Thursday, November 29, 2007

Wind Speed is Killer

The wind speed has remained very high since yesterday, nearly 120 kmph. Sitting in the lounge or in your own living area, you continuously hear the sound of a floor mill running without stop. This morning I took half the time for walking from Annapurna lounge to Maitri lounge since I was pushed from back all the time, but then it took me double the time to come back. I am wearing 3 layers since the minimum wind chill temp has dropped further. With three layers bathroom trips become the most cumbersome. If the wind speed increases further, the snow drift will start which, as the name implies, means that the snow will be lifted up from its original place to accumulate elsewhere. If it accumulates in front of the doors, we will have to shovel it away to gain access to our living area. Shovels are kept at strategic places for easy access. There is no sign of a blizzard developing yet since there is no fog around.

Last night 'Dil Chahta Hai' was screened at Maitri Lounge. Though normally I do not stay for long after my dinner for the movie, but yesterday I stayed on till the end. I always find this movie fresh and entertaining. People are waiting for new movies to come with the ship next month. Someone asked me why I did not bring any new ones. Another person responded that he did bring something, sweets and 'jukaam'.

The Rocks Speak

ANTARCTICA : 28.11.07

India is a country full of statues carved out of small and big rocks. They are as live as could be. They have been part of our culture and history from ancient times and give us a vivid account of life of people of a particular era and area. They are now major tourist attractions. The caves of Ajanta and Ellora are awe-inspiring, how in that era people went into those hills, discovered those caves, and just with chisel and hammer produced wonder to last till this planet lasts. Or for that the famous erotic sculptures at Khajuraho or Sun Temple at Konark only leave you spellbound. Similarly, the marvels of near Mysore are just breathtaking. Each and every piece of art is not only to admire but it gives living account of the history, culture of its people. That a piece of rock even without it being transformed into a piece of art could tell us about the evolution of world, I only recently learnt in Antarctica.

We have, in India, seen any number of movies where sculptures are important part of the main story line, or sculptor plays a crucial role in the movie. Who can forget the immortal scence of 'Mughal-e-Azam' where the seductress of that era, Madhubala playing Anarkali, makes her grand appearance in the court of Emperor Akbar disguised as a magnificent marble statue. Any number of movies, for example, Guide, Neel Kamal, can be named. One movie takes the cake 'Geet Gayon Pathhron Ne' (Song by the rocks) made by none other than legendry Shanta Ram.

I accompanied the team from Geological Survey of India for their study and collection of samples from some rocky area of Schirmachar hills. By the way, GSI is one of the earliest scientific institutions established in India, in 1851. It was a very educative experience for me. I felt truly "Antarctican" of being in the white desert. All around us was just ice and ice, and then you understand why it is called a white desert. It reminds you of Jodhpur and Jaisalmer areas of Rajasthan. You only have to think of sand instead of ice and snow. Some rocks here and there and not a blade of grass. Not only that, you also see dunes here similar to sand dunes of the desert. The only difference is that in a typical desert the sand dunes keep on shifting, but the crests and troughs here are kind of permanent. Secondly, the language used by these geologists was as if they were describing some living specimen, for example, words like veins, corona, age, full of character, no character etc. A piece of stone that I found beautiful was dismisses as of no signicant character, and what they found as 'full of life' was clear to me only when they explained to me its physical, chemical properties and its evolutionary history. They gave me some pieces of rocks to carry home as souvenir. I was reluctant. Chitra would certainly chide me that I go to Antarctica via South Africa and do not buy a diamond, but bring some big, heavy and uneven piece of stone as a gift.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Tourism

Today we met a group of 4 people from a tourist agency who were setting camp to receive tourists from Europe for a white desert safari of 10 days. They had all state of the art equipment for this and will take 10 days to set up the camp for some rich tourists. Cost: Euro 25,000/- per person. These people were also associated with the making of a documentary for BBC: "Blizzard - the race for the pole". It is the story of famous polar explorers of 1900s, Edmondson and Scott. Ishu, I very often now remember the film in the Discovery Imax theatre on Shackleton in Charlotte many years ago that we saw together. I was filled with awe and had thought that such places were meant for exploration only by these great men of spirits and adventure. I had thought such places were not meant for me and had felt contented visiting Dodital and Har-ki-doon. Their feats of that time opened gates for persons like me to visit this continent with the help of all logistics and equipment. My salute to these great pioneers.

