Anzac Heirs: Snow bound

Orion coming in to land on the Pegasus runway, Scott Base. Photo / NZ Defence Force
Orion coming in to land on the Pegasus runway, Scott Base. Photo / NZ Defence Force

During the never-ending nights of an Antarctic summer, a group of New Zealand Defence Force personnel try desperately to sleep.

Though they've worked tirelessly through a long day and hopefully managed to sneak away to the ski or snowboard slopes, the light outside makes it nearly impossible to drop off.

Such is the topsy-turvy life of a member of the NZDF contingent at the bottom of the world.

For about half a century the New Zealand military has been at the forefront on the frozen continent.

Depending on the time of year, up to 60 personnel drawn from all three forces will be in Antarctica – the busiest period is during summer when the deployment's team is supporting scientists conducting experiments on the ice, taking charge of transport and cargo needs, and standing by for search and rescue missions.

The team is split between Scott Base, New Zealand's presence on the ice, and McMurdo Station the much larger American base which swells so much in summer that it resembles a small mining town.

The NZDF works closely with its United States colleagues in Antarctica – although Kiwis have consistently beaten the Americans at rugby every year since the annual match between the bases began in the late 1950s.

The two country's co-operation on the continent started in 1956 when HMNZS Endeavour and the US Navy cargo vessel Private John R Towle shipped supplies, construction material and men to lay the groundwork for McMurdo Station and Scott Base.

That long-standing support is recognised by Antarctica New Zealand, which says the country's scientific programme would not be what it is today without the military support.

"Both NZ and US military personnel have provided support and made sacrifices to progress human exploration and knowledge," says Antarctica NZ.

The co-operation between the countries has included missions such as the parachuting in of supplies from a jet, swooping 500m above the snow. That airdrop of food and liquids, packed by NZDF personnel and flown by the crew of a US C17, was a test of what would be possible in an emergency at the South Pole.

Though the eyes of the NZDF team are never off the main objective of supporting Antarctica New Zealand, the sense of adventure is not lost.

Squadron Leader Nick McMillan, who arrived on the ice in October, describes his highlights so far: "An 18-hour, non-stop traverse across the sea ice in a Hagglund (all-terrain vehicle) to set up a science camp; dropping supplies from a helicopter into the Dry Valleys and standing at the bottom of the world at the South Pole. I don't think that anyone will forget the time they decided to come to Scott Base."

Flight Lieutenant Gemma Day, who managed a team of cargo handlers working 10-hour days, six days a week during her Deep South deployment, says her time was a mix of hard work, enjoying the amazing setting and coping with the unusual environment – like sleeping during the light, bright nights.

"That's probably the hardest bit," she says. "They are long days so you need sleep. Like most things though, you get used to it."

And there's an education on tap. Flight Lieutenant Day admits she was no scientist at school, but the subject took on a new meaning.

Once a week a scientist leads an evening of "Science for Dummies" explaining in plain English what their work involves. "It's fascinating hearing what they do and why, and how it will ultimately benefit society or the environment," says Flight Lieutenant Day. "Seals used to be just the slow, fat animals out there. Now that I know all about them, I have a different view altogether."

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- NZ Herald

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