Eating, sleeping, but no longer freezing or repeating!

It’s hard to believe that this time three weeks ago I was in Antarctica: it seems like a world away already!

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Looking up through drifting snow towards the moraine line from the Red Shed (S. Shaw)
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Station familiarisation: The new crew heads off on a tour of the station and the hazards (S. Shaw)

The second flight of the season arrived a day late on Tuesday 3rd November (the Monday flight got cancelled at about 5am that morning due to adverse weather conditions – the “Antarctic” or “A” factor mucking up plans again). On the drive up from station to Wilkins runway to collect those incoming passengers, we stopped briefly to tick off one of the last items on my Antarctica to-do list: playing golf. It was immensely satisfying driving a bright orange ball up the A-line!

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Carrie Webb’s got some stiff competition in Antarctica!

This second flight landing was particularly memorable because soon after the plane reached top of descent, three disorientated Adelie penguins materialised from thin air and threatened to walk across the runway (which is 70km inland). Obviously 5kg of flightless bird vs God knows how many tonnes of jet aeroplane had the potential for a very messy ending, so Matty and Steve had to try and shepherd the penguins down the runway towards the coast. Two penguins were happy to co-operate, but one particularly cranky penguin was determined to stand his ground, and the image of him flapping his wings at Matty who was waving his arms back as the plane passed only metres overhead will stick in my mind for the rest of my life (until I get dementia, which at the rate I’ve been drinking since I got home is probably not very far away).

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How to stimulate a penguin’s bowels

I’d actually really hoped to go out on that flight, because it was pretty obvious that our Wednesday flight would also be cancelled, looking at the weather forecast, and I just wanted to get out of there at that point. However Tasmanian Customs who must be the most idle international Customs mob in the world with about 12 Antarctic flights in a year to process declined to open up on a Tuesday to stamp our incoming passenger cards. As a result we had to wait around like stale bottles of piss for a few more days until there was another weather window. On the one hand it was ok, it gave me time to do a more thorough handover for incoming summer doctors Lloyd and Mal (although they’re both so experienced they have forgotten more about the job than I’ll ever know) and to keep working on my end-of-season reports. In fact, those reports and a uni assignment I’d completely neglected to do are the main reasons this final blog is so late – and of course a hectic social life since returning. The flight cancellation also meant that we’d get to go home on the RAAF C-17 Globemaster instead of the normal Airbus!! But the worst part about staying on for a few more days was that Casey went onto an “Operational Pause” because the new crew had arrived. It’s a new rule and basically means that you are not allowed out of station limits for the first 1-2 weeks of the season because the new SAR (Search and Rescue) crew haven’t been trained – never mind the fact there were now three doctors and five Field Training Officers as well as the old SAR crew on station. In effect that translated to not being able to do the ski loop or visit the penguins. I was pissed off. There are two reasons why I won’t ever return to Antarctica, and the increasingly restrictive rules are one of them. There is a focus on physical safety to the neglect of psychological wellbeing.

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Receiving my Antarctic medal for completing a winter during the station handover ceremony. About 4000 of these medals have been given out over the 69 years of ANARE.

Eventually Saturday arrived with a brief weather window for flight operations. After a few hours of agonising delay we received word that the C-17 was finally taxiing down the Hobart runway bound for Casey. We were off!!! I shed a few tears as we departed station for the last time, waving goodbye to friends that we’d made over the 69th ANARE season and soaking up the view of the glittering ocean, icebergs and the rocky coastline. But freedom beckoned…

The weather wasn’t very good up at Wilkins still, blowing about 40 knots that morning – if it gets much windier than that the plane can’t land, especially if there is drifting/blowing snow affecting visibility, and occasionally a plane will boomerang without touching down if the pilots aren’t happy with the conditions as they approach. So it wasn’t until the plane landed that I allowed myself to really believe that I was finally going home. After the helicopters which will be used during summer for science projects and transport were unloaded, we said our final goodbyes to the winterers who were staying on for part or all of summer (Andy, Kiwi, Danny, Sam, Matty, Steve, Nick and Dainn) and boarded the beast via the tail ramp. At 7pm that night the C17 took to the sky and I thought my grin was going to split my face in half. It was a pretty comfortable flight. We sat side-by-side up along the sides of the plane and the lovely RAAF crew fed us (OMG fresh salad sandwiches and fresh fruit!!!!), and let us have a look around the cockpit and plane. There are only a couple of small windows around the fuselage through which we could glimpse the clouds below.  Social media policy dictates that I cannot put up any photos of the interior of the plane or the RAAF crew but if you’re really nice and in the area I might invite you over for slide night and show you some of them, along with the other 6000 or so photos from the year, as well as the Yearbook which I finally finished and received in the mail this week – only a few layout errors which I’m disappointed about but otherwise I’m pretty happy with the final product.

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Driving up to Wilkins for the last time. It was a windy day and Andy is pointing at the photographer’s glove which fell off and was blowing away. Kiwi has a Rastafarian wig on for some reason. Jimmy is too tough to wear a jacket.

 

Our arrival into Hobart was very late, almost midnight, and it was a lovely surprise to be greeted by some of the senior AAD staff. Customs stamped our cards (sucked in for having to meet us at midnight on a Saturday instead of the early evening on the preceding Tuesday) and we were released into Australia and the real world! Hobart was a very gentle introduction back into society and the Australian climate. 14 of the 15 of us caught up again on Sunday for breakfast, which turned into a day-long pub crawl. Slowly people drifted off, a few flew home that day, and at 2am the last three standing (I wasn’t one of them) hit the sack.

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Welcome home! Breakfast at Criterion – fresh poached eggs, fresh avocado, OMG heaven.
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2nd stop! T42 for drinks with some familiar faces from last summer.

Monday saw me back at the Div (Head Office) where I spent the rest of the week finalising jobs and catching up with the staff members I knew there, and doing the end-of-season debrief with the Chief Medical Officer Dr Jeff Ayton and his deputy Dr Roland Watzl. It took a few hours and was a chance to talk about the season, what work had been done, what I felt could be improved and so on. The other big debrief was with Dr Kim Norris, a psychologist who specialises in psychology in extreme environments. The PMU doctors generally use her, and in fact I’d used her a couple of times during the year to help with my own personal struggles. I had a tough year due to an interpersonal clash and I didn’t cope very well at times. The environment down there is very disempowering, there is no escape, and it’s as hard as you’d imagine to have to face someone whom you dread at every meal. I am eternally grateful to Dr Jeff and the other PMU doctors and my friends and family for their support and help in getting through the winter.

Being home is incredible. I am so aware of how precious everything is! Being woken by the sound of birds, seeing animals, patting dogs, smelling flowers, enjoying the warm sun on your skin, admiring the bright colours of the city and countryside, catching up with friends, playing with kids, shopping, wining and dining, making choices, not having to get permission to go for a walk, and so on. I went and saw a musical about Antarctica in my first week back which was brilliant. It was written by a scientist who works for the AAD and she nailed it! Her portrayal of the events throughout the year, the diverse characters that you meet in Antarctica and the emotions that a lot of people experience from time to time were really spot on. And I want one of the little penguin puppets!

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Antarctica The Musical: from left, the motherly station leader, the doctor who thinks (knows!) he’s the most important person on station, the diesel mechanic from the bush, the larrikin chef, the nerdy Met Tech, the hippy Met Observer, the sporty FTO and the sweet naïve little scientist.

I even loved being back at work. I spent the second week upskilling at the Royal Hobart Hospital, which I’d arranged because I was freaking out about going back to work in Naracoorte next month without having put in a cannula or intubated someone for over a year. Seeing babies being born, talking to patients and medical staff, and watching sick (and obese – Tas has just taken the crown from QLD for having the highest population of overweight adults in Australia) people being operated on was exciting. I’ve really missed clinical work!

Elise, the doctor who’ll be going down to Casey for the 70th ANARE winter, was also training at the Royal Hobart. She is a Kiwi girl who’s done a lot of Emergency training in NSW, and I think she’ll be great – very level-headed, smart and good fun. I’m glad I got the chance to meet her and I wish her and her crew an amazing year.

The best part of being home has been catching up with friends and family. Mum came down to Hobart for a weekend and we enjoyed visiting the Salamanca markets, Richmond, restaurants and more. I stayed with friends over the fortnight, and was delighted when my good friends Lisa and Zach had their first baby, Henry, in Hobart during my second week!

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Hiking around Cradle Mountain, soaking up the views and the freedom

Ox flew back down to Hobart at the end of last week to share the drive home. We visited Cradle Mountain and Launceston and then caught the Spirit of Tasmania ferry back to the mainland on Sunday night. I shared a twin female cabin on the ferry and hadn’t met my fellow roommate until I went to bed. I opened the door and switched the lights on, and what I saw scarred my retina – a very voluptuous woman in a short hot pink nightie lying on her side with her very ample thigh thrown over the top of the rolled up quilt. She was not a quiet sleeper either, as you can imagine. Thank god for my custom made earplugs and my eye mask.

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So this blog ends where it began, with a boat ride from Tasmania to a continent. I’m back on the mainland now, back amongst the traffic and the rush and the trees and the insects. It was a remarkable year, I’ve seen Antarctica before human activity changes it too much, seen auroras and Antarctic wildlife, experienced the hostile environment and the utter isolation, met some absolute legends and made some new friends for life. I’m proud to have survived the winter, relieved that my fellow expeditioners did too, and excited for the next chapter. Thank you to my friends and family who have read this blog and said nice things about it. I look forward to catching up with you all in person over the next few months!

 

 

A change in the air

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Casey Station’s 69th ANARE. Back: Nick, Cob, Muz, Danny, Donk, Marto, Tom Middle: Wanye, Ox, Picasso, Adam, KT, Hoot, Donna, Kiwi, Jimmy, Dainn, Brilly Front: K-Dogg, AJ, Matty, Andy, Neville, Jason, Nate, Yours Truly, C-Bags (M. Brill)

Yesterday brought a change in the air…in an Airbus which was in the air…until it landed at Wilkins International Runway, an ice runway on a glacier 70km north of Casey Station. In other words, yesterday the first flight of the season arrived, bringing 30 fresh (and some familiar) faces, and heralding the end of our winter in Antarctica. For the first time in eight months we saw new people. It was very exciting, but also very overwhelming especially when they were all crowded into to the Wallow and Splinters Bar later last night. The noise was deafening, there were too many new faces and names to learn, and I had to go to bed to escape. But then I couldn’t sleep because I could hear people walking up and down the corridor, trying to find their bedrooms and bathrooms, unpacking, talking, aaargh!!! I am a hermit now, leave me alone! I am not the only one who felt that way either. There was a reasonably obvious divide between new and old expeditioners, with a little overlap but not much, but it’s getting easier as we slowly become ready to “integrate not segregate” and to handover our station. We had become such a close-knit bunch over the winter, like family, seeing the same faces several times over the course of every day, coming to know and accept each others’ peculiarities and habits, and communicating with our own jokes and nicknames and stupid sounds. One dream, one team, oo-rah!