I also accompanied the scientists from the Geological Survey of India studying rocks. Went at 10 in a big snow vehicle with 350 horse power and returned at 6 pm. They were kind enough to take me with them. It was a real Antarctica feeling with snow and rocks of various kinds speaking and giving their history of evolution or formation to these scientists. Who says rocks are mere stones? More later.

Shramdaan, and a Visit

Antarctica: 24.11.2007

This morning it was 'shramdaan'. We, all Maitrians, were divided into various teams for cleaning operations. Basically, it was dismantling of some disused structures, garbage segregation for burning, incinerating, and some for shipping back to India for final disposal. It was mind-boggling to see how much waste and garbage we produce. And how much garbage is collected over time to maintain us and this station. So many things could be very well reused, like wooden boxes of quality wood, but were all sent into burning container or incinerator. Transporting them back to India for reuse would be very very expensive. In the name of science and exploration, how much exploitation of Antarctic continent Man is causing is perhaps unbelievable.

Fortunately, there are only 27 nations and maximum of 800-900 people at given time staying in Antarctica, so damage right now is limited. But with increasing commercial and scientific interest in Antarctica, more facilities and equipments to survive here being available easily, and increasing tourism, there is likely to be increasing human presence here. Though, as a lay person I think that the environment and ecology of Antarctica is perhaps not fragile.

This afternoon we had visitors from Russia. These 8 of them are on a 3-day sponsored visit. They are on a very interesting visit: going around the earth traveling thru the equator, and then going around 0 degree meridian. It means that they will go from pole to pole during night time only and then again so that the entire journey is during day time. They are coming from North Pole and will end their journey there. They are studying the impact of all this on the human mind and body, and make some astronomical studies. So I asked the lady who was astronomist if she will prove the ancient Indian philosophy that stars and planets influence human destiny. She had visited many places in India and Tibet. She mentioned Roerich, and then we talked about Roerich, Manali, Devika Rani and Bangalore. None could fathom what we were talking about.

Weather report: Max 2.6 C, Min -7 C, Minimum wind chill temp -26 C. Today is Purnima, it is 9 pm and the Sun is just getting down behind the ice shelf. But the full moon won't shine as it would in Delhi. It will be there in the sky but with no chandani at all. The bright full moon from the confines of the home makes all the troubles of living in Delhi worthwhile.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Celebrations

ANTARCTICA ON 23.11.2007 :

Let me begin today's mail with the weather report: Max 0.6, Min -5.8, wind speed 30 knots (84 kmph) and Min wind chill temp -28. Today I witnessed my first snowfall of the Antarctica. It was for perhaps only for an hour with sparse and very small flakes. It is still a news. You already know that Antarctica is the most cold continent of this planet. During summer time, its average temperature at coastal areas is -5 to -10 C, while at the hills or plateau it is -25 to -30 C. During winter, the coastal areas experience temp of -40 C while on the plateau it goes down to -70 to -80 C. At the Russian station, Vostok, the minimum temp of the Earth was recorded at -89 C in 1983. The coastal area of Antarctica is less than 10 percent, while rest is a huge plateau with average height of more that 2 KM. No continent of the Earth can match this average height. However, the air at Antarctica is devoid of humidity. Whenever there is some moisture, it precipitates and falls as snow. This precipitation is so little, only 10 cm a year, that it is the most dry continent dryer than India's Thar of Sahara desert.

In the evening I went for a walk. All around our station, there is rocky area. So we have to walk through big boulders and tread very carefully. After each elevation, you suddenly come across a lake, mostly frozen. If you walk for nearly 1-2 km in any direction, you come across big ice-shelf - just white and white stretch as much as your sight goes. The wind speed was not very high, but it was so cold from left side that my left side of the face and left hand felt numb. It was a funny feeling like you get after dental anaesthesia. Throughout my walk, I was rubbing left side of my face.

In the evening, we celebrated marriage anniversaries of two members of 26th IAE, and birthday of 2 of 27th. These two young men from the 26th IAE are celebrating their second marriage anniversary. They celebrated their first also here. Just a few weeks after their marriages, they left for Antarctica. My hut-mate has had a drink too many (that is the expression?) and has been repeating Pakeezah's dialogue over and over again - 'yeh daldal per bani kohre ki haveli...' It is 10.30 pm here.

Tomorrow is the day of 'shram-daan' when we all the Maitrians will clean the station and its surroundings. Now besides being a Kailashi, I am a Maitrian too!

