Reuters East Antarctic Bureau shuts up shop … fast!
In January 1912, Sir Douglas Mawson finally made his way back to Cape Denison, missing his ship, the Aurora, by about three hours.
Some of his colleagues had waited at the hut hoping he would arrive back safely. When he appeared, they sent a radio message to the ship asking them to turn around, as they could see it lying offshore in Commonwealth Bay.
However, the winds were too strong to risk coming back, so they were stranded at Cape Denison for another 12 months of hardship.
I don’t remember what the book “Home of the Blizzard” says about it, but I came close the other day to understanding how they must have felt, as a few days ago I feared that our team, the Mawson’s Huts Foundation Expedition would face the same fate.
We received a radio call to say our ship L’Astrolabe would collect us within hours. In record time we pulled down our tents, packed our bags, emptied the toilets, disposed of food, tidied our base, the Sorensen Hut, and brought our baggage to an open space to prepare for a helicopter landing to airlift us out to the ship.
Just as we were finishing, we received radio contact from the ship to say bad weather had rolled in at Dumont D’Urville making it unsafe for the helicopter to make the 200 kilometre journey up the coast.
We could see the ship lying in the bay just waiting to collect us, so close yet so far without the support of a helicopter. No one said anything. We just unpacked some of the equipment and quietly settled back in.
Over the course of the next four days, bad weather rolled in over Commonwealth Bay. We experienced wind speeds of 130 kilometres per hour (65 knots), heavy snow falls and even rain (they say it never rains in Antarctica).
Seeing L’Astrolabe bobbing up and down on the ocean waiting on us was a reminder of how remote and totally isolated we were here in this tiny little spot in East Antarctica.
Captain Stan and the crew of L’Astrolabe were very kind, keeping us regularly informed of the weather conditions and checking if we had enough food supplies. We were all very grateful. We had one more false start and then finally in the evening of the fourth day they made a decision to send an inflatable boat into Boat Harbour to bring us home.
This is the first time a boat has been sent in for a Mawson’s Huts Foundation Expedition party and where weather conditions have made it too dangerous for a helicopter to fly.
Boat Harbour is about a kilometre from our base. We had to haul all our luggage over rocks, at times knee deep in snow, before hitting ice and finally slush.
My equipment consists of a Satellite phone and laptop in one pelican case, an entire set of television equipment (camera, mikes, tapes, batteries, headphones etc) in a second case; a stills camera (i.e. heavy beast), charger, back up hard disks and laptop batteries, as well as a second laptop, recorder, lots of written material plus other equipment, as well as my polar gear and smaller items.
Other members of the team have much more. All of us made several trips over the hill to ensure every item was brought along.
The boat crew were excellent — helping us lift our heavy equipment into the inflatable dinghy, doing several runs back to the ship with luggage and two team members each trip.
I couldn’t help notice how low it was in the frigid water, but never felt in any danger as we had life jackets and were in the hands of very experienced seamen.
We were grateful the water wasn’t too rough, though it seemed visibility was pretty low. When we ran alongside the ship we were literally dragged up and out of the boat. Imagine an inflatable boat up against an ice breaker, and the Antarctic waves rolling around us.
Some of the crew were there to strap us to a rope and drag us into the boat. We were all exhausted,
relieved to have been lifted off the ice and very grateful to the crew of L’Astrolabe. Thankfully we didn’t get left behind for another 12 months like Mawson and his men.
And so my life on the ice, living in a tent and running a makeshift Reuters East Antarctic Bureau, came to a close much faster than I anticipated, leaving no room for sentimentality. We are bound for the French Scientific Base of Dumont D’Urville, so stay tuned for the last blog.
(More posts by Pauline Askin here)