I was just about to get another cup of coffee when Daniel said the plane would be landing in 15 minutes. Due to bad weather coming in, our flight to Novo had to be moved forward by two days and instead of November 1st, we would now be leaving Neumayer on October 29th. Luckily Lidia, the Basler BT-67 plane from ALCI was scheduled to arrive at Neumayer for a refueling stop anyway that day and they still had enough space to pick us and our baggage up as well. I ran upstairs, threw my suitcases into the elevator and got dressed. Going down, a Pistenbully with a sledge was waiting for us with our stuff already loaded and ready to go. As we started our way to the runway we could see the plane come in from a distance and looking back at station I could see how the alien spaceship was getting smaller and smaller. Daniel, who had to stay inside in order to operate the radio during flight operations, had opened one of the hatches on the gallery and was waving at us. Then I could hear the propellers of the Basler howl in the distance and knew that the plane had landed safely. This was it – the end of an almost 11 months stay at Neumayer and the end of my second and last wintering at Neumayer.
Arriving at the plane we greeted the Canadian flight crew (from Kenn Borek Air) who operates the BT-67 plane every year. There were a few familiar faces from the previous summer and it was good to meet some fresh people after nine months of isolation. We quickly unloaded the sledges while our mech guys were refueling the airplane. At around 20:30 Lidia was fully loaded and fueled and it was time to say our goodbyes. I remembered how moving it was to say goodbye to the old wintering team in the previous summer and how well I was able to put myself into their shoes and to understand how they were feeling. This time, saying goodbye to our fellow winterers felt quite different though, since most of them would not be coming with us, but it would only be Lindsay and me leaving for good. The rest of the wintering team will stay for another three months until the summer season at Neumayer is almost over. There were a lot of hugs and good wishes, some tears, but also some happy faces. All in all we had a great time with no real fights and lots of fun and great experiences. Just shortly before 21:00 the plane started to make its way down to the western end of the runway. A few minutes later Neumayer passed our sight through the small airplane windows as we ascended into the cloudy sky. Since we were heading out into the Eastern direction, we could see the bay one last time to our left. The emperors were easily visible, as well as many of the icebergs that we had explored in winter. It was absolutely stunning to see the wind shadows they create on the sea ice where the ground remains very structured and rough. As we continued our ascend the clouds got thicker and thicker and the view of the bay slowly faded. Farewell Atka-Bay. Thank you for everything.
Saying goodbye to the colony was extremely emotional for me and I had not anticipated just how much it would actually affect me. We went out at around 9:30am and also Max from the wintering team joined us. Will did a little bit of making of filming, but for once we just wanted to sit with the birds and watch them, without having to worry about „getting the shot“. It was a peaceful and calm experience on an incredibly nice day. In fact, it was one of the days which I like the most: At -15°C it was quite warm and there was only a very gentle breeze of around 5 knots. The sky was covered in clouds, which were obscuring the Sun and creating wonderfully soft and flat light, which really brings out the colors in the emperors. However, at the same time, there was just enough contrast to be able to walk and drive without any issues. While we were sitting on the sea ice, you could tell that the birds were enjoying themselves as well. They were standing together very loosely, some of them yawning and preening and just enjoying the life. The chicks were happily running around, flapping their wings or they were lying on their bellies, making their first attempts at sliding across the ground. Max and I went over to one of the gullies that I quite liked and that I have photographed many times. I can still remember one day, when I descended into it and there were hundreds of emperor feathers flying around – they almost looked like big snowflakes against a deep blue sky. We also did some timelapses in the very same gully, so it felt appropriate to me to have a look at it for one last time.
A few minutes later, we went back to the colony and took a BBC group picture – then it was time to say goodbye, as we were planning to be back for lunch and finish with our final preparations for our departure.
