Camping with penguins and Easter Island, November/December 2011

Antarctica - Base camp to field camp

The flight was pretty much the same as back in 2005. After going to through the airport, we boarded an Iljuschin Il-76 cargo plane that would take us to Antarctica.

Though there were some changes. Most noticeable, there were passenger seats. (In 2005 there were only seats along the sides of the plane.) So it did feel more like a 'normal' flight.

Iljuschin Il-76 interior

And we were not going to Patriot Hills, but to Union Glacier. They had moved the base camp last year, since the new place had potentially better landing conditions and also more options of doing stuff in the vicinity of the camp.

But even with new seating, flying in a cargo plane is still quite unusual, starting with the moment you enter the plane and see a truck.

Truck in plane

The amount of headroom is also surprising - though in case of loss of cabin pressure, you really wouldn't want oxygen masks to drop from the ceiling, for fear of concussions. (Actually, the oxygen masks won't drop from the ceiling, they're in the seat pockets in front of you.)

Cargo plane head room

Generally, emergency features are not quite the same as in other aircrafts. Instead of the usual "each door is equipped with an inflatable slide which may also be detached and used as a life raft", you get an emergency rope for evacuation. (Which, presumably, can't be used as a life raft.)

Emergency rope

Oddly enough, while on many scheduled flights the phrase "Please pay attention to the safety demonstration since this plane might be different from other planes you have flown in." is used (even if it's a bog-standard Boeing or Airbus), it wasn't used here, even though the plane is fairly different from the planes most people know.

Nice differences compared with other planes include the available space (there is lot of room to stand around, walk around or even lie down in) and freshly prepared sandwiches. No pre-packed lunches here. Since there's no restriction on bringing a bread-knife on board, sandwiches are freshly sliced, buttered and topped. And, if you're feeling peckish later during the flight, you can just go and make yourself another one...

And while the view is a bit limited (as it is a cargo plane, the only windows are in the exits), there were enough opportunities to look at the scenery outside.

Coast of Antarctica

After a bit more than four hours of flight, it was time to get ready for landing. When the roar of the engines had stopped (since brakes don't have much effect on ice, braking is mainly done with reverse thrust, which is a bit noisy) the ladder was attached (on normal landings it's not necessary to leave the plane with a rope, fun as it would be) and I was back in Antarctica.

First thing to do was to shuffle slowly off the ice runway and onto snowy ground.

Ilyushin on ice runway Ilyushin on ice runway Ilyushin on ice runway Ilyushin on ice runway

In Patriot Hills most people walked from the runway to the camp. But the Union Glacier base camp is about 8 km from the runway, so transport is provided. There's even a terminal building next to the runway, in case there are delays or if it's a passenger-only flight and more people arrive than can be transported in one go.

Union Glacier Terminal Building Union Glacier transport Union Glacier transport

Base camp looked pretty much liked it looked in Patriot Hills, though it had grown a bit. But there was still the long kitchen/dining/library/meetingroom tent (including Fran, who already had been there half a decade ago) and a similar tent for other guiding companies (mostly for climbers). A number of comfortable clam tents for the tourists and a larger number of less comfortable expedition tents for crew, expedition members and climbers. So, except being larger, it felt familiar.

Since we had left Punta Arenas about midnight, it was now about 4:30 am, so most of the camp was still asleep. We got an early breakfast, our tent assignments and information where the toilets were (which had become much fancier than they used to be in 2005, though I spotted the old ones later - they had been re-assigned as mechanics / flight crew facilities).

Union Glacier early breakfast Union Glacier clam shell distribution

Since 'real' breakfast wasn't until 8:30 or so and the camp was mostly asleep, it seemed a good idea to go to my tent and get some sleep, though it wasn't really worth unpacking the sleeping bag for (or maybe the luggage hadn't been brought in from the 'airport' yet, I don't remember), so I just closed up my clothing, pulled the fur cap down and got some sleep.

