Cape Royds, the Best Boondoggle Yet!
Trip Start Oct 23, 2009
6Trip End Feb 28, 2010
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Saturday November 21st, was the day. We finally
pulled it together. The schedules, the weather, and the stars all
aligned and our road trip to Cape Royds became a reality.
So that most people understand what
happened here, and how significant this is to me, you need to know a
few things about Cape Royds and why it's such a great road trip. For
one, not many people working here get to go to Royds. It's a
Antarctic specially protected area, due to the Adelie penguin rookery
that's located there
also there, that was used by Sir Ernest Shackletons', Nimrod
expedition. And, its farther from McMurdo than any of the other
Historical Huts. Reachable only by tracked vehicles, including
Hagglund, Snow machine, or Piston Bully.
We took the Hagglund, which tops out at
13 miles per hour, depending on terrain. Our vehicle number was 007
and named Moonraker. This vehicle has a front and a back compartment
connected by a hitch in the middle, allowing play left, right, up,
and down. It also drives at steep angles, rolling left or right to a
staggering 18 degrees without tipping completely over. Degree of
tipping is indicated by a bubble instrument inside the vehicle much
the same as a level used by a carpenter
heater, thin padded bench seats facing each other and a button on the
wall, that will buzz the the front letting the driver know if you
need to get out for something or if you want to stop. The front has
6 seats, driver and passenger and 4 individual seats behind the
front. 2 each left and right, facing each other, seating 4
We all jumped in the vehicle at 11 am
and started our journey. 6 people in the back car and 4 people up
front. It's a two hour journey so we planned to make a few stops on
the way, to get out for sights and stretch out legs.
We found out days before our journey
that it was our driver/guides, Brian's, Birthday on this day
concocted a plan of shenanigans, to be hatched at the first stop on
the trip. As I was up front with Brian Mandy, and Toby, we were
Hagglunding our way across the Sea Ice. All the while telling each
other stories, and gossiping, as Brian indicating points of interest.
At this one point, somewhere in the middle of an ancient caldera,
which is only indicated by a couple of islands poking out of the sea
ice surrounding us. With Inaccessible Island on the left, Little and
Big Razorback Islands on the right, we heard the buzzer from back
half of the Hagglund. So Brian stopped in the middle of the McMurdo
Sound. He goes back to open the door to something so confusing and
strange, that he comes back to the front cab exclaiming, “I don't
know whats going on back there but I need my video camera.” All
the men in wigs and the girls wearing fake mustaches, and strange
homemade devices intended to look like male genitals, made out of a
female pee funnel (affectionately called the “Shenis”), duct
tape, rocks, and wig hair, they unload out of the back compartment
Quickly Toby gets a wig, I put my hair in a side pony tail, as Mandy
straps on her MacGyvered genitals. We all gather in a line with our
arms around each other, and sing a horrible rendition of “happy
birthday.” Guys singing in Soprano and girls singing in Bass.
This is something right out of an episode of M*A*S*H* it seems.
Which is something I often liken my McMurdo experiences too. As well
as an indicator to how badly bored we are half the time here, and how
much we try to spice up our lives with anything out of the ordinary.
With our laughs still resonating and the moral high we jump back into
Moonraker and start on our way again.
Our next stop was much more impressive,
and much less M*A*S*H* like than the first
of the Barne Glacier. I was really excited to get here. It's
something I've only seen from afar. The packed snow, and ice wall
standing maybe 100 to 200 feet tall, glowing with a faint blue hue,
even on an overcast day. A smile increasingly grew across my face
seeing something so foreign and amazing. Something that barely
exists in the upper and lower, middle regions of the world. In my
life, experiencing a glacier, understanding that it's an endangered
feature in most places on Earth, and knowing I was actually there,
gave me chills up my spine to see such an impressive example and in
all it's glory.
We found a dead seal carcass not far
from where we parked the Hagglund
covering it's body. Most of it was visible, except the head. It
seemed like the beast just buried its head in the snow and died
yesterday. But in fact we found out that the seal carcass has been
there for years, and the head is actually missing. Sawed off by
scientist and sent back to the US for studies. I have no Idea what
kind of studies. But I can barely imagine the gruesome task in
action. Scientists surprise me so much. It's amazing that they can
be so clinical and passionate about something at the same time. It
takes a strong mind I guess.
We jumped back into our Moonraker and
headed out for Cape Royds once more. It was just a half hour plus or
minus a few minutes before we reached our final destination. Looking
around, neither the historical hut nor the penguin rookery were
visible. It was maybe an eighth of a mile hike over a small hill
where we found the hut, just beyond it was a small frozen lake, known
as pony lake, and beyond that was the rookery, overtaking the better
part of a rocky hill
We were at the ice edge of the sea ice. It was an amazing beautiful
Most of the crew went out to see the
penguins immediately. I stayed back with Brian to clear away the
snow from the windows so we could take out the wooden window blocks
that protect the glass from encroaching snow.
