“Attention South Pole, skier one-five has checked pole three, estimated time of arrival is 12pm.”
That was only 25 minutes away. I tried to finish my lunch quickly, but then had a hard time convincing myself to get up from the table and finish packing my stuff. I was having my last cup of tea with the people who had become my family over the past 3 months. Finally, I got up. As I left the galley I heard, “Attention South Pole, skier one-five is on deck, all outgoing passengers please report to the flight deck.”
Crap, the plane was here. I ran to science, threw my bags together, and pulled on all my ECW gear over my shorts and t-shirt. I wandered out the door to find a crowd of people already lined up at the “passenger terminal,” which is basically just a sign next to a small walkway over the fuel line which says, “ATTN outbound PAX! Do not proceed to the aircraft unless accompanied by a fuels agent!” A fuels agent came over and checked my name off a list she was holding.
We stood around in the -40 weather for 20 minutes while they sucked fuel off the plane to power the station for the winter, and then we were waved forward by the fuels agent. I hugged everyone goodbye, and then boarded the LC-130 with John, Brad, and about 35 other polies. I found a seat between Brad and Al, put my earplugs in, and then promptly passed out. I woke up to find that we were only 15 minutes from McMurdo. As the plane descended, I noticed that the air began to feel thicker and very moist.
When we stepped off the plane, it was very warm. However, none of us could identify this temperature. Was is 10F? 40F? None of us could tell. All we knew was that it was a hell of a lot warmer than we’d felt in months. Later, someone told me it was 32F, 72 degrees warmer than it had been when we left pole. In the distance, we could see the trans-antarctic range. After 3 months of flat, white, barren nothingness it was gorgeous.
Soon, a bus-load of people from McMurdo showed up. They would be riding back to Christchurch with us on the C-17. A strange feeling came over me. I didn’t even know these people, and for some reason I hated them. I didn’t want them to come anywhere near me. The air guardsmen seemed to have noticed this feeling among the polies, and ushered us onto the plane before the McMurdo folks got off the bus. Apparently 3 months of isolation will cause you to hate people. (I’d like to point out that I sat next to some McMurdo people on the plane. They were perfectly nice once I got used to them.)
After the plane took off, I popped my earplugs in again, and proceeded to pass out for another 3 hours in my seat by the wall. When I woke up I was really stiff in weird places from leaning sideways, so I took a stroll around the plane. Everyone had started shedding their ECW in anticipation of arriving in Christchurch, so I stripped down to my shorts and t-shirt too.
They opened the doors when we landed and the first thing I noticed was the smell. I could smell the dirt outside. After going through customs we had a short walk over to the CDC, during which I could smell every tree, flower, and drop of gas on the asphalt that we passed. Also, it was dark out. My brain was going into some sort of sensory overload.
After checking into the bed and breakfast, Brad and I went out to Baileys (a bar in Christchurch). Within the hour the place was packed with polies who had just gotten off the ice, and everyone was having beer and pizza. I had no idea how good a beer on tap could taste. It was the best beer I’ve ever had.
Eventually Brad and I stumbled back to the Devon, stopping to smell every flower along the way, and pausing in the middle of the road when the clouds cleared enough that we could see 1 star, where I passed out in a huge soft bed in a spacious room with solid walls. This morning, I ate some delicious apricots for breakfast, took a shower that lasted more than 2 minutes, and then took a nap in the sunshine on the grass in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens (and got sunburned). Tonight, I met a crew of polies at a vegetarian restaurant and had delicious vegetarian Indian food. After a beer at the Dux, we headed over to a concert/show in the park in Christchurch (the NZ equivalent of the 4th of July is tomorrow). At the end, the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra played the William Tell Overture and they set off fireworks in time to the music. I just couldn’t stop smiling. I haven’t seen anything explode in months.
Tomorrow I start on a 2-week epic hiking adventure in NZ. There is nothing like 3 months of barren wasteland to make you appreciate life.