Clam tent interior Getting some sleep

After breakfast there was some time to explore the camp. Since it is closer to hills than Patriot Hills used to be, there is more danger of crevasses, so there is a line of flags marking the edge of the safe area that you need to remain in. But the safe area was about 600 by 600 meters, so it didn't feel too restrictive.

And while it could certainly be walked, there was also a container with 'public' skis on the outside, so I could just grab me a pair and shuffle along on these.

Ski hut

Here are some pictures taken while moving around the camp:

Walking around the camp Skiing around the camp Skiing around the camp View from the camp
My clam tent Clam tents My clam tent My clam tent
Camp electricity Snow mover, marked by ice Eric Larsen, polar guide Mountain near camp

In the afternoon there was a tour of the camp, including the usually 'off limits' areas, like the communication, the medical and the mechanics tents.

The weather was nice and sunny, so there was also the chance to relax and ski around the camp in short sleeves. A nice Antarctic day. I was enjoying myself.

Relxaing in the sun Skiing with t-shirt

In the meantime there was also some preparation work going on, like the setting up of our main tent for the penguin trip.

Setting up tent

While we would live in expedition tents, there would be one clam tent (with extension panels in the middle, so it would be a bit larger than the tents we were using in Union Glacier camp) for cooking and eating. So, just to be on the safe side, the tent was set up at Union Glacier camp as a test run and to make sure that all necessary parts were there.

We had a lot of time at the camp, since first all the expeditions and climbers needed to be flown to their destinations, so we would be the last to leave camp. Also, we needed to go in the opposite direction compared to everyone else (heading for the coast instead of the interior), so our flight couldn't be combined with anybody else's.

So some side trips for the next days were planned, among these driving up to some vantage points for some sightseeing and photography and also to drive halfway up to a nearby hill and walk the rest to the top.

Hill close to union glacier Hill close to union glacier

After the usual excellent dinner and some more skiing along the perimeter of the camp, my first day back in Antarctica was over.

Next morning after breakfast there was a meeting and a change of plan was announced.

We probably wouldn't spend the day sightseeing, but would fly to the penguins instead!

Time to pack our gear and get ready. We would be taking the 'Basler' and be going before lunch. ANI has there ski-planes available on the ice, one 'Basler' and two Twin Otters. There is a third Twin Otter on site, but that belongs to the NSF (National Science Foundation) and is not available for tourist flights, except in emergency situations.

At first there was even some talk that the plane and crew would stay with us. Since we were the last flight for a while, it didn't really make sense to have the plane fly back empty and pick us up a couple of days later. But after some 'behind the scenes' discussion, the decision was made that the plane would drop us and fly back.

While a 'Basler' is not well known aircraft name, the look of the plane is familiar.

It looks just like a DC-3.

Basler airplane Basler airplane Basler airplane

There are a couple of those still standing around in Berlin as a memorials to the Berlin Airlift back in 1948/1949.

A 'Basler' is just an old DC-3 with some modifications - such as more powerful engines and modern instrumentation, but basically it's a flying relict. (Though we have been told that probably the only part of the plane that's still an original from 1944 is the registry plate, I assume that most of the hull is original as well.)

I didn't mind that at all!

While flying in a 67 year old plane might seem worrying, after all I had been in a 1943 Boeing Stearman just two months earlier (and was even allowed to take the controls for a while) and also been in a 1939 Tiger Moth and a Stampe SV-4.

And I always wanted to fly in a DC-3 anyway.

There had been a DC-3 doing sightseeing flights in Berlin and I had considered flying in that, but I never got around to doing that and then the plane had a bad landing last year and went out of service.

So, slightly unexpectedly, I got to fly in a DC-3.

Something that I found odd were the 'spoilers' at the skis. They are not there to give the plane any additional lift, but their purpose is to keep the skis horizontal when landing.

DC-3 spoilers

Time for one 'before' picture and then it was time to go. (Though not everyone on the picture was going to be on the flight, some were ground crew.)