I asked everybody to give me five minutes on my own with the birds, so that I could say goodbye and have one last look at them. While I was sitting in front of them I was trying to comprehend what had happened during the past 10 months and what we had seen and experienced. There was a very strong feeling of sadness about having to leave the colony, but also a strong feeling of gratitude at the same time. I guess it is always like that when an important chapter in your life comes to an end. I carefully observed the penguins and was able to spot so many of the behaviors that I like most about them. Adults were stretching and yawning, little chicks were flapping their wings and running around as little gangs and when I finally turned my head around to walk back to the skidoo one of the chicks got fed by its parent. It was the best last sight of the emperors I could have hoped for since it is such a positive behavior and symbolizes that the colony is doing well. We all know they are far from being safe, but there are many healthy and well-fed chicks and they are in the best state they could be in at the moment. I hope that this year will be a good year for the colony and that many of the chicks will successfully fledge in a few months.
Our ascend into the clouds lasted for around 10 minutes at which time we could not see anything out of the window anymore. We were completely surrounded by a white uniform blanket of clouds and could only feel that we were still gaining elevation. Our climb continued for another 15 minutes when all of sudden intense orange flight flooded the flight cabin. We had made our way above the clouds and looking back out of the plane windows, the setting Sun was illuminating the top side of the clouds that we had just pierced through. Now we were hovering above a beautiful carpet of soft cotton balls and immediately the slight shaking of the plane turned into absolute calm and uniform motion. The windows started to ice over, but tiny gaps in the ice allowed us to peek at the spectacle that was going on outside. We now had the chance to unbuckle and walk around in the plane which I used in order to look out the back windows and have some conversations with the flight crew members. It was quite a young team with most folks being around our age (30s), some of them even being in Antarctica for the first time. I told them about our winter with the birds and how many hours we had spent outside in order to get the footage for the film. They were incredibly interested and asked a lot of questions about the penguins which I happily answered. We exchanged contact information and Instagram accounts and hopefully will be in touch in the future.
After a very smooth flight lasting a little more than two hours we gently (and I mean gently) touched down at Novo runway, where people were waiting for us to help us unload our cargo onto a sledge. We would be living in Container B, which was a large shipping container with some bunk beds and lawn chairs inside- very primitive but good enough to get the job done. Afterwards we went to the mess and had a sandwich for dinner with the Kenn Borek crew- these guys get to see a lot of Antarctica and were telling quite a few entertaining stories. After a long day with lots of emotional ups and downs I was quite tired and went to bed around 12:30am. Falling asleep my sadness had vanished and happiness had taken over – in just a few days I’d finally be back with my beloved wife.
I had a very deep sleep and felt fresh and rested when I woke up. However I decided to turn around again and sleep some more, since there is not much to do at Novo and I needed to catch up on some sleep from the last weeks anyway. When I woke up a second time the feeling of relaxation was still there so I decided to get up, thinking it was probably noon already. Looking at the clock however, I was surprised to see that it was just past 8:00 and that there was still enough time to get some Russian breakfast. Afterwards, I went over to the communications office from ALCI and was able to send a quick email to my wife telling her that everything went well and that we’d be leaving Antarctica on Ilyushin flight D2, just as originally planned. The rest of the day was very slow and calm and after walking around a bit and taking some pictures of the runway, it was already lunch time. Upon our entry into the mess it was quite crowded and everybody was busy eating. In the background a giant flatscreen TV was showing live (!!) TV from Russia. Even though I did not understand a word, it was a unique feeling to see something live again. After a fish soup starter (which was ok, but not particularly my favorite) I got a whole plate of a Russian dish called „jabbadabbagruslei (of course this was not the actual name, but what it sounded like phonetically ;-))“, which was incredibly tasty. I started talking to a guy who was sitting at our table and as it turned out he was a member of the wintering crew of Novolazarevskaya, so a fellow winterer. He told us a little bit about Novo airbase, Novo station, their winter and how they passed the time. We could have sat there for longer, but since lunch time is only from 13:00 until 13:45, the Russian chef politely asked us to leave. The only item left on our agenda for the day was to present a list of our cargo (number of cases and weights) to the base commander, so that ALCI could finalize their loading plan for the Ilyushin, which was scheduled to arrive the following day at around 14.00. With all the free time at hand I finally started a book about car mechanics that I’ve been wanting to read ever since I arrived in Antarctica, but I never found the time to do so. After about an hour of reading I took a nap and woke up at 18:00, so sleep levels were rapidly increasing :-). At 19:00 it was already time for dinner (days at Novo consist of eating and sleeping) with a nice cheese covered piece of meat, pasta and FRESH VEGETABLES. Yes, the first fresh vegetables in over 8 months or so – tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. Even though I could have cared less for the cucumbers, the peppers and the tomatoes were quite amazing and almost tasted better than the meat (although that was really good as well). When we stepped out the mess, the Sun was just setting behind a distant mountain range bathing the glacial ice in the North in warm pastel pink light. A real treat for the eyes. The rest of the day I kept reading before I went to bed around 23:00. Unfortunately the container we were living in was not perfectly sealed, so cold air kept flowing in and keeping the air temperature inside at around 10-12°C. Oh well, our next night would be in Capetown and then it would probably be too warm :-).
