It was exactly one year ago today that I started my first day with the AAD (Australian Antarctic Division) on a brisk Monday morning in Hobart along with three others who now go to make up the comms teams for both Casey and Davis stations. That day now seems like a very, very long time ago, so much has happened, so much has been learnt, experienced, realised and adjusted to that it’s kind of weird to remember the times when staying in hotel accommodation, ordering a taxi from the airport and buying your own lunch were day to day occurrences. It’s going to be a hard knock to the system when we do all eventually get back to ‘civilisation’ (I use that word very carefully given current world affairs) and have to purchase our own meals, put our own fuel in our own vehicles and wear a single layer of clothing that you still manage to sweat in.
To again go through some of the differences from normal life I’m going to now compare arriving home at the end of your day, normally you’d come in, throw the keys on the table, have some food and generally chill out, when we arrive at a ‘field hut’ the rituals we go through are somewhat different – We don’t just open the door and go in, we open up the doors and walk round the outside opening up the vents, this will allow any gases out that may have leaked or formed that can be either explosive or asphyxiating, after a minute or so we can then enter (If you don’t have to dig your way in past snow built up at the door). Once inside we can assess any ingress from ‘weather’, and whether it smells of any gases, then we’ll open the gas valve outside and get the heater going…..Trust me, when you’ve spent all day outside in minus thirty the first thing you do is get the heater going and shut all the doors! And then out comes the CO detector alarm to ensure the fumes from all the gas being burnt inside are being adequately ventilated and you’re not going to slowly fall asleep and never wake up again. Then the stove goes on, usually followed by a cup of something warm. Protocol dictates that when we leave a hut we always leave a bowl of water or snow indoors so that the next person has something to heat up and make a warm drink from in an emergency, heating up a bowl of ice is the first job on arrival – That said there is the starting of the generator, we have a small genset at each hut which is to power any lights inside, they are amazingly robust little things but sometimes they just will not start, last night for example we had the thing in pieces in the kitchen with the spark plug being dried and warmed over a candle flame just to try and encourage it to get going, after an hour of it being sat in front of the heater we managed to start it which then filled the interior with exhaust fumes, which then caused the CO detector alarm to go off, which then meant running outside to get rid of the fumes which then meant letting all the hot air out and thus beginning the whole process again…..We got there in the end though.
So, as I’ve mentioned, we were away last night, and the night before, myself and Craig headed out on a wee trip to visit the last piece of accommodation I’d not visited yet which is Trajer Ridge and the ‘melon’ which lives there.
Day one – Davis to Trajer Ridge
We left Davis on Sunday just after lunch in excellent weather, we were using quads as all the haggs were in use elsewhere, which is a nice feeling of freedom but the cold is certainly an aspect when riding which requires better preparation that just jumping into a hagg and heading off.
We headed up to Watts via Ellis fjord, the only danger point to watch for here is Ellis Rapid which is a patch of water that remains unfrozen pretty much all year due to the tidal flow that races through the fjord at enough sped for the water to not have enough time to freeze…You really don’t want to be driving a quad into this by mistake. This is one of the few areas where we are allowed to cross a land bridge to stay clear of the water which we do to the North side and then continue up the fjord from there. From here it was pretty normal going up to Watts hut and after here is where it starts to get interesting. ‘Upstream’ of Watts hut are the lakes, they’re fresh water and as such the ice is different, it’s beautifully clear and as long as there is no snow on top you can pretty much see to the bottom of the lake whilst you’re standing on it – The ice we’re standing on is over a metre thick which is more than adequate given we only need 400mm to support the weight of a quad. The best part for me was navigating up through the streams and small valleys towards the lakes that are higher up towards the glacier, as you can see by the map there are some tiny turns and corners, miniscule lakes and places to drive through to get to our destination, it was an amazing trip and I’m gutted I didn’t stop to take more pictures though sometimes a camera cannot do these places justice.
We got up to the end of the lakes and the foot of the glacier at about 1600hrs, we had a little bit of a climb up to the melon on foot carrying our kit but all was OK, we got in, got warm, Radio’d VLZ Davis and set about settling in for the evening. Ravioli was the savior of the day but beer was not as one of them finally decided it was too cold and froze in the hut and popped out all over the table….So then we had to clear it up.
That evening I went outside to try and get some shots of the Aurora that was happening, I lasted about an hour before my body couldn’t stand the cold any longer but some of the shots were worth it:
The next day we were really slow off the mark and didn’t get moving on our quads until about 1300 hours, the thing I’ve always found about huts is that the silence is so utterly ‘silent’ that you can sleep for hours and hours without being disturbed. I am not the sort of person to sleep for twelve hours but huts make that all too possible without issue, I’m guessing the winter darkness helps with that too.
Day Two – Trajer to Watts
Day two was an attempt to get to boulder hill, which quite frankly didn’t work out. The visors we have on our helmets are heated, they’re heated because the condensation from our breath inside the helmet turns to ice on the inside so that very quickly we cannot see anything, on the visors themselves they have a wire that hangs down and a magnetic clip on the end that ‘magnetically’ attaches itself to a socket near the fuel tank, now the reason for the magnet is because people are dumb, we stop the bike, we stand up, we forget about the cable and we walk away from it….In the past they didn’t have magnetic sockets and all the cables were broken or sockets destroyed because we all forgot and walked off before detaching ourselves from our bikes…Anyway, my magnetic socket had busted and was shoved in my pocket so I was just coping as best as possible with the visor open, we turned South East into crooked lake and there was a fairly healthy fifteen knots of wind straight into my face being fed from the glacier…As best as I tried I could not drive straight into wind for more than about thirty seconds with the visor up, my face froze, my eyelashes stuck together, my mouth went numb and before I even had the chance to cry like a baby the tears had formed subzero contact lenses over my eyeballs…..So I stopped, got off, muttered my hatred for my broken visor and we turned round…..We were not far from crooked lake apple (another hut) so stopped to attempt to fix the visor plug there, this went OK and we fixed it but by then I was frozen so we continued back to our planned second night stopover of Watts hut.
Watts is a nice hut, all the modern conveniences, walls, a window, a bucket with a plastic bag for use as a toilet, a stove, a working generator, ‘gentlemens magazines’ from back in the day when women had less visits from the gardener that would attend to the lower field. We had a ‘Fray Bentos’ pie in a can each, talked a bit of rubbish and settled in for the night, much warmer than being at Trajer ridge but that’s probably down to the insulated walls and the fact that we had all the heaters and stoves running whilst wearing two sleeping bags. I took a few more outside pics of more Aurora as you can see.
So last night we collapsed at about 2230hrs, we actually didn’t wake up until 1000hrs this morning so that was a full eleven and a half hours of slumber, I’m beginning to think that Aurora are a bit like sedatives…
Day three – Watts to Davis
So today saw a slow drive back, some more pics and video along the way with a few added swear words about my visor to match, now safely back at station and crunching through all my emails ready to appear that I know what’s going on in the morning when I get back to the operations building…
Some final pics of our drive back today: