On the Ilyushin again, direction Cape Town, after more than two UNFORGETTABLE weeks of working on the Antarctic. We just took off after some engine problems, due to the cold… hope it will hold since they didn’t manage to put back all the screws. Same thing in Utsteinen, were we couldn’t have full access to internet during the last days, due to satellite problems, and only short messages could be sent via the iridium satellite phones. But that’s all part of the Antarctic I guess, in fact, it’s amazing how luxurious life has become on the Antarctic, with hot water and rooms, toilets, and plenty of food to our supply, at least if you like undressing and sleeping in tents at -20 °C and waking up several times during the night due to the condense on your sleeping bag and to use the same cloths for more than a week. You realize how cold it was in your tent when you want to wash your face in the morning and you notice that your washing towel has turned into concrete. But it seems that the cold and the outside life we have endured made us less smelly or at least we were less sensitive to it. People say that we will only realize our decreased hygienic habits when people will stay far away from us on arrival in Cape Town.
So what happened during the last two weeks, not easy to start with something, because every day brought so many new impressions. Every evening we took a look at the Japanese maps of the area and decided which area we wanted to explore the day after and depending of the weather and the people that could guide us, we left with skidoos after breakfast for a daytrip to some lakes in the neighborhood. Our first guide was René, a French mountaineer from Chamonix, who joined us to some nunataks to the West from Utsteinen. We first explored the Pingvinane nunataks, were we had to climb down in a windscoop using crampons. We followed a quit steep slope downwards on blue ice and René teached us the way how to do this (frogstyle). I must admit it was quite scary in the beginning, especially with all the gear on our backs (I compare it like the first steep slope you had to go down while learning skiing), but what a reveal afterwards when you feel proud that you did it, it gave us a lot of confidence. René was excited with our drilling activities in our search for water, especially when it sprouted again from the hole in the ice and we could cool down with a nice cold cup of water. We gave this lake his name (Lac du René), but later he wanted to give his name to a much bigger lake we went to the next day. The weather was not so good and the visibility decreased fast so we had to go back to base camp in a hurry which was not an easy task during this partial ‘wipe out’. I took the lead with the first skidoo and had to concentrate on the old track (only 1 meter visibility) during the blizzard while Steve on the duo seat was checking the direction with his GPS. It is very strange to drive blindness but we all could return to base camp relatively easily. A new line of tents was added to the camp, 6 Japanese geologists from the JARE (Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition), on their way back home and waiting for flights to Novo for themselves and 6 tons of stones they collected. Amazing how international life is out here, it seemed that it was the 50th Japanese expedition on a row in this area and we had a chat with them about our works and the area. It seemed they had noticed a nice spot with yellow and black colored water ponds and many lichens and mosses around and they offered us to join them two days later to this place at the beginning of the dry valley, a one hour drive south from base camp. So, we left in a convoy of about 12 skidoos, the Japanese taking pictures and filming like crazy, but unfortunally, everything was frozen and covered in snow when we arrived on the spot. The area was a breeding site for Snow Petrel and we found many dead chicks, it seemed a feast for hungry Skua’s, cause here and there we saw the traces in the snow of feeding Skua’s. The Snow Petrel chicks that were still alive were so cute in their grey down feathers, a pity that many will not survive either, because it was already late in the season and the weather became too cold and snowy. I was fortunate to spot an adult bird between the stones and I could photograph it easily. What a beautiful bird it is, completely white apart from the black eyes, beak and foot. It is a magnificent view when you see the white silhouettes of these lovely birds against the azure skies, while flying above the mountains. The Japanese could find back the ponds and in a small valley, the snow around some frozen melt water ponds was covered with a red-brownish color and I was very excited because it looked completely like diatom mats. We called this valley already diatom valley, but during the climb up in this valley towards a very steep ridge, I noticed some spots with the same color on the tip of frozen melt water stalactites, and I became a bit skeptical, a feeling proven right in the laboratory when microscopy revealed no diatoms at all. Probably the color was due to minerals or specific bacteria. On Sunday, a free day in the base camp, we practiced some alpinism on the Utsteinen nunatak, when we climbed to the summit under the leadership of two experienced guides, Benoit and Jean. The rocks were wonderful shaped by the wind in many different forms and the last part of the climb we had to split up in two groups of three and everybody was connected with ropes. The view from the summit was again spectacular and the ULM from the artist project was flying in between the two summits with René taking pictures from us and the Belgian station downstairs. In the afternoon we hiked in the windscoop around the nunatak, again a very spectacular view when you walk aside the gigantic and heavily sculptured ice walls.
