Archive | antarctica RSS feed for this section

people of the south

21 Dec

I’ve been wanting to write one last post about Antarctica. Because (for me) it wasn’t all about the open spaces and beauty and delicious food and luxury. I am fascinated by people, so I was so interested to see how the bases work. The White Desert camp is not far from a Russian Antarctic station and the (a?) Indian base.

On our second afternoon, we saw an approaching ski-doo that looked like it had waaaayyy too many people hanging on to it. Sure enough, it was the Indians! They’d souped up their ski-doo such that it took an extra 5 people (or so) than the normal 3 (maximum) seater. Gotta love the Indians.*

They’d come to have their picture taken with Jenna. She’s quite famous cos there aren’t too many women stationed in ‘Tartica. Having Your Picture Taken With Jenna is (apparently) an important annual fixture in the Indian Antarctic Base calendar.

After Jenna was all snapped out, Ali and I insisted on having our pic taken with some of the team too. At first they were somewhat disappointed to have Ali in the picture, but then after we gave them beers and told them that Ali’s best mate is Gary Kirsten who coaches the Indian cricket side, then we were all the very best of friends!

The next day, instead of making a small journey to visit a penguin colony, a bunch of us elected to do the 12km trek from our camp, through the Indian camp to the Russians.

The Indian base wasn’t very beautiful. Nobody came rushing out to feed us rogan josh (or some other delicacy). The wind was icy-icy. So we moved on.

On our way the Ilyusion flew over us on its way back to Cape Town from the Novo runway. That second pic is my desktop setting at the moment. I just can’t get enough of it.

Trusty guide Stef quickly figured out that in South Africa we have a lot of rock and hills and stones. but we do NOT have a lot of ice and snow. With this in mind, he carefully selected our route to the Russians.

Arriving at the Russian base is fairly surreal. It’s perched on a hillock on the rock oasis and it looks a little like one might imagine an outpost on the moon to look.

One can take an informal ‘tour’ around an exceptionally chilly museum of Russian tanks from the Cold War.

The tanks are taken to the ice shelf by boat and then they drive them across the +/- 80km of shelf ice. Or so I’m told. It was pretty cool.

Then we came across a pole that looked like it could have been the South Pole! (It wasn’t, of course. The real south pole is a darn side more southerly and looks like a candy pole with a big round mirror globe on top with an enormous concrete American base next door where (I’m told) they don’t invite you in for tea or coffee if you have spent months crossing the Antarctic on foot (or otherwise).)

We didn’t recognise too many places. All of them seemed to be a jolly far way away and in the same kind of direction. Except, of course, for the arrow at the top of the pole and our Russian was far from sufficient to decide whether it pointed to the south pole or the other Russian base!

We hung around for a while, drank some tea (thank you, Russians, for giving us tea) and ate some chocolate (thank you, Stef, for carrying the chocolate for us).

Then we were driven back across the ice to our camp by the guy still wearing all his cold-weather gear in a heated car.

At first we laughed at him (“those Russians!”). Then we slowly and sheepishly put all our stuff back on because this guy might have know something about the risk of the car falling into a crevasse and having to lie in the ice that we didn’t know…

*Of course, if the South Africa base had been closer, it could have been either a South African or an Indian ski-doo… We also quite fancy transport that carries more people than it was originally intended to carry.


took my breath away…

2 Dec

At last! Some more ‘Tartica “porn”…

Our most magical day was the day we walked over the “rock oasis” to the edge of the continent and back along the edge of the antarctic glacier.

We strode past the lake…

over the rock oasis…

to the ice waves at the edge of Antarctica. For miles and miles ahead of us it looked like the ocean had been frozen mid-storm. It was, as even my atheist father-in-law remarked, quite biblical.

( I was overwhelmed. And chillers.)

We soaked in the grandeur for as long as the icy wind would permit our nearly-summer acclimatised bodies.

Before trundling back to the glacier, passing a lonesome Adelie penguin along the way… 

Scenes from the glacier front. Just looking at the photos again quickens my heartbeat and prickles my skin.

We crossed an ice lake by walking in the snow that had collected in the cracks (feeling rather audacious).

Paused for a “team photie”.

And then we marched up

over the mountain…

back to the camp below.

