Hearing rumours of a helicopter trip to Hop Island, I got up early on my day off, sauntered down to breakfast, sat opposite Bill (the summer station leader), and asked if there were any jollies going today. Without hesitation I got a flat “No”, from the man who likes to say no (he’s a cop by trade). I was patient though and a couple of minutes later he came over before leaving and said to call him at 8:15am. This I did, and, while I hadn’t been given the nod just yet, I was advised that I should go through with the weigh in and make sure I’d be available at the heli-hut… by 9:30am I was high over the Sorsdal glacier, which rates as the highlight of the Antarctica trip to date.
I had the front seat and our pilot Dave was happy for me to shoot through the window. I thought I’d ask, because last time I did this (flying with Ian) the plastic lens cap got sucked out, slapping the outside of the window at 100 knots before I quietly pulled it back in on the elastic lanyard. In the mean time it had tippy tapped the side enough to give poor old Ian a good fright; I waited a solid couple of minutes to let his heart rate cool off a bit before apologising!
Anyway, today we had no such interruption. The majesty and power of the place was something to absorb, and Dave was only too happy to share it.
At Hop island we met with Barb, who has spent most of the summer here, monitoring the wildlife. Barb is always full of energy and enthusiasm, no matter how long you leave her on a remote island for. She welcomed us and we set off to check the three SLR cameras. This was Bob’s job, to change over the cards and some hardware in these neat little pelican cases that automatically take pictures throughout the year. Also on board with us was Joe the chippie, one of many to “go and have a look” at the broken door on the hut!
Barb is accompanied on the island by Nobuo, another very dedicated scientist. With the composure of a Samurai (he is Japanese) he could be seen on the ships bridge every waking moment of the voyage, taking notes and counting birds. He was called in on the radio as after a few hours Dave was keen to get going again to move some fuel caches during this perfect weather we were having. At the helicopter we had an impromptu change of plan, Joe and I would go with Barb across to nearby Filla island while Nobuo and Bob finished up on Hop.
During the half minute I had to decide which island I wanted to spend my afternoon on, Barb said Hop is better for wildlife but Filla is more scenic. That sold it for me. Of course I do like getting photos of penguins, and watching birds fly, but the reason I came to Antarctica was for the raw and unique scenery and landscapes. I knocked back Macquarie island not because it isn’t beautiful, indeed it is probably the most beautiful of all the Australian bases, but because the focus there is on flora and fauna. I’m more interested in rocks, ice, and the day and night sky.
The patterns on the decaying sea ice, the distant crumbling ice shelf, the blue sky painted with cirrus, and dark stratocumulus reflecting the surface of the sea made a great backdrop. But what was most striking as we walked step by step through this landscape was the colour, shapes, and sparkling crystals of the rock. The pock holes of sand blasted erosion, and the sheer diversity everywhere you look. It makes you wonder about all the rock that is covered and never seen!
We did a short lap from the hut, Barb sneaking up to the snow petrel nests to weigh the birds and try to find the ones with a 1.5 gram electronic module on their legs. A small number of birds have these devices attached with velcro for a year, they record light intensity every second. Someone has the job of analysing data to try and determine sunrise and sunset times, thus determining their position. It’s a nice theory anyway!
Calling into station with the satellite phone, we noted that we now had an extra few hours on our hands. With helicopters a change in plans is never surprising. But the day was still perfect – warm sun and not a breath of wind – and I’d already told the apologetic pilot that he could pick us up in a week for all I cared!
Like the Vestfolds, which I think of as a vast mountain range miniaturised, every little bump or corner on a walk offers a new view. It doesn’t seem like there should be so much scenery in a small place. The hills look like mountains yet you can climb them in five minutes.
Barb told us the story of someone she worked with on one her South American trips. This man walked fast, and sweated accordingly. She had to share a tent with him – for several weeks. Every time he rolled over in his sleep, his odours overpowered her and woke her up, and she lay there, wondering how she would tactfully break the news to him. The opportunity arose as he one day remarked how amazing it was that they didn’t smell after not washing this whole time.
“Roger, you stink!”
In a way I envy the simple lifestyle that Barb and Nabuo have at this remote outpost of Antarctica. Yes it’s only a 15 minute helicopter ride but they stay out there for weeks at a time and are fully self sufficient. On the ship we were given a talk on “50 years of hardship at Davis”. For sure things have improved in the last few years but we certainly do have it pretty easy. A lot of diesel is used to give us water, heating, appliances, and first world comforts, and if it wasn’t for the fantastic views from the well designed windows, you could be anywhere else in the western world.
Having said that, soon enough the helicopter turned up and we were whisked back to “civilisation”. On the way Bob noted that the ripple caused from the edge dropping off one of the icebergs was probably 4km across. We didn’t do the low altitude fly by this trip but the view from a kilometre above the ground is one of grandeur.
That was another topic that came up as we wandered around the island – good architecture – thankfully they got that right. Like any good town in the polar latitudes Davis looks like a bowl of jellybeans.