Art of Dosa Making

ANTARCTICA.22.11.2007:

There is a joke in Matri station that the only thing that is not available in its kitchen is perhaps penguin's milk. I maintain that if anyone has any complaints reg food here, then perhaps that person's must be his mom's nightmare in his food habits. The variety and quantity is unimaginable. What the camp lacks in facilities and conveniences of other nations' stations, it compensates in its kitchen.

This morning we had dosa, chutney and sambhar. And none from the ready-mix packets. There is a good-sized grinding machine to make the batter. After having satisfied my satiety centres, I tried my hand at dosa making. I had done earlier pooris, and had kind of obtained the cook's approval. I not only did the baking part but also did the pouring and spreading part too. And what shape it came out to be from the first dosa itself! I am not being narcissistic here, you can see the photos when I come back - taken spontaneously by other people.

A Day in the Life Of....

ANTARCTICA ON 21.11.2007

How do I spend my time in Antarctica?

This is my daily routine broadly.

I usually get up by 6 or 6:15 am (all timings in GMT)

Attend morning rituals. From today, I have joined a small group for pranayama classes (breathing exercises).

8 am : reach main station for breakfast. So far the breakfast has been like puri-bhaji, paratha-curd, Maggie, milk-wheat flakes, idli-sambhar, etc. Bread-butter, milk, juices, all brands of adds-on like bournvita, horlicks, maltova, complan etc are available all the time. Various kinds of namkeen also.

After breakfast, I just loiter around, talk to people, their work, their experiences etc. write my diary, postings etc. Read something. I now know all the members of our team (27th IAE) by their names, and also of many members of the 26th team. Creat opportunity for having 1-2 cups of tea/coffee before lunch.

Go to lunch at about 1 pm, and stay their by 2:30. come back to my cabin. It is a prefabricated living module with four bunker beds in 2 by 2. There is a small bathroom also with a sink but it is not functional. Quite well made, reasonably warm, well lighted, lots of electric points getting 24 hour uninterrupted power supply (unlike Delhi). So no problem in getting battries of my laptop, cameras etc daily charged.

Usually read my mails in the afternoon when it is downloaded into a desktop meant for summer team.

After resting, listening to some music, writing etc, I get out by 4.30 pm for tea and then I go for a walk.

Till 8 pm, I am in the recreational room, chatting, playing carom, watching some lousy movie for some time, some movies I have not heard of.

8 pm : dinner, and come bak to my room by 10 pm. Sleep and appetite are fine.

Monday, November 19, 2007

6 Month Long Day and 6 Month Long Time

We all know that at poles, the duration of a day or a night is not like rest of the world. Both the poles, South as well North, do not follow 24-hour cycle. The day continues for 6 long months and so is the night. When I was preparing myself (mentally), I somehow got a notion that the Sun will be at the top of the head and would remain like that for next 4 months, and then would start to descend towards west for its once a year sunset. After coming here I realized what a foolish notion I had. In fact, at Maitri (the Indian station) the sun sets every day in west to rise again from east. We follow GMT here which is five and a half hours behind the IST. At about 6 PM GMT the sun is seen to be setting in the west, and by 7 the sun disappears completely. However, there is no darkness, and for next 8-9 hours the light is like dusk as of 7-7:30 PM in Delhi summer. By about 2 AM, the sun becomes visible again with bright sunshine.

At the exact South Pole area, there is 4-month long night between May and August, and then the sun shines for 4 months during November to February. In between these months, the duration of day and night increases. At the Indian station which is 2500 KM away from the South Pole in north-east, December-January are months of 24 hour long day, and towards end of January the sun sets for the first time but only for 4 minutes. The duration of night then starts increasing by 8 min everyday when in March, the day and night is of 12 hours each. May to July are months of total darkness after which the sun reappears, and it does not rise from the East as we have always known and believed, but rises from the North direction ! The first day is of 4 min only, and then sun sets again in North direction only. By September, the duration of day and night is again of 12-12 hours. Then the length of the day starts increasing, and by November-end, it is 24-hour day.

