Wednesday, 4 January 2017

See you when I see you, not if I see you first - Never ending goodbyes and Valpen returns to the ice.

How far away are you from Casey?
Well when I started writing this I was two hours into the four and a half hour flight down to Wilkins aerodrome from Hobart airport – it’s taken me over two weeks to finish writing this blog post! Normally passengers for the Australian Antarctic Program who fly to the continent go on the A319, affectionately known as Snowbird, however this was not the case for me. I was fortunate enough to go on the chartered RAAF C-17A Globemaster III. The AAD began using the C-17 last year (15/16 season) where a number of proving flights were conducted. These included a simulated medivac, transporting back to Hobart from station a Challenger tractor for service and various cargo bits and pieces – the lads may have had a hit out of cricket at Wilkins at the time. Fast forward to the 16/17 and there are several C-17 flights scheduled for the season. The first C17 flight of the season took the helicopters in for the glacier work that has been conducted at Casey: Impact of East Antarctica glacial melt on sea-level rise, the third saw the successful deployment of 40 drums of fuel in to the Bunger Hills, check out the video here: Deep-field air drop supports Antarctic science and the one that I am on currently (16/12) has a little cargo going in but its main priority is to collect the helicopters and bring them back to Hobart. Yes it’s taken me a while to finish this one!

But let’s step back in time a couple of weeks – how long can you stretch out good byes? Well if you’re me it can be a while. It all started when one Sunday (27/11) I realised it would be my last Metafit Class with the Sunday crew at the Kingborough Gym before I headed to Casey. For those who have never heard of Metafit it is high intensity interval training which takes a mere 30 minutes (that’s one of the longer ones to!). Due to other bits and pieces over the next couple of Sundays were filled up with other engagements. So at the end of the Hammer Fist Metafit it was time to say bye to Tamara and the rest of the crew. I would have one more Metafit session the following Thursday. The Friday that week also saw the finally time for 2016 I would attend Power Hour with Lisa O – things were starting to begin to feel real, time was running out to get everything done before heading south.

Nod and Jennifer Parsons at Nod's ANARE
 Club life membership presentation.
The following week I had lunch with Nod Parsons and his wife Jennifer, Nod was an ANARE expeditioner who went to Macqaurie Island in the early 1950s and in the mid 1960’s as well as to Mawson in the mid 1950s. I met Nod when I was asked to present his ANARE Club life membership in early September this year. Nod was an auroral physicist that ran the cosmic ray huts at both Macquarie Island and Mawson. Nod has a great array of stories including when the cosmic ray hut was built at Macca where they started construction from both ends and no there was not a gap they actually had an overlap. The only remnants of the hut at Macca is a single concrete block on the west side as the hut burnt down some 4 to 5 years after it was constructed.

My next set of goodbyes would be at Cath King’s place where a few of us had gathered to say good bye to the one and only Helena, aka H/H-Bomb. Helena has just embarked on a very exciting adventure as part of the Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition (ACE) voyage which set sail on the Russian research vessel Akademik Treshnikov from Cape Town in South Africa in late December. The ACE projects is comprised of 22 projects, 55 researchers and 19 countries. A number of different projects from biology to climatology to oceanography will studied to gain a better understanding of Antarctica and in turn the whole planet. If you want to keep a track of this what is going on you can follow the journey on twitter:

Louise and I at the Big Ugg Boot, Thorton
The very next day I headed north to the big island up to New Castle and then onto Maitland for my good friend Danielle’s wedding in the Hunter Valley. Danielle was a PhD student who was from Macquarie University in Sydney who did part of her studies at the AAD and I was fortunate to spend the summer of 2013/14 at Casey with her – we were known as the Pocket Rockets. So arriving on the Friday at New Castle airport it was a tad warmer than Hobart then it was hurry up and wait for the bus to take me to Maitland East. Across the runway at New Castle airport is the RAAF Williamtown Base, so while waiting for the bus to show I got treated to a Spartan flying over and two Hornets doing a little bit of a fly by, they were buzzing around. And I also got to see the aircraft that would take me down to the frozen continent the next week – the C-17 Globemaster III. To cut a long story short the wedding was amazing and it was good to catch up with a few of the Casey crew. Whilst also in the area Louise (forecaster with BOM who has been to Davis, Casey and Macca) and I also visited the big Ugg Boot in Thorton It was then back to Hobart to put the finishing touches on preparations prior to heading south. And over that weekend something else unfolded – I found out that a good friend would be returning back to Australia from Davis for medical reasons, just the A Factor hitting early. Lucky for Goldie that he’d get back before I left so he could be greeted by the small welcoming committee that was Cliff and myself at the airport – not sure he’d call it that though he might use other words instead!
Danielle and Reese's Wedding

