Christchurch, Gateway to the Ice

Christchurch, New Zealand, is our last stop before getting to the Antarctic (“the ice”, as those who go there call it). We are spending a minimum of a couple of days here to ensure anyone or anything (checked bags) that got delayed on the way still has enough margin to catch the flight to McMurdo.

This is an opportunity to get a tiny glimpse of New Zealand. Although we are staying at an airport hotel, I went downtown with a few others from our group, a 40-min ride using the hotel’s free bicycles. In 2011, a strong earthquake hit Christchurch. The downtown area, which rests on soft ground, was most heavily damaged, and the death toll was above 100. The result is that the town seems to comprise 1/3 brand new buildings, 1/3 temporary-looking constructs, and 1/3 older edifices half-destroyed and supported by shipping containers. All streets were redone beautifully, in such a way that I got a weird vibe of 21st-century hip artsy development amidst a disaster relief area. Ultimately, if no further destruction occurs in the next few decades, Christchurch might become famed for being a snapshot of architecture in the 2010s.

Our short stay is also an opportunity to get briefed for our flight and equipped for our stay at the airport’s Antarctic terminal. The briefing videos warned us right away: Your are about to travel to Antarctica. Your natural and societal environments are about to change. Radically.” We were explained how to avoid disturbing the continent’s environment. For example, there is a sophisticated recycling system. All trash from all of McMurdo’s 850 or so temporary residents is reused or shipped back from Antarctica. In short: Be a steward of this extraordinary place. This stewardship is your present to those who will follow“, wise words that I wish would translate into action everywhere else on the planet.

The logistics of our flight are complex. We are flying on a C-130 Hercules, a relatively small and slow military plane. Each passenger can bring a carry-on bag and up to 85 lbs / 39 kg of checked luggage (mine is 26 lbs / 12 kg). One of the checked bags is called a “boomerang bag”, which will be returned to us if it turns out that we can’t make it to McMurdo and remain stuck in Christchurch. That happens pretty often: even after the flight has left New Zealand, conditions in McMurdo’s ice runway can become unsuitable for landing and the plane has to turn back. Given that the flight is 8 hours one way sitting in fishnets, that’s not great news. “Luckily” for us, the C-130 can’t carry enough fuel for a round-trip. A weather call will be made in the morning to decide whether to fly at all. If we take off, the crew will make another weather call 4 hours into the flight. Past that point, we’re committed to landing in McMurdo, no matter the conditions there.

We’re also not sure if everyone will be able to make it on the flight: the expectation is that for typical passenger and luggage weight, the plane will fit about 37 or 38 people. Less weight means more people, more weight means less will fly tomorrow. Everything is always up in the air (no pun intended), and apparently that’s one of the things we have to get used to when working in the Antarctic.

During the flight and when we deplane at McMurdo, we’ll have to wear our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear. This means we got to try it on today to make sure everything fits. We were each given two orange bags with a parka, snow pants, fleece jacket, fleece pants, wind jacket, mitts, gloves, glove liners, snow goggles, snow “bunny” boots, winter hat, bataclava, and a neck gaiter. We need to be ready for any temperature between -40ºF/C and +40ºF/5ºC, so the key is layering. Putting everything on was fun but felt like being in a sauna. Meanwhile, my computer was being scanned for viruses, a prerequisite to allow connection to McMurdo’s internet. Understandably, they don’t want it to go down because of a newcomer’s infected computer. I was scanned for viruses too: a nurse took my temperature, and will do so again tomorrow before boarding.

With all these potential caveats, we’ll be lucky to make it according to plan! Our flight is scheduled at 2 pm (changed twice today from 10 am, then 1 pm), which means we should arrive by 10 pm New Zealand time. If all goes well, the next post will be from the white continent.

Hover over the pictures for captions.



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