Thursday, 8 December 2011

Settling into summer

Standing with the technical crew at the refuelling rig, watching
patiently eastwards as the first plane of the day lands. This one is up
from MZS. It disappears behind the buildings of the summer camp as it
slows on the airstrip. We hear the insectile buzz of the engines rise up
to a shriek, telling us the plane has turned off and is sliding up and
over the flattish hump in the taxi-way that separates the summer camp
from the airstrip. We wait, still watching, and it reappears carefully
negotiating it's way down the taxi-way through the buildings and
equipment stacks of the summer camp towards us.

The pilot has to throttle up the engines to a roar to get the plane to
turn through 90 degrees and pull up side-on to the fuelling rig. Clouds
of snow get blown away, obscuring the summer camp completely. The twin
otter's wing sweeps past us as it turns, it's tip just four metres or so
from us. A strong smell of paraffin washes past. The co-pilot jumps out,
and once the portside propellor stops spinning he gets a cover over the
air intake to stop it freezing. We push the unloading platform to the
rear door and straight away guys are inside and a chain of people in red
and blue suits forms, passing out the smaller crates and bags to the
waiting people and vehicles. No passengers today.

These days unloading the planes are very busy times. Lots of people,
rapid work. The plane is surrounded by attendant vehicles, small and
large. Several skidoos buzz back and forth, pulling trailers stacked
with cargo away to the base and the summer camp. The chargeuse, the same
Caterpillar machine that we use to dig up our drinking water, waits
behind the plane with a trailer ready to take some big cases up to the
EPICA labs. The trailer hasn't got any wheels or skis, it just a big
metal box that gets dragged across the snow. The Merlo, a very big green
lifter fitted with a forklift drives right up to the unloading platform
by the door of the plane to pick up the up the first of several large
crates. Several of us manhandle one onto the forks and it lifts it down
to the chargeuse's trailer. The pickup is parked by the refuelling rig,
having been used as a bus to bring down guys to help with the unloading.
The PB cento, a kind of cross between a flexmobile and a kassborer is
also parked up nearby. The Pistenbully idles behind us, waiting for the
work to finish so he can pass us on the way up to the summer camp. It
seems particularly busy this time because the first raid of the campaign
arrived a couple of days ago and all their tractors, some now fitted
with cranes at their back, are parked up near the taxiway. Their work,
unloading the rows of containers and tanks they brought, paused while
the plane is here.

Thanks to the raid and recent planes, many of the scientists who arrived
in the last couple of weeks are at last getting their equipment and the
scientific work here can start in earnest. They don't just come with
sample tubes and notepads – the gear can amount to a lot of weight. One
group came up with a one tonne echosounder device that can be mounted in
a plane or on a sledge and it looks at stratification of the ice. They
detected a subglacial lake 50 kilometres from the base on a previous
visit. Another group came with an entire planeful of mass spectrometer
apparatus – I have no idea what they're looking for in the snow, but
apparently the clean areas of snow are to be kept super-clean this year.
There is a ping sound going off every 3 seconds out near the glacio
shelter that can be heard 500 metres away, apparently using sonar to
measure water vapour in the atmosphere. The summer campaign is really in
full swing now.

In retrospect, adjusting to the transition from winterover to summer
campaign took me a long while. The first gladness that others had
arrived never wore off but after about a week, it started to feel really
strained at the same time. The wintercrew having been split, there
seemed to be something that made it uncomfortable to have the wintercrew
guys around but to be working and socialising with others, or to be
working with one or two wintercrew but as part of a bigger group. I have
to admit that, such good friends as they are, in some ways it was a
relief that some of them left. Since they've gone I've at last been able
to relax into new friendships and the routine of the summer campaign. Or
maybe all that was needed was a little more time to adjust than I
expected. Or maybe again, tired as we were, the euphoria and energy of
the new arrivals was a little hard to handle and as they come back down
to Earth it's easier. I don't know, maybe none of these things, maybe
all of them. I can't quite figure it out. But after a few weird weeks
life felt settled again.

But I'm tired, worn out. And I've got tendinitis in my left shoulder and
elbow from the gym, knee pain goodness only knows where from, my legs
ache on the stairs and I'm beginning to think that my sleeping pattern
will never get back to normal. I sincerely hope this disintegration is
only temporary! Still happy though. I do like this place. Just like
working in a hospital the only currencies here are responsibilities and
priorities. There are teams working side by side and sharing expertise
whilst working toward their own diverse goals. And I find the people
that come here are particularly friendly, perhaps sharing a camaraderie
based on the feeling that it's a special place to be. People just wander
in to my lab, uninvited and just sit down and start chatting. It's such
a good change.

But strangely enough, in the last few days I have really deeply felt the
confinement of living here for the first time since I arrived, even as
the base opens up and reconnects with the outside world more and more. I
wonder if it's because we've past all but one of the important
milestones of our time here, the only thing left to look ahead to is the
departure. Or is it the press of all the new people, or perhaps their
reminders of what I've been missing? When I sat in the phone booth a few
days ago, looking forward to making my weekly phone call to M, and she
didn't have time to talk, and all the while I was sitting in this tiny
cupboard-sized room with incessant footsteps clanging down the metal
stairs that make the ceiling two feet above my head, I felt weary,
really weary. What I wouldn't give right now for some time at home, or
even just a swim, a really fresh tomato salad and the chance to walk
outside in warm sunshine without a suit on! And definitely, suddenly I'm
missing the freedom to go and do something new, to eat a meal in peace
when I want to, and escape the institutionalism.

So as station life settles in, I find after a brief interlude I'm
feeling unsettled again. For the first time, I'm really looking forward
to going back to normal life and seeing some new colour. Enough white
and blue! Great as this place is, it is demanding and working six days a
week without a break, and in such closeness to the people around, is
definitely tough. It's about six weeks until I put my feet down on solid
earth, seven and I'll be back in Australia. After a year here that's no
time at all and I'll be quite happy working away until then, but, from
now on I will be counting...

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