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Live from Antarctica: On arriving at Utsteinen

Nothing can prepare you for the arrival at Utsteinen in this year of grace 2008. Leaving Brussels for Cape Town in the southern summer is not an experience that can be qualified as other than highly agreeable, maybe even downright pleasant. The African air is soft and warm and the body, battened down for a European winter exults in the warmth, luxuriating in the unexpected awakening of the senses.

The surrealistic departure from Cape Town in the middle of the night is in itself still no preparation for what lies ahead. This leap off from the tip off Africa
is my third, and after a couple of Antarctic seasons one becomes a bit blasé about these things, if only to impress the new recruits.

Riding the Ilyushin 76, which sits waiting like some enormous bird of prey hunched on the runway on this warm African night, is like seeing a familiar friend. The baggage and emigration formalities completed, we step up the ladder into its cavernous interior, the seats dwarfed by the open space overhead, the cargo hold separated from us by a netting.

The roaring engines shatter the normality and before long we are climbing into the darkness at 750 km per hour. By 3 in the morning, it is already light and the sun streams in by the few portholes that exist, illuminating the sleeping scientists, the tastefully draped cabling and the flags of the Antarctic nations on the internal fuselage.

As we approach Troll, the expeditionaries move towards the cargo hold to dress for the Antarctic: first the Germans, in their red jump suits, business-like and earnest; then the Belgians self-consciously donning their achingly new and unfamiliar garb, and then the Norwegians, slowly, as if to show that they unlike the rest of us mere mortals are not afraid of the cold.

We see Troll approaching on the screen where it has been projected by an external camera, and are on the runway before we realise what is happening. Suddenly, I am required to act. As groupleader, it is my responsibility to make sure that all our luggage, cargo, and, yes, people, are loaded on the DC3 for the trip to Utsteinen. The pilot is Brian Burchartz, who has brought us to Utsteinen for the last 3 years. He is from Canada, and seems never to be fazed by anything.

The runway at Utsteinen has been prepared, groomed carefully for our arrival, and we see a small knot of people waiting next to the Pink Prawn Rock as we approach. The Basler touches down, and we step off the plane into the brilliant sunlight. We are met by a group of people who look like they are all auditioning for the part of Robinson Crusoe. Beards and burnt faces top the bedraggled remnants of the barely recognisable expedition gear. A discoloured "H" for Haglof remains visible in places.

It takes a few crucial seconds before we realise who they are, and sometimes even that recognition is erroneous. The beards have grown at different speeds on different people, and it is apparent that they have become "feral", gone wild. We grin our pale nervous smiles at them.

Our baggage is unloaded and we stand awkwardly around admiring the airstrip and the solitary wind sock. We have come to relieve the first crew who will be going home, some of them reluctantly. The neophytes are subdued. At first.

Then it is on to the sledges for a ride back to the Base Camp. It is early in the morning, so some people are still bleary eyed.

The camp is so well organised and clean that at first it feels like a trick, an impossibility. But it is true. The place is spic and span, and we find the Mess Tent, office and dispensary with disbelief, turning into grudging admiration. How did they do all this so fast, so well, and without me?

The Base camp unfolds, orderly and well thought out. It even has street names. The military live on Tappetten Straat, while the mess tent is on the corner of the "Street of Broken Dreams" and Princess Elisabeth Avenue. One enterprising soul even has an igloo with all mod cons, sort of.

A visit to the ridge follows as soon as the pilots have been watered and the plane refulled and is on its way to Cape Town with the departing crew.

The garage is enormous, and close to completion. The ridge has been transformed and bristles with metallic struts, nuts and bolts which look like a giant's meccano set. Dark packages thrum mysteriously where the concrete blocks are being heated to help the setting process along under layers of insulation.

We admire everything loudly as the wind picks up enough to make your voice feeble and ridiculous and to make you feel as if your skin is being stripped off by a sand blasting machine.

Author: IPF

Picture: Plane - © International Polar Foundation

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