“Near disaster averted, and Goal achieved!”

Monday must rank as one of the most roller-coaster and challenging days in my career (running a tie with the day last year I missed my flight from Germany to Italy for a recital). Arose early to prepare for helicopter departure to Mawson Station. We were all ready to go on the helideck and I was just arranging for the harp to be carried down from the bridge when we received the news that all flights had been cancelled due to high winds and expected blizzard conditions. The voyage leader was also concerned that should weather get worse there would be too many people to get out of Mawson quickly before the ship would need to leave. So I had a very tense day in the knowledge that I had got so close but there was only a small chance I might actually ever get to Mawson at all. But late afternoon I was told winds had eased and I was scheduled to go out on the evening flight and return the next morning. Joy! – I was shaking so much with the relief I had to sit down in the ‘departure lounge’ to do a patience card game to get calm enough to walk to my cabin, repack for 1 day instead of 5, and try and have a nap. The harp was carried down from the heated bridge to a small sheltered alcove near the freezing helideck, where I was able to try and get it acclimatised to temp. -15C outside. The helicopter ride itself was spectacular – over 70kms of sea ice at sunset, with the beautiful mountains surrounding Mawson looming closer. The harp only just fitted into the helicopter passenger area (an S76 for machine buffs) and ended up half on the laps of the Korean film crew in the back, who were very charming about it. My heart was in my mouth when we arrived, as the wind was VERY cold, and the harp needed to be taken from the helipad by ute to the ‘Red Shed’. Once there I let it acclimatise in the ‘cold porch’ while I quickly unpacked and set up my electro-acoustic gear and the video and sound recording equipment. Without Rolf the very sweet and helpful incoming Met officer, I am not sure if I would have managed it all – one output on my Camac wasn’t working so I had to forgo the general output amplification and work with 3. The harp seemed fine apart from that, which was a relief. Just had time to tune and slip into evening gown, and ready to play at 11:15 pm, having had no warm up, not even a scale, all day! It was supposedly the last night at the Mawson Bar for the remaining Mawson Winterers (a few being already on ship) and they held the official changeover ceremony while I was getting organised. It was unfortunately dark outside already, but I was assured the morning would bring a beautiful view from the windows, so I arranged to do a repeat performance for early risers at about 5am. Just time to download and check my video recording, sleep for 2 hours and start all over again! But the view was indeed worth it, and it was beautiful to play in such a spectacular and special scene.

As I was packing up everything imagining I would need to be ready to leave with harps and my 13 packages of equipment at any moment, I heard that all flights had been cancelled for several days due to incoming blizzard conditions, and that I was to be staying in Mawson along with the other Mawson departing expeditioners and helicopter operators! Of course I had a moment of panic, imagining what it would be like if the ship found it had to turn around and leave due to the poor conditions and icy seas. I imagined also how my grandfather would have felt trapped in an icy bay knowing winter had arrived, aware of all that would be missed by not getting home. I have been assured that the ship will wait, and of course there are many more people than just me in the same situation. As I look out on the frozen bay from the warm and sheltered comfort of the Red Shed lounge I imagine also how different it is now from 100 years ago. Last night I had a gin and tonic at the Katabatic Bar – coming from a ‘dry’ ship this was an extra luxury – with Antarctic ice hammered off, a slice of orange cut by hacksaw. We considered the difference between the current hardship of Mawson water rations (shower every second day, 4 mins max) against the once-weekly tub soak in front of the stove in the freezing hut during night watch that was the lot the first expeditioners. I have a phone in my room, and have been able to receive direct calls from family as though I was in the next street – no failed telegraph connections and morse code for us. And yet we are still stranded and would continue to be until next summer but for the 3 helicopters – 1 from the ship and 2 from Davis that we picked up for this purpose. Travel to Antarctica is still almost like travel to the moon.

Today winds are gusting up to 75knots and I am not meant to go outside: apparently a gust that equals in knots your weight in kgs will push you over. But I will kit up and put my head out the door later on just to know what it feels like….. I have been promised a look at the spectrometer lab if winds die down a bit after dinner. Hopefully tomorrow I will be able to record some more of those special wind sounds with harp, and even though there will be no field trips to remote huts, this is also part of the Antarctic experience where nothing is ever quite as planned. I am very happy to have had the privilege of visiting and performing on the Antarctic continent.”

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One response to ““Near disaster averted, and Goal achieved!”

  • Carolyn Mills

    Wow, Alice, what a story! I am so glad you and the harp both made it in one piece. This is reading like a novel, but you are really living it!! Best of luck getting away again, and I hope you are staying mostly warm — Carolyn

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