First Penguin Sighting

Sighted a penguin yesterday, the Adelie species. A loner had come near our station crossing the Priyadarshani lake. It came today also. Penguins are usually sighted in groups, I wonder if it has lost track or has been turned out of the group. In that event it may not survive. T

he lake which freezes during winter, is fast melting now. If you see carefully, the frozen part is shrinking fast, you can almost see a stream flowing. The temp has been ranging from max of plus 1 to minus 7.6, with wind speed of 26. This morning had a guided trip of workshop, and other logistics like generator sets, boilers, storage, deep freezers, cold rooms etc. The food supply is stored between minus 18 to 20 C. Besides scientific work, logistics has equally important role here in providing heat, light, water, toilets, sewage and garbage disposal, kitchen, living arrangements, vehicles, storage, getting supplies from ship or ice-shelf storage which is at about 125 KM away. There is a lot of variety of food. Right now we are getting fresh veg which has come with us. Got some fruits also today: apple and a malta. Juice of all fruits is available in unlimited quantity: all varieties of Real brand. I suspect some members just consume juice and no water. I am not sure if you people are interested in all these details, but just my habit of writing long posts.

Acclimation

Maitri Station, Antarctica: 16.11.2007


This morning I feel more adapted and acclimatized. Yesterday I was feeling quite tied down with the polar suit overall and found it quite cumbersome to get in and out. Since all our rooms and dinning area are well heated, I could not sit there with this gown on and had to get out of it. The thought of going out and before that getting into it would dampen my enthusiasm to go outdoors. Without it I would feel the chill. It is simply a matter of practice since the winterers do not have any problems with it, and I am sure in a day or two I would overcome my resistance to it. I have requested for a two piece polar suit and this morning I have been assured of one this evening. In any case, this morning appears warmer, brighter and sunnier, though it may not be so temperature wise.



Yesterday I had rested for an hour, and then slept quite comfortably last night. The previous night of 14/15 Nov had gone in travel and so sleep had to oblige me. The bathrooms are heated and there is 24-hour hot water supply, and hence taking bath should be no problem, though we have been advised to have bath every 5-6 days. The bathrooms are not attached to our sleeping area, but situated a few steps away. Our rooms are modular rooms with four beds in 2×2 bunkers. I am sharing the room right now with only one person, Dr Casper Johnson. The winterers stay in the main building and enjoy a cubicle each. Their baths and toilets are also in the same building. There is common kitchen and dinning area. For the summer team there is a 24 hour pantry 'Annapurna' stocked with tea, coffee, maltova, bournvita, milk-powder, milkmaid, bread, jam, snacks incl bikaneri bhujia, murukku, chikki, biscuits etc. It has attached recreational room with tv, dvd player, carom and chess etc. We are encouraged to use 'Annapurna', and visit the main building only for lunch, dinner, and breakfast and for some common meetings etc. Right now there are fresh vegetables like brinjals, shimla mirch, beans, onions etc. The ship will bring some more towards Dec/Jan. Last night we had 'palak-matar (frozen), curd (from powder milk) etc. This morning aloo paratha and curd. Everybody is waiting for the day of dosa and utthapam which is by rotation.


The mails are sent and received once a day in the morning. We can make a tele call at any reasonable time of the day. The summer team is allowed 6 min per month, the winterers 20 min. To make calls from here is very expensive, Rs 104 per min as it travels almost 80 thousand KM to reach its destination. It is cheaper to call from India. Members say that it is most economical by the Reliance landline, Rs 15-20 per min.


The ship is bringing all the equipment to establish an Earth-station that will enhance the signal capacity of Maitri station enormously. Telephone calls will be then as convenient and cheaper like making to anywhere in India from NCAOR, Goa. The station then will also be able to receive Indian TV channels. This is likely to become functional by Jan/Feb 2008, and so to enjoy all this I shall have to come here once more next year.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Arrival!

Antarctica Diary (15.11.07)

