Friday, 8 August 2014

Some station life

Living in a small community on an Antarctic station involves quite a few extra community duties and there is one particular job on station that polarises expeditioners.

'Slushy' as it is known consists of being a kitchen hand to the chef for a day. It is arranged on a rotating roster which includes 19 people and is for every day of the week bar the Sabbath day (Sunday) so it comes around fairly often. It involves doing dishes, restocking anything consumable, rubbish runs, looking after the salad bar, cleaning and arranging the dining area and if you are feeling particularly adventurous, you can help prepare and cook some meals.

Milking the 'Cow'

Breakfast Bar and Calorie Corner

Needs regular restocking

The 'Mess', got a pretty good view too...

It is a pretty full-on days work, always on your feet and washing an endless train of pots, pans and whisks. Many, many whisks. Despite the thousands of whisks, I find it a welcome change to the noisy workshop or cold and wind outside, I also enjoy helping prepare food and partaking in a bit of cooking if the chance comes up.

Pancakes for Smoko...

Pizza for Dinner!

As I mentioned previously we are currently a 'skeleton crew' of 20 people. Over summer this number swells greatly due to science and infrastructure programs and with all the extra people comes the need for extra accommodation.

Prepare for an acronym barrage...

Typically during summer, there can be 95+ people so the wintering team and a few select summering personnel reside in the SMQ (Sleeping and Medical Quarters) which is joined to the LQ (Living Quarters) via a convenient link-way which I will cover here soon. Majority of summering expeds call SAM (Summer Accommodation Module) or TAD (Temporary Accommodation Davis) home. If we have a great influx, OPS (Operations) also has dorm rooms set up.

SAM and TAD are cleverly constructed from insulated shipping containers and have all the creature comforts of home and are only a short walk to the LQ.

Introducing SAM the Summer Accommodation Module:

This is the largest of the extra accommodation here and comes quite well equipped!




As mentioned before SAM is constructed from insulated shipping containers and has conveniently colour coded hallways, not implying that summering personnel need simple colours to locate their rooms or anything...

Typical 'Donga' in SAM

Next up is TAD (Temporary Accommodation Davis)

It is a bit more utilitarian than SAM but still comes quite well equipped!

TAD Donga

TAD Bathroom

*Disclaimer: All these photos were taken early in the winter hence the blinding daylight and lack of snow. The place looks substantially different now...

Saturday, 19 July 2014

This is why I cant have nice things...

Some of you may have seen the video I made the other week of the engine change in the MPH. During filming for this I had a whoopsie and dropped my camera, my valuable Nikon D800E (both in monetary value and scarcity (I cant run down to the local Stallard's and replace it)), with my extravagant 14-24mm f/2.8 Nikkor lens. From the top of a 7ft high cabinet. Onto a ceramic tile floor.

Warped baseplate

My first thought was "there goes a few $$'s" quickly followed by "what will I do for the rest of the winter without a camera!"

Bit of a 'hump' in the lens ring (down the bottom)

I picked up the 2kgs of magnesium, glass and unrepairable circuitry from its final resting place and was surprised at the initial lack of damage. The battery door had broken off, along with the internal battery clip. I put the battery back in and surprisingly it turned on straight away. I tried a few test shots and found it to be business as usual. Dodged a rocket there.

Broken battery clip (The door reattached fine)

This experience has had me contemplating carrying around a camera that is quite expensive on a regular basis. Some may think the risk of damage is too high. Through all this mulling over, I have come to the conclusion that spending a small fortune on camera gear and damaging it while using is far less of a waste than having the same gear sitting in your room and collecting dust because of the fear of breaking it. Or maybe I am just justifying my purchase??

Still good as new!


Just to prove the camera still works, we headed out on a Jolly last Friday night to Watts hut to explore the freshwater lakes in the area. Myself and Adam had a few ideas for some experimental photography which involved drilling holes in the glass-like ice and sliding in powerful lights to light up the frozen lakes from the inside out. Although the darkness of the night was reduced by a moon doing sun impersonations I think it turned out ok...

"Everybody look at da moon"

We had a LED aircraft landing light. It was actually classified as a Class 2 UV product so we couldn't look directly at the light itself and it seemed the cameras struggled too.

Even though it was incredibly bright, the red colour didn't penetrate the ice very well.

Then we tried a 24v rotating machinery beacon. Although due to the exposure the light looks solid, it was actually spinning around which was creating quite a 'trippy' effect. If there was going to be anyway of signalling aliens, this would be it...

But most successful was Adams 'lightsaber'. Simply 12v LED strips attached to a length of conduit. The clear, white light penetrated the ice amazingly and really bought out the blue of the fresh water!

