26 January 2009

Chasing the sun

I made it to McMurdo! Here is a somewhat delayed report on my trip here (I had to pay for internet in New Zealand, and have been tired/busy so far at McMurdo). I actually wrote this post last (my) Friday, but had the "perfect storm" of laptop issues that have interferred with my network access. I have a work-around, but it's definitely less than ideal.

I left Sunday afternoon from Columbus on American Airlines to Dallas-Ft. Worth. The flight was late arriving, and then was delayed more because they had to de-ice the plane since it was snowing. There must have been some wiggle room because it only arrived 15 minutes late, despite us leaving 45 minutes late. It was a nice flight though, I had an exit row seat on the MD-80. Anyways, I had a turnaround of 25 minutes in DFW where I also needed to change terminals. After consulting with a pilot next to me on the best way to get to the next gate, I hustled to their inter-terminal train, and got to the gate during final boarding for my flight to Los Angeles. I figured there’s no way my luggage was going to make it. I had a few hours in LAX, where I had dinner at Chili’s and just walked around to stay loose. The flight from Los Angeles to Auckland on a Qantas 747-400 was packed. It’s the travel season to New Zealand, plus this flight continued on to Melbourne, where the Australian Open is going on, so I’m not sure if that had something to do with it. I got stuck with a middle seat, but next to two not-large ladies. I actually managed to get 3-4 hours sleep on the 12-hour flight, better than usual for me. In between periods of sleep I watched episodes of Family Guy, The Simpsons, M*A*S*H, 2008 British Open golf highlights, and a show about the best Australian Rules Football (footy) Grand Finals on the personal entertainment system.

Upon arriving in Auckland, I cleared immigration, and went to baggage claim. Both of my bags made it! Unbelievable. Thanks go to DFW baggage handlers on that one. New Zealand customs has sniffing dogs, not only for drugs but mainly for food products. They are very strict on what they allow in. The best plan is to throw away any food before, to avoid being questioned when the dog starts pawing at your bag. The dogs are cute looking beagles, or some kind of mix thereof. I wanted to pet one of them but decided against it. I cleared biosecurity, and was set loose in the terminal. After waiting a little while at the domestic transfer desk to re-check my luggage, I found the shower facilities that I read about on the airport website. I went to the florist to check out a shower, rent a towel, and get soap. That shower was glorious. Combined with a total change of clothes, it was so nice to remove the stench and gross feeling of an overnight flight. After that I had a McDonalds breakfast, than made the hike to the domestic terminal. The flight to Christchurch was about an hour, which I had a window seat for. The scenery over the southern portion of the north island is spectacular.

In Christchurch, USAP no longer has meet-and-great, but there was a shuttle waiting for me and some other folks for transport to city hotels. We were soon on our way. I was at the Holiday Inn City Centre. It’s in the midst of the Christchurch CBD retail area. They had a room ready for me at 11:30 AM, which was an improvement over last year. I got settled, then took off for Cathedral Square to get a fish and chips lunch, get a calling card, and check my email. I also filled up my bus pass and got some groceries. I got back to the room at 2:30 PM, and laid down for what I thought would be a brief nap before dinner. Instead, I ended up sleeping until 11:00 PM! At that time, I got undressed and took my contacts out (my eyes were burning), then slept for another 6 hours. Wednesday was great. I started it with a run at the hotel gym while watching the Dukes of Hazzard on TV. Then I had a massive breakfast buffet at the hotel restaurant, taking down three full plates of food and two bowls of cereal. After some quick shopping, I took the bus out to the Antarctic Centre near the airport, where the CDC (clothing distribution center) is. We had a 1:00 PM briefing and clothes fitting there. I also got my laptop screened for USAP compliance. That all got done in just over an hour. After that I stopped at a department store to get a new pair of shorts. The pair I was wearing got a huge ink stain when I was at some point leaning forward with a push-release pen in my pocket. I can’t take myself anywhere. Luckily they were on clearance at the end of the summer retail season. For dinner I had a lamb pasta dish at Sticky Fingers on Oxford Tce, then took a walk through the Christchurch Botanical Gardens. I somehow missed this place last time, but it’s really nice. By the way it was mid-70’s F and sunny, and there are virtually no bugs like there are during summers back home. After that I bought some candy for dessert, and went back to the hotel to pack. After redeeming my free drink coupon for the hotel bar, I went to sleep for the 4:30 AM wake-up call the next morning.

