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Toughen Up Girl!
With a deafening blast of the ships horn "Aurora Australis" slowly drifted away from the wharf, her bow pointing down the Derwent and the Southern Ocean. The great adventure was really happening, voyage 5 of the 1997/98 season was at sea!
It was Australia Day 1998, sailing day had been relatively quiet. With the Division closed, the pre-sailing briefing had been on board for us 32 round trippers. After lifeboat drill my day was spent wandering the very quiet streets of Hobart, reflecting on the events of the last few months and marvelling that the things to do checklist had somehow been completed.
For many years we of the NSW Branch of the ANARE Club had been watching the adventures of a series of club representatives. Well, now it was our turn, and I was the lucky one; my 27 years as a paid up member and 12 years on the NSW Council were paying off. Preparation had been hectic with logistic complications of a family holiday, a longer medical history since my first ANARE winter in 1971, and juggling of recreation and long service leave. Time in Hobart had been a pleasure with an invitation to spend a few days with Martin and Suzanne Betts down on the farm at Oyster Cove. It was a wonderful relaxing stay, lots of yarning about Mawson, where I had wintered with Martin in 1971, and to prepare for the coming voyage in icy waters, to the Pictures to see "Titanic", what a show!
Around Bruny Island and down the South West Coast as daylight faded. At midnight out to starboard the friendly lighthouse of Maatsuyker Island, our last view of Australia.
I was allocated a cabin to myself which was nice because it had been a long time since my last sea voyage and I expected to suffer from mal de mer. Sure enough, despite the relatively comfortable sea characteristics of the Aurora I succumbed! Eventually I reached the point when you realise that the occasional galley smell had turned from being unpleasant, into interesting and eventually into a realisation it was just hunger!. I was ready to return to ship life. And what a life it was, those stories of good food were all true and it was easy to settle into a routine of 3 meals a day, plus chompers of course.
I had watched the building of Aurora Australis in Newcastle and had first seen many parts of the ship when they were just grey shells, on the ground in the shipyard. How different to the well maintained, freshly painted "Orange Roughy" that I was now living aboard.
As with any other ANARE voyage the bridge was the focal point of expedition spirit. As the line on the chart moved slowly southward all the elements of an Antarctic voyage unfolded. The roaring forties, furious fifties and screaming sixties performed on que, the birdlife changed. How exciting to see the first real residents of Sub Antarctica, the Albatrosses and Giant Petrels. One particularly dramatic sighting, in fog, was of a white phase GP that suddenly appeared ahead, only metres from the bow, clearly in view of the expedition watchkeeping team. We found this exciting but the GP obviously did not, in a few seconds it swept down the side of the ship and vanished back into the fog! Air and sea temperatures were closely watched on the ships electronic displays, the convergence was ticked and the Iceberg Sweep was underway! What a surprise, I won, of course the first bergs sighted on the previous seasons voyages, still marked on the chart were pretty helpful! The prize brought to my attention the remarkable support by the ship for Camp Quality, a charity helping children with cancer.
There were some interesting people on board. There was Arne Sorensen bringing Danish maritime culture to our Australian Icebreaker. Arne was most complimentary in his comment on Aurora, appreciating advances in shipbuilding since the Dan ships were build. A friendly face from previous trips was Dr Des Lugg. I had sailed with Des back in the 70's, we had a few quiet light hearted grizzles about how these 90's expeditioners weren't as tough as we were, in the "good old days". Des was on board accompanying Marc Shepenek and Duane Paterson from N.A.S.A. Marc and Duane's talks in the regular afternoon sessions had the audience spellbound with detail of early planning for the Mission to Mars. Apparently our stations have a lot to offer in terms of isolation and way of life. A link with the first ANARE out on the chopper deck was the Navy survey vessel "Wyatt Earp". A party of five led by Lieutenant Ross Bowden were onboard to survey the northern approaches to Mawson. Leading Seaman Mark Nash had some experience in these waters having recently served on HMAS Adelaide during the Tony Bullimore rescue.
Just north of Iceberg Alley we spent some hours seeking two undersea current meters that had been anchored to the bottom since last season. Alas! Despite some magnificent precision navigation using the GPS and the best resources of the ship, ANARE, the Navy and fifty pairs of keen eyes, the meters did not surface. A great disappointment for Sydney University student Jane Goulding who had hoped to use the data.
We Navigated Iceberg Alley in the early hours of the morning. A remarkable sight to see but quite amazing on the ship's radar, a solid screen of bergs with a clear cut open channel down the middle.
