It’s been a long journey, but Sarah and I are together again and currently exploring New Zealand.
My last day at the Pole was relatively uneventful. I had breakfast, said goodbye to a few folks, took a few last pictures, cleaned my room, and headed for the plane. While we were waiting for the plane to finish off-loading fuel (they fly full to the Pole and use much of the plane’s fuel capacity to help keep tanks at the Pole full), I said my goodbyes to several others who were either wintering over or simply departing after me. Eventually we got the go ahead to board the plane and after a three hour flight, we landed in McMurdo. One of the dumpy and more unfortunate shuttle vehicles was dispatched to take our crew of eleven to the Base from Williams Field, which is on the permanent ice shelf a few miles away. After a reasonably slow and unpleasant ride to the base, we unloaded from the transport and got our room assignments. After dumping my stuff in the room, I headed down the halls to see when we would Bag Drag for our flight to CHC the next morning. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that we wouldn’t Bag Drag until the next evening for a flight the day after the next. When I told my roommates, all of whom had flown in with me from the Pole, about the Bag Drag and delayed flight, they all thought I was joking because it was such bad news.
Once you’ve been to the Pole, you realize what a dump McMurdo is. It’s like a mining town without the mining. The people aren’t very friendly; the food isn’t very good; the base itself is fairly ugly. Spending any more time at McMurdo than absolutely necessary is truly a form of torture for a Polie.
That night we all made some sort of half-hearted plans for the next day. I decided to hike in the morning and in the afternoon.
That done, it was time to call Sarah and tell her the bad news. Originally, I planned on meeting her at the Christchurch airport (CHC) on 05 Jan 07. The flight delay meant that I wouldn’t get to town until the 6th, at the earliest. She decided to book herself a hotel room in town and we arranged a method for meeting once I was in town.
After breakfast the next morning, and another check of the Bag Drag list, I headed out on the Observation Hill loop. It was an incredibly windy hike with 25-30 knot winds, and of course, no shelter. Regardless, the exercise improved my spirits and I took some interesting photos.
On my way back to the dorm, I decided to stop by the MCC to see if I could discover why the C-17 flight off the continent had been delayed. Once I was there, I took another look at the Bag Drag list and discovered that the flight had been delayed for at least another day. In talking with the woman working there, I found out that a part was needed from the States before the C-17 could fly, that the part hadn’t arrived yet, and it might not arrive for two or three more days. But, there was an LC-130 Hercules leaving that evening for a medevac mission and I had been lucky enough to make the initial passenger manifest. They had been trying to find me, but since I’d been out hiking, they hadn’t had any luck. The only stipulation was that I had to Bag Drag, right now. I rushed down the hill, got all my stuff together, and rushed back up the hill to the MCC. If I could get off the barren rock known as McMurdo in five to seven hours, I would do it, even it meant a Herc flight to CHC.
A C-17 flight from CHC to McMurdo or back takes about five hours. A Herc flight takes at least seven and one-half hours. But, it wouldn’t be just me and the medevac on that flight, it would be me, thirty five of my closest friends, the medevac, her nurse, another sick lady, her caretaker, and a handful of Air Force crew members. In short, it was going to be a very intimate seven and one-half hour experience.
I’m going to gloss over some details here for the sake of brevity, but that seven and one-half hour flight beat me up in more ways than the rest of the trip combined. We arrived in CHC at 03:30 on 05 Jan 07. Of course, we then had to be subjected to NZ Customs and passport exams (Why? Your guess is as good as mine.) After that, we walked over to the CDC to doff our ECW gear for the last time. By the time a shuttle dropped me off at my hotel in CHC, it was 04:45. In fact, the night desk clerk was convinced I was trying to check-out of the hotel, because no one checks-in at that hour. After finally getting the message, he asked me, “Was your flight delayed?” The best I could manage was, “In a matter of speaking, yes.”
