By RNZAF Sgt. Gid Wych
Sometime around July 2010 my FS came into my office in Main Store Ohakea and said “I’m afraid you didn’t get the Bagram post you were after, however, DCM has asked if you would consider Scott Base Op Antarctica?” Disappointment and elation in one short sentence; there was only one possible answer - and so began my great adventure to the frozen wilderness that is Antarctica.
The first stage on my journey was two weeks Pre-Deployment Training (PDT) down in Christchurch prior to flying to ‘the Ice”. This wasn’t PDT as you would expect, no weapons, (the penguins aren’t armed and are considered friendly!) no packs or mess tins (the food at Scott Base is legendary), this was more of a team bonding exercise that consisted of one weeks' Antarctic awareness training with Antarctica New Zealand (ANTNZ), followed by one weeks' intensive fire fighting training with the New Zealand Fire Service. The second week was by far the most enjoyable; it was hard training but as an exercise in team bonding it would be hard to beat.
I’ll never forget that first arrival on the frozen continent. The flight down on the USAF C-17 had been a comfortable but uneventful 5-hour trip with only small glimpses of what was to come through the small porthole style windows on the rear para doors.
As the C17 came to a halt, and the front crew door was opened, all us first-timers stepped off with a slight sense of trepidation. How cold would it be? Am I wearing enough cold weather clothing?
We were in luck, although the temperature was probably about minus 20 the clothing we had been issued by ANTNZ did its job all too well. The weather outside was a bright and sunny blue sky day with an unrestricted view of Ross Island; Mount Erabus rising majestically above the surrounding landscape. What made it all seem even more amazing was when we realised we had just landed the C-17 on 3 metres of sea ice, that was all that separated us from the icy depths of the Ross Sea!
The first few days of the new deployment was a period of settling in, taking over from the Scott Base winter crew, a dozen or so hardy souls who had spent the last 13 months in this unforgiving icy domain.
In the first week everyone went through a two-day Antarctic Survival Course this entailed spending a night out in minus 25 plus temperatures under a canvas polar tent that has changed little in design since they were used by Captain Scott and his team.
The survival training was another great team-building exercise. During the process we learned about each other, and I suspect a lot about ourselves. We all came back from our night out buzzing with excitement and keen to discover more about this unique environment we now found ourselves in.
Over the coming months we had many opportunities to put our new-found cold weather skills to the test.
In the early season the temperatures are down in the low 20s with plenty of spectacular snow storms. Every trip over the hill to McMurdo was a case of logistical planning -- did you have your emergency pack of cold weather clothing and boots in the vehicle with you? Have you signed out? It’s only a couple of kilometres but early on it's quite possible to get stranded on the road in a complete whiteout that’s blown up from nowhere and could last for 5 minutes or 5 days!
The working week at Scott Base is a 6-day week with most people getting Sunday off. However, this could vary depending on aircraft and science event movements, but everyone mucks in and any overtime (a frequent occurrence for the Cargo Handler) is made up for in one form or another. Sundays are when the “Fam Trips” are organised. These range from visits by Hagglund to the historic huts of Shackleton and Scott at Cape Royds and Cape Evans, climbing some of the more accessible peaks of Castle Rock and Tent Island and even being lowered down seemingly bottomless crevasses on an unfeasibly thin piece of string.
Our trusty Antarctic field trainers assured me it was the finest climbing rope, but they would wouldn’t they!
Later on in the season when the ANTNZ Helicopter arrives, a programme of flights is put together and everyone at Scott Base is given a flight out to a variety of destinations.
These vary from The Dry Valleys - areas of spectacular scenery and huge glaciers - to the huge Adele penguin colony at Cape Bird; a magical place where you can wander amongst the thousands of penguins and see their newborn chicks and ice flows being used as diving platforms by the comical Adeles.
A real treat is the appearance of the Emperor penguins who often arrive later in the season. Whereas the little Adele is the "Charlie Chaplin" of the penguin world, the Emperor is without doubt Royalty with all the airs and graces to match.
The work of the Cargo Handler involves frequent trips (almost daily) over the hill to McMurdo dropping off and picking up cargo in the trusty Isuzu flatbed, or for smaller loads the V8 Toyota Ute. The cargo varies from strange scientific pieces of equipment (usually awkward and bulky) to frozen core samples and live fish that require hand delivery to the aircraft, there’s a great sense of satisfaction when you get word back that all the fish made it alive with no problems. It is the Cargo Handler's responsibility to check that all the permits for samples are correct and everything is in order for their return to New Zealand.
Dangerous Air Cargo is another responsibility that involves close cooperation with your counterpart at Science Cargo over in McMurdo, some items cannot be shipped aboard USAF aircraft e.g. non US cylinders, these have to wait for the Kiwi C130 when it will be up to the Scott Base Cargo Handler to package and certify the consignment.
As well as the C130 you can expect to be involved with loads for the Twin Otter and Basler Aircraft, the latter being a heavily modified DC3 (Dakota), many of WWII vintage, that can often access places where the C130 cannot go!
One of the things that makes a trip to "the Ice" such a memorable experience is the diversity of people that you meet, whether it be the Science Events passing through Scott Base or the folk over the hill in ‘Mactown’ (as McMurdo is fondly referred to). There are countless interesting characters from all walks of life, each with an interesting tale to tell.
The sense of community spirit found in Antarctica is almost a unique experience; you can expect to celebrate Halloween (costume essential), Thanksgiving (uniquely American and a great feed!) and Christmas in great style. A highlight of your tour would have to be seeing midnight in, on New Year’s Eve in 24 hour daylight at the coolest show on the continent, "Ice Stock" the most southerly rock concert in the world!
I was lucky enough to repeat my Antarctic adventure with a second season 2011/2012, which was every bit, if not better, than my first.
Alas, I think a third would just be greedy, and anyway Domestic Command says I need to have a Christmas at home. Antarctica has a way of getting in your blood and I have high hopes that one way or another, in the words of Mr A Schwarzenegger, “I’ll be back!”