Up on the bridge before breakfast, the 7th of February 1998, was the sight we were all waiting for. 100 mile visibility, a perfectly clear view of the continent, Mt Henderson, Masson and David Ranges with the Casey Range partly obscured in cloud. The greatest view in Antarctica! In the foreground the distinctive sight of Welch Island and in binoculars Mawson Station itself, radio towers and the green shed clearly visible. But, nature was not ready to let us in. Of course the blizzard of recent days was still winding down, so, back to breakfast, a midmorning boatdrill, photographs, and wait and see. We were lucky, the word came that the wind was dropping. Aurora Australia turned down the track towards Kista Strait. It was all hands up on the Monkey Island for a photographic bonanza. Brilliant sunshine, more bergs, islands, penguins, and downwind from Welch Island Adelie rookery, a funny smell! The super binoculars of the Whale watchers giving us incredible close up view of everything.
The wind was dropping and there we were, turning into Horseshoe Harbour. Some careful manoeuvring of the ship with assistance from Mawsons inflatable boats and Aurora was at rest. It was now late in the afternoon, the wind had died and the surface of the harbour was becoming glassy.
Station leader Glenn Cassin, Cas, came aboard and welcomed us round trippers with a briefing on station routine and the rules. The lucky ones went ashore, the rest remaining onboard for a quiet evening. Not hard to take, up top contemplating the scenery, here was Mawson, just like in the photographs. There were the new coloured buildings, and of great personal interest to me, the buildings of the Old Station. It was wonderful to see Radio VLV and even my old donga window in Wilkins. With 24 hour daylight, in the late evening it was breathtaking to scan the panorama around us. Welch Island, the hangar, East Bay, new station buildings, the old station, the ANARESAT dome, receiving aerials, West Bay, the Casey Range, West Arm, the graves of Robert White, Ken Wilson and Geoffrey Cameron, Bechervaise Island and the magnificent coastline stretching away to the West. To complete the picture a dramatic orange moon sitting just above the northern horizon to remind us of midwinter. We were really here, this was no Webcam view!
After breakfast the changeover routine emerged. Put on all the clobber, negotiate the bunkering room, out through the side of the ship and down the rope ladder into the barge. A quick trip ashore, sign the who's ashore book and for me, freedom to look around. It had come as a surprise to me that the requirement of the 70's for all hands to be available to handle cargo had changed considerably. Cargo handling was now on a grander scale, based on containers and heavy machinery, requiring few "wharfies".
That first day ashore was particularly pleasant with bright sunshine, temperatures obviously plus with melt streams everywhere and the snow piled up from the recent blizzard rapidly disappearing. I joined a guided tour, I felt very much at home but clearly things had changed, so many new buildings and vast arrays of plumbing to be negotiated. Some things hadn't changed, there were some familiar faces amongst the Weddell seals sunning themselves on the seaice of East Bay. The water supply proved of great interest, descriptions of vast under ice melt chambers left us paying careful attention to where we walked. In 1971 we had pumped from the meltlake at this place but the new arrangement of continuous electric melting and storage of many thousands of litres compared to our 1971 storage of a few hundred litres, or was it gallons then, was most impressive. A highlight of the tour was the Cosray observatory with its underground shaft and chambers. My last view of this in early 1972 was of a partly lined shaft and chamber. Now, here was a spic and span scientific laboratory, apparently running like clockwork. A feature I was not previously aware of, was a plaque crediting the construction to OIC Lem Macey, miner John Cruise and indeed all of us of the 1971, 18th ANARE. I proudly pointed this out to my fellow round trippers.