The next day started quite relaxed again. Getting up at 7:45, getting ready for breakfast at 8:00 and then watching the Basler plane leave for Syowa station (Japanese) at 9:00. I talked to some of the pilots from Kenn Borek and asked them which would be the best spot to see the Ilyushin come in and they pointed to a place a little further West along the runway. Lindsay and I were quite keen on taking photos of this giant plane landing, so knowing about a good position beforehand was crucial. At 13:45 it finally happened and we could see the Ilyushin come in from a distance, accompanied with the monotone sound of its turbines – hard to believe that a giant like this can land on pure ice. Hard to believe a giant like this can fly at all! The landing looked quite stunning as it blew a lot of snow up in the air and left a giant cloud of snow behind it. When the aircraft came to a stand, Pistenbullys and Skidoos pulling sledges and fuel containers started approaching the aircraft like ants returning to an ant colony. People were exiting the plane, being greeted by staff and lots of hugs and smiles were exchanged. We were expecting a few AWI people to be amongst the group as well, but apparently they were delayed to the next flight since the weather at Neumayer would not allow them to continue their journey and they’d been stuck at Novo anyway. We did meet some interesting people though – an Austrian/German team of two expeditioners (Christoph Höbenreich and Michael Guggolz) who will venture into the mountains of Dronning Maud Land and attempt to climb some of the still unclimbed mountains. We had a great chat with them and they also showed us some amazing images from their previous expeditions. It just showed me that this continent has so much to offer and that I hardly have seen anything of it. We exchanged contact information and I am looking forward to finding out how their expedition went and to see some more of their photographs from these remote places. The rest of the day passed rather quickly and at dinner we were finally handed our boarding passes for the flight home. Now it had become real – our last hours on the continent were about to end and at 22:45 we finally boarded the plane.
It was not like any other Ilyushin flight I had been on so far, but this time it was a pure cargo flight and additional to that an empty one as well. Lindsay and I were the only passengers on the plane aside from the Russian crew and consequently there were no flags or seats or TV screens with „Spy in the huddle“. It was just steel benches along the cabin wall, like you might know them from military planes. The good thing was, that there was plenty of leg room and one could even lie down across multiple seats and have a nap, which is exactly what we all did once we were airborne.
One of the crew members offered me an ice-cold bottle of water, which I put in front of one of the heaters on the floor in order to warm it up and be able to drink. Again, very pragmatic and charming in its own way. When the cabin doors closed and the engines howled our acceleration along the icy runway began. A few seconds later I could feel that we were airborne and I imagined the distant mountains passing by, just like Neumayer station did a few days before. Goodbye Antarctica. I have experienced so many memorable days here and this very special Ilyushin flight seemed like a worthy ending to an extraordinary chapter of my life. I remembered the words I wrote on the signature wall at Neumayer before I closed my eyes in order to sleep.
Laughed. Cried. Lived.
Thank you for everything Atka Bay!