Six people, eleven days and hundreds of penguins

Kloa - Mawson's deep field trip

Once a weather window was found, the date was set and the team of six set off on a Sunday morning.

The mission – to traverse over 350km west on the sea ice to Kloa Point to photograph the penguin colony, which had not been successfully visited by a wintering team since 2001! (That’s over 20 years for anyone scoring at home.) Additionally, we were to locate and return old camping caches from the dog-running days, perform much needed hut maintenance, and most importantly photograph the Fold Island Colony.

The team – chef Donna, field training officer Mark, sparky Nathan, dieso Tom, station supply officer Tyson and plumber Ducky.

The situation – to take the red and orange Häggs fully loaded with supplies and the poly sledge carrying LPG for the field huts, and Special Antarctic Blend fuel for the Hägglunds. The poly sledge is capable of supporting 1500 kilos and still floating, in the unlikely event of a break through of the sea ice.

Day 1 - the first night was spent in luxury at Colbeck Hut (97km). Some minor maintenance was completed and dinner was prepared and served by Donna and Tyson. It included a hefty cheese platter, cementing in the ol’ saying that the most important thing to pack for a field trip is the chef.

Days 2 & 3 - the team headed some 68km west to Ledingham Depot. This less impressive but still luxuriously sized hut, affectionally known as a zucchini, would be our home for the next two nights . We completed annual electrical and plumbing maintenance (including installing a new hut vent in place of one that had disappeared since last season). We scrambled up some hills in the local area and visited, from afar, the small emperor penguin colony at Fold Island. It is worth noting that although it was a small colony, the adult to chick ratio was almost 1:1.

Day 4 - some inclement weather had the team on a rest day (little did we know we would be needing it). Dinner was nachos topped with melted cheese. We then packed everything we needed back into the Häggs, left anything we could afford to, as the next three nights would be spent in polar tents.

Day 5 - the team spent most of the day travelling to Broka Island (75km), stopping only for photos and to inspect any drill cracks. Arriving at 5pm, a suitable camp site was found and tents erected. Night one of camping would be a learning curve, teaching us the harsh reality of the environment we were staying in, and just how different it is from staying in the warmth of a heated field hut. Everyone fell asleep with dreams of cheese, biscuits and dinners prepared by Donna. Camping life dinner had consisted of instant soup and dehydrated ration packs affectionally known as, but not made of, RATS.

Day 6 - the next morning in a cool breeze and with cooler hands, we would pack down the tents before a quick breakie of warm water, weetbix and milo - try it, you’ll love it. We then hit the (ice) road for Crooked Island and the Oygarden group. We were hoping to find some historical caches and a suitable camp site at Moonee island before a final run to Kloa Point!

Once at Crooked Island, Tyson’s “skua like” eyes spotted an old camp site where we recovered some glass jars of preserves and old cans – legacy waste from the camp sites that were once used by the dog-run teams. We removed the items, thus doing our part to keep Antarctica clean. After a bit of wandering around the shores and stretching out the legs we found some frozen wildlife, a star fish and an urchin, which was a nice surprise; being something no one on the trip has witnessed this far south before. But enough of the fun, time to get back to business.

Knowing how unforgiving the weather can be if you don’t appreciate it, the plan was to make camp in the Oygardens. But, Antarctica had different plans. We discovered an enormous crack in the sea ice to the south of our track. After multiple inspections and drills and travelling 20 km along it, we could not find a suitable crossing point. What were we to do? We couldn’t get to the Oygardens and we couldn’t head north to Kloa due to dwindling day light and Hägglunds fuel levels.

After a quick conflab and some number crunching from Tommy, the plan was struck to return to Crooked Island. We would make camp before attempting one last run to Kloa Point the next day. But would we make it? So far everything had fallen in place for the trip, but this, our first set back, was certainly on everyone’s mind.

Camping on night two was the polar opposite to the night before (pardon the pun). Everyone had opted for extra layers, an early night and a different flavoured dehydrated meal. I couldn’t write this without mentioning that the “savory steak fingers” are possibly the worst dehydrated meal available (behind tuna mornay) and if you want to know more, contact Tommy.

Day 7 - the sun was beating down and the track was looking good, but the cracks...oh, the cracks! Every time we tried to turn north from the Oygarden group, we found a crack. Most were caused by the pressure of multiple glaciers converging into the bay. Finally, we found a line and we were through! The wind picked up and the visibility dropped, but luckily only for 10 km, and then like something out of a fairytale the skies opened, the light shone through and we made it to Kloa Point!! 106 km!

But where were the penguins?

“Are we in the right spot?” Tyson exclaimed.

“There’s a few penguins” noted Donna. She was right. About 100 penguins were popping in and out of a large crack to the north, but it was far from a colony and notably there were no chicks.

We stood for a while watching them pop, frolic and toboggin their way around the point. After scrambling up the hill to gain a better vantage point, Nathan noted that all the toboggining penguins were heading in the same direction; around the point and south west towards the glacier, before disappearing behind a bergy bit. Could that be it? Could we be so close, yet so far from the colony?

After setting off on foot in the same direction, the moment arrived with the recognisable chirping of a baby emperor penguin! Rounding the berg, the colony revealed itself under the shadow of the glacier. We had done it. We had reached Kloa colony!

High-fives all round, and then the most important part - photos for Barb (penguin researcher extraordinaire). We found a nice view point at a safe distance and spent what felt like hours watching and photographing the penguins. Some were inquisitive, bringing their chicks up to investigate these strange mammals that had appeared out of nowhere (remembering this rookery had not seen a human in generations). We maintained a safe distance, always remaining vigilant to not disturb. After we had our fill (although we could have stayed for days) we needed to head for home.

After another night in the tents, an alpine start and a beautiful sunrise had us on the road to Ledingham's Depot. We did not stop at Broka for another night (much to the disappointment of the team who were all yearning to spend another night in a tent at -20ºC). Amazingly we managed another 106km back to Ledingham. On arrival, everyone was exhausted and in need of a nice rest, but not sitting down, that was for sure!. As we traded photos and laughed about which dehydrated meal we would eat that night, Donna surprised us with mixed veg, mashed potato and lamb shanks (risotto for Mark)! What a treat and a great way to cap off the largest portion of the trip — with a celebration dinner.

Days 8 to 10 - The final legs home included a stop at Proclamation Point to visit the site where Sir Douglas Mawson claimed this area of Antarctica for the Commonwealth, and a viewing of Taylor Glacier emperor penguin colony (from an island outside the ASPA). Those of us who hadn’t previously licked a glacier, gave it a try.

We arrived home on a Wednesday, marking 11 days in the deep field.

A huge thanks is needed to the team who remained at Mawson, keeping the lights on, the water pumping and the food flowing (we hear that we may be rationing chips and gravy for the rest of the year). But most of all, thanks to Mark, Bec (SL), and the team in Kingston for making this all happen. The amount of work behind the scenes is inconceivable and the memories and friendships made throughout the trip will last my lifetime; as I think it will for all on the trip.