As the chopper winds down and a toyota hilux pulls up, we jump in the back with our gear. 500 meters over the snow to my new home. A twenty foot meat container fitted out with two bunks and four little windows. Someone has done a large drawing on the door titled "The Asylum". It's not too bad, there is a curtain to cut the space in half, and I'm only sharing it with one other bloke named Reggie, of course that's not his real name, just a nickname like everyone seems to have acquired during our training time. Trainings over Kiddies, this is home for the next five months. Most of us are summerer's, and as they say here for a good time not a long time. The real people the winterers live in "the Tunnel' a 500M long line of Squat gray boxes raised above the snow on scaffold tube. A semicircular un insulated corrugated iron walkway connects them facing east, that's the direction the blizzards come from. The boxes are separated so if one of them burns down in theory the rest won't. When it gets windy the snow goes over or under, and piles up on my donga on the west side. The top of the tunnel's all business, Coms, OIC, Met, Doc Science, the bottoms where the action is, 2 Living Dongas , Mess and the all important Bar. When we have all arrived we assemble in the mess and the OIC Tom reads us the riot act. What not to do, and where not to go. That over we all head to the bar to get to know each other. The winters look a bit shell shocked having their numbers doubled overnight. As well as that a few of their friends are RTA ing back to OZ. Their quiet life is over. Some are happy to see some new faces. Being locked up with a bunch of people for a long time involves a lot of group dynamics, quite often the result is not good. NASA actually studies Antarctic bases for tips on long term space flights. Casey 88 seems to have done pretty well, and they are a tight group, it will take them a while to warm to us. The boat leaves and were on our own.
Living on an Antarctic base is a bit like living in a little country town. everyone knows everyone , and nobody new ever drives into town. Money is worthless, gossip is gold, it's the ultimate socialist state. Food, clothing, and beer are provided. Everyone has a job. We have a Station Leader whose job is to keep the outside world happy. Moss and Erica a couple of Boffins who are doing research on slime, and everyone else who basically keeps the place running. The whole body count runs to about 50 people. We communicate to the outside world through wizzas (telex's) sent by HF radio, which may or may not work. The order of business is Met readings, Ant Div business, then personal communications are on the bottom of the list. The mail service runs once every boat.. Once you're here you're stuck here, if we can't fix it ourselves it ain't gunna get fixed.
I work for Australian Construction Services (ACS), there are 20 of us and our job is to get the new base, which we have been building over the last 8 years ready for next year's winterers who will turn up in a couple of months time. Its about a 1KM away from the old base and a completely different design. No tunnels, each building is its own square little coloured lego block set on a white background. They are positioned so the snow from one doesn't pile up on any of the others, and the wind keeps the entries on the side of the buildings clear. The buildings all have different colours, red is accomodation, blue is services, green stores, Yellow coms and admin. The new workers are called buttercups, their recognisable by their bright yellow clean overalls, and their bewildered look. We can't find any thing, everything, is stored somewhere in one of hundreds of boxes or containers. The old hands don't seem to do much but get lots done, we spend all day wandering around, and get nothing done. I cut the sleeves off my issue overalls with a stanley knife, a bit of dirt, and all of a sudden I don't look like a buttercup. Our two main jobs over the summer are to get the aptly named RED SHED
, ready for the winters to move into, and build a fire station. The red shed is like a luxury hotel compared to the tunnel. Two stories high, with huge open common areas, a mess, cinema, library, dark room, brew/smokers room, surgery and a bar. Being new it has the feeling of an empty box. Like any building job we are going to have to rush to finish it for it's new residents. I'm a sparkie, one of five here, so for the next two months I do any thing but. I paint, lay carpet, vinyl, assemble furniture, hang curtains, stack stores.
When I'm not in the red shed, I'm batching concrete, driving a rock crusher, fixing steel, or assembling formwork, to get the fire station out of the ground. Batching concrete consists of standing on top of a hopper with three other blokes slashing at 20kg bags of premix in the wind for eight hours straight. It's the worst job in the place, cold, hard and dirty. They soon discover that having grown up on a farm I'm a pretty good loader driver, which suits me fine as it's clean, easy, and warm. My tape player even fits nicely in the Cat 950's cab. We have a quarry where we turn big rocks into little rocks. The rock crusher has a little cab, and I find with the addition of a fan heater, I can sit down, read a book, and keep it crushing by just listening to the sound it makes to turn the rock feed on and off. On a cold day I can pretty much spend the day going from crusher cab to loader cab, and read a hundred pages at the same time. Our one Mack dump truck has no brakes, so only a few of us are happy to drive it, I don't care, the heater works. Eventually I have to do some electrical work. The cable trays that connect the buildings have finally melted out of the snow. We have to extend them and run new cables to the buildings. Running the cables is quick, tying them to the tray with stainless steel cable ties take forever. The best part is when you look up, you are surrounded by ice, icebergs, and hills, with a view that stretches forever.
