sea ice through groves of majestic and melting bergs wasn’t fabulous enough (!), a few stops to drill for depths of ice, then ‘This is the spot! Just a short walk from here'.

The regal birds had relocated this season about 6 kms south east of their old haunt to a far more salubrious location, a beautiful sheltered ice amphitheater two or three kilometres across (makes you wonder how they all agree on such decisions).

So, for those of us that see this incredible sight for the first time, it is, for want of a better analogy — like being in Happy Feet.

Chicks all fluffed up in big downy suits, chirping for all they're worth, wings-a-flapping in the heat (−3° C) and the nannies seemingly orchestrating some sort of order in the crèche.

Thousands of birds large and small spread over this massive arena all going about some sort of important business.

We kept our distance and stayed low and still and it still didn’t take long for the official welcoming committee to waddle up to our location for an inspection. Once their initial curiosity was satisfied, a few of them decided to lay down also, happy in our company, a magical moment of a close encounter with totally wild animals!

Many happy snaps, then time to go.

The journey home was broken with a stop at Macey Island Hut, where the comical Adèlie penguins amused us all with their rock stealing antics.

A rare photo shoot opportunity at a couple of massive jade bergs a little down the track followed, with dessert at Paterson Island to inspect a small herd of Weddell seal mums and pups, so laid back, our group barely warranted a change of position for them. Although one young one was most entertaining slipping and sliding for a better spot to get a big mouthful of snow.

A unique day ended back at station with yummy pizzas for dinner and with eight weary but hugely impressed expos.

Until next time, Clint.

Not the most restful night’s sleep

We got to head out for our first ‘jolly’ on to the Antarctic plateau with our FTO (field training officer) Heidi, to learn the skills necessary to safely navigate the many unique hazards Antarctica presents.

I personally had been looking forward to getting out into the field for this training all week after our arrival, so the first half of Thursday morning seemed to take forever as Heidi went through all the equipment descriptions and safety briefs in Mawson’s red shed communal area.

Once we had the bare basics down (about five hours of training) we were ready to load up our quad bikes and head off on the two hour  ride to the Rumdoodle mountain range and the hut located there.

Once at Rumdoodle, and after a hot cup of tea or two, we then set up camp for the night with myself Andrew (plumber), Peter (mechanic), Haydn (carpenter), Brendan (IT/comms) sleeping in a bivvy bag that the wintering crew lovingly described as ‘chip packets'. Heidi (FTO) and Luke (electrician) got their bedding ready in the RMIT Van and Martin (Arts Fellow) set up a polar tent.

With camp ready Luke, Haydn, Peter and I went off to explore the surrounds with advice from Heidi that we could climb the saddle of the Rumdoodle Range between two peaks for some good photos from an excellent vantage point, something that we could not resist. After an hour and a half of scrambling up the saddle we reached the top just in time for the not quite sunset that happens this far south during summer and a breathtaking view of the plateau and surrounding mountains.

We climbed back down to camp for the night in the van/tent/bivvy bags. I settled in for what I thought would be a good night’s rest in my bivvy… how naive I was! After a few hours in the bivvy bag, the grins the winter crew had given me when I’d described my excitement for survival training suddenly made sense.

While the bivvy and sleeping bag was indeed very warm, something I didn’t consider made itself apparent. People exhale a lot of moisture in their breath…moisture that is trapped in the bivvy and due to the cold it condenses and refreezes into ice which then either rains down as small snowflakes (if you’re lucky). Or (if not so lucky as in my case) the katabatic wind starts up and results in what I would describe as being slapped in the face with a wet frozen plastic shopping bag that’s being held out a car window as it speeds past doing 80 kilometres per hour, every 15–20 seconds…pure bliss!

After waking in the morning, after what was for some reason not the most restful night’s sleep I have ever had, we continued training by setting up quad bivvy bags which, fortunately, are much more like a tent than the survival pack variant that I had slept in the night before.

We were then trained in how to recover a stuck vehicle in the ice plateau and navigation with and without the assistance of GPS. We then headed up to Henderson Hut atop Mount Henderson at an elevation of roughly 900m and again there was fantastic views and more pictures.

Survival training complete, we made our way back to Mawson station and the friendly jibes of the winter crew on how well we slept.

Andrew (plumber).