The team.

Needless to say, we have got some even bigger ideas planned for next time! Stay tuned...

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Here comes the sun..

So it has been some time since my last blog and I think I know why...

Its not like there has been nothing to write about and things are far from stagnating here but motivation seems to be occasionally lacking for particular jobs and I can only put it down to one thing, the Sun!

As Davis is so far south we actually have one month, one week and one day (38 days) where the sun fails to clear the horizon. Although we still get a 'twilight' in the middle of the day with incredible 360 deg coloured skies, I haven't seen the sun itself since the 2nd of July at 1406hrs.

Rob, Myself and Adam having a beer and patiently waiting for the sun 

Lately our twilight has been increasing as the supposed magical moment of the suns return on the 10th June at 1342hrs approaches (yes, its past that date but it has been cloudy and we still haven't seen that glowing orb) but the attitude on station has become 'chirpier' for lack of a better word. Things never got terrible during the darkness here, which can happen some years but you could sense a distinct lack of energy in the group. This got me thinking, we do take Vitamin D supplements to try to negate the effects of living in darkness and artificial light but maybe we as humans are in some respect partially solar powered and that could be why we as a species have never properly settled in areas which go for days without seeing the sun? To the outsider looking in your first thought could be its due to the extreme temperatures (we are hovering around -30c at the moment) but you can protect yourself from the cold. We have comfortable accommodation and workshops, our clothing is fantastically suited to this environment but nothing we have can combat living in 24hr darkness. I find it isn't the cold, lack of vegetation or winds that are unnatural about being here, it is the time living without a sun.

Nope! No sun today, maybe tomorrow!...

Midwinter is a big celebration for people on the Antarctic continent, sub-Antarctic islands and some ex-expeditioners back in the 'real world' and is an important time to do crazy things and embrace the lightlessness. This year, we have done such things as building an outdoor heated water vessel (outdoor spas are against AAD policy)

Our heated water vessel (NOT a Spa!)

We cut a hole in the sea ice out the front of station and went swimming in -2c water (I didn't swim this year as I was being stubborn by not agreeing with all the extra rules and politics surrounding the swim at the moment)

Mmmm! Looks inviting!

Sarah testing the water

The Swim Team!

Some of us shaved our heads and wore dresses (as you do) and we ate to excess (Crayfish toasted sandwiches for breakfast anyone?)

Would you receive a Midwinters gift off these two lovely lasses?

On the work front, we recently had one of our powerhouse engines start haemorrhaging oil from numerous orifices and since it was knocking on the door of its '40,000 Hour' swap out, we decided to do it early and get a nice rebuilt engine in there to take its place. This is a big job at the best of times and in the middle of winter comes with even more challenges. I decided to try filming some video and time-lapse of the job and have uploaded it for everyone. I wanted to practice some video stuff with my camera so I done an intro of me walking up to the powerhouse, it gives everyone back home an idea of a typical 'commute' between the buildings here. Hope you enjoy!

Friday, 6 June 2014

Way up Woop Woop

During the summer months, Davis generally has a large air program due to the science that is conducted on station. Most years there are two Squirrel helicopters with the occasional Sikorsky S-76 and we also have some fixed-wing aircraft for deep field work and transport between the other Australian stations, Casey and Mawson.

Obviously the fixed-wing aircraft need runways. Toward the end of winter and early in the summer there is a runway made on the sea ice out the front of station, when the sea ice is still in good condition. Early to mid summer the ice rots directly out from station so the skiway is moved further north to Plough Island where the ice is locked in by islands. When Plough starts to rot, a skiway up on the Plateau (Antarctic ice cap) is constructed which can be used until the start of winter. The Plateau skiway is a considerable distance from station (40kms as the Skua flies) so is affectionately known as 'Woop Woop'.

Making all these skiways requires a lot of machinery and because the plateau skiway is the last to be built, all the equipment is 'stranded' up there until the sea and fjord ice is thick enough for vehicle travel again.

The Australian Antarctic Divisions policy on ice thickness for travel is as follows:
Foot: 200mm+
Quad: 400mm+
Hägglunds etc: 600mm+

We had finally received ice readings in excess of 600mm from other reccie parties and as Diesos, we began planning to venture up onto the ice cap and retrieve all the equipment for servicing and repairs in the comfort and safety of the station.

Our team of four (Craig - Dieso, Adam - Sparky, Paul - Chippy/BSS and myself) departed station on Monday 02/06 at 0800 in the trusty Blue Hägg under a spectacular display of the Aurora Australia or 'Southern Lights'. Things had started beautifully.

