Antarctica Travel Emperor Penguins

Return From the Bottom of the World

Flying back to White Fields, I keep up a barrage of comments, jokes and queries to help prevent Max nodding off. This time, with following winds, it only takes him just over two hours to reach it and we touch down gently and smoothly. Fortunately no ski wobble occurred this time. We follow exactly the same procedures as the first time; we whip out the tarpaulin to cover the engine, drag over a large fuel drum and Max breaks open the frozen cap with his chisel. Then he connects the fuel rod and climbs on top of the Cessna and inserts the rod that feeds into the fuel tanks whilst Ian and I pump furiously away transferring the fuel across. It’s hot and hectic work but I can still feel the acute bitterness of the cold and can see it’s also becoming much mistier.

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After one tank is filled Max starts to fill the second but stops us after a short while. He tells us he is nervous about the worsening weather and wants to move off as quickly as possible. He thinks we have enough fuel to get us to Patriot Hills and now time is of the essence. He fastens the tank cap, throws down the fuelling rod and it snakes across the ice with a life of its own. I gather it up, roll it together, unclip it from the drum and help him stow it in the bottom compartment. After fastening the broken cap as best we can the three of us push and drag the half-empty drum back to where the others are still standing, almost like Easter Island sentinels. They are also waiting for visitors from the skies. This is not the time to philosophise, at least outwardly, but I can’t help thinking about those that have come here before me and those yet to come. What really brings people to this uninhabited and far flung outpost of emptiness? What do they think of it and do they stare, as I do, at this vast white field which will always be, no matter whether anyone visits or not?

There’s no more time to ponder about such questions, let alone come up with any answers. Max is in a great hurry and urges me to speed up, we must take off immediately. I pull the huge tarpaulin off the engine whilst he climbs in and turns it over. Fortunately with a sudden roar it instantly catches and starts revving with a healthy vibrancy. I quickly bundle the tarpaulin on top of the rod in the hold and fasten the two catches to close the flapped cover. Ian is already on board and I rush to climb in. Straightaway Max starts the plane moving down the almost invisible, almost flat, tiny runway. I am still scrambling to fix my straps and put on my cans when Max lifts the Cessna upwards and we are flying into the wide blue yonder. Only another 500 km and we’ll have made it. I turn round to check on Ian and he is either asleep or giving a very good impression of it. I’m pretty sleepy myself so how very tired must Max be feeling?

I start an incessant chattering and surprisingly Max seems to enjoy the banter and even laughs out loud at my jokes. The mist has cleared and it is completely clear, we can see for many kilometres in all directions. The sky is azure blue with just tiny drifting cloud formations dotted haphazardly across the mountain tops. We are three men in a plane, a tiny Cessna aircraft, alone, flying somewhere within this incredible, vast continent. I peer down at the endless tracts of ice wilderness for any signs of other life but of course there aren’t any. Apart from the few intrepid explorers and travellers who trek to reach their special goals, the scientists who research for occasional periods, the support teams and staff, this is a remote place, devoid of permanent human life.

Max again checks into the BBC World Service on the hour, now 2 a.m. The news is as sombre as always; Libya executes six people for treason, the President of Peru condemns the terrorist activity in his country, a bomb explosion in an Arab office in Washington; the Singapore ruling party wins with an overwhelming majority in elections with strike protests. It seems there is only bad or serious news, nothing to uplift a person’s spirits. Then I think of myself here in Antarctica and my spirit immediately soars. Everyone should have the once in a lifetime chance to experience this solitude and emptiness that is like no other. The playwright, Samuel Beckett said, ‘Nothing is more real than nothing. I think Beckett and Franz Kafka both understood the Zen concept of nothingness.

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