Then we approached the door with the
key to the hut. Brian asked if I wanted to go in right away or see
the penguins. I decided it would be a nice experience to see the hut
alone, or at least with just one other person in it. But our
attempts to enter the hut were thwarted by a stubborn lock
tried and then I tried. It seemed like it needed some WD40 to get
the key to budge. My heart sank a bit thinking we may not be able to
get in. Brian stated that maybe someone else would have better luck.
I just shrugged. We walked away leaving the key in the door, in
case someone else from the party wanted to try.
As we walked past Pony lake, named
after the poor animals that Shackleton had once kept there for his
expedition, we started up a small hill, downwind from the rookery.
The smell of Penguin guano was pretty strong. I consider myself to
have a strong stomach, but man, it hits you like a ton of bricks.
Thankfully as we crested the hill for the overview of the rookery,
the smell dwindled off
just the excitement of seeing so many Adelies in there natural
setting distracting me from the smell. There must have been close to
1000 penguins in my sight. It could've been 4000, there is no way
of knowing. But they were loud, and funny. They look like little
wind up toys, standing about a foot tall, running hear and there.
Stealing pebbles from each other for their nests. Squawking and
grumbling at each other. Eyes lined with a thin,white circle. Off
toward the waters edge you can see a line of 4 of them marching
single file out to the Southern ocean. Just a bit farther out is a
line of 3 heading back inland, coming home. No doubt, after a hard
days work hunting for food and evading a few predators. A few
moments later a Snow Petrel glides by on the wind, just about 10 feet
in front of our faces, at eye level. We all gasped with surprise,
and just as fast as we saw it it disappeared into the white
background. Then it appears again, coming from the same direction it
did before, and it disappears once more
a heads up if we see it again, in hopes of taking it's picture. But
it didn't make it's self noticeable to us again. What a great
sighting. It's amazing to see something soaring in the sky, other
than a Skua. The Penguins are really cute and all but something is
drawing me toward the hut. I have to try to open the door again!!!!
I take the opportunity to wander back
to the hut alone, noticing the nesting Skuas just at my feet that I
didn't even see on my way up the hill, due to their impressive
camouflage. As I reach Shackletons' Nimrod hut I tell myself, 'if I
have to I'll just will the door open with my positive thoughts”.
Not taking “no” for an answer, I fumble with the lock once more.
Somehow by squeezing closed even more, as I jiggle the key, I get the
key to turn halfway
I give out a whistle to the others over on the hill hoping they take
the hint that I got the door open. But nobody responds. One of the
rules of the Antarctic Heritage Trust is that nobody can go into any
of the huts alone. So I have to wait longer yet, still. It's no
matter, I liken the wait to the feeling you have on Christmas eve.
It's exciting and I decide to distract myself by going to see the
other side of the Penguin rookery. This time ,the upwind side.
There, I take the advice of a friend
from Mc Murdo, and sit quietly alone. Soaking up the environment
through all my senses. Through sight, through sound, and smell. Not
so much taste, although through touch I could feel the cold air
burning my cheeks, so I pulled up my neck gater to protect myself
black and white with shades of gray. After five or ten minutes I
notice some of the other members of my exploratory group heading for
the hut, and I get up to rendezvous with them. The 9 year old in me
still wants to be the first through the door, just because I opened
it. Funny how that childish gene in me still makes itself known.