At the end of December the resupply voyage arrives. This is the major event for the year, most the old winterers leave, the new ones arrive. We get a years worth of everything off the boat and stack it in the stores, then we load all the busted gear and rubbish back on the boat. The boat doesn't pull up at the wharf it stays a km out in the bay. A million liters of diesel, gets pumped ashore through a long black pipe. Containers, trucks, buildings and everything else are loaded on to a barge, floated across to shore and the craned onto a log skidder to be hauled up a hill. On top of this we have to move a lot of stuff from one base to the other. First off the boat is the mail. A whole new bunch of buttercups arrive, looking bewildered. That was me just three months ago.The round trippers, and staff going to other bases get off too, they are the lowest form of base life being here for just a short time. We entertain them "especially the girls" at the bar with heroic stories. If they wander off to the loo and leave their camera a quick few dick photos are taken. There are more than a few young ladies who have had interesting conversations with their parents after they have sent a unprocessed roll of film back home to be developed. We move them into their new quarters and have a huge Xmas lunch together. Most of them I have meet before in Hobart. After four days the job is done and the boat leaves with a third of the people we have got to know well in the last month. We shoot off rockets and flare pistols as they sail away.The old winterers wander around looking a bit lost, but eventually decide to have a wake at the bar. There isn't room for us all in the red shed, and the tunnel feels more homely any way so I move into a vacated doonga. I am to be one of the last Tunnel Rats as they are known. There is always a bit of a rift after changeover, but this is exacerbated by the fact that we are now two crews living on two separate stations. When we have a blizzard we are completely separated. The new guys are now in charge, and want to do things their way which is quite often different to the old way. Sometimes it's better, but sometimes they just haven't had time to figure out the way things work here. We all work, and eat together but the split is there till we leave at the end of summer.
It's not all work. New years eve is second only to midwinter in antarctic celebrations. It's the only day we get off over the summer. The bar in the red shed is a bit soulless so we have it in the club at the tunnel. A beach party complete with polystyrene palm trees and hula skirts. Fort Knox is raided and the club is stacked with booze. It's now light 24 hours a day so you can't tell when it's time to call it quits. Crazy drinking, Phil's Guitar, and the record player gets a pounding. Budgie comes as a beach front developer, and jumps into the bar at 2am with a revving chainsaw cutting one of the palm trees down. Thank God he's a teetotaler. 2 bottles of Ouzo later I bail at 7am leaving Orby and Slippery holding up the bar. I wake up the next morning at feeling like the chainsaw is still going in my head. Ouzo, what was I thinking, I don't even like the stuff. It's Australia day so we have a cricket match, and some a swim.
Everyone here is a joker. If you fall asleep outside your bed you will wake up covered in marker pen. The abutions has toothpaste and shaving cream sitting on the bench below the mirrors, put the two ends together, squeeze the shaving cream and, the next person to brush their teeth looks like a rabid dog. Billy the chef, spends his days making crumbed tea towel schnitzels, and foam rubber lamingtons. We spend our days blowing up met balloons full of talcum powder in his room, and rewiring his light switches, of course we lock the door on the way out. No one here has a key. Birthday cakes explode, Overalls get mysteriously sewn up., the strawberry topping is actually chilli sauce.
The fire station slowly rises from the dirt. Our working day consists of 7.am Breakfast( Cereal,toast), ute to the Red Shed,10.am Smoko (Toasties, cake), 12.am Lunch (full cooked meal with 2 choices, desert) 4.pm Afternoon tea (pack of mint slices each) 5.00 Shower and beer at the club, 6.pm Dinner, (same as lunch), back to the club. No one loses weight here. After work time is spent watching videos, reading in the library, or developing film in the dark room. Ian and I play billiards. We walk to Shirley Is to check out the penguins. Spend time building stuff as a hobby, playing darts, or putting down a batch of hommers (home brew). It's light all night, so sometimes a couple of us get on some trikes (motorized three wheel death machines), and go hooning over to Wilkes an abandoned American base,go cravace slotting, or up to the aeroplane tail, the only bit that sticks out of ice from a 60's plane crash. We have Sunday off and get three "Jolly" days where we can go out on field trips. There are a couple of field huts where you can escape the base, and enjoy the silence. Grab a couple of steaks, a slab from Fort Knox, and head off to Wilkes,Jack's, or Browning to do heroic stuff.