In front of DC-3

While it looks a bit crowded on the picture, there was some room in the plane - it's just that most of the gear was close to the front where I was sitting. At the back, where people are standing, there was just empty space.

In the DC-3

Flight weather was good (obviously - otherwise we wouldn't have flown) and I had a window seat, so I could enjoy the scenery.

Antarctic scenery from plane Antarctic scenery from plane Antarctic scenery from plane

Catering was similar to the one on the Iljuschin - freshly made sandwiches.

On-plane catering

However, the safety leaflet was odd from a graphics point of view.

DC-3 Safety

Most of the stuff was standard - use of oxygen masks, brace position, emergency exits. But I was stumped by this graphics.

DC-3 Safety

Obviously, in case of an emergency landing on land or water, you shouldn't leave the plane if there is smoke or fire outside. But what is the first symbol supposed to be? Broken glass? Visually that seems most likely. Though, unless the plane crashes in a glass factory or you fly barefoot, it is unlikely that this is a significant reason for not leaving the plane. Debris and rubble? Not automatically a reason for not leaving the plane and it would probably be drawn differently? So what is that suppose to represent? Origami Art? The Guggenheim Museum? An icebreaker breaking through sea ice? A bunch of sharks? I still don't know what is supposed to be, but at least it gave me something to wonder about.

Although looking out of the window was more interesting in the long run.

Antarctic landscape Antarctic landscape

And then there was what we came for.

Emperor Penguin colony from above

While it may just look like some smudges on the ice, these were the Emperor Penguin colonies we came for.

The plane circled the area to look for a good landing place.

Penguins crossing the ice

First of all, a long stretch of even ice was needed. There also shouldn't be any obvious breaks in the ice cover. And it shouldn't be too close to the penguin colonies to avoid disturbing them. But it shouldn't be too far either, since we would have to walk the distance a couple of days. And, as a bonus, it would be nice if it was at some interesting site.

There were to icebergs enclosed by the ice, about one or two kilometers away from the penguins, which seemed like a great place for a camp.

So the plane made one fly-over, did another circle and touched down. It slowed down and was about to stop when it sharply turned to the left (I was assuming the pilot was pulling the plane over to some parking position.) And then the engines roared up, the plane accelerated and we were airborne again.

We flew another circle, where I took a picture of the landing track.

Not a smooth landing

I didn't notice it at the time, but we had hit a soft spot in the snow and the landing skis had sunk in, so the pilot had aborted the landing and did a go-around.

The second landing attempt was successful and we got out to see our first Emperor Penguin on the ice.

Emperor Penguin welcome committee Emperor Penguin welcome committee

And some "Yeah, we made it!" pictures.

Happy in front of DC-3 Tourists in front of DC-3

Then it was time to set up the tents.

Setting up camp My tent

While we were busy building our 'homes away from home', a couple of penguins came sliding over from the main colony to see what we were doing.

Penguins coming over for a visit

So the tent-building was sometimes interrupted by some photographic activities.

Photographing penguins Photogenic penguin Photographing penguins

In the meantime, the flight-crew and the guides were doing a more substantial building project: The 'restroom'.

Setting up the restroom Setting up the restroom Setting up the restroom Restroom

The toilet itself was fairly 'normal' (it can be seen at the right side of the middle picture above), with a proper toilet seat on a wooden box with a garbage bag inside, using it unprotected out on the ice, especially on a windy day, might have been uncomfortable, so a snow wall was built for wind protection and to provide some privacy.

There was also a signalling pole set up. The idea was that anyone using the facility would carry the pole with them and put them in the snow pile nearby to show that the place was in use. That never really worked, since most people forgot to take the signalling pole back, so the place seemed eternally 'occupied'. Leaving the pole near the 'snow castle' and just raising or lowering it was a slight improvement, but in the end it mostly came down to shouting 'Is there anybody in there?'.

