Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The journey back

Wednesday 27 February 2008

The journey back started with a very early start. At 3.45 am we checked into the Laws dining room and at 5 am we were loaded onto a sledge and taken to the air field where a plane was waiting for us on the Halley blue-ice runway.

As we left the base, we all took a final look back. At the plane, there was not much time spent hanging around before we were away and heading east towards Novo. It was very different to any other plane I have been on. The crew wear overalls covered in grease and dirt, the plane bounces around in the air like Flash Gordon's rocket ship, there is lots of noise and vibration, and there is a very strong smell of AVTUR fuel, which at first I found worrying, but later realised was very normal.

There was no entertainment on the plane and we were all crammed in like sardines. The only thing to do was to catch up on some sleep until the next stop, but I'm not sure if some towards the back had not passed out from the fumes.

We had to land for refueling after a couple of hours, which is where three drums of fuel were rolled over to the plane and manually hand-pumped into the tanks, hence the smell. We had landed at Sanae IV, the South African Antarctic base. There were two huge bonuses here: Firstly, for the first time, we were standing on the Antarctic continent! Secondly, there was a slim chance of seeing the Sanae building. I knew about this stop in advance but was not sure how far the base would be from the runway, if we would be able to see it, or if there would be an opportunity to go to visit the building.

As it happened there was a sledge ready to take anyone with bladder-shyness to the base for a toilet stop. I wasn't going to hang around and Simon Gill and I jumped on the back before Morgan (one of the SA scientists) drove us up (at approx 120 km/h).

I know it sounds a bit silly but this was one of the real highlights of the trip. I never expected to be here and it was a complete surprise to be given the opportunity to see it. After our pit stop, we asked Morgan if we could have a quick look down the corridor, and he was happy to show us as much of the base as we could see in the few short minutes we had. We literally ran around the place to see as much as possible. I'm surprised any photos came out in focus.

(Here is the games room, sporting all the important flags of the world - Go Bulle!!!)

After our whirl-wind tour it was back on the plane for another two hour flight to Novo and the Aleutian which would be taking us back to Cape Town. At Novo we literally jumped out the plane, threw all the bags and ourselves onto a sledge and then jumped into the big plane, as we were told it was taking off inside 20 minutes of our arrival.

The inside was again more like a military flight than a commercial one. It has always been reported as a bit of a white knuckle ride with lots more noise and vibration. We were all given a Russian ham sandwich to keep us occupied on the six hour flight to Cape Town. I think I chewed on mine for 90 minutes before throwing the other half in the bin.

(Simon still smiling - he must have had this expression for at least a week)

Given the power-point safety presentation we were shown in Russian, the condition of the plane and the food, I felt safer keeping my hard hat on my head throughout the flight back.

('The Right Stuff' exit to passport control)

And then, all of a sudden, we were back in Cape Town, at what seemed like lightening speed. What was a two week outward journey on the Shackleton travelling at an average of 10 knots, was replaced by a return journey completed in little over twelve hours by plane!

It was now about 10.30pm local time (Halley is 5 hours behind Cape Town)

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