Tide Cracks and Sastrugi Excerpt

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Chapter 4 : JOURNALIST ON TRACKS

So what is a tractor train? Well, ours was comprised of

  • Able, a powerful, yet ungainly looking piece of South Polar travel officially known as a Sno-Cat. A 400 horsepower beast mount­ed on four tracked pontoons. It had been one of the main vehicles Sir Vivian Fuchs used in the crossing of Antarctica in 1957-58. It pulled a wannigan, kinda like a plywood box mini house trailer on sleds as well as two sledges loaded with equipment for the new winter-over base.
  • Next, the NZARP D4 Caterpillar bulldozer, pulling two sledges loaded with drums of fuel and a hefty empty fuel storage tank on skids.
  • Two Ferguson farm tractors each pulling a rubber-tyred trailer followed those two strong beasts. Specially equipped with tracks, they were later models to the veterans of the Ross Sea to South Pole leg of the Fuchs Trans Antarctic Expedition a decade earlier. The world was astounded that these vehicles, quite at home on a New Zea­land dairy farm, had successfully made the journey from Scott Base to the Pole to meet up with the team crossing the continent from the Weddell Sea. Good grief, a “Fergie” was one of the first vehicles I learned to drive back in the farm days of my youth.
Our tractor train set to leave Scott Base with the pressure ridges behind
Our tractor train set to leave Scott Base with the pressure ridges behind

Our destination was the Wright Dry Valley where it meets the Wright Lower Glacier some 70 miles northwest from Scott Base. The dry valley re­gion includes the Taylor, and Victoria Valleys and together they represent one of the most waterless places on earth. Scott and his men first took note of the barren desert in 1903, and he sent a team including Canadian Charles “Silas” Wright there for a greater look during 1910-12

The Scott polar tent we called home during the tractor train traverse.
The Scott polar tent we called home during the tractor train traverse.

expedition. Shackle-ton also worked in the area during his 1909 expedition. Nothing much hap­pened after that until the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58. That is when a couple of Victoria University

(New Zealand) geology students Barrie McKelvey and Peter Webb badgered their way south and with a mixture of perseverance and good luck began probing the secrets of the Victoria Valley complex. It became a life work.

Our job included locating a safe and suitable route off the Wilson Pied­mont, an extensive icefield bordering the coastline and connecting several glaciers, including our target of the Wright Lower Glacier. Once on the val­ley floor we’d dump our loads at the foot of the glacier, drive out and head back to base. Wheeled vehicles and tractors would haul the materials west­ward 20 miles up the valley to the shores of Lake Vanda, a scientific jewel I the heart of the dry valleys. The goal of our expedition year was to complete a winter-over base near the shores of the lake, adding to the facilities estab­lished in previous years to house summer field parties.

Oops, Able finds a crevasse high up above the Wilson Piedmont Glacier.
Oops, Able finds a crevasse high up above the Wilson Piedmont Glacier.

The dry valleys form the edge of the Antarctic continent at this point between the sea and the Polar Plateau. We’d be on the ice…that covered the sea … and we’d be driving big heavy equipment on it. I heard at the Waiouru orientation that it was not known how difficult the traverse would be but the expectation then had been to head out on October 24 with completion by October 29.

Countdown for departure started in earnest on October 22. Departure had already been impacted by Hugh’s escapade in the tide crack as well as locating and assembling supplies as sledges and trailers were loaded and ve­hicles readied for the epic trip.

I spent the morning with an ice gathering party for the melters and help­ing Hugh with the D4 clear snow from around the ablution block. It was a really cold morning and I froze a bit, with a bad case of frost nip to my fin­gers. Thawing those little lumps of dead white really, really hurt. I went into the washbasins and soaked them in lukewarm water. My fingers prickled and tingled for some time until feeling and warmth returned. Under the guise of getting organized, I cleaned out my desk after lunch to stay busy and shush my anxiety. We were ready to go, but the weather packed in and we stayed. Luckily, there was a party that night for our guest, the top brass of the Roy­al New Zealand Air Force, Air Vice Marshall C.A.Turner (New Plymouth Boys’ High School old boy).

DAY 1

Base Engineer Allan Guard of Fairlie at the wheel of a Massey Ferguson tractor at Scott Base Antarctica, 1968.
Base Engineer Allan Guard of Fairlie at the wheel of a Massey Ferguson tractor at Scott Base Antarctica, 1968.

Billed as the last of the Antarctic tractor trains, we spent a good hour or so in the evening hours being farewelled for the historic journey. Cameras clicked as we gathered near the hangar and enjoyed a few cans of Leopard beer in hearty convivial Scott Base spirit. At 9 pm, Bill Lucy, our leader, fired up the Sno-Cat and with a steady rumble from its big engine led the train out, following the McMurdo ice road towards the ice runway before we swung to the north. We were on our way. While I was thrilled to be part of this traverse into the unknown, I could not help but wonder when I would be back at base and when or how the mail piling up on my desk with each plane arrival would ever get done. The trip would be three to five days. I had no idea at all what I was in for so I tried to think in terms of storylines and pictures for the media back home and how that might be accomplished. I’d written up a story that the tractor train had begun its journey and I’d sent it out on the telegraph earlier in the day. Without knowing how the story had been featured I could only guess at how to keep the story alive. I didn’t have a clue as to when my next dispatch could be made or even how. It was now Friday night. I could take pictures along the way and wrap it all up in a good feature length article when I got back Monday or Tuesday. The challenge of the journey had not sunk in.