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The Emergency Response Team (pretty much everyone! but some people were Search and Rescue, some were Fire, and some were Lay Surgical). (J. Ahrens)
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The Maintenance Trades team (the sparkies and plumbers, and Danny their supervisor) (M. Brill)
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The Projects Trades team in front of the CUB (sparkies, plumbers, chippies and their supervisor Kiwi) (M. Brill)
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The Brew Team – do you like Wayne’s T-shirt? I do. (A. Burgess)
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The Footrot Flats homies (one of the hallways of dongas) (M. Brill)

The last two weeks of our winter were taken up with finishing jobs, writing reports, cleaning up and getting the place ready for handover. With a small team of helpers I had to tear out everything in hydroponics (which was heartbreaking) so that the whole shed could be cleaned and disinfected, ready to start again. Over the course of the year we grew 90kg worth of fresh produce, like tomatoes, lettuce, herbs, chillis and cucumbers (which didn’t go very far between 27 people) but tending to the plants bought me a lot of joy and satisfaction and I learnt a few tricks which I intend to put to good use when I return home to Naracoorte in mid-December and finally set up my aquaponics tanks.

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Rouge Marmade! Unfortunately they only ripened the week that we pulled out the crops so we didn’t get many in the end. But we harvested lots of green tomatoes for a controversial chutney!
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One of the hydro rooms post-cleanout

My other big job for the year outside of hydro and medicine was collating our Yearbook. It was a huge task but quite enjoyable as well, and I hope that the finished product looks good. Here are some of the photos which were put forward to be the cover shot:

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The station by night – M.Brill
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A redhead against a red sky – K. Senekin
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Gazing over to the Clark Peninsula – K. Senekin
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Adelies near station
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An Adelie taking a break on an iceberg
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Drifting snow

Cleaning the station was a big task. We were given three days off work last week to accomplish it. Donna, our chef and DSL (Deputy Station Leader), is a cleaning machine and she went into overdrive (really, she started in the month leading up to handover). I have never seen anything like it. She had us scrubbing walls from top to bottom, pulling furniture out (like entire kitchen benches and ovens and laundry machines) and scrubbing the floors, polishing, dusting, more scrubbing, making beds like we are in some sort of hotel and placing folded towels and chocolates on top, and so on. She led from the front, washing light fixtures, scrubbing chairs, organising towels and linen by colour in the linen press, organising the Green Store, throwing things out, and more. I don’t think the station had been cleaned like this in years, and it probably won’t be again. I am not much of a cleaner so it was a pretty traumatic experience for me and to be honest I didn’t even carry my weight – I hid away working on the Yearbook and getting the medical centre ready to handover – but my fingers are still peeling from the little bit I did do. Never again. However the results were impressive. We should have done it at the start of our season so we could enjoy the sparkling surfaces for a bit longer!

One of the reasons the Red Shed is looking so good is because of all the hard work Danny and his team did throughout the winter renovating the bedrooms and hallways. They pulled out and replaced the furniture and carpet, installed new electrical fittings and wiring and ventilation systems, and painted the walls. They didn’t quite finish all the bedrooms as it was a big job, but the ones they’ve done look bloody good compared to beforehand. The other impressive bit of work this year was the Casey Utilities Building, or CUB. It had a slow start and it was even uncertain at one point towards the end of summer whether or not they’d get enough finished of the frame and walls before winter for the project to proceed, due to the big diesel spill at the site last year which required remediation before building could commence. Luckily they did, and over winter the CUB boys worked tirelessly on getting the mezzanine floor and wall panels up and plastered (you may recall, with a little bit of help from me ;-)), and the electrical and plumbing work done. Once it’s finished it’ll house the new Waste Treatment Plant, the gym, the spa, Fort Knox and the Brewery, and some of the Cold Store food. I’m not sure why they put food and the gym in the same building as the human waste, but the powers that be have decided that it’s ok, and I’ll be long gone, so whatever.

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A Red Shed room before…. (D. Pangrazio)
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And after! (not the same room). (D. Pangrazio)

There was a lot of “this’ll be the last time…” in the last fortnight. We had our final Toolbox meeting last week, which is the tradies’ meeting held every Friday afternoon to discuss issues and award Pink Hats. I was absolutely thrilled to be awarded my first Pink Hat, which was the last of the season. To earn it I had lost my ski boot, had a boy’s look for it in the Hagg, not spotted it and decided that it must have fallen out at Wilkes during our visit there the preceding Friday night, begged to be let out there on a quad trip to find it, hadn’t found it, returned to station dejected and had begged to be allowed out again for another look which had met with a bit of opposition from the station leader, and then discovered it in the Hagg where it had been all along. And I’d also crashed the quad backing out of the shed on the search trip and announced that over the radio. At the end of the day I think it was a win-win situation – I got the quad trip, found the ski boot, and won a Pink Hat. Shame about the tail reflector on the quad.

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Kiwi awarding my Pink Hat (K. Senekin)

We also had our last Open Mic night. I opened with some Roald Dahl poems, then Kiwi showed some photos from the other Antarctic stations that he’s visited and worked at, followed by Jimmy who showed a video of his waterski racing (madman – apparently people die doing that every year), then Andy merrily narrated some penguin videos and had the crowd in stitches, and finally Adam and Wayno performed “Big Rock Candy Mountain”. And last Saturday we had our last big dress up (or is that undress) party which was a bit impromptu but some people found the dregs of their alcohol collection and I found my face paint collection and put my artistic talent to use on the human canvases creating rainbows, Aboriginal dot paintings, flames, clowns, flags, warriers and so on.

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Shifty and the Shitbellies. Unplugged at Casey.
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Clown!

But all good things come to an end. The winter is over. Yesterday we farewelled four of our crew who flew home early. I was very sad to say goodbye to Adam, Cam and Jeff and hope to see them again in Australia soon. I had the honour of driving my fellow Gemini Jeff, also known as Picasso, the Palm Islander, or the Crop Duster, up in the Hagg to Wilkins which was really nice. He wrote today to tell me that the smells are intense in Australia. Considering the smells his body produced, that is saying something.

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A pair of the smelliest shoes in the world: Jeff’s shoes where they belong
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Bye bye Jeff!! At the restored sign on the way up to the plane.

It was, as always, a spectacular sight watching the plane come in and touch down on the ice. I was somewhat nervous as the plane landed on a runway that has been untested this season, but I shouldn’t have been. The four guys who’ve set the runway up over the last couple of months have worked around the clock in harsh weather to blow the snow off it, groom it, proof roll it, test it, and till it until it was safe to land an Airbus (and soon a C-17) on. A tremendous effort, boys!

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Blowing snow off the runway (S. McInnerney)
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Working day and night (S. McInnerney)
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The proof-roller which they drive over the runway very slowly dragging 80 tonne of weights to expose any failures or weaknesses in the ice, which are then dug out, refilled and tested again. There were over 100 failures which had to be repaired. It is a huge job. (M Ryan)
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Marto, Hoot, Matty and Steve in front of their runway. Superstars!

After the plane landed and disgorged the new crew, we drove back to station in convoy. I had the new summering doctor Lloyd Fletcher in my Hagg, as well as Aircraft Ground Support Officer Jenn who will be working with the helicopters that will be operating around Casey this summer, and Robyne who is one of the Comms Operators. Lloyd is an absolute fountain of information regarding Antarctic history and the AAD. He has wintered 11 times!! He asked if anyone had been to S2 during the season, and I told him that I’d never heard of S2. He explained that S2 was an American research station built up near Law Dome some 80km from station in the 1950s to study glaciology and glacial movement. Over the years it has been buried by snow and distorted by the immense force of the ice. Some years ago Lloyd actually went underground, down into the now-buried hut, the tunnel and the shaft, which would have been fascinating. http://www.antarctica.gov.au/about-antarctica/history/stations/casey/what-is-s2. For another interesting story “from the vault”, read about ‘Aneata’, the Ice Maiden of Antarctica: http://www.antarctica.gov.au/magazine/2011-2015/issue-25-december-2013/history/aneata-the-ice-maiden-of-antarctica. Imagine wiping your ass with a cylinder of frozen toilet paper. I have really had a pretty easy year in comparison.

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Welcome to Casey Station. This is Jimmy, your friendly bus driver. He drove Priscilla to and from the runway to collect passengers.
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Welcome to Casey!! This is what a year in Antarctica can do to a person. Get out now!

Last blog I mentioned that the penguins had returned!! At first just a few of the faster boys arrived, quickly nabbing a spot and building a pebbly nest on it with which to impress and seduce the ladies. At this stage in the season they are fat and sedate and not really exciting to watch but it’s still wonderful to see wildlife back. I’ve only been over once to see them on Shirley Island, however it looks like our flight home will be delayed past Wednesday due to unfavourable weather (boo hoo!) so I might get another chance to pop over there one evening, one last time before I fly home…

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Penguin viewing at dusk (M Brill)
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A portly penguin on his pile of pebbles (W. Batzloff)

 

Girl power in Antarctica

 

 

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No kangaroos for 3000km. A brief rest on the long walk to Brownings.

The end is in sight! If the weather and aviation gods are smiling, I’ll be back in Australia in 17 days! I can’t wait. The downside is that I won’t get to hang out with this bunch of legends every day anymore. You think I’d be sick of them and vice versa after a winter confined in a Red Shed together, but we are like family now and I think I’m going to miss them! Not all of them of course, but most of them. It’ll be really weird to see strangers, to be in a crowd, and to go home to an empty house. No one to plate bomb! I’ll have to do my own dishes! No more ridiculous banter or nicknames, no more pool table or crab pot or group movie viewing sessions.

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Plate bombing Cob at lunch time

Because the end is so close, I’m madly trying to tick off a few last boxes, and I’m delighted to have ticked off the biggest of them all this weekend: a big multi-day hike to one of the huts. Muz aka the Snow Leopard organised a trip on foot to Browning’s Hut, 60km away, and miraculously it was approved. We set off on Thursday morning, towing our survival packs on sleds. We trudged up the A-line for 26km until the turnoff to Browning. Along the way we were overtaken by our support party consisting of Ox, Barista and Picasso who drove ahead to set up camp (naturally as government employees in such a remote environment we are risk managed to within an inch of our lives so we needed to have vehicle support and although that slightly diminished the adventure, it was nice to have them carting our food, stoves, and piss drums and setting up our tents on the first night and the hut on the second; their company was greatly appreciated; and I certainly needed the ride back home to station as I was lame by that stage).

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The turnoff to Browning’s, our lunch spot, and the halfway point.
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Muz surveying the scene. Looking down from the plateau towards the ocean

The isolation here is incredible. As we walked, there was nothing for miles but snow and ice and the ocean. Not an insect, not a bird, not a creature living. The silence on a still day in Antarctica is deafening. I am extraordinarily privileged to have this experience that money couldn’t buy. After the turnoff we marched for another 11km before reaching camp at a waypoint on the plateau. The boys had erected the tents then passed the time prior to our arrival with a game of golf using fluoro orange golf balls.