We all have reached at Maitri station in Antarctica on time safe, sound, and comfortably. There were total of 54 passengers from countries like Norway, Belgium, Russia, Germany, and of course India with the largest contingent of 16 members. The Ilushin 76 came as a disappointment. I was expecting a huge air craft, larger than any of the Airbuses or jumbo jets in which I had traveled. It looked quite small but was much taller. Much of the space is reserved for transporting cargo, the passenger cabin had only 60 seats in rows of 3 by 3. I was allotted seat no. 8-A and was quite happy that I got a window seat. Another disappointment was in store when I found that there were no windows in the aircraft. I was hoping to see Antarctica from the top and see its landing on the frozen blue ice, but in vain. The interior of the aircraft had no trappings of the modern passenger aircraft. You could see the wires hanging around all over. In front of the cabin, there was a screen with laptop and LCD projector on a table. The pre-flight announcements and the usual safety directions were communicated through this only, as there was no public address system. The height of the cabin must have been about 15 feet. The roar of the engine was deafening, much more than other aircraft. Many of my fellow Indian colleagues working in Border Roads Organization had traveled in Ilushin for going to Leh or Siachen. The take off was quite smooth like any other airplane. I was curious to experience its landing on the frozen blue ice. The LCD projector showed us its flight path continuously. We landed at the Novo airbase of the Antarctica at 3:30 hrs GMT. Outside it looked as if the day was breaking, the temp being minus 7 degree C. It took quite a while to offload the luggage, There were no porters, and all the expedition members were offloading with the help of one another and other compatriots who were already camping in Antarctica. There were snowmobils and other specialized transport vehicles. A team of about 10 from Maitri had come to receive us.

We all had changed into polar clothing inside the aircraft. It was quite cumbersome since it was like one piece track suit and I was not used to it. The first impression of the Antarctica : initially, it looked like a huge white ocean with tinge of blue here and there, then it looked like a white sand desert with patches of mirage appearing here and there. Emotionally I am feeling quite relieved having reached here without any hiccups. The feeling of reaching the seventh and the most unique continent of the Earth will gradually sink. On our way to Maitri station (9 KM from the Novo airbase), we sighted our first wild life of Antarctica, a bird called skua. Its arrival is eagerly awaited here since it heralds the onset of summer time, and it was evident at the base where the notice board depicting the important facts and milestones of the 26th Indian Expedition to Antarctica had mentioned the sighting of skua on the 29th October, 2007.

Antartica Diary (12.11.07) - On My Way

ANTARCTICA DIARY : 12.11.07
The last few days in Delhi : were quite anxiety filled with nervousness and apprehensions. I always had this nagging thoughts in my mind that there should be no major flaw in my preparations, esp., what all to pack. Somehow the guidelines from the Centre were not very explicit. I did not wish to carry unnecessarily too many things, but at the same time wanted to ensure that all necessary items were with me. In usual foreign visits, if you forgot something important, you could always buy there by paying some extra money. But one could not buy anything in Antarctica, though we are told the Indian station, Maitri, was well equipped in most of the things. I spent lot of time in researching for camera since I wanted to carry a good and versatile digital SLR camera. After lot of internet search and talking to my friends who are amateur and professional photographers, I zeroed on Canon 400D. I would some day write some tips on buying a camera, but I found the website, http://www.cnet.com very useful.

Two more things preoccupied my mind : Chitra had organized a family dinner on the 4th November on the eve of Deewali (the great Indian festival of lights) and Bhai-dooj (the traditional Indian Sister's day), and as usual, the guest list which was 30 to begin with had swelled to 100. I too had taken up on myself to organize Prof V K Varma's book launch function at Delhi on 6th November, and had requested Dr Karan Singh to release the book. Finally, the Deewali being on the 9th November, just a day before my departure to Goa on the 10th, there were visits to be made, guests and telephone calls to be received, and festival related shopping list to be attended. Fortunately, all things went very satisfactorily with Chitra's detailed planning and efforts.

I left for Goa on the morning of 10th November to join my fellow team-members at the National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean research for briefings and onward journey. For some reason, my most of anxieties and apprehensions disappreared on reaching Goa. Our batch of 16 was flying all the way to Antarctica which was a major event. Normally, the expeditions have taken sea route taking up to 4 weeks. We would reach our Maitri station at Antarctica on the third day after taking South African Airways flight to Cape Town from Mumbai on the early morning of 12th and then taking a chartered flight from Cape Town organized by a company, Antarctic Logistics Centre International (ALCI). This flight would be on IL 76, the well known Russian cargo plane, Ilushin. This flight would cover a total distance of 4200 KM in six hours. Thus it would take a total of 18-20 hours of flying time in contrast to 4 weeks by sea route. This was my first visit to South Africa, though I was returning to African continent second time after having worked in Ethiopia for two years, 1982-84. Though coming to South Africa or Cape Town should be exciting enough for me for a number of historical reasons, however, right now my mind is preoccupied with my onward travel to Antarctica. Some kind of apprehension is there at the back of my mind, and the excitement of visiting a new country or city is just not there. Though briefly, Cape Town looks like any European city with wide roads, cleanliness, lane driving etc. We have had a briefing at the ALCI centre : the weather at the airbase is fine, clear and warm. Last week the temperature at Maitri was recorded at +8 degree C. The flight would leave at 11:30 PM from Cape Town.

