Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Homebound: leaving Pegasus Airfield, McMurdo Sound, Antarctica

First thing this morning Cornelia gave me two thumbs up. It was all go; I would be getting home today. It was going to be a loaded plane, full of US personnel, a medevac patient, Naomi and me. Naomi is a kiwi that has been in Antarctica for around two months on a media scholarship administered by Antarctica New Zealand (read more here and

There were varying reports as to when ‘Ivan’ the Terra Bus was coming to pick us up. I hurried… and I waited… and then somehow ended up being late. Unfortunately, there was no time for good byes!

I bumbled onto the Terra Bus into an intimidating sea of Americans dressed in red. Smokey, the bus driver greeted me as an old friend. He was classic. He took so much pride in his job and even remembered me and the date I’d arrived at the ice. During our traverse of the ice shelf, Smokey was graciously taking advice on how to drive ‘Ivan’ from a girl about a third his age. I’m not sure what her role was… maybe four eyes were deemed better than two due to the flat light. It was quite hilarious though.

Naomi and I were not looking forward to the flight much. Firstly, because it meant we were going home and secondly because we expected it to be long, loud and cramped. As it turned out, the flight was fine. We possibly had better seating than I’d had last time and having the medevac patient on board was a reality check. We also had the most amazing in-flight steward. He was a Nuiean-kiwi from the Royal New Zealand Airforce, who I swear must’ve been a steward for Air New Zealand in a past life. He kept everyone very happy passing out hot mince and cheese pies (complete with Wattie’s tomato sauce), biscuits and drinks. He was not required to do any of this, but took pride in doing so. It was fantastic and the Americans were in stitches!

I’ve heard that when you get back from the ice, you almost need to be re-integrated into society. It was even likened to getting out of jail by the kiwi pilot of our herc. I guess he must have flown some pretty strange characters from the ice in his time. I don’t think a nine day stint qualifies me. I hope. One Scott Base staff member (not mentioning names), who has spent many long periods in Antarctica, animatedly recounted his worst post-Antarctic experience to me yesterday. He felt supermarkets had to be the most frightening environment to launch oneself into straight away. He talked vividly about his experience trying to buy jam. There was too much selection, strangers trying to help… sounded normal to me… I wondered how long he had been on the ice this time…

The other more widely mentioned oddity on return is humidity. When you are in Antarctica, you don’t realize how dry it is until you leave. Some of you may know that intense feeling of transition between a dry and humid atmosphere from stepping out of plane in tropical country, or even out of a heavily air-conditioned shop in parts of Australia. I’d mentioned to a few people that I was straight back to work in Northland once I got back, which was met by ‘oooh… Northland… sticky’ and a wince. Lucky me!

I remember I was most affected by darkness last time I got back to New Zealand from Antarctica. It was like there was a ‘shut down’ switch that automatically kicked in as soon as darkness fell. Unfortunately for me, and those I was with, this happened at an extended family get-together. I was not much good for conversation.

When I hopped on the herc today, I wasn’t sure what was happening at the other end, but trusted that Woody would have it under control. Once landed, we hopped off the plane, went through international arrivals, collected our bags and in the arrival lounge Woody was waiting. First thing he asked me, ‘You right to catch a flight in twenty minutes up to Auckland?’. It was the fastest undress/redress, unpack/pack I have ever done. It’s fair to say I was feeling the heat and humidity too! But I got there.

Darkness fell while I was flying between Christchurch and Auckland. Luckily there was no one trying to make conversation with me. It might have been the tired and glum look on my face that stopped them. There is still so much of Antarctica to discover! I was very sad to leave, but I also realize how privileged I have been to even get there.

'Ivan' the Terra Bus and the sea of red (Americans in their Extreme Cold Weather clothing)

Our ride home, a Royal New Zealand Airforce Hercules

My last view of Mount Discovery for a while!

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