Antarctica is, like so many deserts, absolutely humbling. Where ever one is surrounded by sparse life, I think we feel even more alive. No place on earth has less life than Antarctica. No place is drier or windier or colder: it should be a miserable place from that perspective. However, it is a place that has a harsh and stark beauty that is arresting in its majesty. I felt small and exhilarated. And, mostly, privileged: to have visited and to live on such a magnificent earth.

some logistics

25 Nov

[So this post is about some of the practicalities, as opposed to the beauty. I’m still trying to wrap my head around how spectacular a place Antarctica is and how immeasurably lucky I am to have experienced part of it. All the while, labouring at my work work, which needs to be wrapped up by Tuesday when I move out of my office.]

Right until about 45 minutes before we departed, I wasn’t sure whether I would make the flight to Antarctica. One of the gentlemen who had earlier cancelled changed his mind (again!) and was trying to fly in from London in order to catch the plane south which was due to leave at 9am SA time. The timing was going to be a bit risky, but with a good tail wind, he could have made it. (Our pilots were reluctant to delay the flight south as the weather forecast indicated that the weather would turn bad that afternoon.) Only when we arrived at the airport did we find out that his flight had been delayed by one hour at Heathrow. Which meant I was on the plane! Yippee!

We flew into an area of Antarctica called Dronning Maud Land. It’s situated due south of Cape Town and it took the Gulf stream we flew in on about 5 1/2 hours to cover the distance.

The White Desert camp is located fairly close to two scientific bases: an Indian (!) and a Russian base. The Russians (because they’re good at that shit) also run an ice runway every summer to ferry in scientists and tourists and other stuff. The red dot on the map above indicates more or less where all the action is. As can be seen, we were on the edge of the continent and about a 7 hour flight  (including a stop to refuel) to the South Pole.

The photie above was taken with just under an hour to landing. You can see the ice bergs floating in the southern ocean and I’m not 100% sure whether that is ice shelf or cloud in the distance. The solid ice shelf is about 80km wide before the start of the continent.

Just after this photo was taken we were urged to start putting on our layers of “cold weather” gear and our sunnies. We’d left CT on a beautiful morning clad in T-shirts, but as soon as the plane door opened, we had to be prepared for The Cold and bright white ice and snow.

Here is our “team” of lucky last-minute Antarctica travellers on the Novo runway. You can tell how awesome we feel by the size of our grins. It consisted of father-in-law Rick, brother-in-law Ali and three of Rick’s colleagues, one of whom we referred to as Austin “Danger” Powers (guess which one).

I am dressed in my oilskins! I couldn’t find any suitable ski-gear to borrow on such short notice, and most of what I own is in storage. I just layered up a whole bunch of (mainly borrowed) warmer clothes and used my oillies to keep out the wind. It was perfect!

So those Ruskys run a tight, if not kinda cavalier, operation.

Every year they have to test the ice and then they clear a runway that will be able to support a summer season worth of flights in and out of Antarctica. To the left of this photo you will notice the Gulf stream 3 that flew us into Antarctica. To the right, there are some enormous Toyota Hiluxes which are responsible for transporting people around Antarctica. People like us.

[Here’s another picture of the car. In case any of my readers are boys or otherwise into that kind of thing.]

The drive took about 20 minutes across the ice until we arrived at Camp Whichaway, the White Desert camp.

When you consider that everything has to be entirely removable, and that all that is left standing at the end of a season are the bases of the main tents and the guest tents, it’s quite an impressive operation.

The red and grey tents are the staff tents, the yellow ones are guest tents which were only used by one person, the canvas smaller tents are guest tents and the big one consists of a kitchen, a dining room and a lounge/library. They are so fabulous. The wooden square structure is where the toilet is housed.

Because it is (ordinarily) so darn expensive to fly down to Antarctica, the standard of hospitality has to be pretty ridiculously high: people who have loads of cash to spend on a holiday at the bottom of the world are used to the finer things in life. For this reason, each tent is exquisitely equipped with proper camper beds, fluffy blankets (although we were also all given -30 sleeping bags to sleep in), rugs on the floor and heaters.

There is always at least one bottle of  bubbles chilling when the guests return from any daily activity. Not to fear: I took full advantage of the bubbles…

The food was subliminal. Jennamay is one of my finest friends so I knew that the fare would be phenomenal. It was nevertheless loads of fun watching the other guests being blown away meal after meal with the culinary delights before them. In ANTARCTICA!?

Cook sister, cook!. Legend.

I’ll be back with more Antarctic beauty and some snippets of activity and laughter soon. To the A-mericans who read this blog: may you have a superb thanks-giving. To everyone: only one month to christmas. Woop! Woop!