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Picasso teeing off (D. Campbell)
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Coming into camp on day 1 (D. Campbell)
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The camp at B01. Note the fancy toilet facility (piss drum) on the right. (D. Campbell)

After putting my feet up briefly in the tent and smashing a couple of anti-inflammatories I was ready to join the crew for dinner in the back of the Hagg. They had the heater running, which after some time bought the temperature from -15 to a more civilised +9 degrees Celcius at the roof (it definitely wasn’t that warm at foot level). Dinner consisted of “ratpacks”. Now I’m not fussy, I don’t think, but I can not eat that shit. Ratpacks – short for ration packs – are dehydrated meals to which you add
a small amount of boiling water and let it stand for 20 minutes, and the most common brand we have here evoke a very visceral reaction in me. I had a go at the lamb casserole and retched. But the other guys were quite happy with the standard ratpacks, so much so that they all had seconds. Picasso had the tuna mornay. He declared that not many tuna were harmed in the making of that product, but it’s still his favourite. Other varieties include beef and black bean, beef with green beans, spaghetti with tomato sauce and so on. Cheap dog food by another name, I think. Thank god there are a couple of packets of an alternative brand which are significantly more palatable in my opinion, so I didn’t starve.

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Picasso enjoying his tuna mornay

After dinner and a few stories we retired to the Polar Pyramids, slept soundly, and arose to another stunning freezing cold day in Antarctica. If we brushed against the wall of the tent in the morning ice crystals from the condensation would fall off on our clothes or heads. We got organised (I tell you, it’s no fun getting dressed or emptying your bladder on a field camp in Antarctica), the support party packed up and drove ahead to Browning’s Hut, and Muz and I plodded on for another 23km. I was absolutely frothing with excitement (and simultaneously wincing with pain because my knee was blowing up) because it was just the most incredible feeling to be essentially alone in Antarctica, soaking up the awe-inspiring view of the Vanderford glacier and the Southern Ocean sprinkled with icebergs and the Windmill Islands. It’s impossible to describe. Over the 16 hours or so that we spent walking, we had plenty of time to reflect on the early journeys of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration, and even the more recent feats of modern-day adventurers who try to recreate those incredible journeys or to break new records. Just the small taste that I had, in perfect weather conditions with vehicular support, is enough to give me a massive appreciation of what those brave men (and a few women) achieved.  One of them, John Riddoch Rymill, was my grannie’s cousin, and as mentioned in a previous blog, he led an expedition to survey British Graham Land (now known as the Antarctic Peninsula) in 1934. I bought along my last bottle of “The Surveyor” which is a tribute to him, and thoroughly enjoyed it after that walk (Rymill 2010 Coonawarra Cab Sauv – get it into you!).

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Captain Muz in charge of navigation
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Crossing the ice

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I never tire of this scene
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The final leg up the hill to Browning’s Hut – a beautiful sight after 60km!
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We made it!! (D. Campbell)
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What hikers drink in Antarctica: Rymill “The Surveyor” Cab Sauv
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And again!
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Enough photos! Time to crack the wine. Celebrating Muz’s birthday.

The next morning we went for a short walk, probably more accurately described as a hobble in my case, the lack of walking much for a year clearly apparent. I feel truly guilty about dragging two expeditioners from last year for a massive hike around Maria Island in Tassie soon after they returned – sorry Ryn and Benny. You really should ease back into hiking. And then we drove back to station.

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Barista, Picasso and Muz on our short hike around Browning Peninsula on Day 3. Matchy matchy.

The weekend before we organised a hen’s party for Katie who will marry Cob next year. Frocks were compulsory. Now Mum has expressed some concern at how often the guys indulge in a bit of cross-dressing. What is going on?!, she wants to know. I tell her that there is a proud history of cross-dressing in Antarctica which probably dates back to the early days of living and working here when the stations were composed of all-male crews. For entertainment they would put on plays and pantomimes, and they started dressing in women’s clothing to play the female roles like Cinderella. Over time cross-dressing has become accepted, tolerated, and even celebrated, more so in some seasons than others. As a side note, the first woman to spend a winter working for the Australian Antarctic Division was Dr Zoe Gardner, who was the doctor at Macquarie Island in 1976, 29 years after ANARE started. At the time she and the head of polar medicine (Dr Des Lugg) encountered a lot of resistance from the establishment about employing her, but they didn’t have any male candidates for the doctor’s job that year so she went. The first female to winter on the Antarctic continent was Dr Louise Holliday at Davis in 1981. Tim Bowden’s book “The Silence Calling” describes some of the appalling sexist behaviour she had to endure, despite which she had a “very good year…you just have to use your own resources and realise they’re not really attacking you – they’re just feeling a bit threatened themselves and you just brush it off eventually”. Nowadays the culture has changed and about 10% of the winterers are female (although from time to time there is still an all-male group overwinter). I’m told by one of the experienced expeditioners here that the female presence encourages the men to lift their standard of behaviour, and station life is more civilised and pleasant when we are around. There was also a wedding at Davis in 1994 (my colleague, the doctor at Macquarie Station this year, was actually one of the bridesmaids!) although the ceremony wasn’t recognised under Australian law.

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The camera loves you darlings! Hen’s party at Wilkes. Beard bling and all!
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There were at least two genuine ladies at the hen’s party, including the Hen herself. Make-up and nails by Adam, Ox and Tom.
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Oh what a feeling! Pumped to be at Wilkes on a POETS day (Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday)

I have a habit of losing things and on this particular getaway to Wilkes I managed to lose my tripod, throw bag and a ski boot – a damn good effort. The tripod was found on the way back to station – it had fallen off the back of the Hagg trailer where I’d absent-mindedly placed it – but I was panicking about my ski boot. At station I looked hard in the back of the Hagg and couldn’t see it anywhere, so I asked if someone could take me back to Wilkes to search for it and the station leader agreed. We took the quads out after work, and Tom the trip leader spotted my throw bag along the way (it had fallen out of my survival bag when I was walking back to station) but the ski boot was nowhere to be seen. In a display of great detective work I re-examined some Go-Pro footage of the trip out and didn’t see any sign of it falling out on the track so I had another thorough look in the back of the Hagg and guess what, there it was. Upside down and wedged behind the winch. Earned myself a Pink Hat nomination for having a boy’s look the first time, and have been accused of inventing excuses to go on a trip. As if I would do such a thing!!

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Sun halo due to ice crystals in the atmosphere on the day we rode out to Wilkes on the search for the ski boot

Speaking of pink hats, last week we had a pink morning tea as part of Cancer Awareness Month. We got into the spirit of it by eating pink food and wearing items of pink clothing so there were plenty of pink hats on show. On the same day at the AAD headquarters in Kingston they unveiled the new Pink Hagg which they’ve painted in collaboration with BreastScreen Tasmania; I think it will look sensational against the stark white snow at Davis Station where it’s going this summer. The winner of the naming competition for the Hagg was “Opal”, the birthstone of October and a message of inspiration and hope. Staff could leave a message inside the Hagg so I asked them to write one for my grandma who died of breast cancer 11 years ago and whom I miss very much. A raffle was held as well and money raised went towards purchasing iPads for patients undergoing chemo in Tasmania. For another little history lesson: In the late 1990’s a doctor at an American base (Scott Base) discovered a lump in her breast during the dark cold depths of winter. She performed her own breast biopsy but the results were inconclusive. She was unable to be evacuated due to the extreme winter weather conditions however they were able to airdrop medical equipment and medications to her so she could commence her own treatment. As soon as conditions allowed they evacuated her for treatment in America including a mastectomy, and the cancer went into remission, however it returned and seven years after initial diagnosis she ultimately succumbed to the disease.

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A special smoko
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Opal, the new girl on the block at Kingston

Four of the guys went for a walk to Shirley Island today and discovered that the penguins are back!!!! I hope to get out tomorrow to greet them in person. Summer is on our doorstep!!

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The view from outside my office one evening last week

 

 

Jill of all trades

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You could get this suit, or you could spend a winter in Antarctica hardening up
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Then you’ll be outside in a T-shirt even though temperatures are below freezing! (K. Senekin)

We’ve reached that time in the season where people’s thoughts are starting to turn towards home. We are almost through the winter and as of yesterday there’s only a month left – hard to believe! I’ve ticked most of the boxes that I wanted to tick: I’ve seen Antarctic wildlife, auroras, skied to a hut, camped out in a tent, jumped into the sub-zero temperature water, celebrated midwinter; I’ve learnt a lot about the geology of the place, the weather, the history of human exploration and establishment of stations, but I haven’t really tried my hand at any of the trades down here other than cooking (and I’m not sure that counts). So I’ve spent the last fortnight visiting some of the other expeditioners in their workplaces, trying to learn about their job and where possible lend a hand (but I probably just got in their way). I have a pretty poor attention span and tolerance for manual labour; I think two hours was the longest I lasted before retreating back to my cosy little office.

First up I annoyed the diesos and learnt about refuelling. Every week they top up one of the two the diesel tanks that supply the main powerhouse (MPH), leaving the new diesel to settle for a day or two before switching to that tank. It’s not a fun job, standing out there in the elements for hours, with one person at the upper fuel farm and the other at the lower fuel farm, periodically measuring the tank levels at each end and cross-checking over the radio to ensure the numbers add up (ie there’s no leak) and to determine when the tank is full. On top of the weekly minor refuelling of about 10,000 litres, a few times a year there’s a major refuelling where diesel is pumped from the storage tanks at the lower fuel farm to the upper fuel farm and that occurred a week and a half ago. They transferred almost 300,000L of diesel and it took about 16 hours. There was a tradie at each end of the line regularly checking the tank levels, a dieso racing up and down between the two fuel farms and supervising the operation, and a radio operator recording the levels read out from each end at specified intervals. There are a set of procedures in place in case of fuel spill but the crews have the refuelling down to a fine art and are extremely careful to ensure that spills don’t occur. I went out to inspect/supervise/be decorative/take a few photos when the weather was nice.

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Nate (aka Nugget from Crocodile Dundee) doing the weekly MPH refuel
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Dipping the tank on the upper fuel farm
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Jeff pacing up and down the upper fuel farm, trying to keep warm during one of several two hour shifts
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The fuel hose winding its way from the lower fuel farm to the upper

A few days later I ventured down to the mechanics’ workshop, and found Sam (aka Donk from Crocodile Dundee) in the process of servicing the big Mack truck. He said I could check the oil level in the diff. I said “what’s the diff”? I think it’s the 100th time someone has explained to me what it is, and it certainly won’t be the last. I really don’t get the fascination with machines, smelly noisy things, so car stuff goes in one ear and out the other. He let me get on that yellow board, whatever it’s called, pointed to the nut and handed me a big metal something with which to undo said nut, but the stupid board kept sliding away every time I tried. Eventually with his help, I got the thing open, narrowly avoiding getting oil all over myself. I looked blankly inside the tank (he said everything was fine) and then did the nut back up. I was so proud. I did two more tanks then I got out of his hair.

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Checking the diff

Later in the week I visited the boys in the CUB (the new Casey Utilities Building which they’ve been building all year) and had a go at screwing in the plaster boards which they were covering the ceiling with. I accidentally touched a ‘hot’ screw, yelped, complained bitterly, and promptly retreated back to the warmth and safety of the medical centre. But I went back for more in the CUB last week, giving Jeff a hand with plastering. It wasn’t too bad, but I was grateful when someone cut their finger and I had an excuse to leave (it was very minor, but more than a papercut, so I dressed it up like nobody’s business just coz I can).

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Screwing gets tiring after a while!
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First run for the high-vis shirt.

