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