The Long Trip Home

Part Three: From Penguins to Sardines

Journal Entry:
McMurdo to Christchurch
Thursday, February 13th

On Wednesday morning I awake at a more reasonable hour. There is less wind, and across the bay there is a hint of clearing in the clouds. Last night it almost seemed to get less light - not dark, but less light. The orbit of the sun is perfectly circular at Pole: the only difference between clock-day and clock-night is the quadrant of the sky. The sun's elevation angle gradually diminishes (from 19 to 16 degrees when I was there) until it hits the horizon at the equinox, and darkness lasts for six months thereafter. McMurdo is at a lower latitude, so the sun's orbit is tilted, dipping slightly towards the horizon at night. As the year progresses and the sun angle diminishes, this dip will take it close enough to cause a slight night-time dimming before the equinox. This almost imperceptible effect was my first reminder that I was on my way back to the world from whence I came, a world of different extremes.

At lunch, there was mention of .. PENGUINS ! Aside from their intrinsic interest, penguins are so bound up with the mythology of the Antarctic that to return home having *not* seen penguins would take a lot of explaining. European tourists who visit the United States and see neither cowboys, movie starts nor gangsters face the same dilemma: "How could go all that way and NOT see them ??". We clothed up and walked down to the pier: on a patch of shoveled dirt of the pier yard, less than a hundred yards from the ship, two penguins stood and ruffled their feathers. Yes, they were cute. Alas, they were placed against an industrial backdrop, instead of the rugged and wild beach by Vince's Cross, just a quarter-mile away. It was like discovering that the Tooth Fairy operated out of a warehouse in Los Angeles. Conversely, one could say that they brought a little magic to the scene, choosing to arrive from their world, and being able to return to it just as easily. Either way, we dutifully took our pictures , but it felt like doing so in a zoo.

We walked back, and decided that as the view was clearing and the wind was dropping, we would use our last afternoon to climb to the top of Observation Hill. The cross on top commemorates Scott's expedition, the view was reputed to be worth the 600-foot climb.

Scott's Cross on Observation Hill

Me on top of Ob Hill, backdrop of mountains

It was. It was spectacular. To the south and east, the edge of the vast Ross Ice Shelf, larger than France. To the west, the mountains across McMurdo Bay. North, Mt. Erebus was covered in cloud, but we nicknamed the radar domes on two separate hilltops as "God's Golf Balls". We fully expected to see feet come down through the clouds, plant themselves on either side of the hills, and - thwack - the ball is driven across the water to an unseen fairway beyond the mountains. Standing on top of Ob Hill, my back to the distant mountains, I got that same View Feeling that adorns any Antarctic picture book. It *was* spectacular.

At our feet McMurdo was laid out neatly, the storage yards in rows and columns. The smooth surfaces looked almost paved, the grit was invisible at this distance. The little world of barracks and galley hall was really a small part of the whole, and completely insignificant against the backdrop of mountains that we now saw as the larger picture. A couple of skuas flew beneath us, and the clouds swirled above. Away over on the ice shelf, one cluster of dots: Williams Field, the snow runway for ski planes. A further cluster of dots: Pegasus, the blue ice runway for wheels. Down there in Mactown, though, one building would be our portal through from here, via those distant dots and onto an aircraft back to the world of green. We knew the transition was going to be bad: none could foresee how bad.

Sharon was the first: she was on flight 40, reporting at 20:00. I was on flight 39, reporting at 22:00. Such was the numbering logic. After 4 months of hard physical labor outdoors at Pole, she sat on her worldly possessions stuffed into orange bags on a cement floor, waiting to be called, waiting to return to her husband, children and grandchildren.

Sharon says goodbye for ever to Antarctica

Reporting for my flight

Two hours later, it was my turn. This time, the reporting area was absolutely full - a very bad omen. Perhaps the earlier flight had a mix of cargo and passengers: it was clear to me that my flight was going to be 'NOT fun', an entity that is the Boolean complement of almost anything you could enjoy. We got on the Terra-Bus for the long ride out to Pegasus: the crowd was full of returning military, contract workers, but very few scientists. A bus full of low-priority pax. We waited at Pegasus for an hour or so while the plane got ready. Walking around, we could see McMurdo *way* across the ice shelf, a little smudge with a ship tied up. Now the biggest settlement on the whole continent really did look like the end of the world, the hut that Scott built.

on the bus to Pegasus

at the Pegasus ice runway

"Get all yer ECW's on !" yelled the loadmaster. No-one could board the plane unless fully dressed for survival in the event of an emergency landing. Layers and layers and layers of zips and velcro. Outside on the ice, I was warm from the exertion but more or less comfortable, despite wearing more clothing than I had ever worn at Pole, higher by ten thousand feet and colder by 60 degrees. "Board the plane by fives !" - and by sheer bad luck, I am in the first five. No seat selection here. No seats, for one thing - just the webbing straps and canvas bases. "You! - You Sit Down There!". I am stuffed in the middle of an inner row. *WITHOUT* my ECW's on, there would barely be shoulder room. *WITH* our gear on, we are wedged in like toy stuffed animals being put in boxes. I gasp, and try not to move, so as not to generate any heat. The only part of my anatomy that is not covered with layers of thermal fleece and goose-down, is my nose. A dozen more unrecognizable people are added to the inner row, and I am unable to move. Even if I could stand up, a dozen pairs of quilted legs and insulated boots completely block the way to the rear of the plane and the funnel that passes for the restroom. Earplugs are tossed out like confetti: I take off my two layers of gloves, insert them, and remind myself that without adversity one can not attain sainthood. The time will inevitably pass, no matter how uncomfortable. I just hope that my bladder will last.

The flight was so awful, I shall spare the details lest re-reading this journal in the future discourages me from ever returning. The time did pass, my bladder did last, it was an ordeal of the first magnitude. I'm not sure if I slept, passed out or went into a trance: we landed at Cheech at 8 AM and were herded around by military ground staff who were grumpy from having just woken. Our belongings were tossed in a pile of identical orange bags to paw through: we took off our ECW's, and heaped them for Return Inspection. In an instant, men in blue coveralls pushed the piles of clothing across the cement floor with brooms, and we were discharged, blinking and disoriented, into the summer civilian sky.     Antarctica was gone.

reclaiming bags at CHC

my pile of clothing

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Prepared by Tony Hansen and Tod Flak; last updated 15 Feb 1997