Finally, I went and released another met balloon. I had been reading about weather for uni (a remote or expedition doctor needs to have an understanding of weather systems and forecasts for things like planning a retrieval or an expedition), so it was interesting to see the practical side of how weather observations are performed. Recording weather obs in Antarctica helps with local planning eg field trips, aviation, refuelling etc, but the data gathered is centralised and is useful for international weather forecasting because a lot of global weather is generated in Antarctica from things like the movement of cold air blowing down off the plateau and out over the Southern Ocean where it gets caught up in the earth’s rotation, as well as from ocean currents and sea ice formation around Antarctica, and so on. It’s beyond my level of comprehension, but I am fairly certain that some of the wild weather systems that hit southern Australia in the last week were born down here.

Speaking of weather, we’ve had some lovely weather in the last fortnight (especially compared to what my friends and family have copped at home!). We had a big dump of snow the weekend before last and I made my first Antarctic snow angel! And it goes without saying that I clocked up a few circuits of the ski loop during the week with all that fresh powder. There have been some spectacular sunsets too, and another night of stunning auroras which Danny captured on his Go Pro. It’s getting warmer, so much so that when three of us went for a walk last week I was down to a just a cotton T-shirt and my trusty old Carhart pants for some of it (it’s still -7C, mind you, so that just shows how hardcore we have become).

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I’m an angel (K. Senekin)
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Playing baseball with a shovel and a snowball (K. Senekin)
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Katie and I practicing yoga on Shirley Island on a ‘warm’ day last week (K. Senekin)
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Sam mowing the snow in his shorts and wife-beater (S. Jacobs)
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Watching the sunset from Reeves Hill (D. Campbell)
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Mabel, one of the met buildings, is pretty in pink (K. Senekin)
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Danny’s aurora (D. Pangrazio)

Last Sunday was a particularly nice day, and Dean who competes nationally in woodchopping decided it would be a good day to take some photos of the axe that he’s made down here. Lots of us have little projects to amuse ourselves out of work hours. Some of the guys are into carpentry and metal work and have crafted things like knives, clocks, small coffee tables, chess boards and the aforementioned axe. I’ve done a very small amount of drawing and painting, something that I’ve wanted to do for years but have never got around to, and the lack of practice is apparent. Lots of us have mucked around with photography too; Katie is one of the keenest and most talented so she was roped in by Dean to capture some shots of him chopping down a block of snow.

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Lucky I don’t have to rely on painting for an income. (K. Senekin)
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Dean working it for the camera
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Tim-ber!! (K. Senekin)
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He may look like the kind of guy you wouldn’t want to run into in a dark alley, especially brandishing that shiny knife he’s made down here, but AJ is actually a lovely bloke. (K. Senekin)

We took advantage of one of the lovely days to wander over to Shirley Island for a look at the seal that we spotted earlier from the top of Reeves Hill:

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Sunbaking after lunch

On Friday just gone five of us went to Robbo’s Hut for the night. It was a work trip of sorts – the boys replaced cane lines along the route and I replaced the first aid kit. It was also a chance to wander around the area and check out the ice cliffs.

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Little Ox
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Cane bros
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Ice cliffs at Robbos

And finally, not a month goes by without some cross-dressing, it seems, and the last fortnight provided a couple of occasions. Ox’s birthday was one (none of us will ever erase the image of Kiwi giving him a lap dance from our memories); and a poker/karaoke night was another.

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The birthday boy and five beautiful ladies
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Katie has developed a talent for cake decorating – she decorated Ox’s icecream cake so it looked like a log with a wood axe
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Karaoke night with the ‘girls’

There was a good audience for both footy finals on the weekend which Andy streamed live. Having lived in Sydney for 18 months I barracked for the Swans (not much fun in a room full of Doggies supporters) and the Sharks (finally!! I am sick of going for the losing team!). Cam enjoyed being the center of attention on his birthday (not) but I think he was very impressed with his cake… Only two more birthdays left for our year but Katie seems to raise the bar higher every time so I’m looking forward to seeing what she and Donna come up with!

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Sweet September

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A still from Muz’s Go Pro time lapse of an aurora two weeks ago (M. Kitson). Looking north towards Wilkes over Newcomb Bay, with the ANARESAT dome on the right, which is also my view from my office.

I was hoping to be out skiing today, and had planned to delay writing this fortnight’s blog until tomorrow in work hours, which as everyone knows is the best time to do non-work things. But unfortunately the wind has picked up and I’m stuck inside. It’s 20-40 knots here and at times I can’t see much outside the window other than blowing snow.

Of course it’s much windier up the hill at Wilkins International Runway where it’s currently blowing 50 knots – the weather is almost always worse up there. The four Wilkins boys moved back up a week and a half ago to start preparing for the summer season, with initial help from the station plumbers and sparkies to reconnect the plumbing and wiring. Hoot and Matty have come back to visit us on station for the weekend, and they tell us that the set-up is going well so far. They are working 10-12 hours a day in bitterly cold conditions which men and machines battle with, and already they have cleared over half the runway of snow – good progress with the deadline for the first flight of summer in 5 1/2 weeks now!! Steve and Marto have been left behind to look after the joint this weekend, and they just called on the satellite phone for a bit of a yarn (probably sick of talking to each other). It sounds like they’ve all been keeping busy outside of work hours with domestic pursuits like cleaning and baking bread so I’m worried that Katie and I will have nothing to do when we go up there to visit on our all-expenses paid holiday!

When we do go up I plan to run through the disaster response plan, which co-incidentally is the current topic in the Introduction to Remote and Polar Health subject that I’m studying this semester. Can you imagine dealing with multiple casualties from a plane crash in Antarctica?? It’s probably my worst nightmare. Resources include one doctor and a handful of Wilkins staff who have done some disaster response training including fire fighting, vehicle extrication, and Wilderness First Aid; a well-constructed MECC tent which is still not overly warm (and hypothermia is deadly for trauma patients) that is stocked with some basic emergency equipment and supplies to treat a mass casualty scenario, with the station medical facility 70km away and the next tertiary referral centre almost 4000km away in Australia; and satellite phones for communicating with station and support staff (including the Polar Medicine Unit) in Kingston, Tasmania. It would be extremely difficult.

Flying in Antarctica is challenging for several reasons including freezing temperatures, snow and ice runways, and difficulty at times distinguishing sky from ground, and there have been several plane crashes; most recently three Canadian pilots who had been working for the Australian Antarctic Division tragically lost their lives when they flew into a mountain in 2013 – the wreckage and bodies were not recoverable. http://www.tsb.gc.ca/eng/rapports-reports/aviation/2013/a13f0011/a13f0011.asp. But flying over Antarctica is also very beautiful, as I was lucky enough to discover back in February. On the Casey hard drive we have a video made by those Canadian pilots before they left, with Go Pro footage of them flying around the icy continent during the summer season – it’s breathtaking stuff.

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The boys about to head off to Wilkins to commence preparations for the summer season (K. Senekin)
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Hoot the Wilkins diesel mechanic digging out the workshop (S. McInnerney)
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Sunset at Wilkins (M. Ryan)

Hoot and Matty timed their visit to station well actually, because yesterday Donna put on a dessert cooking class. Her students whipped up a variety of sweet indulgences, including doughnuts, Portuguese tarts, croissants, eclairs, biscuits, lemon meringue tarts and more. I was slushy (dish pig) and although at first I was disappointed that I didn’t get to be in the class, and subsequently dismayed at how many dishes they produced, I enjoyed licking all the bowls and wooden spoons before washing them! I’m actually trying to do Sweets-Free September and it’s been going pretty well, but I had a real blow out yesterday. Went to bed as full as a bishop’s balls, and slept terribly with all that sugar in my system despite being worn out from the drama of the Crows’ quarter final loss and from a full day of slushy which included putting on my chef’s hat and cooking dinner for the masses last night (slow-cooked lamb shoulder with baharat, falafels, tabbouli and flatbread). It’s quite a challenge cooking for 25 people! Donna reckons she gets stressed out cooking for a small dinner party now, she’s so used to catering for big numbers having spent years working in mines, detention centres and on Antarctic stations. I don’t know how she does it! But the crowd didn’t complain about my efforts, and even Sam ate some vegetables which made me very proud.

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Look at us, mum! Sweetest boys in town. (A. McLauglin)
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Donna and class: AJ, Adam, Kiwi, Andy, Brilly and Ox (A. McLaughlin)
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Sam unwittingly piling chickpea patties and kale and burghul salad (aka falafels and tabbouli) onto his plate. Good boy!
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A delicious fluoro party with colourful balloons, food, personalities and outfits 🙂 (K. Senekin)

Cob celebrated his birthday last week, and his fiance Katie went all out in the cake baking department under Donna’s expert guidance. Cob is a mad sports fan so Katie went with a golf theme for the cake and convinced a group of us to dress up as sports players for the cake presentation. After that the birthday boy stood up and presented the awards for the footy tipping comp which he’d organised and run throughout the year. Cam deservedly won the AFL comp having stayed on top all season, miraculously followed by Kiwi who knows next to nothing about AFL. To demonstrate this, yesterday Kiwi asked me where the Crows came from, and then sat with me and watched the game, barracking for Sydney just to be in opposition. Well isn’t he Mr Smug now? I’m hiding from him all day today.

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Katie’s creation and the birthday cake crew (in case you’re wondering, Nate is a surfer chick). Happy birthday Cob! (K. Senekin)
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It’s a wrap!

Last week Katie, Adam and I participated in a video link-up with primary school students from Calare, Tottenham and Loftus in NSW. They wanted to know things like “what do you do in a normal day, where do you live, how did you get there, is anyone dating on station (the answer is very boring actually, and it was diplomatically handled by Katie), what do you do in your spare time, what’s the most bizarre thing you’ve seen, what would you do if someone had an accident, does it rain in Antarctica, who is your favourite Antarctic explorer” and so on. It was really enjoyable, although I was disappointed that we didn’t get to speak to students from Naracoorte (maybe next time?), and I got pretty cold standing outside for an hour!

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The schools video link-up (K. Senekin)

Other than Saturday’s kitchen capers and the schools video link-up, the last fortnight has been pretty quiet for me. Just plodding along, studying, working a little bit, doing some hydroponics and putting together our yearbook, yoga and gym workouts, and a big walk to check out the sea ice and Shirley Island last weekend with Ox. The sea ice is reforming but it’s a lot rougher than last time. We saw a seal last weekend, and I’m getting very excited about the imminent seal pupping season and the return of the penguins! The days are getting longer which is nice, very good for the soul. Thoughts are definitely starting to turn towards home….I should be back up Down Under enjoying freedom, sunshine on bare skin, fresh food, trees and grass and the company of friends and family in November.

