14000 miles

14000 miles

I’m writing this blog from the noisy (the earplugs provided by the US Air Force (USAF) are no luxury) but otherwise quite comfortable belly of a USAF-C17 (Picture 1), on the way from spring-like Christchurch (New Zealand) to frosty McMurdo, Antarctica.

This is the last of four flights (totaling almost 14000 miles) it took to get from Boston (which I left on Friday September 25th) to our final destination, which we reach in 5 hours (on September 30th).  The sling seats on a C17 (Picture 2), are not quite as cushy as the Airbus 380 exit seat I finagled on the 17-hour flight from Dallas to Sydney (Picture 3) but there is plenty of legroom, the USAF crew is (not surprisingly) professional and courteous (even taking our picture in the cockpit (Picture 4), and the lunch packs we were handed on the way onto the plane are yummy (well, at least to my palate).  Unfortunately, my “non-”noise cancelling headphones won’t do me any good, so my plan of watching a couple movies on the laptop is “iced”.

It’s been quite the journey to get to this point.  As mentioned in my first blog, acquiring funding and preparing for our deployment took years.  The last couple of days have been a whirlwind.  My 3-leg, 43-hour travel from Boston to Christchurch included a 10-hour layover in Sydney, giving me the opportunity to briefly visit this beautiful city, including the Opera House (Picture 5), the Harbor, and Queen Victoria Building.  I didn’t find a kangaroo or a koala but definitely worth the visit!

Arriving in Christchurch International Airport was a bit peculiar.  Great care is taken by customs to assure no “alien” species (plants, bugs etc.) travel with incoming passengers.  A friendly-looking but highly trained beagle was on duty to sniff out any contraband (e.g. the chicken nuggets one of the younger passenger stashed in his carry-on, which led to some intense beagle tail wagging).  Once through immigration and customs, a welcoming representative from the US Antarctic program (USAP) showed us to the right shuttle that would take me to what was supposed to be a 2-night stay in a Christchurch hotel.  At the hotel, I was greeted by my co-PI Allyson (who kindly left me some of the nice New Zealand wine she had with her dinner).

Day 1 in Christchurch (September 28th): after a well-deserved and refreshing 7 hours of sleep, we were whisked to the USAP clothing distribution Center (CDC) located across from the International Antarctic Center where we received our initial safety briefing, flu shots (I already had mine at MGH), and where our laptops were screened and approved for use of the USAP network.  Next, we were issued our “extreme cold weather” or ECW gear, including the famous red Canada Goose down parka (aka “Big Red”), snow coveralls, and very warm boots (sadly, white bunny boots in my size were not available (Picture 6).  My gear seemed to fit quite well (not much room for error, I double checked…twice).  After reorganizing my checked luggage, preparing a “boomerang bag” (containing enough personal items for a few extra nights in Christchurch; should the flight need to be aborted and return, e.g. due to unexpected weather, when only the boomerang back would be unloaded), and confirming that my checked luggage did not exceed the 85lbs weight limit (I came in at 20lbs under, so plenty of room on the return trip for souvenirs and gifts! :D), we were given the afternoon off to see the sights.  These included the botanical garden in full bloom (it is spring south of the equator), the Canterbury Museum (where I discovered that I at least have the nose of an explorer, Picture 7), and the city center of Christchurch that is still very much recovering from the devastating 2011 earthquake.  We called it an early night as we were expected to be back at the CDC for final briefing at 6am and to fly out at 9am.

Day 2 in Christchurch (September 29th) 4:15am: phone call from the hotel reception: our flight was delayed for (at least) a day; oh, and also we had to check out by 10am.  Apparently, the weather in McMurdo had taken a turn for the worse and landing would not be safe (or even possible); and our hotel was fully booked.  So, we were given an extra day to explore the Christchurch area.  Allyson proposed to rent a car and drive (on the left side of the road) to Akaroa, a historic French and British settlement on the edge of a beautiful bay, with a pit-stop at Birdling’s flat pebble beach (Picture 8).  After a very nice afternoon in “the Shire” (Picture 9, how can I talk about New Zealand without adding at least one Lord of the Rings reference – didn’t spot any Hobbits though, or Orcs), we were relieved to find a room waiting for us in a Christchurch airport hotel. Following dinner in Hell pizza (“Order or Die”, we ordered…), we retuned to our room to find confirmation that we were again expected to be at the CDC at 6am.  So alarm clocks were set!

Day 3 in Christchurch (September 30th) 5am: phone call from the hotel reception (oh no!): our 6am reporting time to the CDC was pushed back to 10am.  Good.  After all the travel and exploring, I could use the extra sleep.  By 10am, the CDC was buzzing.  Approximately 120 of us are deploying today, mostly Americans but also a group of Kiwi’s (a nickname the New Zealanders wear with pride).   We are required to wear (or at least carry-on) much of the ECW gear we were issued to the plane.  I assume this is to make sure everyone brings these most vital items to the ice, and in case of an emergency landing this far south, a warm coat, boots, mittens and hat may come in handy too.  One last briefing (mostly about how to make sure we preserve the pristine Antarctic environment and avoid federal charges by polluting/disturbing wild-life), one last weigh-in and screening of our luggage, and we can board.  McMurdo ETA T-5 hours! Science is cool!

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Manu