We made it! I have officially conquered my 4th continent – the most unreachable and unlikely destination on Earth – ANTARCTICA! The South Pole, the Last Place on Earth …. I really am here. It all seems so unreal. The moment I stepped out of that hulking C17 jet, my heart welled up with emotion. All around me was snow, ice, and off in the distance, cloud-capped mountains. The sun was shining bright, the weather a balmy +20F. It was so beautiful, too perfect a welcome from this otherworldly place!
The plane ride was actually much better than I was expecting. The jet was a C17 (not the smaller C130) – really roomy, humongous heavy duty military cargo jet. What an experience! I have never in my life flown in anything even similar to that. The closest thing it reminded me of was visiting a submarine, or one of those battleships – except that it flies. I think the term “airship” definitely applies here! There were no windows (except two small portholes near the door) and the seats were jumpseats all up and down the sides of the jet. This one was also equipped with 5 rows of commercial airplane seats. But I chose to sit in a jumpseat for more of an authentic experience. Luckily I had my new noise-cancelling headphones which did wonders, combined with loud music, for minimizing the engine noise. Otherwise I would have to wear earplugs. It was LOUD.
We arrived at the Antarctic Center (which is right by the Christchurch airport) Saturday morning at 6 am to gear up (we were required to have our ECW gear on us), check in, have our bags cleared, get briefed, and get a little food. There were about 60 of us that were flying down the The Ice that day, along with some US Airforce (who staffed the plane) and even an Army guy or two. After clearing through security (yes, we had to go through that, too), we waited in a lounge and watched a briefing video, then packed onto a bus which took us to our C-17 jet – a monstrous plane unlike anything I have ever seen before. It made quite an impression!
The flight itself was 4 hours, 45 minutes long, flying to the Pegasus airfield. About 3 hours into the flight, I looked out the porthole and saw my first icebergs floating far, far below in the beautiful blue of the Southern Ocean. It was thrilling…then, about 3/4 of an hour later, looking out of the porthole again, the ocean was covered in swirls of pack ice. I went up to the flight deck twice (with permission from the Navigator) and got a wonderful view (and photos and video) from up there. After a couple of hours, most of the people started dozing off, but I was far too excited by the novelty of the plane, and the excitement of what was ahead of us to even feel tired.
Landing on the ice was a bit scary – especially the thought of landing on a frozen sea – and it took a long time to break because of the slick ice and the massive weight of the plane. Then the doors opened, and the next thing I knew, I was looking out (through my dark polarized glasses) at the vast expanse of Antarctica! I couldn’t believe it. I was overcome with emotion at the thought of where I was. We all unloaded and made our way to Ivan the Terra-Bus (just like on the Herzog documentary!)
The ride to McMurdo was about an hour from the Pegasus airfield. We got really luck because there to greet us were 4 emperor penguins on the side of the road on the way back to base! Really lucky – who knows if I will see emperors again. I wasn’t even hoping to see some because it’s rather rare for them to be around here. But there they were! I got a really good picture of them, considering the fact that I was on the left side of the bus (they were on the right side) and we couldn’t slow down or stop:
We stopped at Scott Base (the New Zealand base on the other side of the hill) to drop off some Kiwis, and thats where I saw my first Weddell seal, chillin on the sea ice!
Upon arrival to McMurdo, we were dropped off at the Galley – a huge building housing the dining facilities, a computer portal, offices, dorm rooms, bathrooms, and the convenience store – once you’re in here, you really don’t need to leave. Once in the galley, we were given yet another briefing, on safety, medical (I had to get a flu shot) and things we needed to get done once we were here. Then they took the three science teams (our Adelie penguin group, a Weddell seal group, and a glaciologist) aside for special information regarding the Crary Science Center, our labs, and whatnot. We get special, unrestricted access to the state-of-the-art, relatively new (1992) science center, with its own library and our own lab. It’s quite nice.
After that, we got our housing keys, and were sent off to Barb’s Laundry to pick up sheets for our beds, and then our luggage from the flight. I was put in a room with two other ladies – one from Germany, who said she was studying “icecubes”, maybe she meant icebergs, at the Pole – and an American who I recognized from the flight (she came to work here over-wintering – that’s pretty hardcore!). By the time all that was done, it was time for dinner. My first Antarctic dinner consisted of (sorry, no picture!) tortellini, chicken, and canned veggies (its a special thing to get fresh fruits/veggies here!). No complaints from me because I was starving! I actually really enjoyed it.
After dinner I logged into one of the computers and caught up on emails and Facebook and all that. I even got to talk to Ethan, to whom I spewed my excitement and amazement at the place. I retired to my room late that night, about 10:30 pm, and the sun was still high and bright in the sky. It had started to snow. I was very happy.