Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Flying up

Written 11/12/10

They tell me on the 10th that I won't be flying up to Concordia for a
few days. Then at 10pm they tell me I'll be flying up tomorrow. Oh
well! This Is Antarctica, as some of the more grizzled guys are fond
of saying. I go and pack my gear.

The following morning I'm in my goose-down jacket and salopettes all
ready to go. But the flight is delayed indefinitely; a decision will
be made 'later' about whether the flight will go. Aye, TIA.
And at 2pm at last we are go. Now I really can't wait to get there.

We are going to go by Twin Otter aircraft. It's a small plane, it'll
carry five of us and a lot of cargo to Concordia. We driven out to
the sea ice airstrip where the plane has already arrived. This
airstrip sits in a bowl, high rocky slopes on two sides, and a steep
glacier with an ice cliff at the bottom on another. The pilot tells
me it's going to be a steep climb-out. No kidding!

We haphazardly stack boxes, cases and bags toward the front of the
plane. Webbing straps criss-cross the pile. There is a strong smell
of aviation fuel in the cabin. I climb in last and find myself
sitting in a cramped seat behind a large battered aluminium case with
unreadable stencilling on it. Above it and to either side black cases
jut out at crazy angles. There's nowhere else to put my rucksack
except just dump it on the floor in front of me. A hand waves above
them; the co-pilot telling us we're going to take off.

The aircraft's motors rev up hard and the skids start scraping across
the ice. The plane crosses the ice and comes right up under the ice
cliff. We see a flock of 20 penguins run-waddling away from the plane.
Then it turns and immediately accelerates, the ice sheet flashing past
breathtakingly fast. The plane pulls up hard and flies right over the
outcrop and Mario Zucchelli base, out over the sea, and then it banks
hard and flies straight up the glacier.

We fly through the 1000m mountains right by the coast, and then
climb up above the 2000m icy peaks further inland. Glaciers flow down
from every side of every peak, flowing into a sea of ice that bathes
the landscape. My last thought, as I fall asleep, is that this is how
Scotland must have looked once.

When I wake up we are flying over a flat desert of snow. A completely
flat disc. Waves of snow form static horizontal lines from one edge
of the disc to the other. But there is one feature out there. This
plane can't make the five hour flight to Concordia without refuelling.
So somewhere out in the wilderness is a fuel dump. It is an
abandoned stack of barrels, an empty cabin, and a pisten-bully that
flattened out a runway.

We land on the second attempt, leaning over to one side, and lurching
from one crazy angle to another as we bump down the strip. The
engines rise to a deafening roar to drag the plane over the snow to
the barrels. We get out to stretch out legs. The snow is soft, dry
wind-blown sassafrugi, that has drifted over the airstrip and made it
so uneven. Straight away I'm struck by how the edge of the snow-plain
describes exactly the same curvature as the sea horizon does. There
is literally nothing else in any direction. At all.

And then we load up, the plane drags itself into the air again and we
have another 2 and a half hour flight to Concordia. Another bumpy
landing. And when I climb out I find the towers of Concordia right
beside me. I'm here.

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