Familiarisation trip back in time
December 1, 2013

December 1st, 2013

Saturday is still a working day down here in Antarctica so it was business as usual at Scott Base. I began one of my projects down here and to get a better understanding of the base I am shadowing the engineering team for the next week learning about all of the systems, the type of work they do and the issues they are experiencing. Just before lunch I completed my ‘licence’ to drive the fleet of Toyota workhorses, this consisted of driving down to the ice shelf then driving over the hill to McMurdo and back. All good fun!

Sunday saw my first Fam trip or “familiarisation” trip. These are recreational trips organised by the base for people to get out and about. On my trip we headed out to Cape Evans and Cape Royds and this was exciting for two main reasons: the historic huts which are at both capes and penguins! There is an Adelie penguin colony which sits at Cape Royds right next to Shackletons hut.

We left base at 8.30am all kitted out for the day, travelling in a Hagglund. It takes around an hour to drive round to Cape Evans in the Hagglund but this was broken with a stop halfway to take some photos of the stunning view up to Mount Erebus. The route was over the sea ice the whole way so the Hagglunds are equiped with escape hatches on the roofs in case of a break through! Luckily they can float for while to give you a bit of time to get out!

We carried on straight past Cape Evans as we would stop by on the way back. Along the way out to Royds we had to stop at a couple of cracks in the ice and test to see if we could drive over. This involves drilling holes at intervals perpendicular to the crack in order to measure the width and depth. It was a little disconcerting to see water gushing up through some of the holes only about 300mm below! We found we had to use the bridging timbers which lay over the cracks and allowed the Hagglund to drive over. Cracks aren’t always that obvious as they are covered by snow and ice but the ice is thinner in these areas.

Cape Royds was a highlight of my trip so far! From where you leave the Hagglunds it is only a 100m walk over the hill to Shackletons hut (Nimrod) but it feels like stepping back 100 years in time. The hut has been frozen in time with bedding and food left exactly where it sat and it is astonishing to look around and imagine Shackleton and his party living here. The smell and atmosphere of the hut is mesmerising and it is humbling to think of the hardships endured living for months on end in cramped quarters with no communication with the outside world. 

Next we went to see the Adelie penguins outside and soak in the view of the open ocean and transantarctic mountains. The penguin colony here is an ASPA (Antarctic Specially Protected Area) so you can’t enter without a permit however you can walk around the edge of it and we found a vantage point on top of a small hill with views all around. Watching the penguins jumping into the water from the ice edge was hilarious as they sort of push each other in hesitantly however we soon found the source of this hesitation! Orca whales! In a scene straight out of a David Attenborough documentary a group of Orcas cruised down the coastline popping out of the water right at the ice edge eyeing up the penguins. For such a harsh environment it was a special moment to see so much wildlife in a small area with seals lounging on the ice, skuas circling above and a small group of Emperor penguins also huddled nearby.

But the trip wasn’t over yet! On the way back we stopped off at the face of the Barne Glacier. A spectacular, shear wall of ice rising around 30m above the sea ice and then it was on to Cape Evans. Evans is home to Scott’s hut (Terra Nova) from which he launched his ill fated trip to the pole. This hut is much larger than Shackleton’s and once again I was blown away by the atmosphere of the hut. The sight and smell overload the senses and it’s difficult to take it all in! Piles of whale blubber, 100 year old dead penguins and the skeleton of a dog still chained to a post were some of the more grisly reminders of life at the hut. 

After a short while we were back in Hagglund and off home after a long day. What an incredible day, if I get the chance to go back to the huts I will definitely take it as there is so much to take in! If only history lessons were like this in school!  



Hamish Laing

Hamish Laing

BLAKE Antarctic Ambassador 2013