It didn’t take long to realize it was going to be cold. And I mean cold. Noel Wilson was up in Able’s cab with Bill as our giant vehicle clattered across the ice. The only place for me was stretched out on a pile of supplies loaded in the back. Hugh followed in the D4 with its enclosed cab, Alan (Sam) Magee was next on a Fergie with Allan Guard bringing up the rear on his Fergie, patriotically flying his homemade “Fairlie— Gateway to the MacKenzie” flag. The tractors were open with windshields providing mini­mal shelter for the driver and no protection from the drift being thrown up by the tracks. Our train was strung out over about a quarter mile.

The back of Able was more like the back of a meat freezer. Lying there I was not generating any body heat and just got colder and colder, despite my cozy down clothing. I could not sit up and I couldn’t see anything out the rear window. It was tough to lie there and try and see something of our journey through the front windscreen. Conversation with the guys up front was out because of the engine noise and clanking tracks. A rugby field shout worked but was punctuated by too many ehs, missed thats and wha-a-ats.

The tractor train crew (standing) Bill Lucy, Hugh Clarke, Noel Wilson, Alan Magee (front) Allan Guard, Graeme Connell.
The tractor train crew (standing) Bill Lucy, Hugh Clarke, Noel Wilson, Alan Magee (front) Allan Guard, Graeme Connell.

I had my thoughts to keep me company especially thoughts of the home front. I’d telephoned Lois before leaving and happily, she sounded in great spirits. I wasn’t in a position tell her what day I’d be back at base, maybe Monday, maybe Tuesday. I’d expressed some of my concerns and reser­vations about the whole assignment to Lois in our pre-departure phone calls.

“You’ll do a good job very well as you are conscientious and versatile,” Lois had written in her first letter to me at Scott Base. “It will be terrific for you and for me in a funny kind of way.”

I knew that she and the girls were in good hands with her gardening, friends and family and a determination to learn to drive. She’d admitted to me she

was worried about overkill and really just wanted to be at home with the girls. But she knew she had to stay busy. I was certainly a very fortunate man.

Lying in the back of Able, I also worried about my Canon camera, as I’d dropped it when I was leaving the hangar. Would it still function? I wouldn’t know the answer to that until I got back and processed the film. There was no option but to shoot away and trust that the camera was robust enough to withstand the knock. I was so glad I had spent our last remaining dollars in Christchurch on a small stiff sided leather camera bag. It afforded an extra layer of protection for my gear and film supplies. I’d hummed and hahed over the purchase as the money should really have been sent back home to Lois to pay a few bills. I’d even promised her I would do that. Even though I was feeling a bit guilty, I knew the decision had been a good one now I knew the conditions I’d generally be working under.

We’d been encouraged to get personal cameras winterized to keep them from freezing. I think some of the guys had gone to this trouble but my cam­era advisors suggested that with proper care I’d be o.k. Lying there I devel­oped my own cold weather strategy to avoid any danger from condensation when coming in from the freezing cold to the warmth of the buildings. The bag was a big help with this and I allowed the camera to gradually come to room temperature. This often meant leaving the camera in the bag on the floor of the sledge room or similar unheated or low heated area of the base to acclimatise before taking it to my office or darkroom. In the field I kept it away from all sources of heat.

The Sno-Cat rumbled along at about 10 miles an hour, with the wannigan and two supply sledges sliding along in tow. About an hour into the journey we stopped to wait for the D4 and the tractors. Allan had spark plug trouble with his Fergie and he (embarrassingly, the base engineer) had to borrow tools from some nearby Americans. His toolbox was aboard the Sno-Cat and as we’d not really talked about how the journey would proceed, Allan had expected all the vehicles to travel close together for safety and not get spaced miles apart.

This stop allowed time to make up a brew of soup in the wannigan before we pushed on to a US science research seal but that provided convenient hos­telry for the night. At 1.30 am, it made for easy camping. We’d covered 20 miles since leaving base. Mmmm, only 60 or so miles to go! The seal but was nothing more than a yellow painted plywood shack with a great hole in the floor over an equally great hole in the ice to provide access for divers to the sea and whatever science guys wanted to get into or out of the murky depths below. The hole was covered with a loose plywood sheet. Mmmmm, fasci­nating. I’d be sleeping on that! Ice and ocean just inches away!

“How long does it take to freeze if you fall in? ” I asked lightheartedly of no-one in particular.

“Oh, it’s not that P-R-0; you’d last a few minutes,” Bill replied. “The trick is finding the hole again when you come up for air because the current carries you away! I reckon you’d drown before you froze.” There were big chuckles all round at Bill’s very matter-of-fact response.

With a seasoned explorer’s confidence, I unpacked and rolled out my bedroll for the first time, quietly watching the others to learn the bedtime skills of being in the field. Then I realized four of us were in this for the first time. My toes were frozen. I took my socks off and stared at the numb white lumps attached to the ends of my feet. Wiggling them and rubbing them, I painfully thawed them out. Owww! They hurt as life spread into them. It was something I was a bit used to as I always ended up with numb toes and hands after a long training workout at the swimming pool. Before long I was snug in my heavy down sleeping bag, comfortable and warm and dreamily joined in an unholy, unharmonious first night snoring chorus.