As I walk through the door I notice
that I still can't see much, due to snow blindness. Even on a cloudy
day, it's bright enough outside to cause this temporary handicap. I
enter the mostly dark room, the only light is coming through two
windows on one side of the room. It's layout is not that exciting, no
walls making other rooms, just one big rectangular room, and a couple
hygiene area, behind a big wood burning stove. And some kind of
boiler contraption positioned way up high above the breeze way as
you turn around and look back at the door. As my eyes adjust, the
first thing I notice are socks hanging from a wire, as if they were
hung there an hour ago to dry. Then the cots come more into focus
with old clothes laid upon caribou skin sleeping bags. Everything
well dated to 100 years ago plus. Even a news paper, and some
shredded books. As my eyes adjust even more I can see the smaller
things and more intimate details of the hut. Hundreds, if not
thousands of tiny things all over the room. Now it feels more like a
treasure hunt. A trove of wonderful historical items. Tins upon
tins of food, including mutton cutlets, and ham, beef and chicken
soap, matches and match boxes, Heinz pickle relish. Some of the
items making such amazing claims, like the old time cure-all's being
sold by shiesty pedlars in the olden days, sanitary powder that
cures colds. Other items that you would find in a Sears catalog from
the 1800's. But no sign of the 100 year old scotch that was recently
found by the AHT, under the floor boards. But what I did find was
the signatures of some of the explorers of the Nimrod party and even
one rumored to be from Ernest himself. Which is the still subject of
debate. Whether he wrote his name or someone else wrote it, it was
still wonderful and looked impressive as it reads upside down, on a
crate lid, acting as a headboard to one of the cots. Finding that
signature was the crowning glory of the trip
somewhere because I read about it in my Antarctica lonely planet
guide book, and finding it made me feel like I had completed that
After we locked up the hut we went
outside, and shenanigans immediately ensued. It started with a
snowball and ended in a dog pile in the snow. We were all laughing
and having a great time roughing each other up. Flip and Tony went a
little bit further than the rest of us and Flip ended up with a
bloody nose. Mandy opens up her coat and says, “wup! first aide, I
have something for that”, as she pulls an O.B. Tampon out of her
inside pocket. “fighters use them all the time to stop nose bleeds.”
she exclaims. Flip gratefully grabs it out
of her hand and asks, “how do you open this thing?” She does it
for him and gives it back. He shoves it right up there as if it's
the normal thing to do. We all break out our cameras as we are
laughing at the absurdity of it all
Knowing we have pushed our time to the
limit we bust back on down to Moonraker and start heading back to Mac
town. If we don't get back by the time we told station that we would
be they will send out the S.A.R. Team for us. Within the first
minute of being late a chain of phone calls would be made that will
quickly reach the sum of 50 people getting notified. Unless, we call
in and extend out time limit. Which isn't a problem, but some of us
have plans for that evening, including Brian the Birthday boy.
About an hour into our journey back
home, the Hagglund comes to stop again. It could only mean one
thing. Brian has found some Emperor penguins. Sure enough he opens
the door in the back stating there is a group of Emperors about 70
down on the ground and see if they come to us.” he says. The
minute we all start laying down in a line, they notice this, and they
lay down and start heading right for us. Sliding on there bellies,
pushing themselves with their feet, single file, We're all
whispering to each other little exclamations of excitement. “here
they come” “I can't believe this.” “my life is complete.”
Most of us have never seen the Emperors before. When they get close
enough to us, say maybe within 20 feet. The first one stops sliding
on his belly and then props itself upright using his beak like a kick
stand. Our cameras are shooting off like paparazzi for Michael or
Madonna. It's incredible. Now they are making their curious noises.
typical behavior. Then they waddle closer. They notice a small
break in the line of humans that are laying on the ground and they
waddle right through the hole coming withing 3 feet or so of some of
the members of our group. They are now interested in the Moonraker.
They are waddling right up to it, staring at it, walking around it.
It's bright red, same as the big red coats most of us are wearing.
Karl from our party goes to the other side of the Hagglund and sits
down. They gather around him as is if he is going to tell them a
story. We all laugh calling Karl the Penguin whisperer. Some of the
Penguins finally get bored of us and start off into the horizon, out
toward the open water, which isn't even visible it's so far away.
The others hang out for a little while longer
decide we have to leave. We're already going to be late so we have
to get a move on to get to some place that our radio can call Mac
Ops. Currently we are in a dead zone where the radio signal is being
blocked by a mountain.
A little while longer we make the final
stop when we can get a good radio signal, we extend our return time
and continue on down the ice road, making it back to McMurdo, just as
it's beginning to snow, and in time for dinner. Dinner is neither
memorable nor exciting. But I do know that it was Italian food.
Saturday nights are almost always Italian night. That's usually how
we can tell it's Saturday. Also Saturday is the only day that we can
bring alcohol into the galley
beer taste a little bit better when we get to have it in a place
where it's not always allowed.
Later that evening is one of the
traditional parties at McMurdo. The BFC party. I don't remember what
BFC stands for in this world of acronyms, but it's the building where
we get our gear if going into the field, or can exchange bad Extreme
cold weather (ECW) gear if something breaks. But tonight it's not a
supply building full of gear, it's a dance hall, hosting a party with
live music. The band is Porn spill, and they're a great cover band
that plays funk music. I remember dancing my ass off to their music
at Icestock last time I was here. The band, and the crowd are
dressed in funky costumes with afro wigs and 70's garb alike. The
vibe in the room is great. Most everyone is dancing, some
ecstatically, and some swing dancing. I'm going freestyle, as usual.
And this is how my outstanding day of fun, adventure, history, and
excitement goes. At the end of it all, dancing my heart out. So I
get my dessert, with a cherry on top!