Not too much traffic on the roads

Ferrari of the Antarctic: A Hägglunds

Inside the old Hägg

We made excellent progress dodging grounded icebergs along the fresh sea ice and skirted up around Bandits hut and Barrier Island (mentioned in my last post). We made it to the edge of the Vestfolds and were awestruck at the looming sight of the Antarctic Plateau.

A break before the ascent

The climb begins

The ice cap is one of those things that is hard to describe. I can still remember first laying eyes on it, from the bridge of our supply ship, the Aurora Australis. It looked like a low, thick cloud in the distance but in actual fact is pure ice with a light dusting of snow. It is incredibly steep and directly in front of us rises about 50m per kilometre for as far as the eye can see.

We began our ascent into nothingness, imagine a steep, white desert with no features. One thing we did notice was the dramatic drop in temperature as we were climbing. More on that soon...

Nothing as far as the eye can see

Eventually we arrived at Woop Woop and were greeted with lots of snowed in equipment and excruciating cold.

This will take some work...

Ice crystals inside a container

First on the agenda was to fire up the Diesel 'UFO' generator and try to get some heat into the 'Sprunky Van', our cozy accommodation and invaluable source of heat and warmth for our trip.

Our Cozy accommodation

We used an electric heater powered by the generator to defrost and pre-heat the gas heater so we could get some heat into Sprunky. I had bought two methods of recording the temperatures during our trip. One was a Fluke IR temperature reader with thermocouple cord which proceeded to read 'out-of-range' whenever I tried to use it. After checking the manual to see why it could be failing I noticed that it only read down to -40deg! Undeterred, I removed my trusty Suunto Core hiking watch and placed it outside to see if that could give me a proper reading. After leaving it outside for a few minutes I retrieved it to find the screen completely blank and unreadable, I had to warm the watch up and reset it before it became useful again, even a watch made for hiking/skiing/camping couldn't handle the cold. This was only the beginning of our cold induced troubles... We could only estimate the temperatures and I would put money on it being constantly around -45deg.

Even the inside of the hut, which we could get sitting around 20deg (yep, POSITIVE 20deg) would still develop frost on anything that wasn't insulated and could conduct to the outside!

Inside Sprunky

Working outside in these temps is challenging. Any batteries are reluctant to hold charge and produce power, oils become thick and syrupy, plastic and rubber refuses to flex and just breaks and then to top it all off any piece of exposed skin is liable to freeze. Even removing gloves for less than a minute can generate great pain and a risk of frost bite/nip.

Gurney Bird

The G-Bird showing off the latest in eyelash extensions

The Kernel

Myself, posing

 The main goal of coming all the way up here was to retrieve the equipment. Equipment that was well and truly reluctant to start. First we would dig the snow from outside, around and inside the vehicles, then try to warm them up by any means possible. Usually this meant attaching a small 2kw generator to a engine block, battery or hydraulic heater. Yes, sounds simple but after using a 240v heat gun driven by our trusty UFO to warm a 2kw gennie so it would run, then allow us to run the same 240v heat gun off the recently started 2kw generator to start the next 2kw machine it all became a bit monotonous. Once the engines were warm, we could attach the jumper leads and attempt to crank over the engines. Remember how I mentioned that plastic and rubber would crack and split before bending? We would have to take the jumper leads into the hut to warm them, then arrange them in the rough position needed before racing them outside for them to freeze rock solid in that position again. It was hard work.

A bad Häbit?

Inside the Hägg

There is a Skidoo here somewhere

The BR350 Groomer waiting it's turn

 Eventually, after two solid days of working outside in -45deg we had everything packed up and ready for the long journey home.

Ice Cap, Plateau, Woop Woop, Hagglund
Heading home

We had achieved everything that we set out to do and done it all safely which is a huge credit to the team we had. Great job Adam, Craig and Paul, couldn't have done it without you guys!

Coincidently while we were up at Woop Woop, we saw the last sunrise. Davis is far enough south that the sun refuses to rise for around 6 weeks starting from 03/06. We are now officially 'in the dark' down here. A positive of this is we can get Auroras nearly all day now! and Woop Woop proved to be a pretty good spot for viewing the southern lights... 

Aurora Australis, Aurora, Southern Lights
Stunning Aurora

This shot didn't come without its dramas though, I intended to use a 240v adaptor for my camera and take a time-lapse of the sky since I had never before seen an Aurora moving this fast but due to the cold the cables proceeded to crumble apart in my hands, I had to resort to taking shots on the internal battery until that too, decided it was too cold.

Till next time...