One hundred blog posts, who would have thunk it. What to do for the 100th. Trip to the moon, unfortunately SpaceX aren't taking bookings yet. Love and lust on the backpacker trail, alzheimer's has wiped all those memories out. Surfing big waves at Jaws at Maui, *%#$ off, too chicken. The one trip that people always seem to want to know about is working in Antarctica. So here goes, from the memory vault, The great White Hell 101 faq.
How did I get there? I had a friend Ricarda who was a Met Fairy who spent 1986 at Davis. I had come back from Europe, spent a couple of years working, and thought a bit of adventure while getting paid for it sounded like a dream job. About January every year there is an ad in the news papers.
"Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success."
That is the supposed Earnest Shackleton version, unfortunately it's a hoax, the real one is much less glamorous, stating something like dumb arse tradies who are tired of earning too much cash in the mining industry are invited to apply to spend a year legally dead,chilled to somewhere near 0 deg kelvin. My memory might be clouded by experience but I'm sure it was something like that. Why not, Envelope, 36 cent stamp, post, wait. Some time later a bundle of stuff arrived in a big manilla envelope. A billion questions, Where have you worked, what have you done, references, documents, stuff. I assembled it all and headed back to the post box. More hurry up and wait. I get an interview, so I rock up to Tivoli Court in Bourke st. I'm greeted by Kav, Jen, and some plumber bloke in a little office with a three dollar coffee table. The tell me that they get 500 applications, which they then whittle down to forty interviews, for fifteen jobs, which in reality are only five for a first timer, " You've done well getting this far" I'm told. I spend the next two hours answering questions, I'm told later that if you are out in half an hour you're not getting a call back. Kav asks most of the questions as he's the sparkie. A few wiring diagrams to look at, a fridge circuit, some thing about Kvar's and gensets, how do you fit off pyro, do you like to fight "No", are you in a relationship "No" do you like to drink" A little", do you smoke dope" I may have tried it a long time ago but I didn't inhale". One tradie later told me the story of how being a little nervous before the interview, he had a little smoke, and maybe another, then just one more for the road, before blurting out the above answer, when hit with the question while off his face. You could get away with this in the days before drug testing. People who answered no seemed not to get a job. At the end of the interview Jenny says to me " these guys have asked you lots of questions, what do you think I'm here for? I later find out someone once answered, "I assume you're the tokin woman" , he chose poorly. The only thing I never got asked for in three in trips was my electrician's licence.
Another six weeks wait, I get a appointment for a medical and a psych test. This looks hopeful. Blood,urine, touch your toes, a finger in a surprising spot, cough, chest x ray. The psych test. Three hours of multiple choice papers about guns and poems, flowers and cars, food and songs, none of it made any sense to me. I just answered "D" when I was confused like in High School, which was most of the time. The people who conduct this important test to make sure you are not going to go mad and kill everyone are the Australian Army. One percent of people have a serious mental illness. One percent of people who go to antarctica, have a serious mental illness. Either a lot of nutters apply, or they may as well throw a dart at the board. The chat to the army psychologist, really didn't make things much clearer either. Somehow I must have passed.
Wait some more................
Then one day about the end of August, I get a letter, You have been selected to go on the 33rd ANARE. please attend Australian Construction Services at 235 Bourke St on the Tenth of September. Bring sensible shoes.I rock up, and am directed to a room slowly filling with people. About half the people find a seat and sit quietly observing the other half who are greeting each other with big smiles, and statements like "how the hell did you get back here". Eventually someone turns up and fills us in on what's happening. We are going to spend the first three weeks training in Melbourne, then we head to Hobart for another three weeks training, before getting on the boat south. I learn I'm going to Casey Station in Wilkes Land wherever that is. Most people are from somewhere out of Melbourne. Us Melbourne suckers are getting paid a standard public service tradies wage, everyone else is getting a huge living away from home allowance. I nearly starve over the next three, weeks while the others settle into the Vic Hotel in town. We spend the days putting up then pulling down a trial building in Port Melbourne, learning about weird stuff like heat trace and doing the odd training video. Finally we get to fly to Hobart for more training, or we should. Bob Hawke and the pilots are having a bit of a disagreement so the're all on strike. We are threatened with having to fly south in a hercules, but at the last minute we get our booked ansett flight. We get to the airport by bus and find the flight times have been changed six months ago but no one told ACS, dump the baggage , it will catch up, straight on to the plane. Great for everyone except one guy, whose parents and girlfriend have driven out to the airport to see him off. They park, we fly, they next see him 18 months later. It's the 80's so we get a full cooked breakfast served on the 45 minute flight to Launceston, then a coffee and snack on the half hour leg to Hobart. Most of us have never been to Tassie before. The bus driver that picks us up at the airport is really proud of Hobart's newest attraction in Glenorchy. He takes us out of our way to show us the almost complete 1st McDonald's store before dropping us at Woolmers Inn in Sandy Bay. At last I'm getting paid my living away from home rate at last.
