Guest Blog by Dr Abhijeet Bhatia - An ENT surgeon and a wintering member of the 27th Indian Antarctic Expedition. Dr Bhatia has his own blog at http://www.natureinbliss.blogspot.com/
ABANDONED IN THE WHITE DESERT
This is what wintering has been all about till now. The process of our physical isolation from the civilized world has been a very gradual one. But it is now total and absolute. It began when the previous winter team left Maitri on 14 February 2008. The next day the ship, M V Emerald Sea, left with the summer team. That marked the official beginning of our wintering. The last of the ALCI flights left on 12th March which means no more flights of IL-76 till November, 2008.
The next few days were very gloomy for everyone in the station. But soon Life became routine and we carried on with our jobs. The next to desert us were the skuas. They migrated to warmer lands beyond the Antarctic on 17th April. The Russians' ship came to deliver their supplies and pick up their old winter team on the 24th April. The final blow was dealt by the departure of the snow petrels in 1st week of May. By then the ocean had also frozen over completely. So now there are no flights to Antarctica and the sea route is also closed for the winters. The 26 of us are left to face the long Antarctic winters, with no help possible from the civilized world even in the most pressing of circumstances. Now, even the Sun has deserted us. The polar night began on 20th May. We bade the Sun a Final goodbye on 19th May at around 11:30 AM, staring at it and taking Photographs as the red globe went down to make a face presentation only after two months.
WEATHERING THE COLDEST CONTINENT
We are having the first good blizzard in end-May as I am writing this piece. So far we hadn't had any good blizzard in March or April which did delay our convoys and made the plying of snow vehicles on the moraine quite a difficult proposition. It was only due to the Herculean efforts of the logistics team in repairing the route at minus 18 degrees C that convoys could be undertaken to bring essential supplies from the stores located 120 km away in the coastal area. Visibility is reduced to just an arm's length with wind speeds reaching 200 kmph, snowfall is horizontal instead of vertical and hits you like a thousand needles. On going out all we see is a white wall. Any movement outside is with the help of guide ropes as people still have to go to the labs and the generators even during the blizzard. We may be holding a person's hand but we are Not able to see him. I kept a Christmas tree outside and it was covered with snow in a few hours. There is a strange mix of thrill and fear. All the stations life support systems are strained to their limits. There is a blanket of Snow all around. The summer camp living accommodation is now under snow. It Will be exposed only in November when the snow melts. Around the station, The snow reaches upto the windows. Soon, it will go above the windows. The Generator complex requires repeated snow clearing to enable them to keep working.
WINTERING IN THE MOST ISOLATED CONTINENT
Let me tell something about the routine life at Maitri. After our wintering began, we had some major tasks at hand. They took a few months to complete. The station was organized as per our requirements. A lot of major and minor repairs were undertaken including cleaning. The hospital block was shifted. The new toilet block was constructed. That is one of the biggest achievements of our expedition; it was long overdue. The logistics for the convoy were being worked out side by side. All these activities required extensive, back- breaking shramdaan - voluntary labour. Then the convoys began. The new supplies were to be taken out of the containers brought by the convoy and arranged in their appropriate place. So some activities have been organised to keep all in good humour. These include hobby classes, sports competitions and TV shows like Ramayana in the afternoon. Most of the conversation in the station revolves around nature and a longing to go back to India. Things like sun, blizzard, temperature, weather, clouds, snow, moon, stars, auroras, lake, birds etc are a regular part of our vocabulary. This is very different from India, where we hardly used to talk about nature. Life at Maitri is very comfortable with 24 hours running hot and cold Water, uninterrupted power supply, and central heating (all unlike Delhi), entertainment facilities, and lot of choice to pamper our gustatory habits.
Life in a small, closed community can lead to increased irritability and occasional frayed tempers. There is a certain degree of gloom in the station that is a regular feature in Antarctica at the onset of winters, more so during the polar nights. Spending long austral winter and polar nights in Antarctica can bring out best in a person; however, some people will have tough time in coping with this. The darkness, the isolation, the confinement, the loneliness- all may put a huge strain on the mind and the spirit of vulnerable and unprepared individuals. Some can bear it, others break down. I am sure that by the time we return home, we will be more evolved as human beings- patient and strong. This will be an experience that we will carry within ourselves for the rest of our lives.