Signal pole

In the meantime, the flight crew had been looking at the plane. I didn't really take much notice of this, but I was surprised when I took pictures of the camp that the crew had set up their own tents. Since my last update was that they wouldn't stay with us, but fly back, this was odd, but maybe the plan had changed again.

Crew looking at plane Crew looking at plane Tents in front of plane

There's an old proverb (about a century old by now) "Any landing you can walk away from is a good one, and one that leaves the aircraft still operable is a great one." According to this, we just had a good landing.

When we hit the soft spot in the snow and the landing gear sank in, the wings that keep the skis horizontal were deformed.

Deformed landing gear Deformed landing gear Deformed landing gear Deformed landing gear

Just 'hammering them back in shape' was an option that none of the crew liked (they prefer to leave emergency repairs for real emergencies where there are no other options) and flying with an unrepaired plane would have been even worse.

Luckily (well, that's inappropriate, since the real reason is foresight and good planning), replacement parts were stored at Union Glacier, so all that was needed was a plane flying them out to us. But that wouldn't happen soon, so the flight crew was stuck here with us.

So, to put it in sensationalistic terms "I was on a plane that crash landed in Antarctica!". More realistically, I didn't even notice that the plane had been damaged on landing until hours later.

In the meantime more penguins had arrived and were checking out the camp.

Looking at photos of the penguins, there is a strong temptation to anthropomorphize and add subtitles the pictures.

Like this:

Penguin camp inspectors
Camp grounds inspectors on patrol

Penguin security
Penguin bouncers providing perimeter security

Penguin obout to steal plane
Nobody seems to be looking, so I'll just jump onboard and fly away...

But that gets dull pretty quickly (and I can't think of hundreds of by-lines), so I will do that only sparingly. But something about penguin images really makes it tempting to comment them.

In the meantime more and more penguins had been arriving at the campsite.

Penguin close to plane

Basically, these were bored teenagers.

Emperor Penguins start breeding when they are about three years old, so younger penguins just hang around with the penguin colonies (because, essentially, there is nothing else around), but don't actually need to stay there (since they don't need to feed their young ones or relieve their partners). So if there is anything at all going on somewhere, they are most likely to go and have a look.

Penguins at camp Penguins at camp Penguins at camp Penguins at camp
Penguins at camp Penguins at camp Penguins at camp Penguins at camp

In the meantime it had become early evening (though this was really only noticeable by looking at the watch - there was no really obvious difference in the brightness of the sun) and Jolande (Yolanda ? Didn't catch the name properly) had been preparing dinner. Usually she's part of the staff at Union Glacier Camp, but since we were the last of the current groups to leave the camp, there wasn't that much to do back there, so she decided to visit the penguins with us. She also spoke Russian (I think she was from Latvia, but I am not sure), so she also came in useful in translating for the Russian couple (though it wasn't really needed).

Dinner at field camp

The 'community tent' was surprisingly comfortable. I had expected 'camp seating (and dining)', with just some camping mattresses to sit on, but, beside the cooking area, there were two camping tables with chairs, so meals were very civilized.

Then it was time to go out and visit the penguin colonies.

Supposedly, the best time for penguin pictures is between 10 pm and 2 am, since the light is not quite as harsh as during the day and there play of light and shadow is better.

So right after dinner was a good time to go to the penguins anyway.

And, in addition to that, the weather was fine.

It's always fine on the first day, so everyone wanted to make use of that, since the weather might change and the next days might be cloudy or even bring snow storms. The latter would be photographically nice, but having a few (or a lot) of nice weather pictures would be good as well.

(Always having nice weather of the first day has little to do with luck or coincidence. It's just cause and effect. The flight to the penguin colony will only happen if the weather forecast and (as far as this can be determined remotely) the current local weather is good, so you only get there if it is good weather, so when you get there, it will be a nice and sunny day.)

Time to walk over and see the penguin colony up close.

Onwards to the penguin colony

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