Tuesday, March 4, 2008

90 Days in Antarctica

(This posting dates to a week back, but could not be made earlier).

Today I complete 90 days in Antarctica staying at the Indian station, Maitri, as summer member of the 27th Indian Antarctic Expedition. Normally, the summer members of the IAE get to spend up to six weeks in Antarctica while another 6-8 weeks are spent on ship transportation. Since I had arrived here by air all the way from India, I have managed a kind of feat along with some of my other colleagues here.

I am trying to reflect how it was or what my mental state was just before departure:

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. 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. One could not buy anything in Antarctica, though Maitri was well equipped in most of the things.

Last few days, before my departure from Delhi on 10 November 2007, were too busy with the festival of Deewali falling on 9th itself. There were too many farewell dinners and Deewali meals.

Sixteen of us flying to Antarctica had assembled at the NCAOR, Goa for briefing and collecting our polar wear. We had reached Cape Town by Mumbai on 12th November to take our flight to Antarctica on the night of 14th November.

The idea of flying directly into Antarctica was exciting enough, but it was also making me nervous. There was no time to acclimatize to the freezing temperatures. From 35 degree C of Delhi temperature I was landing into minus 5 or 10 within a few days.

The flights from Cape Town are operated by Dronning Maud Land Air Network (DROMLAN) to provide air transportation to participating countries of Belgium, Finland, Germany, India, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Russia, Sweden, South Africa and United Kingdom. Cape Town based Antarctica Logistics Cooperation International (ALCI) provides logistics provider under this DROMLAN initiative and operates Ilyushin-76 flights between Cape Town and Novo airbase at the Dronning Maud Land, Antarctica. ALCI also operates feeder flights within Antarctica. Every year ALCI operates its Ilyushin flights between the months of November to February. This summer season it is operating flights ferrying passengers to and fro 28 of whom are Indians.

The Ilyushin parked at the Cape Town airport looked bigger than jumbo jet. It was much taller almost the height of a 2-3 storey high building. The inside of the aircraft was quite disappointing as I have said earlier with cramped seats, closed windows, luggage stored at all the available space, and wires hanging here and there. For viewing outside scene there was an LCD projector with a screen in between passenger area and cockpit. The roar of the engine was deafening and I could not hear any instructions or the security drill. Despite its size the take off of the plane was quite smooth. We all Indians shouted ‘Jai Badri Vishal’ and ‘Jo bole so nihaal’. There were 58 passengers including Swedes, Russians, and Norwegians. Passengers were clicking photographs all the time. I was not too comfortable, not because of any physical discomfort but by all kinds of thoughts and ideas enough to turn a phobic person into a nervous wreck. After crossing the ocean, once the plane entered Antarctic territory, the screen showed ice and ice only continuously for unending miles like an unending ocean. I was welcomed into the cockpit and the pilot was all helpful to explain various navigational instruments and panels which I could not understand much. From a small window there I saw ice and snow only. After flying 4200 km in six and a half hours, the plane started descending. We were told to change into our polar wear which only increased my discomfort. The one piece jerkin made me sweat inside and feel suffocated. The landing on the frozen blue ice was, however, smooth. I must say to my credit that inspite of all my internal anxieties I had not felt sick. Outside at 6 am it was bright sunshine. I was quite scared in getting down through the ladder on to the blue ice tarmac and had put my feet very tentatively. The last thing I wanted here was to slip and break my leg or sacrococcygeal joint, and put again on the plane for return flight. It was windy and cold and some people immediately got busy in photographing themselves with IL as the backdrop. I wanted to get away from the frozen blue ice into the safety of the waiting hall. A team of ten members had come with snow vehicles to take us to our station Maitri. The waiting hall was big, high, and quite spacious where I helped myself with hot coffee and croissant. I did not help in unloading for fear of walking on the ice with a weight on my shoulder. I did not go out again till I was asked to get into the vehicle. I surveyed the airbase carefully only in my next visit when we went there to see off Mr Mervin D’Souza.
The Novolazarevskaya (Novo) airbase consists chiefly of some tents and perhaps some permanent structures. There is a guest house too. I could see the huge IL-76 with its tail open like a big demon opening its mouth to swallow a mountain. On one side a few smaller planes, Antonov-2 (AN-2) and Basler, were parked. At one side, lay the pathetic wreckage of AN-2 broken into two pieces. It was blown last year into the air by a rather severe blizzard and broken. A wind gust of 100 knots builds up enough pressure around such a plane of 5,500 kg making it to fly. Removing the wreckage of such a plane from Antarctica will be a major logistics coup. I walked towards the runaway. As compared to my first visit, I was surer of my movements this time. The runway did not look any different from rest of the area though it was plain with no uneven surface. It must be 2-3 km long marked on either side by black drums dug into ice on either side. Since the area here is wide open with no hills around it, the wind gust was much higher and temperature lower as compared to Maitri. We all had come to see the taking off of an IL-76 and photograph it. Though it is huge, it moved quite smoothly and gracefully. I think it moved for nearly 2 km on the surface to build enough speed to make it airborne. It left behind it a huge pall of snow and ice.

What I have been doing here in last three months I have already narrated in my postings. I have already narrated enough stories on life and experiences of Maitri. Each day has brought new experiences and excitement. I have gained here immensely in terms of human interactions, relationships, and behaviour. This kind of knowledge and insight I could not have obtained from any text book or psychiatric questionnaires. Those stories of Antarctica I will remember most.

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