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Hiking last weekend on the sea ice. I’m wearing a beanie, tinted goggles, a balaclava, a few layers of thermals underneath my Carhart jacket and pants (thick cotton shell with nylon lining and polyester interlining, the bomb), thick lined boots with snow chains, thick socks, woolen wristlets and thick gloves; and carrying a survival pack with an ice axe, throw rope, bivvy bag and thermarest on the side. Inside the pack is a sleeping bag, food, water, pee bottle, and full change of clothes, in case we get caught out in the weather for some reason, as well as maps, compass, EPRB, mirror, head torch and spare batteries. It weighs about 15kg. Ox also had the sea ice drill (D. Campbell).
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A Weddell seal sun-baking on the sea ice between Shirley Island and McMullin Island, just east of station. The animals here have no natural predators so they aren’t too scared of you. The AAD has a policy regarding how close you can get to them: it’s 5m for a non-breeding seal. Too close and you stress them out causing them to burn precious calories (D. Campbell)
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Being a sealy bugger (D. Campbell)
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Dean inside the petals of the ice flower
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Adam receiving the pink hat for August, for dropping his radio in the piss bucket. (K. Senekin)
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Several expeditioners pass time with colouring-in. This is for those who can’t be bothered.

Although I’ve had a relatively slow fortnight, the same can’t be said for the Australian Antarctic Division and in particular Macquarie Island. You may have heard the sudden announcement last week that the station was to close at the end of the season, only opening for specific projects in summer with a greater use of the field huts from which to conduct those projects. Federal and AAD budgets are tight, the infrastructure is terribly dated and becoming somewhat of an OH&S issue, and the powers that be would rather focus their attention and dollars on the continental stations (Casey, Davis and Mawson) which are of more strategic importance. The announcement came as a great shock to many, especially those who were scheduled to go down next season, who’d announced to their friends and family and employers that they were leaving and who’d started training and preparing. It was also a bitter blow for the scientists and Bureau of Meteorology who have important work on the island. Three days later Frydenberg, the Minister for The Environment and Energy, changed his tune: “Following the announcement, I have had further consultations with key stakeholders including the Bureau of Meteorology, the Premier of Tasmania and my Federal parliamentary colleagues. I have now asked my department to provide me with options to ensure a permanent all-year-round presence on the island is maintained. In the meantime, operations on Macquarie Island will continue as normal” (https://www.environment.gov.au/minister/frydenberg/media-releases/mr20160916.html). Sigh of relief from many people who have been/are/hope to be involved in Macca, but we will have to wait and see what that latest statement really means and how it all plays out. It came on top of an exciting week for Macca, where the current expeditioners survived an earthquake and saw the first seal pups and penguin eggs of the season: http://www.antarctica.gov.au/living-and-working/stations/macquarie-island/this-week-at-macquarie-island/2016/this-week-at-macquarie-island-16-september-2016.

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Yes I know that one year of weather/sea ice/etc doesn’t mean that the climate is changing, BUT this year Antarctica has seen one of the lowest sea ice maximums for winter. This image from NASA shows a big breakout of 14,000 km2 of fast ice near Casey, which probably occurred during the passage of a large low pressure system at the end of August.
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And that’ll teach Danny to leave his camera lying around…

Who knew an elbow could look so funny?

A walk on the wild side as winter wraps up

Some days I feel like I’m just existing, and other days like I’m truly living! By that I mean I’m in the moment, focused, pushing myself, feeling inspired and alive, and not just going through the motions. Exploring Antarctica on foot gives me that awesome feeling, and in the last fortnight I’ve had a few such opportunities to get out and get happy. Last weekend Ox, Adam, Marto, Katie and I journeyed to Browning Peninsula – four seated in the front of the Hagg, and one snuggled supine in sheepskins and sleeping bags on the bench in the back caboose, desperately trying to imagine that it was like travelling first-class in a sleeper carriage. On the way there it was Katie, and I think she had a tough time of it. Visibility was atrocious and Ox kept losing the track. It was a very slow, bumpy journey. On the way back I scored the position in the back caboose, and although it was a much smoother trip, I’m told I missed a spectacular sunset and moonrise. Oh well. I was pretty knackered after our big weekend.

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Browning party in front of Crocodile Rock (K. Senekin)
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Heading down into the wind scour
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Brain freeze. Way out in the distance is the Vanderford Glacier.

We arrived at Browning on Saturday afternoon, with enough time for a quick walk around to the wind scour and the hills that face the Vanderford Glacier to admire the jaw-dropping scenery. For dinner we feasted on a cheese platter and boil-in-the-bag savoury mince, while I tried not to think too hard about my family celebrating Mum’s 60th at Guillame’s in Sydney. We did toast her good health with a lovely bottle of French champagne though.

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Pol Roger, naturally chilled
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Happy birthday Mum!!

It was the first time I’ve been homesick, but I was able to shake it off quickly thanks to numerous distractions including Katie’s astrology readings for each of us and a few rounds of Presidents and Assholes (or is that Breakfast Assholes, or Predators and Assholes? There was some confusion) and Uno. We slept well, with Adam thankfully failing to live up to his reputation of snoring like a wounded warthog. I did need to pee during the night and was pretty distressed to find that a blizztail had formed over the toilet door over the preceding few hours so I had to dig my way in, and of course the seat was wincingly cold, but it was still way better than using a she-pee and piss bottle in the cold porch of the hut. When we arose the next morning, eager to explore our surroundings further, we were dismayed to hear the wind still rattling the hut and to see drifting snow outside. We debated going for a walk for quite some time, waiting and praying that the wind would drop. It didn’t. So after a tasty breakfast and several coffees, we decided we’d have to HTFU and go anyway, except for Katie who decided quite sensibly that “it wasn’t Katie weather” so she stayed behind in the hut keeping warm.

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Setting out to explore Browning Peninsula – pumped at the prospect of the adventure ahead! (K. Senekin)
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I’m all rugged up, buttercup! And not pregnant either – that’s my camera bulging under the jacket (K. Senekin).

And boy-o-boy was it worth it. We hiked for 8-10km over snow, frozen lakes and sea ice, and mad rocks (lots of the Antarctic rocks are very interesting, with streaks of minerals like copper and garnet in them, and many of the ones at Browning have golf-ball sized holes which sometimes coalesce to form lattice-like structures – wish I knew more about geology!). The wind whistled in our ears and snow drifted all around us, sometimes obscuring the land from which it blew. As Adam remarked it was like we were on another planet, very otherworldly. Our objective, besides getting some fresh air and honest exercise, was to locate an old tinnie which scientists once used for travelling to and from Peterson Island across the other side of a small channel from Browning Peninsula. Ox’s excellent navigation skills and Adam’s keen eye led us to the spot but the boat was frozen pretty solid into the ground and extrication will require some serious digging. From there we journeyed across the frozen channel to Peterson Island to check out the memorial plaque and cairn from the American landing almost 70 years ago. The US Navy were in the area as part of Operation Windmill, the follow-up to Operation Highjump which first charted the area and which was the largest Antarctic expedition ever organised; indeed it is sometimes likened to an “invasion” of Antarctica. It was a huge operation led by Admiral Byrd and comprising over 13 ships, 23 aircraft and 4700 troops, whose primary mission was to establish an American base (Little America IV). Secondary goals were to consolidate and expand Antarctic territorial sovereignty for America (later denied), map more of the coastline, test personnel and equipment in extreme cold, gain experience in establishing and running bases in polar regions, develop the ability of the US Navy to operate in all conditions, search for minerals and coal, and study metereorology, geology, geography, electromagnetics and so on. Well, that’s the official story. The unofficial story is far more interesting: conspiracy theories abound regarding Nazis and UFOs. After WWII about 250,000 Nazis were unaccounted for. Rumour circulated that they’d constructed an underground base in Antarctica, starting before the war and continuing afterwards. And around that time aliens were the object of intense speculation, which peaked when the Roswell crash occurred. At the time it seems people made a connection between Nazis and UFOs – apparently swastikas were often seen on flying saucers, and aliens were heard speaking German. So the Americans hastily constructed a huge naval force and sent it down to Antarctica to save the world from Nazis and aliens. Sounds like a Hollywood movie! (Wikipedia, http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/antarctica/antartica11.htm, http://www.airspacemag.com/history-of-flight/operation-highjump-18223476/?no-ist)

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Outward bound
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Crossing the ice
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Looking up the valley to the east and the snow blowing down off the plateau
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Heading towards Peterson Island
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Reading the logbook in the memorial cairn
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The official declaration
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Unfolding the American flag from inside the cairn
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The returning expeditioners clockwise from L: Marto with his frozen blue foreskin; yours truly with frozen snot and a now a mildly frostbitten nose where that bare skin is showing (shit!); Adam the walrus with snotsicle tusks and a solidly frozen and adherent neck gaiter; and Ox looking remarkably fresh and unscathed still – just some frozen eyelashes and gear.
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Ravenous!! Katie, who is going to make a fabulous wife one day, had a hot lunch and cups of tea waiting for us when we returned to Browning Hut.
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Freezing in the makeshift bed in the back of the Hagg/The Browning Express on the return to station.

The weekend before Hoot and I hiked over to the old station at Wilkes. Although the weather was much nicer, in many ways it was a tougher walk and it left me crippled for the next two days. I’m not sure if it was my poorly-fitting boots, the harder and more uneven ground, or the longer distance (almost double). Regardless, it was an epic walk, the view was magnificent, frozen sandwiches consumed whilst gazing out over the sea ice have never tasted better, and I was truly living! We had planned to eat inside the Wilkes Hilton but were deterred by the ginormous blizz tail that was covering the door – it would have taken 1/2 hour to dig out. Someone really needs to pick that building up and turn it 90 degrees.

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Halfway to Wilkes, with Newcomb Bay behind us and Casey Station in the background on the left. Hoot’s neck gaiter was frozen fast to his beard, and removal was reportedly very painful.

No one else wanted to join us on the hike to Wilkes – there were too many sleepy heads after celebrating our final Saturday night dinner as a big group before the Wilkins guys head back up the hill to prepare the runway for summer.  We had feasted on canapes, seafood, a variety of meats including spit-roast lamb, and lovingly prepared desserts, and then those who weren’t in a food-coma indulged in some hilarious post-dinner games including limbo, the cereal box game, and arm-wrestling. Soon after the clothes started coming off so that was my signal to bid the mob goodnight. It had been a long day anyway.

The celebrations had actually started at 4pm with the very exciting and eagerly-anticipated opening of the time capsule from 1989! That was the year the station moved into the Red Shed where we currently live. Inside the capsule was a note from the 1989 station leader who asked us to pass on their group’s regards to the station on the moon which they’d felt certain would be up and running by now! He also wrote about their grave concerns for the future of Antarctica as back then the Madrid Protocol hadn’t been signed, and tourism and mining were very much on the table. Other objects included vintage magazines (you can guess what sort), Casey newsletters, a jar of pussies??, condoms, socks, a few bottles of well-aged alcohol, a packet of surprise peas, a husky’s tooth, and a cassette tape of their favourite songs from the year – it took some hunting to find a cassette player but soon we were bopping along to the Dirty Dancing soundtrack, Fleetwood Mac, and various other hits from that time.