In the very late morning I got up, found a cup of decent decaf coffee (my first cup of coffee since heading down to the ice), grabbed a scone and a local newspaper, and headed out to Cathedral Square where I ate the scone, drank the coffee, and got a great sunburn on my ears and neck while I watched the people and enjoyed the warmth.
As I sat in the Square and watched the people, one of the differences between the two continents couldn’t have been more starkly defined. Many of the people in the Square clearly gave more thought to personal grooming every day than they did to the Pole. When you’ve been surrounded by the Pole for weeks, it’s night to see so many people with such a trivial set of problems. Anyway, I randomly met up with one of my fellow IceCubers from the flight the night before, and we had a drink before I headed out to the airport to pick-up Sarah. Since she wasn’t expecting to see me at the airport, she was quite surprised when I met her there. After collecting her luggage, we headed back to the hotel where we cleared her reservation, dropped her luggage, and headed out to enjoy the remainder of the afternoon. That night for dinner, we met up with five other IceCubers: two had come in with me the night before and three who were waiting for their flight to the ice to depart. We had drinks, dinner, and drinks while telling stories and sharing laughs.
The next morning we got up late since both of us seemed to need more sleep than usual. Sarah is adjusting to the time change and I’m still bouncing back from my disrupted sleep patterns at the Pole. After a late breakfast we made our way to the Botanical Gardens. I’d visited the Gardens before heading south, but Sarah had never seen them and I wanted her to see some of the truly impressive trees and flowers there.
After strolling around the Gardens for a while, we ate lunch at the Dux de Lux, a local brewpub.
That night we had dinner at Cookin’ with Gas, the restaurant that supposedly has the best food in town. It was good, but was it the best? That’s debatable. Regardless, I got to try some of the more difficult to acquire local brews, so I thought the experience was worth it.
This morning, we decided to live on the edge and pick up the rental car Sarah had reserved before leaving the States. We walked a couple of blocks down the street and got a silverish-blue Toyota Corolla hatchback. After that, it was off to Akaroa.
For those who don’t remember, New Zealand is a drive-on-the-left country. That’s not necessarily easy to quickly get used to. Perhaps the most difficult part is that the turn signal is on the right side of the steering wheel, while the wiper stalk is on the left, where the blinker stalk is located in American cars. As such, whenever we forget about that, and we try to actuate a blinker, one of two possible events takes place. If we’re trying to signal a left, the wipers wipe quickly across the windscreen two or three times before we can correct our error. If we’re trying to signal a right, we get one wipe and then the wipers return to their resting location. I’m fairly certain that local drivers have learned to watch the wipers of other cars to discover the intentions of foreign drivers. It took about 1.25 hours to reach Akaroa, probably 1.5 by the time we stopped at a cheese factory on the way to pick up some cheese. We bought some edam, and some aged cheddar soaking in port wine at Barrys Bay Cheese, along with one of the local Rose wines. We had decided to have a light lunch of cheese, bread, salami, and wine once we reached Akaroa. Akaroa is a small town located in the crater of a volcano that is long inactive. It’s something of a vacation destination for vacationing Kiwis. We picked up a hiking map, some bread, and found a pleasant place to eat our lunch in Akaroa Domain (something of a wild tree garden which overlooks the Akaroa harbor).
After lunch, we visited the local lighthouse and then started on our multi-hour hike up the hills to Heritage Park. The hike was a tough, steady climb, but we did eventually reach the top of the hill where the park was located. The picture at the right is a picture of Sarah with the Maori wind god, Teko Teko.
On our way back down to the car, we stopped at Tree Crop Farm, which was this gorgeous little place on the side of the hill. We had fancy berry drinks and some chocolate and fruit snacks while admiring their extensive and impressive gardens. If you’re in the area, I would recommend a stop.
After that, it was back in the car for a return trip to Christchurch.
It’s hard to overstate the dramatic difference between the landscape New Zealand in the summer and Antarctica. Let me show you two pictures to see if you can see it for yourself. It will most likely be a few days before I post again. We’re heading west across the country tomorrow into smaller towns with few amenities so Internet access may be harder to find.