Friday, November 9, 2007

What I plan to do in Antarctica for next 4 months

Antarctica is a continent of extreme climatic conditions and isolation. To spend more than a few days under such conditions can prove to be a stressful experience. Different people use different strategies to cope with such a situation. It is extremely important that anyone in this kind of environment develops some healthy and meaningful strategies, and thus avoids boredom and resultant ill effects on physical and mental health. One thus can avoid any escalation in one’s tobacco and alcohol consumption also.

As I have said earlier, I shall be making regular structured assessment of team members’ general and psychological health alongwith assessment of their adaptive and coping behaviour and strategies.

What more I have planned for myself: I am carrying a good stock of books to read and music to listen. Maitri, the Indian station at Antarctica, has its own library stocking a large collection of books, music and movies. I have planned to be more regular with my physical exercises and learn some breathing exercises. The station has a small gym too. I shall also like to learn what kind of projects other scientists are doing, and pick up some scientific jargon to impress others. I shall also like to improve my knowledge and skills of photography. I am carrying still and video cameras and plan to shoot extensively. My photographer friend and producer for a TV channel has advised me to keep some storylines in mind while I am shooting. Such storylines could be: my observations as doctor of others; following their scientific projects and Indian scientific progress; evidence of climatic changes, etc.
And of course, I shall be writing my journal regularly, and try to put it over this blog for you all to know what I am up to. Kushagra will help me in this.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Doing Research in Antarctica


Ever since man has stepped on the shores of Antarctica, it has opened a vast field of research in various scientific disciplines including health. Antarctica has been described to be a natural laboratory for studying the stresses on health and human performances associated with isolation in extreme conditions. Its environment is described as being extreme because survival is impossible for the unprotected and ill-provisioned individual. Its natural environment being dangerous and not easily accessible makes it stressful. However, physical characteristics of the polar-environment are not the strongest stressors that may be encountered by the individuals in Antarctica. Psychological aspects bring about varied kind of difficulties and reactions for people who stay there on short-term or long term basis : prolonged isolation or separation from family and friends; confinement in small groups restricting privacy; and occupation concerning group activities, restricted leisure activities and periods of high work load.



India has made great strides in carrying out significant scientific research in Antarctica covering varied subjects like environment and climate changes, global warming, geological surveys, geomagnetism, snow and avalanches study, oceanography, paleo-botany etc.

Short term study on behavioural aspects of Indian scientists has also been carried out.

What I am proposing to study : I am guiding a longitudinal assessment of general and psychological health, adaptation, cognitive functioning, and pattern of nicotine and alcohol consumption in team members of Indian Scientific Expedition. The particular emphasis of my work would be serial assessment of members who will be staying there for 15 months (wintering). Though I shall return by end of March, 2008, I have elicited cooperation of 2 doctors who would be staying in Antarctica on longterm basis who would continue to assess and record findings periodically.

The results of this study are expected to tell us :


  • if the stress of Antarctic expedition impacts general and psychological health in any significant manner; if the experiences at Antarctic modify adaptive capabilities of expedition members in any positive or negative way;

  • if there is any change in cognitive functioning of individual in extreme climate conditions of Antarctica; if there is any significant change in cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption as a way of coping;

  • if all the above functions are dependent on the changes in duration of day/night during various months of long term stay.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

How to Reach Antarctica?





Traditionally, Indian Scientific Expeditions to Antarctica have been sailing by ship from Goa to reach Antarctica in 3-4 weeks time via Mauritius stopping there for 2-3 days. During its journey it would cross equator and have all the thrills and excitement of a ship cruise. There would be plethora of marine life to see including whales, dolphins, seals etc. The most thrilling, exciting and perhaps anxiety filled time would come when ship enters latitude of 40 degrees south till 55 degrees when it would go rocking and pitching. The ship takes 4-5 days to cross this ‘villainous and roaring forties’, and is very difficult time due to certain risks and severe sea sickness. It is the area of mixing of waters of Indian Ocean and Antarctica. After crossing this, the ship would enter cold water and then the frozen sea with icebergs, ice-sheath, fast ice, packed ice etc.
Lately, the Indian Expeditions have been doing the entire journey partly by air and ship. The team would fly to Johannesburg in South Africa, and then from Cape Town take the ship, saving approx two weeks of journey time. Recently, however, part of the team has been completing the entire journey by air, reaching Antarctica on the third day after starting from Mumbai. I have been included in the batch which would fly all the way to Antarctica. Our team of 14 members would take South African Airlines flight from Mumbai to Johannesburg in the early hours of 12th November, and would take the connecting flight to Cape Town reaching there by afternoon. The distance between Cape Town and Antarctic airbase for our flight would be 4200 KM that we would cover in 6 hours with Russian cargo airplane, Ilyushin 76 which has been designed for taking off from and landing into rough surface. The runway would be of frozen blue ice. The Indian station, Maitri, is 9 KM from the landing site. We would cover this distance by helicopter or snowmobile.