Before I knew it Thursday rolled around and it was time for the preflight briefing. This consists of a series of short presentations including cleaning your gear prior to departure (the motto is take it clean or take it new) and is important in ensuring alien species are not introduced into Antarctica, about and how to prepare for the flight and what to expect on landing at Wilkins Aerodrome. We were then also briefed on additional safety items specific for travelling on the C-17 before being told we would need to be at the airport at 5:30 am the next morning for a 7 am departure, not too bad but still early. Later that evening we got an updated departure time of 5 am which meant being at the airport by no later than 3:30 am!! This meant I should have had an early night but those that know me well know that this is next to near impossible. After the preflight briefing I returned back to my place to do the final bits and pieces and catch up with Mum and Dad, thanks Geoff for my awesome Christmas present of Family Feud the game. After wood fired pizza from Lower Sandy Bay I then put the final touches on my packing before toddling off to bed, but as is the case before I leave on any early morning flight sleep was minimal.

At the ungodly  hour of 2:15 am my alarm went off it was time to extract myself out of bed, get dressed and move on out to the airport, a big thank you to Goldie for collecting me and taking me out to the airport at that  rather rude hour. The reason for the time being bought forward was that the weather was meant to crack up later in the day and there were two helicopters that needed to be transported back from Casey/Wilkins to Hobart. Leaving earlier meant that the weather time frame would be more amenable to operations. So at the hour of 3:30 some 10 or so bleary eyed people collected at the Virgin Check in area at Hobart International Airport. It was here that Micky from the AAD handed me the newspapers that I was to hand over to the lads at Wilkins Aerodrome. Micky then loaded us and our gear onto the bus and we made the very short journey to the where the C-17 would be waiting. But before boarding our winged chariot we went into a small building with all our kit where we were informed that they would be checking all our kit bags. We filled out a dangerous goods declaration and then it was time for the check which was painless and quick – talk about efficiency. All I had to show them was the spare batteries for my cameras which were packaged correctly with their terminals sealed. We then grabbed our gear and all filed back onto the bus where we sat for about 30 minutes while the flight crew, load masters and technicians completed their checks. We then drove less than 300m to the beast and loaded ourselves and our gear on up through the rear hatch of the plane. Sorry I have no pictures of the plane myself but here’s one from the RAAF web page to give you an idea of the size of the beast.

C-17 Globemaster III picture from RAAF webpage:

With the final checks all done we were then sealed into the plane with tail hatch being closed. This was followed by the RAAF crew briefing us on emergency procedures and the locations of items such as personal flotation devices, oxygen masks, toilets and the all-important eskys with food. With our bags, including our red survival bags, and the cargo secured safely to the floor down the centre of the plane it was then time to take our seats which were located on the side of the plane. We belted up and began to move, it was very disorientating sitting in a large space with not many windows not know which direction you were travelling or when you’d hit the end of the runway ready for take-off. At about 4:50am the noise coming from the C-17 stallion jet engines changed and the speed of the large craft increased, the sudden movement pushing us sideways in our seats – you definitely knew when we had left the ground as it felt like a steep climb upwards into the sky. Like a normal civilian aircraft when the Captain turned off the fasten seat belt sign we were free to move around the large, spacious “cabin” – advantage number 1 of the C-17, oodles of space to stretch out and move around. However there are a couple of down sides: the noise (noise cancelling head phones are an essential) and lack of windows. There were four larger porthole sized windows that you could look out of lucky for us it was pretty cloudy the whole way, but on the whole it was a very enjoyable flight down.

Back on the ice at Wilkins Aerodrome with a couple of
flying machines in the distance.

As we approached Wilkins and we began to make our descent it was time to get into our warm gear and survival outer layers. Not too long after you could feel the plane pitch as it changed direction and its speed slowing as it made its final approach to the blue ice runway. The sound of the landing gear being deployed signalled the soon we would be touching down and just like that the wheels hit the ground and the plane began to break. Now I learnt from Sealy (William Seal) who is the diesel mechanic up at Wilkins that the C-17 takes nearly 2/3 of the runway to slow down completely. In order to aid this the ice run way has snow mixed into it to give it a higher friction rate enabling the plane to come to a safe stop. We waited for a little while before the Wilkins manager, Jeff, boarded the aircraft and gave us a briefing on the conditions at Wilkins. Three years when I arrived at Wilkins I had recently ruptured my PCL and was wearing my knee brace and was instructed by then Wilkins manager Micky to be very, very careful. Jeff said the conditions were fine and boot chains would not be required – I was still uber careful as I made my way down the steps, departing the plane from the front this time as the cargo was being discharged from the tail.