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Intense interest in the lamb preparation for our end-of-winter dinner.
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Anticipation is at fever pitch as Jason, our S/L, opens the tin with assistance from Brilly
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Examining the contents, paying particular attention to the picture magazines (K. Senekin)
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The dessert tables! (K. Senekin)
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Personalised fortune cookies from Donna
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Bitter experience had taught that jeans don’t cope well with the cereal box game.
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Nate killing it in the limbo

To finish, I’ll leave you with a picture of last night’s aurora. I still haven’t quite mastered my camera’s settings and I was a bit late getting outside so missed the best part of the aurora activity, but it was still pretty stunning. There was a solar storm last week which has resulted in some truly spectacular aurora activity around Antarctica but with the exception of last night Casey has had too much cloud cover to see much of it. Aaron Stanley, one of the meteorology observers at Davis where they’ve had clearer night skies, is a very keen photographer and aurora hunter. For some of his wonderful photos from last week check out Icy News: http://www.antarctica.gov.au/living-and-working/stations/davis/this-week-at-davis/2016/this-week-at-davis-2-september-2016. Also the Australian Antarctic Festival kicks off in Hobart this week, and includes the Antarctic Photography Exhibition. A few of the photos are online at http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-09-02/antarctic-gallery/7809640.

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Last night’s display
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Bye for now! (K. Senekin)

 

The struggle and the triumph

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The sea ice reforming down at the wharf. This particular day it was making a squeaky noise like styrofoam as the swell moved the sea ice up and down. I suspect it’s all blown away now though as we are experiencing another big blizzard.

Over the last few weeks we’ve watched athletes from all over the world competing for gold and for glory. They’ve embodied the Olympic ideals of courage, determination, excellence, friendship and sportsmanship. We’ve been able to catch some of the action here on delayed broadcast recorded TV and through the online newspapers which has been great. Love the Olympics or loathe them (or don’t give a rat’s ass) there are some magnificent displays of ability, of great personal struggles and incredible triumphs. The possibilities contained within the human body never cease to amaze me! In the words of the father of the modern Games, Pierre de Coubertin, the Olympics aren’t about the winning but about taking part (something the critics forget sometimes), just as life isn’t about the triumph but the struggle.

We decided to hold our own Olympic Games yesterday. Obviously there are no grand stadiums or swimming pools to compete in and we were back on Black travel conditions (sustained winds over 100 knots, blowing snow, poor visibility) so our battles were fought indoors in various arenas of the Red Shed, but we do have some very competitive and fit expeditioners, and as it turns out we have a fair bit of hidden sporting talent. Nearly everyone took part and over the course of Saturday afternoon we competed in games of ice hockey, curling, quoits, pong shotput, handball, breath holding, eating competitions, penguin bowls, balloon relays, and mini golf. I never was blessed with ball skills or much athletic ability (“built for comfort, not for speed”, my father used to wind me up), so I struggled in most events, but I triumphed in the breath holding with a winning time of 1:17. At the end of the day our team won the silver medal, which is pretty respectable, and everyone had a good time.

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Ice hockey – a serious start to competition
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Things degenerated quickly during the curling

 

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Kiwi was pretty chuffed after skittling a few penguins! He’s actually one of our top athletes, spurred on by his determination to show the young guns up. Real men wear pink!
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Jimmy the ball boy in penguin bowls
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Tap tap tap it in, Cob! The golf course designer demonstrating how to win at his own game – he was just waiting for the door to open (which it did every 6 seconds, thanks to the motorised rotating wheel that Andy rigged up).
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Team Robbos – gracious wooden spooners
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Team Jacks! Silver medallists.

Last week was National Science Week, and as our reason for being here is ostensibly science, we marked the occasion with an extended smoko on Tuesday, some science quizzes, and an engineering challenge to construct cubes out of straws and marshmallows. Lots of marshmallows were consumed in the production of the cubes. Back at headquarters they took it more seriously with Icy Tweets which you can check out here: http://www.antarctica.gov.au/news/2016/tweeting-drones,-droids-and-robots-for-national-science

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An engineering marvel! Nate is on QC for the marshmallows.

Two traverses were undertaken in the last fortnight, the first to Law Dome and the second to Cape Poinsett which are about 100-120km away. The aim was to check the Automatic Weather Stations which record air temperature, wind speed and direction, and barometric pressure. Much to Met Tech Dainn’s relief, both were in pretty good shape and didn’t require a lot of work – just some new batteries, de-icing, and recalibrating. Both traverses had relatively benign conditions, and some magnificent sunsets, but traverses in Antarctica are always a big undertaking involving long hours of travel over bumpy snow at an average of 10kph, minimal creature comforts, cramped living quarters, and COLD temperatures. There are some epic tales of traverses in bygone eras, such as the 1962 traverse from Casey to Vostok, a Russian station 3000km away, and the coldest place on earth with a record low temperature of -89.2 C. Upon arrival the Aussie crew discovered that the station had been abandoned 12 months earlier but dinner was waiting: http://www.antarctica.gov.au/about-antarctica/history/exploration-and-expeditions/modern-expeditions/stories-from-the-archives/steak-and-onions-vostok-style

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The Challenger tractor cruising into the sunset on the Law Dome traverse (photo by Sam)
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Stopping for a driver reviver cuppa at Lanyon Junction. The Challenger tractor pulls the vans, one of which is for sleeping and eating in, and the other contains the generator. The rest of the team travels in a Hagg.
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Three bunks on each side of the van, with a metre of floor space in the middle. Cosy.
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Dainn admiring the lovely AWS at Law Dome (photo by Sam or Brilly, I don’t actually know)

I didn’t get to go on the traverse, so instead I went out to Jack’s Hut last weekend for an overnight stay. Jack’s is the most northern of the huts around Casey Station, and boasts the best toilet with an unrivalled view out over the ocean, icebergs and Swain Islands. Four of us had a lovely night playing cards, reading, and watching some of the 2016 Antarctica Film Festival entries. The best thing about watching the movies was getting a glimpse of life at the other stations – Vostok, for example, appears to have quite a big system of tunnels and caverns (including one which appears to contain the spa and sauna) in the ice. I don’t have the bandwidth to post any of the movies in this blog but I think if you follow this link you will see “Lost in Translation”, the winning video from the Polish station: https://vimeo.com/177944376. By way of explanation, every station in Antarctica is invited to submit an entry in the Open and the 48 hour competition. Five elements have to be included in films for the 48 hour competition, and those elements are randomly chosen by five stations and are announced on Friday afternoon, with completed films due in two days later. This year 18 stations entered, and the elements were sound – elephant trumpeting; action – walking like you’re on a catwalk; phrase – “May the Force Be With You”; object – stethoscope; character – mythical creature. The film has to be shorter than five minutes. You may recall that filming occurred 2 weeks ago, and we based our entry around our Casino Night. Neither of my sisters watched through to the end of our film, stating that they didn’t understand it. Weak. ‘Casey’ hits his head, is knocked unconscious, and has a dream that he wins big in a casino. Then he wakes up. The end. https://vimeo.com/177909174. New Zealand’s Scott Base won for best Cinematography: https://vimeo.com/177891121, but I really liked the cinematography in UK’s Halley Base entry: https://vimeo.com/177972093. My favourite film was the Japanese one but I couldn’t find it on Vimeo.

The following morning after our night at Jack’s, Marto and I skied all the way home (12.5km) which was just magic – we had perfect weather conditions, very little wind, a pretty clear sky, the hint of a sun dog, and air temperatures of -20C. Dean and Sam were close behind in the Hagg, stopping periodically to perform the annual cane line maintenance (all of our designated travel routes have cane poles sticking up at intervals to mark the way, but over time they become buried in snow so they need replacing). They forgot the drill so had to do it the old-fashioned way, by hand, which was a bit of a struggle but in the end they triumphed!

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Looking down towards Jack’s Hut – the Hagg parked out the front, and the toilet off to the right. 
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The ice throne – took me a few minutes to clear out the snow first, but the relief was worth it.
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Dean and Sam hand-drilling the hole for the new cane line
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Dean is the cane line maintenance man, and this was his first cane erected for the season! A proud moment.
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Two very happy skiers!

 

A serious case of wind

Cob is a truly happy man. He’s the senior Met Observer here and he’s been (the only one) disappointed that the weather has been relatively mild this year, but last Sunday the Weather Gods answered his prayers with a record-breaking wind gust of 134 knots (248kph) at 115pm local time. The previous wind speed record was set when my boss Dr Jeff Ayton was here in March 1992, with a wind gust of 131 knots! Pfft! We also broke the record for the coldest July day, with a seriously bone-chilling -34.2C earlier in the month.

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Record wind gust!!
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It blew the hair right off Marto’s head!
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Even though there was a drive to get Cob some new socks, he still likes his holey ones.

Living through winds like that was quite an experience. As a rule of thumb, you get knocked over when the wind speed in knots exceeds your body weight in kilograms, so for safety reasons our travel is restricted and once the wind gets over 100 knots for a sustained period of time no one is allowed to leave the Red Shed. With sustained winds between 60-100 knots we go on “Red” travel conditions which means that you can only go outside in pairs, with permission from the station leader, and you take precautions like wearing ice chains on your shoes and holding onto blizz lines (Nick, the head dieso, who has recently began an affair with protein powder and the gym ie he’s not little, tells me that for a brief moment the wind lifted him right off the ground and he was holding on for dear life to the blizz line!). I went out in those conditions with Brilly to move a Hagg and check the powerhouse obs – it’s pretty exhilarating at first but then it just gets uncomfortable and tiring fighting to keep your balance and move forward in poor visibility whilst sharp snow stings your face and you struggle to breath with all that gear on. Saturday 6th August actually marked the anniversary of the death of G. Reeves here in 1979 – he went outside in a blizzard to use the toilet at Robbo’s during a field trip but didn’t return to the van. He was found the next morning, alive but very hypothermic down on the sea ice, and was unable to be resuscitated. Reeves Hill is named after him. We studied his tragic case as part of our cold injury module in uni last week, and also read about this case which highlights the dangers of getting drunk in a cold environment or without friends to look after you: http://imgur.com/gallery/QzTs0.

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AJ and Brilly about to head out to investigate an alarm during the blizzard – they tie themselves to each other and hold on to the blizz line.

The noise inside the Red Shed during a blizzard is pretty deafening and can make movie watching and sleep a bit hard, particularly if a chunk of snow or ice or even a rock hits the side of the building. The water in the toilet bowl sloshes around too which provides me with childish amusement. Despite the hectic winds, there was remarkably little damage done – a flag pole was knocked over, a windscreen was broken, a tarpaulin covering a biopile blew away, and one of the buildings got a fair bit of snow inside it because the door blew open. I think because the winds were so strong, not much snow built up so there wasn’t a lot to clear, unlike the week before.

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“I’m pretty sure there used to be a doorway here” says Nate.

Being cooped up in the Red Shed over the windy weekend wasn’t too terrible however. Formal dinner was on Saturday night, which coincided with Brilly’s birthday. A few of us bought a bottle of wine and we held a very civilised red wine tasting. It’s clear that my wine tasting skills are very rusty and will need some dedicated polishing when I get home. I think the amount of wine I’ve bought online this year, which is waiting for me at Mum’s house, is a concerning sign of how much I’m missing wine bars, wineries and bottle shops. Incidentally I hopped on a clothes site the other day to see what was happening in the world of fashion – it is strange how irrelevant and far-removed from us that world is down here.

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Looks like red wine, smells like red wine, tastes damn good.

We’d held a suturing training class on the preceding Friday for the LSA’s and for a few of the guys going on the traverse because they’ll be a few hours away from their lovely doctor. The class was taken very seriously at first, but then turned into somewhat of an art and piercing class…Nothing too out of hand though.