We head out to the Antarctic Division for drinks, to meet up with the new station leader Joc, and the rest of the expeditioners. In the next couple of weeks spend our days doing fire and first aid courses, learning about our jobs, but mostly hanging around Stopeys, and the Sandy Bay Hotel killing time. Eventually they put us on the bus to Brighton. "Brighton Army Camp". We are to spend the next ten days here, learning about penguins, jollys, Belbin's Role Models, boats, Antarctic life, meteorology, map reading, hagglunds, performing tracheostomies with a ballpoint pen, crampons, and any other crap that someone who can string two words together can think about to occupy ten days of our time. The Camp was built in the 40's to train AJ's and house Italian POW's, since then not much has changed. We sleep in 20 bed cold wooden barracks on thin wire mattresses 2 feet apart. Food is eaten in the mess, lectures are held in the drill halls, drinking in the camp bar. The only time we leave is to hike up a hill called Rocky Tom. Once there we cook freeze dried muck from expired rat packs in the rain, before spending a freezing night inside a polar pyramid on a thin camping mat. The next morning we look over at Mount Wellington, and there is snow half way down the hill. We hike back down to the penitentiary. It's not all bad, even though we are bored stupid, the food is good, the bar is open late every night, and there is method it their madness. They are testing us to see how we cope being cooped up together. On the final night we have a big graduation dinner. They announce the deputy station leaders for the next year. Casey is called out and Orby slaps me on the back. I stand up and everyone cheers, only to told it's not me. I'm not even wintering. For the next couple of weeks people come up to me and commiserate with me on my non selection. We are as ready as we will ever be.
From here we split up, some of us leave tomorrow evening, the rest of the winterers with the resupply mission in a couple of months time. All that is left is to get the bus back to Wollmers, then tomorrow on to the ant div headquarters where we will view a SOLAS video about how to spend ten days alone in the middle of the antarctic ocean with only a survival suit. This is because the ship we are on is not registered to take passengers, so we all need to sign on as crew so the government's arse is covered when it sinks. Formalities over we head into town for our last hours of freedom. It's Sunday, Tasmania, and absolutely nothing is open. We are the only people in town, you can tell us because we are all wearing bush shirts, wool pants, or some other piece of daggy issue gear that sticks out like a sore thumb. The boat leaves from Macquarie wharf just across the way from Stoppies. It opens and by 5.00 we're all half cut. Up the gangplank with tearful goodbye's and people slugging bottles of champers with mates. Someone hands out streamers and we throw the other end down to the people on the wharf. The ship's horn sounds, the ropes are cast off and we slowly pull away while people walk down the wharf for a last glimpse of their loved ones. This is our new home for the next month or so. The lucky ones will only be on the boat for three weeks or so, the guys going to Mawson have a minimum of 6 weeks before they see land, round trippers ten weeks. The first thing we have to do is get off. As part of our SOLAS certification, we all have to abandon ship by squeezing into half the lifeboats onboard. The old timers stand at the back of the que knowing that they probably won't get on. This is a good thing. Fifty of us suckers get jammed into a windowless hole stinking of diesel for a 40 minute trip around the harbour. Beer and seasickness take their toll, I'll let you guess the rest. Once back on board we head out to the ocean.