Window won't stay shut, try
Stu's Jelly Bean Method! 
We then made our way to the Ops building where I handed over the precious cargo of newspapers to Wilkins chef Adam. I was then greeted by Jenn (a senior AGSO from Casey) who was returning home, I’d left a mango on the plane for her as a treat. I then encountered a masked individual in a blue Carhartt jacket who according to Jenn I apparently knew. It took the peeling back of a neck warmer to see the ginger hair which belonged to my good friend Stu – YAY Stu would be driving me down to station along with Lucas and Wei Wei from the ICECAP Team in the blue Hägg, K14 I think from memory, which came complete with jelly beans to hold the passenger’s window closed. After a quick chat it was time to depart for station. As we turned our back to head off the Wilkins lads continued to unload the plane and then load the two heli resources helicopters on board ready for their trip back home.

Mario Karts Antarctic style - meet two of the Casey Hägglunds
It was time for the Mario karts of Antarctica, the blue and green Hägglunds, to make the 70 km journey to station. Stu led off and we had a good chin wag on the way down – you use headsets to talk to each other as it is quite noisy inside the machines. Not only is it quite noisy but it’s also quite bumpy there is no nice sealed highway down to station. The A-line down to station is marked with GPS way points enabling people to travel if they need to in white out conditions, no need on that day as the sun was out and there was great definition between the blue sky and the white land which seemed stretch on forever. Now the I soon realised that one jelly bean was insufficient to keep the window from sliding open so this was upgraded to two – I think the combination of one black and one orange worked the best but am still open to other options as the window still likes to come open as we found out recently on a field trip to Jack’s Donga (more about that in couple of blogs time).

Just a bit of a stretch on the way down to Casey,
it's hard with all that gear on and Sorel boots!
Now we could have ploughed through to station not stopping on the way, which takes about 3.5 hours, but instead we stopped at the Antarctic circle for a break and photos – kind of like when, for those that live in Tasmania, you stop at Campbell Town to stretch your legs as you make your way from one end of the state to the other. So it was here I decided to do have a stretch and broke out Camel Posture (ustrasana) – thanks to photographer Stu for capturing this moment. It was then back into the Hägg and with Tripod’s Hot Dog Man blaring out the head sets we got back to the task at hand and got back on the white road with icy aqua blue patches to the side and headed down to station. As we made our way down on the left hand side we started to see the ocean and the ice cliffs in the areas nearby. One rocky outcrop with two large antennae looked familiar and when I asked Stu if Robbo’s was over in that direction he said “Yep!”

May favorite cafe,
Cafe Lola, makes it to Antarctica
We then passed the turn off to Browning and then as we made our way closer a Basler aircraft passed over the top of us, I knew that meant we were close by the ski way. We then passed the sign to Jacks and at this point as we started to head down the hill I could see forever changing blue sea (tonight, 1/1/17, it is a grey indigo blue) with the stark white ice bergs in the distance and the bays in front of me that Casey Station, which is situated on the Bailey Peninsular, looks out onto. I saw the familiar shapes to my right of the moraine line and the rocky outcrops which lead the way to Wilkes Hut and the old Wilkes Station. And in the distance on my left I could see the coloured buildings that make up Casey Research Station. As we approached Penguin Pass I remembered when I helped my friend Zbyněk, a remote sensing biologist, with some of his work on Antarctic moss in Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA) 135, which was on my right. Stu then radioed into station to let Comms know we had arrived on station.

We then drove up to the Red Shed, the living quarters, at the heart of Casey Station and out we tumbled, tired but I was pleased to be back. We made our way in, found our rooms in the West Wing and then had a bite to eat – our luggage would arrive latter with the rest of the cargo. At lunch I was greeted by some familiar faces in the remediation team – B (Bianca), Bec, Ness, Jack and Jake and I got the biggest hug from Johan. Later that afternoon we had a station induction which meant we could leave the confines of the Red Shed. Being tired from an early start and a day full of travel I just took it easy, well easy for me. Unlike last time I was here where resupply was at least 2-3 weeks after I arrived when I would wake tomorrow there would be an orange ship in Newcomb Bay meaning no rest for the wicked – I was back and on slushy that very next day. But you’ll just have to wait for the “Tale of the Orange Ship and the Gobbledock Monster that slept in a Yellow Chip Packet” until next time.

A Yellow Chip Packet and Collective Hub,
only in Antarctica!
For so many years as a child, teenager and adult I lacked belief in many things convincing myself that certain things were impossible and it was no use even attempting them. I now look at all I have achieved and contributed to and know that the impossible is not otherwise I wouldn’t be where I am today – back here on the ice. 

So I’ll leave you with this quote as it sums up some of the thought patterns I’ve had over the past couple of years. Until next time.

“It always seems impossible until it is done” Nelson Mandela

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