I was the first of the shuttle pickups to go to the CDC. We reported there at 6:30 AM. We all got dressed in our extreme cold weather (ECW) gear, and finalized packing. With the ECW gear, we get two orange duffle bags. One is a carry-on bag, and the other is checked. In addition to that, we can bring as many bags as we want as long as it’s under the 75 lbs limit for summer personnel. So I had the one carry-on bag, two checked bags, an additional checked bag (just a backpack) that was my “boomerang bag.” This is the only of the checked bags returned if the plane turns around (boomerangs) and returns to Christchurch. I put shoes and toiletries in there. Then I had a small bag that I kept at the CDC in Christchurch, mainly with some warm-weather clothing for my return. After getting dressed we walked over to the terminal, where we had our bags weighed and got checked in. There’s a waiting room with old movies that the Navy took during the period where they ran U.S. Antarctic operations.

I spent a decent amount of that time outside enjoying the warm weather while I could. We were delayed briefly (maybe 15 minutes) leaving the Antarctic terminal. They took us on a bus out to the tarmac, where we waited for maybe 15 minutes before they sent us inside to another waiting room while they were working on mechanical issues with the plane. They had a foosball table in there, where I made quick work of an Aussie challenger. That brought me back to church confirmation, where we’d play that before and after class. After about 30 minutes, we walked out to the plane, and about half of the people were onboard before they pulled us off again. Some kind of problem with a new black box they installed apparently. So this time, they said it would be at least an hour, and told us we could walk over to the Antarctic Centre for breakfast (there is a popular tourist attraction at the Antarctic Centre, which includes a small cafĂ©). While many of us were eating, the crew told us to get back to the terminal ASAP. This time it was for real, we boarded the plane and departed.

A few words are in order about the plane. On this trip, I was on a Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF, kiwi) C-130 cargo plane.

This is in stark contrast to the C-17 cargo plane I took back in 2006. I was quite spoiled last time with the C-17. The C-130 has cargo netting for seats, with almost no legroom because you are directly across from someone else. There is little room for any carry on items – unless it’s a small bag, you take a few items you want for the flight with you, and they take your bag to the back of the plane. It’s accessible, but not easily. Bathroom facilities are very limited – I actually held it for almost 12 hours – so I don’t have any comment on the conditions of the toilets. Just like the C-17, it’s loud and they gave us earplugs. They also gave us a bag of food and a water bottle for the trip. The food bag was smaller than last time with the U.S. Air Force, but sufficient. The biggest difference between the two planes besides comfort is the transit time. The C-17 makes the trip in about 4.5 hours, compared to about 7.5 hours with the C-130. The extra three hours in cramped conditions is miserable. I slept for maybe a half hour, otherwise I read a book and otherwise stared at the wall. I lost my old mp3 player on the last flight of my monster trip of 2007, so I had no music. The music they pipe in on the plane’s PA system is not decipherable. The temperature fluctuates wildly, I don’t have a problem with being cold, but when they had the heat cranked up I felt a little sick. It could always be worse though – at least we had a smooth, safe, and direct trip, and there are worse planes (C-141, saffair). Plus the guy directly in front of me bailed to some other part of the plane for most of the trip, so I bought a little extra legroom.

Here's me on the plane, and some fellow passengers yucking it up for me...

Here's some pictures on arrival, and of some wave clouds over the Transantarctic Mountains.

When we arrived at Pegasus Field, we had an hour ride into McMurdo on the delta vehicles. They are big, slow, bumpy all-terrain passenger transport vehicles. They took us to the NSF Chalet, where we had a short briefing and some paperwork to fill out. They gave us room keys and we were set free. It was nice this time that I knew where I was going. Last time I was again alone, but additionally X-tremely disoriented. I got my bed linens, found my room, changed clothes, got dinner (dinner service was over, but they had some plates saved for our flight), took a shower, unpacked, then went to bed. I have a roommate, but he is out at WAIS Divide field camp (according to some paperwork in the room), and I have yet to meet him.

So those are the details on the process of getting here. I’ll post more soon about my time at the base so far.


Rob said...

Good stuff Dan! I look forward to reading more.

peter-usrt said...

I'll never bitch about a flight itinerary ever again....

Aw, heck who am I kidding!

Cooler Brian said...

Way to represent the San Diego Slams! Dut-dut-uh, Slams! Good to hear you made it in one piece, also good to hear that it seems to be going well so far. Looking forward to more updates man!