The next week we did some fieldwork in the Vengen area, again West from base camp, where the moraines where huge and numerous, when you walked around in them, it really feels like being on a different planet. It looked like as if giants had thrown away all different kind of stones in all directions. Some huge and completely different colored boulders had even find a final resting place on the ridges or on steep slopes from the mountains behind the moraines, amazing that they didn’t came down yet. It is crazy when you think about the forces of nature that created these places and you feel very small when you are in between these landscapes. What really is so crazy about Antarctica is the silence, something you cannot experience anymore in the Western world. I cannot describe the happiness and peace you feel when you work alone sometimes, only surrounded by rocks, mountains, ice and snow, not a single sound or trace from humans, a clear sky without the combustion lines of airplanes, only the lonely silhouette of Skuas and Snow Petrels... sometimes than you can hear the ice ‘speaking’ and these sudden cracks remind you that these ice layers are in fact moving. I must say that these natural sounds give the whole situation a pre-human atmosphere, a great feeling to experience. At those moments without any stress, far away from the modern rat race of our societies, I realize again how incredibly lucky we are to may enjoy this. And the best has yet to come. That’s another thing that is so amazing about Antarctica, every day you encounter great places and atmospheres and you think it can’t go any better, but the next day you experience again new, even more mind blowing landscapes, it’s just a carrousel of emotions we experience here. So, the cherry on the cake was our 3 day trip to the Brattnipane mountains, about 50 km North of the station. This time we would be isolated from the shelter and luxury of the base camp, at least we would encounter the real Antarctic. And indeed, it started already with the gear we had to wear along the way with the skidoos. We had to wear an extra survival suit, a helmet and ropes in case one of us would end up in a crevasse. We really felt a bit like F16 pilots ready for an important mission. We left with two skidoos and a Prinoo, a combination of a tank and a bulldozer, connected to a small container where we could cook meals and warm up a bit. Two guides, Benoit and Alain, joined us and along the way Benoit gave us a training about what to do when one of us went down in a crevasse. By the evening we installed our tent camp at an old Japanese base camp on the edge of a huge moraine in front of again a magnificent landscape of mountains and valleys with in front of it only an ice sheet up to the horizon towards the coast. The days shortened already so in company of the moon we could explore a bit the nearby area and were again astonished by the forces of nature. The mixture of rocks, huge boulders in all kind of shapes and colors, gravel, ice and snow in the huge valley in front of the mountains we could see on top of the moraines, looked like an old battlefield were giants and gods had fought there last battle over ruling the world before mankind. We walked around overwhelmed and silently only telling each other that this was again the most amazing place we ever went to. On the way back we jumped into the piles of powdery snow like little children and Cyrille cracked through the ice up to his chest and since he was stuck and was struggling to get out, but as a result went deeper, we couldn’t stop laughing with him until our belly’s hurt from shaking. Luckily for him there was no water underneath so no real danger at all. When we finally get in our tents and the upcoming wind started to shake the tent vigorously, we felt a bit like the real explores from the old times, surviving in harsh conditions in the middle of nowhere on the edge of the world. And indeed the conditions here were quite different from Utsteinen, with katablastic winds constantly blowing at high speed, spreading the powdery snow abroad which decreased the visibility and the temperature strongly, not easy at all to work efficiently. Also the lakes that were indicated on the Japanese maps were not recognizable at all in this landscape but still we managed to find water under the ice at three places before the drill and our multi-meter finally gave up. Also not a single trace of life out there, not surprising with the very harsh conditions. The last day we went far away into the valley towards the mountains and after a rather steep climb and a long search could find the first traces of life, a few mites and endolithic algae (algae that live protected in cracks of big rocks). Closer to the camp we decided to give it a last try to look for springtails and at the very last moment before leaving back to base camp in Utsteinen we could find them, which made Cyrille again happy as a baby.
The last days of our expedition, we helped a bit with the preparations for the inauguration of the Princess Elizabeth Station, which means cleaning up the area, putting up new tents for the guests, helping the cooks with the installation of the new kitchen… and preparing a powerpoint slide show for the guests about all the scientific work done this year at the station. The station was transformed into such a beautiful place, what a wonderful experience and a big contrast again with our exploratory work in the field. Again it was enjoyment every single minute and be happy to work in this place and to be part of the official inauguration. The party in the evening was great, to drink champagne and Blonde Leffe on the Antarctic, again a big contrast and an amazing feeling…The day after we had organized a fieldtrip to the nearby lake with the ministers and other VIP’s to explain them and let themselves experience what we had done the last weeks. Cyrille let them search for springtails and mites and Steve and I let them drill a hole and drink from the upcoming water and Annick showed them some algae under the microscope. We also received much attention from the press, which made our glad and let us feel useful, a feeling not always easy to get working in science. And then, in the afternoon, came the luggage packing and the preparing of our trip homewards, the say farewells and good byes, and on our way to the airstrip, looking for a last time to Utsteinen nunatak and the station, we start to realize that this amazing trip was coming to an end. And while we are coming back to the ‘civilized world’, we know that although our bodies are not there anymore, this wonderful place will be forever in our heart and mind, it’s great to have experienced this pristine world and let us all hope it will be saved forever like it is for the future and the next generations as a sign of peace and a baken of hope for a better and sustainable world for all.
Jeroen Van Wichelen