The old station was a prime attraction. During this visit I had ample opportunity for a real good look with visits on each day. It was with some pride that I gave a guided tour, describing life at Mawson in the 1970's. Biscoe, known to those 1954 men as the NBS Hut, (Norwegian, British and Swedish Expedition) and Weddell that was built after 1954, were warm and cosy in their present life as chippy shops. The Weddell art gallery displays an aspect of ANARE life in the era before female expeditioners! The Explastics Hut, the OICery, met and radio of 1954 was intact, now as an electrician's workshop. My old donga, Wilkins was a thrill to visit but like the other two sleeping dongas, Shackleton and Dovers was quite derelict, damp and smelly. Each had clearly reached the end of the line for that special personal modification. Only two cubicles, in Dovers, retaining a resemblance to the original standard configuration of elevated bunk, and centre drawers unit flanked by a table and hanging space. The other donga of the late fifties, Ross was intact externally but apart from one cubicle was open space, another chippy shop. The tidy sterile surgery of 1971 had transformed into a gymnasium and smelled appropriately. Rymill remains, also cleared and yet another chippy shop. Old VLV radio proved an especially interesting place. I had understood that the old hut had been emptied. Accordingly it came as a mild shock as I opened the door into the cold porch, to hear, loud and clear, radio communication voices. That old cold porch had always been an airlock between the raging blizz and the warm cosy focus of communication with the outside world. Had it turned into a time warp? Passing through the inner door, the operating desk was clear, no 51J4 receivers, no morse key, the teleprinter bench was empty, the equipment racks were empty. Or were they? Yes, the aerial patch panel remains. There was a small modern VHF transceiver. A new rack containing a number of HF receivers, remotely controlled from new VLV. So, old VLV, for the present performs an important function, a remote receiving facility. There were traces of nostalgia, the notes of useful Japanese words remaining on the corkboard.
Other buildings remaining from the 70's and largely unused were; most of the store huts below VLV, transmitter building and the hangar. The vehicle workshop had been extended with the addition of a large multicoloured section and now known as Rosella.
Nothing remained of some buildings, however! Gone completely, without trace were, Law Hut, Balleny, Fort Knox, geophysics, powerhouse and darkroom. All that remained of the old recroom was the scaffold foundations cut off at ground level. The mess was slightly more evident as demolition had only been completed a few days before and permanent ice beneath the floor remained with some floor timbers still frozen in. The extent of the mess and recroom complex was very evident. It came as a surprise to me how small it actually was, some magnification had taken place in my mind since my last meal there 26 years ago. The drift still forms on the dogline, now silent, the snow clear and white, but nearby the little dog workshop remains. Left as it was when Ursa, Morrie, Bonza, Elwood, Welf and Brendan were RTA'd in 1994. Collars, nameplates, harnesses on their pegs, dog food and a doggy smell. Real dogmen would have had a little weep in there! Another fine memorial to the six I discovered in the concrete base of a tower near the new operations building, six little paw prints with individual brass name plaques. On the subject of the dogs, mention must be made of the fine museum in the new recroom, with its fully rigged sledge. A wonderful area to relax and contemplate views of the old station, the harbour and that magnificent panorama away to the west.
The second day ashore revealed that the old style changeover spirit of all hands to the Larc was alive and well. The contents of a "C" type container, I learnt about containers, were to be moved into the freezer within the stores building, the green shed. The Mawson katabatic was performing but without any hesitation a line formed and magically the spirit of the snow run was created!
One morning, by arrangement with the famous "Plummeter" a group of us roundtrippers gathered near the Red Shed and posed for the Mawson Internet Camera. For a couple of hours we took satisfaction in having our picture "broadcast" to the World, on the World Wide Web.
Seeing and feeling the Web camera control panel and seeing the camera itself on its elevated platform on the roof of the operations building was quite a thrill. I had watched the picture since discovering the Internet in 1995. Apart from very active VHF local radio activity, new VLV was a largely silent operation with personal, admin, met and scientific traffic flowing smoothly through ANARESAT, the network, and Internet Email. Telephone facilities were remarkable with a number of "public" phonebooths. A normal dialling of a PIN and my number in Sydney connected me immediately with my family back home.
With the final day shore came an opportunity for a "Jolly", a Haggulunds trip up to the Great White Hell, Mount Henderson. The day was cold and clear with enough wind to have the drift hissing past our boots. The walk towards the summit turned into some excitement when I came across Dave and Jimmy, from the ship. Dave declaring with some concern, as we stood there on that vast rocky slope, "I've lost my glasses, I put them on a rock" Anyway, a few moments of cool "sharp ANARE" thinking, some careful tracking back in the few patches of snow and there they were. No need for an ancient artefact discovery by a tourist in 2098. A brew and a sledgie in the hut, what a day!
Leaving Mawson saw a change of cabin and two new cabin mates, Jorg Schmeisser, an Artist of some note and Journalist Andrew Darby. Time in the cabin became quite interesting with Jorg cutting beautiful pictures on copper plates and Andrew bashing away on his laptop. Andrew, as he should be, was a mine of Antarctic information and I felt privileged looking through his scrapbook and being able to discuss the background to some of his articles.