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Steve learning how to suture
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My highly distractable LSAs artistically scoring the pork skin
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Your finger isn’t the smartest place to check that the stapler is working.
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The pork crackling on Saturday night after suturing practice – I think that’s KT’s heart and maybe part of someone’s star?

When the wind dropped, and the air cleared of blowing snow, the true scale of the devastation was revealed. The sea ice is GONE. Boo hoo hoo. I am gutted. Hopefully there is a long run of cold weather and it can refreeze before winter ends, and I can get back out on it on skis.

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Sea ice to the horizon before the blow
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Shit grey seas after the blow (but spectacular grey skies!)

Andy is a man of many talents. Not only can he staple his own finger, he is also one of my amazing anaesthetic LSAs, the Brew Master (see https://craftypint.com/…/…/Cold_As_Ice_Brewing_In_Antarctica for a recently published magazine article about him and the Casey brewery), the karaoke king, the play director, the video games guru (including gambling games for Casino Night) he is also our Comms Tech so he is the radio operator and our go-to-man for any entertainment requests or computer, communications or technological issues. And when not busy doing any of the above, he also collects data for scientific research.

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The brew team. Spot the plumber! (actually, Cam in the front is the plumber, and the crack belongs to Tom the chippy).
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Filling bottles with sugar and brew juice
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The Brew Master!
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Air sampling – where has the blade gone?! We made this discovery on a recent trip out to the air sampling site near old Wilkes Station.
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Collecting an air sample with a sponge which then is sealed in a glass jar and will be analysed in a lab in Australia.

Brilly accompanied me on my hydro check one night last week as the travel conditions were red, and afterwards we went and checked the powerhouse because he was rostered on for obs. Powerhouse obs are done four times a day. It’s a thirsty plant, burning through a staggering 50,000 litres of diesel a month in an effort to keep our lights on, appliances running, and buildings warm (water circulates through the building, is heated by the engines, and pumped back out around the station). That doesn’t count the diesel used by vehicles. All up we will use almost one million litres of diesel this year between Casey station, the skiway and Wilkins runway. The hungriest machines are probably the chef’s ovens and my sterilisers. Mawson has a wind turbine (Scott Base, the NZ base near McMurdo on the Ross Ice shelf also generates a lot of wind power for both stations I believe) but Casey’s winds are too erratic and unreliable, and we wouldn’t make enough solar power in winter, but maybe one day we’ll be able to generate more renewable electricity, and as buildings are modernised they hopefully will become more energy efficient.

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Brilly checking the obs
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Big machines and lots of pipes.
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Traverse Team Alpha, preparing to head off on their overnight field training trip (L-R: Sam, Adam “The Worm”, “Magic” Jimmy, Matty, Brilly and Dainn). Photo courtesy of Marto.

The windy weather last week made it difficult for Marto the plant operator to work outside, so instead he renovated Splinters, our bar, with some help from others. He made a very exciting discovery when he removed the bench top: a time capsule from 1989 that had been built into the bar!!! The grand opening will be saved for a special occasion…perhaps our end-of-winter dinner later this month, before Marto and the other three Wilkins guys head back up the hill to spend the next two months preparing the runway for summer and the handing-over of the baton.

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A time capsule from 1989!

The weekend just gone was full of entertainment which helped to break up the ongoing tedium of medical facility stocktake, maintenance and study. We filmed our entry for the highly competitive annual Antarctic 48 hour Film Festival – movie criteria are announced to all stations on Friday afternoon and the movie is supposed to be filmed, edited and handed in by Sunday night. Kieran was our director and producer, and worked tirelessly all weekend to get the film together. More about that to come after the movies are aired and judged by all the stations but it was a timely weekend for filming as Dean had organised a Cas Vegas casino night which was a lot of fun and involved horse racing, roulette, blackjack, poker and raffles, and so a little hint… there are some casino scenes in our movie.

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Steve aka Casey, shooting a film scene for our entry

Gambling is not condoned by the AAD so we played with printed money (Jimmy dollars). Inflation was rife as Dean the cashier became more generous as the night progressed, which was lucky for me because I lost all my money early on. Raffle prizes included breakfast in bed served by Chef Donna, a dental clean by me, coffee at Matty’s “It’s hard to say” cafe, guitar lessons from Jeff, Veet hair removal cream, Danny’s lost Estwing hammer!, and all-inclusive trip to Wilkins runway which was won by Katie and I. We can’t wait to enjoy a guided tour of the mineral springs (the crevasse that they tip grey water down), experience a 2-minute or less shower, and burn one down in the incinolet.

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Auctioning off raffle tickets and race horses, with Marto taking calls from an absent bidder on his phone
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Cas Vegas molls and tarts sipping on Dominique Portet sparkling – thanks Frenchman!
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Even polar bears and cowboys enjoy blackjack

The next day Marto and I went for a ski around the Bailey Peninsula to check out the scale of the damage to the sea ice and the igloo. Sad as the destruction of both made me (and Muz, the igloo architect and chief builder), I was gladdened to see lots of Antarctic petrols flying around – they must be taking advantage of the clear access to the sea water. It had been several months since I’d spotted a bird!

 

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Surveying the sea

And this is what really happened to Marto’s hair:

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Class of ’69

Nerd confession: There were many motivations for applying for a job in Antarctica, but one of the main reasons was the opportunity to gain new knowledge and skills. It’s been a year since I left Naracoorte to start training in Hobart, and I’ve learnt so much in that time. There wasn’t much room left in my brain to begin with, so unfortunately I’ve had to forget lots of things to make room for the new information. It’s a good thing I don’t have to worry about where I’ve left my wallet or keys down here, because that would definitely overload the system!

Training for the job began last July with a surgery course in an optimistic attempt to provide me with some surgical skills (my background is in rural GP anaesthetics). It was a great course at the University of Tasmania, run by Professor Richard Turner from the Royal Hobart Hospital who was assisted by his legendary registrar team, and we got to practice different operations such as an appendicectomy, oversewing perforated stomachs, packing a liver, fashioning a stoma, etc, on cadavers. Obviously a weekend course does not a surgeon make, so I had another three weeks on the ward and in theatre with the RHH surgical team last September, and a fortnight with the Orthopaedic team in November. Hopefully with that experience, a solid medical library on hand here at Casey and telephone and video support from consultants in Hobart, as well as help from my Lay Surgical Assistants, I should hopefully be able to perform a basic operation if required, however my fingers are tightly crossed that it won’t come to that.

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Meeting the LSA’s for the first time! Theatre scenario at the Royal Hobart Hospital with the Casey and Davis teams last August.
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Dr Helen Cooley and Tim Haley requiring extrication and medical treatment after an unfortunate logging incident at Arm River Camp, a year ago today! (UTAS Ex Med Course – highly recommended for anyone interested in this sort of work).

After the surgical skills I spent a week freezing my butt off in the Tasmanian wilderness doing an Expedition Medicine course. Half of the students came from a medical background, and the other half were TAFE students studying Outdoor Recreation. The course was challenging but really useful, and introduced me to skills like tying knots, basic navigation, improvising stretchers and splints, communications and so on – all necessary skills for Antarctica and for expeditions if I decided to go down the path of expedition medic at any stage. Following that I had four weeks at the Polar Medicine Unit at the Australian Antarctic Division headquarters in Kingston, getting to know the staff and my fabulous and inspiring colleagues, figuring out how the Division works, learning policies and procedures, revising old knowledge like basic microbiology and haematology, studying polar and wilderness medicine, and receiving an introduction to the equipment down here. Then I had to say goodbye to my appendix, the poor innocent little darling which had never given me any trouble. Since the early days of ANARE it’s been mandatory for the wintering doctor to have their appendix removed prior to coming down here, because no one wants to follow in the footsteps of the Russian doctor who removed his own when he developed appendicitis down here (http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-32481442).

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Dr Leonid Rogozov removing his own appendix under local anaesthetic, with help from his lay surgical assistant
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Back to school! Playing in the lab with Drs Helen and John (who’ve gone to Macquarie Island and Davis)
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Dr Clive Strauss, one of the Polar Medicine Unit doctors, teaching Dr Helen how to test carbon monoxide levels

Next up was a couple of weeks of meeting, bonding and training with my fellow expeditioners – we learnt fire-fighting skills, basic search and rescue skills, communication and conflict resolution skills, and a few other bits and pieces. My training was rounded out with a physiotherapy course and a couple of weeks at the Royal Dental Hospital in Melbourne learning how to examine teeth, fix dentures, put in fillings, perform root canal procedures, and look after dental equipment. It was a lot to take in! Meanwhile my fellow expeditioners were busy studying and training for their individual roles.

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On the bus heading to training in Hobart last September. This photo of Katie’s makes me laugh – relative to the present time we are so clean-cut, tanned and fresh-faced!

The fun didn’t stop once I arrived in Antarctica either. It’s a constant learning process. Currently I’m up to my ears in stocktake, which is an excruciating process involving locating over 3000 items, counting stock, recording it in the inventory and ordering more if required (who does this at home? the nurses? the fairies? thank you so much!! i have a newfound gratitude and respect), but I’m learning where lots of my equipment lives and what it does (better late than never!), so even though stocktake is painful it is kind of useful. Regular training sessions with the LSAs continue, practicing things like setting up for surgery, basic life support, taking blood, and last fortnight we had to plaster poor Marto’s broken ankles. I’m pleased to report that he’s made a full recovery and the next day we were back out on the ski loop again!

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Clangers comforts Marto, as Cam and I plaster his ankles (K. Senekin)
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Marto couldn’t run away so we trussed him up in the lithotomy position and Clangers was born again (K. Senekin)
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Not-so-secretly, Marto loved the attention, the cups of tea, and the celebrity autographs. (K. Senekin)

Everyone is learning, not just me! There are several apprentices on station, most notably Jacob the apprentice plumber, Shifty the penguin, Clangers the love child of Adam and Sweet Pea, and Walter the Wintering Wookie. Donna the chef has been running cooking classes as well, but you have to get in quick as places are limited! On Saturday I learnt how to make black bread – a rye bread with caraway and fennel seeds, coffee and cocoa powder and golden syrup, mmm mmm.

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Walter the apprentice baker (M. Brill)
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Walter the apprentice sparky (M. Brill)
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Adam putting on a darts clinic for Shifty and the other stations
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Donna’s cookery class – after baking bread we made pizzas for dinner

As previously mentioned, I am studying Public Health through the University of Tasmania online. Last week I read an interesting article for my latest subject (Medicine in Extreme Environments) called “Moving in extreme environments: what’s extreme and who decides?” which discussed the impact of regulations in an environment like Antarctica and how that might reduce the opportunity for self-regulation, learning and adaptation, as well as increase the perception of risk – if you tell everyone it’s dangerous they and their families at home can become more anxious. It is interesting chatting to current older expeditioners who’ve been coming down for 10-20 years or past expeditioners about what they used to be allowed to do in the 1960’s and 70’s – there has certainly been an explosion in regulation, which is undoubtedly well-intentioned as this is a definitely a hostile and isolated environment, but sometimes it is very frustrating and stifling. (http://extremephysiolmed.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/2046-7648-3-11).

