Environment Forum

Reuters East Antarctic Bureau shuts up shop … fast!

Pauline AskinIn 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.

Survival and the luck of the Irish

Australian Antarctic explorer Sir Douglas Mawson called Cape Denison ‘the home of the blizzard’ during his term here because of the incessant Katabatic winds which pour down the Antarctic plateau blasting everything in sight.

Wind gusts here have been known to exceed 370 kilometres per hour (185 knots), so I consider myself lucky to have only had to endure 100 kilometres per hour winds funnelling through my tent during the past six weeks at Cape Denison.

Pauline in bivvy bagSo it seemed only right that I test my endurance a step further by putting my survival training into action and spend a night in a bivvy bag in the great icy outdoors.

Dressed for all occasions

Being inappropriately dressed in Antarctica can be life threatening. However, being appropriately dressed takes a lot of time and an exceptionally good memory.

Pauline AskinWith over 40 items of clothing to track, it’s par for the course to see an expedition member walk in and out of our base three or four times retracing their steps to find a missing part of their polar apparel or backpack.

The conversation between expeditioners goes like this:

“What did you lose?” asks a concerned colleague.

“My glasses, my gloves, my balaclava, my backpack. I had them in my hand two minutes ago. I’m sure I left them on the table,” replies the frustrated expeditioner as he fossicks for the missing items in base hut, leaves and returns still fossicking.

An ic(k)y accident

A penguin stands on the water's edge during a blizzard at Cape Denison, East Antarctica.When you live on the edge of Antarctica, coping with gale force winds, blizzards, snow and ice, the risk of accidents are heightened.

Every time we leave the base we carry radios and if planning to be out for a while we carry survival kits to minimise the risk of accidents occurring, as the nearest help is 200 kilometres away at the French base of Dumont d’Urville.

In my case I had my first accident today and radio contact or a survival kit couldn’t have helped me. Luckily, I survived, but my dignity was left a bit smelly.

Life in a blizzard

It was a cold night with the wind chill reaching -18.4 degrees Celsius. By 5.00 a.m. I’d had enough of being cold and weather beaten by the Katabatic wind smashing the side of my tent and bouncing off my head so I decided to make my way to our base, the Sorensen Hut, for a warm cup of tea and read a couple of pages of my book.

BlizardI should have known we were in for bad weather as my neighbours the Adelie penguin colony were no where to be seen or heard this morning.

Before I could walk the five minutes to the hut I had to get dressed for the journey.

Penguin chatter heralds Antarctica’s ‘White Christmas’

Penguins’ chatter outside my tent woke me to Christmas Day in Antarctica, but instead of Santa’s sleigh there was just the usual run to ensure our human waste doesn’t permanently become part of this frozen wilderness.

TonySWith 24 hours of daylight it was, needless to say, very different from the traditional Christmas most of the ten members of the Mawson’s Huts Foundation living in East Antarctica are familiar with.

It was probably not the ‘White Christmas’. I would have imagined as a child growing up in Ireland and very different to the hot Australian festive season I have become used to, marked  by barbecues and often bushfires.

Unexpected guests for dinner

Sitting at the base of the memorial cross at Azimuth Hill two nights ago watching the baby chicks that had hatched over a 24-hour period we noticed a black dot on the horizon.

In less than an hour the dot grew larger and larger, as it steaming towards us, until finally a large dark ship, with razor sharp spikes impaled around its exterior, dropped anchor in Commonwealth Bay.

Paul Watson

It was the Steve Irwin, an anti-whaling protest ship owned by the environmental activist group Sea Shepherd and skippered by Captain Paul Watson.

The Poo run

As I trudge toward the edge of the Antarctic ice shelf, the thought of tumbling over and down into the icy waters below is bad enough.

Orcas patrol the coast, looking to devour seals and penguins and — presumably — clumsy humans stupid enough to fall into their path.

Expeditioners Mark Farrell (R) and Marty Passingham ferry their fragile cargo of kitchen slops and human waste to the edge of Commonwealth Bay. One man uses a rope to belay the other man, to stop him from falling in the bay.

But there is an even more horrifying prospect: to stumble over the edge while trying to empty gallons of human waste into the Southern Ocean.

Life on Commonwealth Bay

It’s Dec 14, a special day for those of us lucky enough to be in Antarctica. On this day, 98 years ago, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first person to reach the South Pole. He was wearing skis and heavy fur clothing and hauling his gear behind a team of dogs (many of which became dinner throughout the journey).

Almost a century later, as I look around our little camp at Cape Denison on the edge of the Antarctic ice shelf, overlooking the penguins of Commonwealth Bay, I can see how much has changed: high-tech waterproof fabrics and Velcro have taken over from fur, Skidoos have replaced the huskies and hand-held GPS can pinpoint our position to the centimetre.

Living in tents
One thing, however, has not changed: sturdy canvas tents still serve as ideal accommodation on the ice, even in the windiest place on Earth, right here at Commonwealth Bay.

Setting up home on the ice

Aerial shot of ice cracking on the Cape Denison coastline, East Antarctica

I am now standing on Antarctica, my icy home for the next six weeks and it’s minus five degrees Celsius and majestic. My new address is Commonwealth Bay, Cape Denison, 67 degrees South, East Antarctica.

A group of curious penguins greeted us as we unpacked our gear, but our nearest human neighbours are 200 kms west at the French Antarctic base Dumont D’Urville.

Commonwealth Bay looks like a tourism postcard. A curved bay with a coastline of ice cliffs. The isolation is stark. Apart from Sir Douglas Mawson’s huts, which we are here to restore, a radio mast and our portacabins, there is nothing but ice.