Jan 28, 2009
I’m back on land! We pulled up to the McMurdo ice pier and disembarked a few days ago, then flew to Christchurch, New Zealand today. It was funny because McMurdo isn’t exactly ‘pretty’ (it’s a government base with government-looking buildings on a mound of frozen dirt, not snow), so when the scientists all went outside to depart we kind of looked wistfully back at the Oden, which has a lot more of a comforting character about it. Like I’ve said before, it’s bittersweet to leave Oden behind- I’ll miss it but at the same time it’s nice to have a room to myself now in this Christchurch hotel and to be able to walk around in a city again. I love wandering around places (which you can’t really do when confined to a ship), and I didn’t realize how much I missed that until I got to Christchurch.
McMurdo is a unique place- it’s weird to recognize people I’ve seen from the famous Antarctic documentary ‘Encounters at the End of the World’ (I recognized two people, and the volcanologist from that film was on our flight to Christchurch) and the people there are an interesting bunch. Half of them seemed annoyed that we were invading ‘MacTown’ as they call it, and the other half were exceedingly social and curious about who we were. McMurdo has about 800 people on base, most of whom have been there for at least 3-4 months, so new faces are a bit of a curiosity to them. Our flight out was delayed and we ended up staying in McMurdo for three days, so I had time to hike around a bit and visit Scott’s Base, the New Zealand research camp, as well. I know a few people that did research at McMurdo this season, and I think I’m much happier having traveled by Oden instead- the scenery changes, the community dynamic was nice, and I think it was a more adventurous experience overall. When we first docked at the pier a bunch of McMurdens had gathered there, all excited, because one sick penguin had appeared on the muddy dock near the ship. People talked about it at lunch, at dinner, and the next day, and meanwhile I’m thinking ‘all this attention for ONE penguin?? Dude, we’ve seen hundreds!’ Penguins are apparently very rare in MacTown because it’s too far away from the ice and food sources, so the residents there don’t see them often.
During my time at McMurdo station I checked out Scott’s Hut, a preserved ~100 year old explorer’s cabin, took a brief tour of Mac’s main laboratory, hiked out to Scott’s Base in NZ territory, and that was about it. We stayed in dorm-style accommodations and most people spent a good amount of cash on stuff in the gift shop (yes, there’s an Antarctic gift shop!), but I couldn’t bring myself to spend $25 on a T-shirt just because it says ‘Antarctica’ on it- I think my photos are a better souvenir than overpriced clothes anyway.
After 3 days there we flew out on a C-130 Hercules New Zealand Air Force plane, which has nylon net seating and was pretty crowded because there was an emergency medical evacuation of a different scientist who’d had a heart attack at McMurdo and was being brought to a hospital in New Zealand. The planes aren’t heated so you have to wear special ECW (extreme cold weather) gear as well as earplugs for the intense engine noise. The crew came over and invited me to sit in the front cabin for a while to see the plane and the view, which was beautiful. I sat up in the front cabin for about an hour and slept for the rest of the flight (7.5 hr flight to Christchurch) and now, BAM! We’re in New Zealand! There are trees, and grass, and a hint of humidity in the air that would never have existed in arid Antarctica. It’s a warm feeling that just kind of hugs you as you walk out the doors of the airport and into the summer air. The scientists plus two crew members who are leaving the ship all gathered for dinner that night, which was nice as a final goodbye. At the dinner we sat outside in a very long 27 person arrangement and it was bizarre to see night fall for the first time in a long time. It seems too quiet sitting in my hotel room without the hum of the ship’s engines or the somewhat reliable vibration onboard when the water flushing system sucks up air on the ice. Even though I’ve left the ship I don’t think I’ll really feel like I ‘left’ Antarctica until I go home to the US because being here in New Zealand is still a transition state. Nine days of rest and vacation here, then a 29 hour flight from Christchurch to Auckland to Los Angeles to back home, and then I’ll feel like I left this experience and am truly ‘back’. That will be a really weird feeling…
So, without another way to know how to summarize this experience, it’s the end of my first Antarctic trip. It’s been an incredible ride and I can’t wait to go back for my next season. I’ll be graduating from one school and starting another before I’m able to head back out again, so until next time, stay tuned for the next adventure.