The big jolly is the dome, a hundred clicks inland, there is a team drilling down 1000 meters into the ice. Getting there involves a bit of wheeling and dealing and three days off. Five of us head off through the pass and up to SI, a pile of 44 gallon drums welded together that marks the start of the inland trail. Our vehicle is a haglund, a bit like two corn flakes boxes tied together with tracks. A $250,000 dollar vehicle designed to glide through the soft snow of Sweden. Unfortunately Antarctica has no soft snow , only hard ice, and a seat made from plywood with a millimeter of vinyl over it doesn't help. Riding any distance in one is like being beaten with a cricket bat. After a couple of hours the coast disappears and we are surrounded by white in every direction. Our only reference is a line of bamboo canes with flags and beer cans on them heading north south. Blyth Junction, Lanyon Junction, The Antarctic circle. Every now and again we stop to take photos of the odd sign marking nowhere in particular. After five hours at S2 we hang a left, but not before crawling down to the old glacio station, hidden 30 meters below the ice. This is not for the claustrophobic as the floor is slowly rising up crushing the old huts into the ceiling. A couple of hours later we arrive at Law Dome camp. It's a few traverse vans, kitchen,and a pile of 44 gallon drums in the middle of nowhere. A few random vehicles complete the scene. Accomodation is limited so we set up our tents, then head to the mess. Glacio's have a reputation for liking a drink, and it's nice to have some new people in town. Sometime later I stumble off to my tent bed and my two polar sleeping bags on a camp mat. It's a retaviatly balmy -29 deg c. Important. Stuff your socks n jocks in between the bags, that way they will be warm when you go to put them back on. The next day we head three meters below ground level to check out the ice drill. It's a 7meter long computerised marvel, that extracts ice cores, then tilts sideways to regurgitate them. It even has its own NASA style control room. That night over a few frosties Vin keeps us amused with stories of drinking drillers (drilling alcohol put down the bore hole to stop it closing in) while crossing Antarctica on a dozer with a bunch of Russians. The next day Russ wants me to drive D5 dozer back to Casey. The sun's out, and it's a balmy -20 so I pop the roof hatch and sit on it steering with my feet. At 12kmh it's a slow journey, but the ice plateau stretches to the horizon in every direction, only disturbed by the odd cane. Wow.
As we get into Autumn the snow returns. It snows, it melts,it snows, it melts, it snows, then it doesn't. The sun doesn't set in January, by April it sets at 4.30 in the afternoon and sticks it head back up sixteen hours later. Our little red fire station looks finished on the outside, but it isn't. The wintering guy's will fit out the rest. We box things up to RTA, clean up the sites for winter, and chill out. The boat arrives at the beginning of May, time to go home, but before then we have a few other tasks. We load the boat with cranes, dozers and trucks. Containers, boxes, and rubbish. We say our goodbyes to the twenty five winterer's, and a couple of Larcs head out to the boat with most of the crew. Only the loading guy's are left, I chuck my wanted on voyage gear in a container, and jump on the Larc. There are fifteen of us, one small container, and two larcs left to load. The crane lifts the container, and a sudden strong gust of wind pushes it around. The operator dumps it on the barge, but we delay our departure for five minutes waiting for the wind to die down. Half an hour later it's blowing 55 knots (100 kmh). The boat takes off and does laps behind a local island. We hide in the Red Shed, my only problem is that all my personal gear is in a container. No toothbrush, towel, runners or clothes. The wind hits 150 Knots, and it Blizzes for two days straight. During a small break Ned and I head to the green store. We have evil in mind. We box up all the spare toilet paper, nail a lid on it, write plastic sheeting on the outside, and take it down to the rack with 300 other boxes on it. The weather breaks, as i climb up the cargo net on the side of the boat I see the WOV container on a half sunk barge. I stand on the deck as the base recedes into the distance. I'm looking back back thinking to myself I may never be here again.
Our boat is the Lady Franklin, an old car ferry out of Newfoundland, crewed by a bunch of crazy canucks. We are headed to Macca, then Hobart. Our accommodation is uninsulated tin boxes welded to the car deck, the big box in the center is the engine. The loading door at the front is welded and chained shut. You get a beer for lunch and a beer for dinner, extras cost a dollar, you mark you tab on the fridge with a pen. Slippery wins with a $248 bill not including freebies. We steam north until we are past the icebergs, then the captain throws a party. The one non drinker on the crew stands watch, it's going to be a long watch. The Captain is not bad with a guitar, his one aussie song, "Poor Ned" gets played 30 times in between "The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald". We drink a lot of Canadian Club. Otherwise we watch videos and read. The place is like a casino, there are no windows, or clocks, and the lights are on 24 hours a day. Everyone goes onto their own time schedule. On night at 3.am I wake up and head up to the bridge,someone else is heading to bed. After three flights of stairs I get on deck. The other blokes there tell me I just missed an Aurora. Then it fires up again. Colours, curtains, radiating spirals, for three hours. The old timers tell me that's as good as they get. We hit Macca, do penguin porn, and hit the club. Hobart is two days away. I walk down the ramp and when I hit the pier, I'm unemployed. Gee there are a lot of people here.
`Ok so I have been to Antarctica four times. Not all of the above happened in the one trip, but it did happen. A lot more crazy stuff happened in between as well. For the guys who spent a whole year looking for loo paper, I'm sorry. I told the division guys where it was, they just thought it was a good joke and didn't tell you. For 4 years of my life I spent more time in Antarctica than anywhere else in the world. On my last trip out I stood on the deck and thought I don't care if I'm ever here again, yet the place still haunts me. Thanks for all the good times cheers 007.