Sunday, 20 November 2016

48 hours later!!

Well I've arrived!
It's been quite a 48 hours -
An early start on Saturday morning, we left for Cape Town airport at around 6:30 in the morning and checked in for our flight.

Let me pause here to explain exactly how you fly to Antarctica;
ALCI is a company set up by the various Antarctic programmes operating in Dronning Maud Land. During the summer season they operate an airbridge from Cape Town, to a Russian base called Novolazarevskya and from there to various bases in Eastern Antarctica, including Halley.

Your checked baggage - In our case a 20Kg personal bag and a 30Kg+ bag containing almost all of my cold weather gear and equipment are dropped off at the ALCI warehouse 48 hours before the flight so that it can be stowed on the plane. You arrive at the airport with your hand luggage, a bag containing some cold weather gear to wear when you land and a sleeping system. The sleeping system is a duffel bag containing a roll mat and a sleeping bag - this is so that if you get stranded at a base/flight is diverted/plane crashes you have something warm to sleep in (The group of people that flew to Halley the week before us spent 3 days at Novo waiting for a weather window).  Check in is the same as for any other flight - you get a boarding pass and have to go through security as normal.

The plane however is somewhat different - it is a Russian Ilyushin - a modified military transport plane designed to land pretty much anywhere. Behind the cockpit and bomber viewing windows at the front, the plane is divided 50/50 cargo and passengers, with the passengers (about 80 of us - 16 due for Halley, the rest off to other Antarctic programmes) up front and the cargo strapped down in the back - the two are separated by two portaloos strapped to the floor.

The flight takes about 5 hours, there are airhosts/hostesses who serve you a picnic meal and plenty of soft drinks. It is extremely noisy so ear plugs are essential and only 4 windows at the front so they have a TV screen showing the view from the nose of the plane.
With 90 minutes before landing the heating is turned off and 80 people clamber over each other in an effort to get into there clothing - it was around 24degrees when we left Cape Town and about -7 at Novo. You also need to cover yourself in suncream.

The flight seem to go on forever and I slept for quite a lot of it. You could feel the excitement in the air though - for many of the passengers this was out first time in Antarctica and there cameras recording almost every moment.
Stepping off the plane at Novo was a slightly surreal experience. We had perfect weather, glorious sunshine and almost no wind. .The runway is solid packed glacial ice - you have to be careful as you get off the plane - some people have had their Antarctic adventure ended right there and then as they've slipped over, broken their ankle and been medivac'd straight home! Prepared with this knowledge all of us cautiously took our first steps on Antarctica.
  With the exception of a few shipping containers and vehicles that form the airstrip the view consists of a massive expanse of white in almost every direction (the actual Russian base is around a hours drive away). With no frame of reference it is really hard to tell how far away the horizon is - it could be 1km or 40.After 20 minutes of milling around and taking photos we started collecting our bags and some of the cargo that had been shipped with us.

For the next part of our journey we were in luck - the weather was good not only at Novo but also at Halley and there were 2 planes available. This meant that all of the passengers and their luggage could fly directly to Halley and the cargo could go on a separate plane via Neumayer (A German base around half way between Novo and Halley) to refuel. for the Flight to Halley we would be travelling on a Bassler - a converted DC3 that's about 70 years old, though it's been modified and upgraded since. Again these planes are chosen for there ability to take of and land on short runways that may be ice/snow/gravel/tarmac.

This plane is owned and crewed by a Canadian company (in the Antarctic winter they return north to drop fire fighters onto forest fires in Canada - It is the literal and metaphorical polar opposite of flying in Antarctica!!) Considerably smaller and noisier than the Ilyushin, the Bassler none the less has a very smooth ride. Sat up the front looking directly into the cockpit was fascinating  - the first 30 minutes saw us fly over mountains and then onto the Antarctic plateau - hundreds of miles of ice as far as the eye can see, the view barely changed for 3 hours. Despite the excitement of reaching Halley we were all exhausted, dehydrated from the dry air (and avoiding fluids - there are no toilets on the Bassler), and with pounding headaches from altitude sickness (the planes aren't pressurised).

We touched down at Halley around 9pm Halley time (which is the same as the UK). Around 17 hours after we left the Hotel in Cape Town. We were met at the skiway by John, Jess and Al - The Summer and outgoing/incoming station leaders, there were brief hellos before loading our bags onto a sledge and then the short trip over to the base. We dropped our kit off at our various accommodation allocations (more on that next time) and went straight to dinner (onion soup followed by steak/wedges/asparagus and lemon tart for dessert). Sunday is mostly a day off on the base so Saturday evening is a fairly social affair - we got to meet up with many of the friends we had made during pre-deployment training as well as the team who have just finished their winter season.

After dinner most of the new arrivals headed of to bed.

Sunday started off foggy and cloudy but by lunchtime this had lifted and it was another sunny day - I'm beginning to wonder why people made such a fuss about the weather - seems perfectly pleasant to me!
We had a few safety briefings, introductions to various aspects of life here and a tour of the building and the site, I spent the rest of the day chatting and taking some photo's.
Tomorrow the induction process continues - with some basic field skills and learning to drive skidoo's!!!

That's all for now - much more to come.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a good start, the plane sounds like something out of con air! It's wet and miserable here so it looks like you are actually having better weather than we are!