The trip across to Davis was spectacular. A late afternoon voyage north towards Iceberg Alley, views of Mill Peak and other Mountains far to the west of Mawson. In the morning sighting of Murray and Scullin Monoliths and the Gustav Bull Mountains behind, hundreds of bergs as we sailed right through the Fram Bank, actually sighting the ice cliffs of Cape Darnley. Prydz Bay was spectacular with a brilliant sunset, calm open water with belts of heavy pack, and many whale sightings. An early morning helicopter operation put key personal ashore the quick way.
As we steamed towards the Davis anchorage there was the Chinese expedition ship, the XUE LONG, "Snow Dragon". As we sailed close the cheering and waving was a fine example of that International friendship, unique to Antarctica. The visit to Davis was intended to be brief. For a while it looked like there would not be an opportunity to get ashore. There was, and in the hour available I rushed around madly, photographing everything. The old station must be visited. The donga line and old VLZ radio were observed to be in similar condition to Mawson, quite derelict, flooded and inaccessible in parts. New VLZ radio was visited, all neat and tidy with its Webcam control unit. The camera itself noted mounted on the emergency services building.
The barge trip out to the ship was an interesting experience. It was the last personnel barge and as I climbed aboard, watching the last group of summerers say goodbyes to those remaining for the winter, I reflected on my own, last Larc trip out to the Nella Dan, from Davis, exactly twenty years before. Some things don't change very much.
We sailed from Davis in brilliant "Riviera of the south" weather and turned north. Open water initially but eventually in the late afternoon entering heavy pack stretching away to the horizon ahead.
That Saturday night, 14th of February 1998, was one of the most memorable nights ever in my personal experience of Antarctica. Packice, the ship displaying her best in icebreaking, wildlife all around on the ice, some open water with classic characteristics of new forming ice, grease, pancakes and rafting. A spectacular sunset in the west with a full moon rising in the east, and overhead darkness now enough to see stars and even a satellite, and for those still up at 3AM, an Aurora!
Just north of the pack the Whale watching reached a peak. A particularly good day with many sightings, many close to the ship and some dramatic examples of "footprints", the disturbance left on the surface by passing whales. Our whale watching team of Paul Hodda, Deb Glasgow and Milena Rafic were able to report for the voyage approximately 120 sightings of all the usual types, including Humpbacks, Fins and Blues. All carefully documented and many captured on video.
It was different ship after Davis, the passenger accommodation was full and the queue for meals and the Email were significantly longer. There were now 23 women onboard, a remarkable situation compared to the old men only days. They were a rowdy lot those Davis people! They were however to reveal an aspect of expedition life that I am pleased to say has not faded away completely with modern video and the more comfortable private donga. The film night! We were well north now, no more ice and noticeably warmer out on deck. The evenings scheduled feature "Casablanca" had finished and the Recroom starting to clear. Before anyone could say, What shall we watch now? There they were, a group of well-primed Davis summerers clutching a video, the Hollywood musical classic "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers". I remembered well this one from Mawson or Casey or, was it Davis, on 16mm, and clearly we were in for a good night's entertainment. And that it certainly was! The first observation was that there was twice the jokes. We blokes found much amusement before, but now it was clear from the girls that there was a whole new layer of girl jokes in there too! We had a jolly time, I had not laughed like this for a good while. The climax came however when in a scene of some sadness for the first wife, Millie, our Melissa Giese called out in a quiet, firm voice, "toughen up girl" clearly a well-used joke, which brought the house down. Talking to Melissa later it turned out that "Seven Wives..." had been at the top of the Davis video popularity list and "toughen up girl" had been used as a morale booster for anyone, man or woman, who displayed signs of cracking up under the pressures of the Great White Hell.
Further North the rumours started! All true unfortunately! It seems that Voyage leader (VL) Pud Taylor, Deputy (DVL) Ursula Ryan and VoMiT, oops I mean Voyage Management Trainee (VMT), Warren Nicholas, had done such a good job that we were ahead of schedule and were now getting into Hobart a day early. The compensation was an afternoon landfall on the south coast of Tasmania with spectacular views of Mewstone, Maatsuyker Island, Eddystone Rock, Pedra Branca and the mountains of Southern Tasmania.
Once around the corner an extremely pleasant two knot cruise in the early morning hours, along the southeast coast, phosphorescence in the sea, wonderful bush smells to entice the returning winterers and ahead in the darkness, the glow of Hobart.
Tuesday 24th February 1998, Customs onboard 7AM, alongside at 7.45AM, pay the phonebill, down the gangway and back to reality!
As published in September 1998 Aurora