McMurdo can be a very transitory place, especially during the time we were there. Soon after our departure, the vessel that carries all the food, supplies and equipment was due to arrive and bring in new cargo, whilst backloading out scientific samples, waste, machinary needing repair back in the USA etc. For that reason, there were a whole lot more navy cargo handlers, NZ defence force logistics teams etc. In addition to that, a lot of the field camps were winding down, so there was a lot of people coming in from weeks or months out on projects, happy to see running water and television.
We also had a run of several sets of DVs (distinguised visitors). They were often interested in the medcial facilities, so would at times pass through. One afternoon I was in the clinic, and walked around the corner, and there was a four-star General, the head of the United States Air National Guard. As the top rank, generals can earn up to five stars, although there are only five star generals in major conflicts, with I was told, the last being during the Vietnam war. He was a super friendly guy, and we chatted for a minute or two. He was intrigued how it was that I ended up being destined to spend 9 months at the Pole, coming from New Zealand. It is the planes under his command that provide all of our logistic support at the Pole.
We also ran in to a few of the Pole crew who had been down all summer, and had a few days off at McMurdo for R+R. Getting to go to the ‘big smoke’, gave them a chance to recharge batteries, before heading into winter. With its 24/24 limitless pizza, sea level altitude meaning oxygen is in more plentiful supply, and ‘faster’ internet, it was also a chance for those that had summered to break the monotony of an enivornment devoid of rock, wildlife and liquid water. It was a good chance to catch up on the news of the crew that we had got to know well during our training in Denver.
We were given tutorials on how to use the vans which included driving on the right hand side of the road. That became slightly interesting when the road passes Scott Base, with its residents inclined to drive on the left hand side of the road. The lack of traffic never made it an issue, and I think the NZers conceeded to the majority by driving on the right. The assortment of vehciles around the base was interesting. From the massive Cat Kress all terrain ‘bus’, to the small snowmobiles, there were vehicles for a range of conditions. Tracked utes were an intersting sight. One of the most iconic is the Kress’ predecesor. Ivan the ‘Terrabus’ is a well travelled all terrain bus used to ferry people in and out from the airfields. It’s persona is such that it has its own facebook page, although that has seen better days, much as Ivan’s body. As an American government funded project, they have a statutory obligation to buy American made. Therefore, everything was Cat, Ford or other prominent American brands. Whilst the policy is good to stimulate the economy, we heard rumours that whilst most gear worked well, occasionally the policy hamstrung them from buying the best suited gear for the condition. On the contrary, Scott Base had a fleet of Toyota Landcruisers. Having seen them thrive in the most adverse of conditions in Africa and other places of limited resources, it is no surprise they did well in the harsh conditions of Antarctica.
Evenings were spent playing board games, having a coffee or beer with new found friends, or out penguin spotting. The store sold a good range of hard tack, with good 12 year old Glenlivet or Glenmorangie available. The same couldn’t be said for the beer. The only beer in plentiful supply was Lion Brown. The reason why one of the worst beers in New Zealand was purchased on mass, then shipped to the bottom of the world is lost on me. With so many better options available, I found it hard to reconcile. At least most Americans didn’t think it was not too bad…
With 24 hour sunlight, it was an bizzare habit to have to form to make sure you take your sunglasses to the pub. The dimly lit windowless coffee house or bars made it feel like the night was drifting on, but upon walking outside at midnight, the blinding light of the endless sun took some getting used to. The endless sun did pose benefits. If you couldn’t fit in a 3 hour walk on your day off, if you weren’t tired and the weather was looking ok, then why not just head out at 10pm?
There are several recreational activities available to keep the base entertained. Movie nights, bars, walking trails, sports matches, gyms etc were always on hand to keep people busy. There was also several ‘boondoggles’, or planned activities that you could sign up for. Camping in the snow overnight, ice cave exploring up Mt Erebus, trips to Cape Evans and Royds to see the historic huts and the like were available on a seasonal basis depending on ice and weather conditions. Given we were there late summer, most of the sea ice was breaking up, limiting what was available. I was lucky enough to nab a backup spot on a day trip called ‘Room with a View’. After driving over the hill past Scott Base, and on to the Ice Shelf, we boarded Snowmobiles in pairs and headed up the flank of Mt Erebus. I happened to be assigned one of the guides who drives them all day, so he was happy if I took the drivers seat for both there and back. We had to be tail end charlie to make sure that if (and when) the emergency supplies fell off the sled, we would grab them. Driving over fresh powder as we climbed our way up on to the Southern flank of Mt Erebus. After an hour or so, we arrived at the spot where a small cabin maintained by Scott Base is located. It serves as a retreat where people from the base can escape to stay overnight, away from the confines of the main base. Whilst we couldn’t stay in the ‘bach’, the views were superb and we had a fantastic day for it. Views of Mr Erebus’ smoking peak, gazing out down the Erebus Glacier that extended out into the Ross Sea, or in the other direction to the other peaks of Ross Island – Mt Terror and Mt Terra Nova. Erebus and Terror were the two ships of James Clark Ross, who first sighted them when he discovered the sea that now bears his name in 1841. He set a record for the furthest south during this trip, followed by a subsequent one the next season. They were limited by the 60 metre Ice Shelf that he called the ‘Victoria Barrier’. Whilst we had the comfort of modern jackets, gloves and snowmobiles, it is fascinating to think as we cruised the powder, that these reaches were being explored at the same time that New Zealand was only just being settled.