A lot of info on logistics can be gleaned from http://www.alci.info/home.html
The excitement is palpable, it is building up!

Friday, November 2, 2007

Auli - getting in shape for the big white island!


Antarctica….the seventh continent of the earth, is the most unique since it is a frozen continent with no known human habitation. It is ordinarily inaccessible, and conditions are so extreme that survival is impossible for unprepared and unequipped human beings.

I started thinking of Antarctica seriously after my expedition to Kailash-Mansarovar in the summer of 2006. It was Chitra, in fact, who perhaps jokingly asked me what next after Kailash Mansarovar! Antarctica? And then there were others who had visited Antarctica as members of the Indian Scientific Expedition encouraging me to submit a research proposal to the National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research, under the Ministry of Earth Sciences. I proposed to study the longitudinal changes in the general and psychological health of expedition members who stay in Antarctica for short-term (3 months) and long-term (15 months) along with their coping strategies including tobacco and alcohol consumption. After being short-listed, I was called to make a presentation, and to my extreme joy I was informed in August, 2007 to get ready for joining the Pre-Antarctica Induction Training programme of two weeks starting mid-September at Auli in Garhwal Himalayas under the Indo-Tibetan Border Police.

Auli at the height of approx 8,000 feet is a popular centre for winter sports. ITBP has it Mountaineering and Skiing Institute at Auli to train defense personnel in mountaineering, rock climbing and skiing, and conducts rescue operations in the high altitude areas. It does not cater to the civilians with the Antarctic scientific expeditions being the only exception.

I joined a group of 25 young scientists to travel from Delhi to Auli via Hardwar and Joshimath covering a total distance of 500 km more than half of which was uphill drive. I was going to the holy city of Hardwar for the fifth time this year. The beginning was made in April when I went there with Bikash and Dottie. It is ritual with them to visit Hardwar whenever they are in India on short visits from Delaware, US. Dottie often remarks that in last more than 20 years of her association with India, the only city other than Delhi she has visited is Hardwar. Hardwar is the first city in plains where the holiest of the Indian rivers, Ganga, makes it entry after traversing an incredible journey in the mighty Himalayas.
Soon after Hardwar, hills begin and you see Ganga all the way up to Joshimath when the road bifurcates for Badrinath, a holy shrine, and Auli. The journey is incredible with its landscape of mountains, water-falls, pines, oaks and at times providing thrills with hairpin road bends and deep gorges. The Ganga, during this leg of her journey, is joined by its seven major tributaries, and its each such confluence has developed as a holy town.

Auli is the place to see some of the magnificent peaks of this side of Himalaya: the most famous being Nanda Devi. Others are Neel Kantha, Nar, Narayan, and many others. The beauty of Nanda Devi changes as the day progresses. The views at sunrise and sunset are just breathtaking. It is photographer’s delight.

The ITBP instructors did their job of physically training us and giving us theoretical and practical demonstrations on hills and glacier with their customary sincerity and zeal. I have earlier experience ITBP personnel’s devotion and dedication in ample measures during my expedition to Kailash Mansarovar. They not only provided security and helping hand during some difficult treks and while crossing fast flowing river streams, but their presence alone was a big comfort.
I had a great time with young scientists of the group. They represented different fields about which I knew very little. But it was heartening to listen to their animated discussion on subjects like astrophysics, space physics, troposphere, ionosphere, geomagnetism etc. It appeared India’s future was secure in their hands. Some terms sounded familiar, but I was totally dumbfounded by a specialty called Limnology. I had not heard of it before. Want to hazard a guess what it is about? Well, it is the physical, chemical and biological study of water.