The IceBird commonly known as the Ice Bucket is a German Ice strengthened cargo ship. It has space for about twenty crew, but there are nearly 100 of us. This problem has been solved by bolting a 300 ton accommodation module above one of the cargo holds. We are all trusting our lives to a couple of old rusty bolts. Ewald the captain generally completes his regular crew with a couple of cute german backpackers picked up in Hobart who work in the mess. Like most of us they have no idea what they're in for. Mother nature has brewed up a nice little storm for us, and already there are a fair few faces missing at dinner time. Ushi's name gets misheard as Oscar. A stern german voice says "don't you call me Oscar", from then on it's Oscar. The next morning the few of us who are left standing head down to breakfast. Oscar is hiding in the corner with her head in the sink and a towel over it, "How's it going Oscar" the towel lifts and a feeble voice says "Not Good" the towel descends. Our rooms are all 2 bunk cabins, the lucky ones have an en suite. If you are on the top deck your bunk is getting slung about 40 meters from side to side in the rough weather 24 hours a day. We amuse ourselves by seeing how far we can walk on the walls between waves. There is a library, a TV with 60 well worn videos in the mess, the bridge which we can go up to when the boat is not in port, and a table tennis table down in the empty hold below the module which we can't access when it's rough. Oh and a bar that serves duty free for about four hours after dinner. We have no duties so the time drags. After a day and a half of really rough weather, the boat stops. Boats never stop. We sit still getting tossed around for and hour while the rumour mill goes wild. Finally the announcement comes, it seems we have damaged one of the helicopters we need to get off the boat, we're on our way back to Hobart to fix it. A day and a half later we are back at the dock and they open the hatch cover. In the bottom are four mangled copters. We head back to Woolmers with a hundred bucks and get told amuse ourselves for the next few days, but not to leave the state. The pilots strike is still on, but the new Macca's is open, not that you can get near it. There are queues around the block. It's a bit hard to find 4 new helicopters, It seems we have smashed a fair proportion of the available ones in Australia. A few of us spend the next week having a government sponsored holiday around Tassie. We leave on Voyage 1.1 with three helicopters tied down with every snatch strap in the state.
We settle back into shipboard routine, which is mainly reading, talking, eating, trying to sleep, watching videos, playing cards, walking up to the bridge, walking back down again. Boredom is a major pastime. I like to go out on the back deck at night to look at the stars and watch the phosphorescence trailing behind the ship. One day we do a tour of the engine room pretty much the only place we can't go by ourselves. The seas are so big that even from the top deck you can't see over the next wave when you're in the trough, when you get to the top you get a short glimpse of huge rolling waves as far as the eye can see before as sudden corkscrewing drop. I go see Pete and Kay who are stuck in their beds having a competition to see who can be seasick the longest. Some people love the place but never return because they can't face the boat trip again. Just when we've think we've hit the bottom the germans inflict their favorite meal, kesseler and sauerkraut upon us. For the next two weeks we slowly wind our way south. We cross the antarctic convergence where the sea temperature drops a few degrees in the space of twenty kilometers. The air gets colder and the bird life changes.There is a competition to spot the first iceberg, pick the lat and lon, win a six pack. We see the first one then 12 hours later another. Finally we start seeing pancake ice and bergy bits. The swell slowly disappears till it is calm as a mill pond. King Neptune makes a special visit to the ship, and I line up with all the other first timers for my dot of red paint, shower of ice water, and drink of filth from the southern seas. The filth is basically Spag bol, parmesan cheese and bean shoots with the odd chop bone thrown in, nothing too fowl, but it does get some spectacular results, that why the King greets us on the deck. We are now about 200 nautical miles from Casey but the heli's can only fly about half that. The boat cannot just plow through the ice, so we have to send up the choppers to find leads through it. After another couple of days we finally get close enough to launch the first trip in. Stuff is happening in earnest now, and they want to get out of here as quickly as possible. The boat costs $200,000 a day, and if the wind changes they could get stuck here for a month. We have stopped surrounded by ice.
The choppers fly in, in groups with enough spare seats so they can pick up everyone if one has to ditch. We
have all had our little chopper chat, I'll summarize it for you. If the fan stops you probably won't die but it may get interesting. Try hard not to walk into the fan at the back, or stick your head in the fan above you. Don't wear your hat, as it may get stuck in the fan. Basically it's all about the fan. It will take a couple of days to get every one and all the necessary gear off. I'm fairly low down the priority list, but I've already packed and weighed my bag. We each get exactly fifty kilos of essential gear to take with us. The rest will hopefully turn up in a couple of months time. I have 2 slabs of beer, and two bottles of port, 26 Kg's, and another 24 Kg's of non essential stuff like clothes. At last I get my turn, we waddle out in our survival suits and get strapped in. Headsets on the chopper winds up, and after a bit of a shaky start we lift off. About twenty foot above the deck we stop, and spend the next minute trying to get higher. No good, the pilot dumps it back on the deck and two blokes throw the doors open and grab the nearest heavy