We had a video link-up with an organisational psychologist in Canberra one morning last week to discuss stress. It was an excellent presentation about how to recognise signs of stress and how to improve resilience, and it opened up a discussion about some of the stressors for us living and working in Antarctica. The big one identified by the group at Casey was isolation from loved ones, from society (arguably a good thing at times), and from shops: for example if someone forgot to order insulation for the new water pipes, or if the new oil hoses for the snow groomer have a manufacturing fault, then that’s bad luck – there are no spares! Other less serious stressors for us here include worrying about being awarded the dreaded pink hat for making a stupid mistake like getting a vehicle bogged, driving the forklift into the wall of a building, or leaving a tray of meat in the back of the Polaris (small motorised vehicle on caterpillar tracks) for a few days when you’re on kitchen duties; or the last day of catch ‘n’ kill when the chef has a couple of days off and the leftovers fridge starts to look very bare. For me the biggest stress is undoubtedly confinement. I’m really struggling with being cooped up, with needing a trip leader to organise a trip for me because I’m not deemed capable of doing it myself, with having to get permission from the station leader to travel and with sometimes being denied that permission. I dream of freedom!! And of warm weather, fresh fruit, friends and family, future holidays, but mostly freedom….. On the bright side I’m pretty glad to be thousands of kilometres from those ridiculous Pokemon things. Hopefully that’s fizzled out by the end of the year.

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The best pink hat so far was awarded to the expeditioner who took the request to label the bread very literally…(PS that says Raisin not Poison).
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Danny who is amassing a large collection of pink hats, ostensibly for his daughters, and Muz with one of his own.

I have enjoyed a couple more skis on the sea ice in the last fortnight. Last weekend we went to check out an area where pressure has forced the sea ice to raft up into fabulous jagged shapes that jut out about 1-2m above the base. The forces must be immense! We were caught out in a brief gust of wind that lasted for ten to fifteen minutes – luckily it was a tailwind, and it pushed us along towards our destination. It felt very Antarctica! Yesterday we went to explore a channel between Mitchell Plateau and Beall Island which was the furthest I’ve been so far. There’s been a bit of snow in the last week so it was hard going actually, pushing through all that fresh powder. I’m feeling it today! I also think it might be time to dig out the sunglasses and sunscreen again for future long trips.

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Admiring the rafted sea ice
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The ice throne
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Skiing with a tailwind, snow drifting around our ankles
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Yesterday’s ski – more ice formations
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The queen of the castle!

The other expeditioners are getting very sick of my voice I think, but I’ve been trying hard to organise group activities to help pass the time. Two weeks ago I gave a presentation on my granny’s cousin John Riddoch Rymill who led an expedition down to what is now known as the Antarctic Peninsula from 1934-1937. There were 16 men in the team, 95 dogs (numbers fluctuated as they bred and died), a cat, multiple sleds, a plane, a ship, a little motor boat and a tractor. They were very successful in their mission, proving that the peninsula was just that, and not a series of islands as was previously supposed (http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/rymill-john-riddoch-8318, http://www.spri.cam.ac.uk/resources/expeditions/bgl/).

Later in the week we organised a debate, “I’d rather live in Antarctica than Queensland”. Rather graciously, our team allowed the other team the win. Then last week we held a Big Wig Quiz Night which was hotly contested, and I have to say it was a very even competition with a high standard of general knowledge. Various challenges between rounds such as skolling water upside down, a paper plane competition, and eating a Weetbix covered in toothpaste and tinned salmon helped to separate the teams, and in the end “Wigged Out” were victorious. My movie education has also been continuing, with classics such as The Shining, Bad Boy Bubby and Tommy the Rock Opera all playing in the Odeon over the last fortnight. Spanish lessons are sporadic, but enjoyable when we get organised.

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The expeditioners of the British Graham Land Expedition. All photos courtesy of John Rymill.
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Sledging with the huskies. (Under the Madrid Protocol no introduced species are allowed in Antarctica, so the last huskies left over 20 years ago).
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JRR jumping with penguins
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The Great Debate
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The Wayneos
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Casey 69th ANARE – the big wigs

The glorious sky shows continue. Last week we had a couple of crimson sunrises, the likes of which I’ve never seen before. On other days the sky has been awash with a kaliedescope of incredible fluorescent and pastel hues, absolutely stunning but difficult to capture in a photo. You’ll just have to take my word for it!

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Sunrise and the JCB #nofilter

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Ice Ice Baby

I haven’t done much obstetrics in the last few years, so it’s fair to say that I freaked out when Sweet Pea dropped into my clinic last Thursday announcing that she was pregnant. She was quite distressed and said she didn’t know where else to turn, the poor thing. She openly admitted that she’d been quite the party girl when she turned up on station about six weeks ago, a little bit loose, a bit too friendly. But the novelty soon wore off, and like many poor girls before her she soon found herself alone in the corner with nausea, fatigue, and an abdominal mass. Imagine my horror when, after reading the sad little note tucked under her arm, I went to examine her and out popped a little mini-Adam doll! Adam was equally surprised, but once the shock wore off he was absolutely chuffed. The baby is a classic case of “a face only a parent could love”.

 

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The proud parents! Some prankster went to a lot of effort to set this one up…
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The party girl back in the early days. She appeared out of nowhere, one night back in May.

Sweet Pea is not the first woman to fall pregnant in Antarctica. According to Wikipedia, 12 people have been born in Antarctica! The first, Emile Palma was born at an Argentine base in 1978. His pregnant mother was apparently flown to the base where his father was working so that he could be born there, to help Argentina settle a sovereignty dispute. I don’t think he could claim Antarctic citizenship though, or have an Antarctic passport, as there is no such thing. Here at Casey to prevent such an occurrence we stock boxes and boxes of condoms, we keep supplies of the morning-after pill in the pharmacy, and if ultimately required we also have an incubator, neonatal resuscitation equipment, baby formula and nappies.

Adam has had a big couple of weeks, becoming a father, and also fulfilling his duty as our Electoral Returning Officer. We voted on the Friday before the election. It’s not compulsory to vote down here because our votes aren’t confidential but about ten of us elected to trust Adam (he’s far more trustworthy than your average politician anyway, unless you’re Sweet Pea). So we filled in our voting forms which he’d downloaded and printed, sealed them in an envelope, and on Sunday he phoned the Electoral Office in Hobart to register our votes. I made sure I filled in the form below the line so he had to read out each one to the poor lady on the other end of the phone, although some of the party choices had me baffled: Animal Justice Party or Hinch Justice Party? Liberal Democrats or Christian Democrats? Mature Party or Hemp/Sex Party? Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party or Cyclists Party? etc. It was a bit overwhelming and confusing, especially considering I have been a bit out of the news loop for 8 months. I was initially a bit miffed that he wasn’t to call in our votes until Sunday, because I naively thought the election result would be known by then and my vote would be too late…Ha. What a mess!

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Eager voters (photo courtesy of Brilly)
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Exercising my democratic right!

Sweet Pea and her baby are not the only running jokes on station at the moment. A few pranks are being played. The other day Danny, the Building Services Supervisor, put a message up on the whiteboard saying that he’d lost his broomstick handle and an Estwing hammer. People have taken to the search for those missing objects with great enthusiasm and imagination.

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Nate and Sam rustled up every hammer they could find…is one of them yours, Danny? (photo courtesy of Sam)
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The wicked bitches of Casey! (photo courtesy of Brilly)

It’s been a very chilly few weeks. In fact, this June just gone was -2.6 degrees colder than the long-term average for that month, with an average maximum of -13.0 and a minimum of -20.0, and the coldest day for the month was -31.4 (that’s not even counting the wind chill factor, which puts the temperature right now about -40). June was very dry though, with a precipitation (snowmelt) total of 8.0mm compared to the June average of 27.5mm. When the weather is this cold it makes life quite difficult for the tradies. Door seals stick shut, engines won’t start, brake cables can freeze and become difficult to unstick (so we rarely use the handbrake in vehicles), containers of liquid like paint and plaster freeze and become unusuable, plastics tear, and so on. The biggest worry though is that buildings and infrastructure such as water pipes can cool down to critical levels with potentially catastrophic consequences (imagine if the sewerage pipes froze and blocked up, and then burst!), so they’re all on alarm systems that are activated when the temperature gets too low. Some nights the maintenance team is kept up for hours by alarms, trying to warm whichever building or piece of infrastructure has become too cold. On the whole, the cold weather means the station consumes a lot more energy trying to keep warm, so we’ve been churning through a bit of diesel. Human tissue can also freeze, and I’ve suffered further frostnip (fully reversible, unlike frostbite) to my own nose and a finger this week.

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Frosty sideburns and frozen lashes! Skiing on the sea ice today (photo courtesy of Dean)
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Ice Ox (photo courtesy of Dean)

Last week I accompanied a few of the guys up to Wilkins to check on the state of the blue ice runway (not much snow covering it, so that’s good), the buildings, and to swap some machinery over. It was a long day bouncing around in the tractor, and waiting while the guys tried to get the front end loader engine started, but it was very pretty and a change of scenery (different shades of white).

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Driving up to Wilkins in the tractors, with the front-end loader on the sled
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The buildings and machinery parked up on the winter berm at Wilkins to stop them getting ‘blizzed in’ by blizztails which form on the leeward/downward side.
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The Hagg broke down on the way back from Wilkins, and it was pretty frosted up when the boys went to collect it two days later.

In other activities, we’ve celebrated a couple of birthdays; we’ve had an Indian feast and a Bollywood dance lesson which featured moves such as feeding out birdseed, The Horse, windscreen wipers and the hip and shoulder shake; a few of us went out to Wilkes Hut for a wood-fired pizza night; and we’ve had a medieval party.

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Happy birthday Tom! (photo courtesy of Katie)
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Nate wanted strippers on his birthday. Be careful what you wish for… (photo courtesy of Katie)

 

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Digging our way into the Wilkes Hilton: Unfortunately the door is on the leeward side so blizztails build up in front of it.
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Nick the Wilkes pizza chef in his newly-completed beanie
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It was so cold inside the hut when we arrived that carbonated drinks froze as soon as you opened them. But that’s cool – I like ginger beer slushies!
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Medieval revellers – most of the costumes have been left behind by previous expeditioners, although Tom (centre back) spent the last few weekends making his helmet and breastplate in the workshop.

July is Fitness Month in Antarctica, so we are attempting to Walk to the South Pole. Teams of ten from each station are aiming to clock up a minimum of 80km per team per day between them in an effort to cover 2500km per month. Kiwi is smashing it for Team Casey, with an average of 30km per day on the rower and stationary bike, but a couple of the guys at Mawson (including the doctor) did 400km each last week! Show-offs. I’ve been clocking a few kilometres on skis which has been lovely as we’ve had some fresh snow lately and some glorious clear (COLD) days. The interstation darts competition is also on: once a week we have a video link-up with another station and play three or more games of Shanghai against them. So far Casey is undefeated, but we still have our fierce rivals at Davis to beat this week…

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Chucky is going to get you, Davis!

This weekend marks one year since I started training for this job! Hard to believe how much I have learnt, how many legends I’ve met, and how many amazing experiences I’ve had in that time. It’s been the adventure and opportunity of a lifetime.

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Aurora magic, captured by Brilly