The passion for Antarctica grew in me from my early childhood. I learnt in geography that there is a land on earth where nights prevail continuously for six months and continuous sunshine for six months. How was it possible? How could people survive there, if there be any? All these questions bogged the mind of a boy.
Later, one of our senior colleagues Dr. P. K. Malhotra opted for and left for Antarctica in the year 2003. This rekindled my desire to be in Antarctica at any cost. I started collecting information regarding both Antarctica and Arctic from news papers and net.
In one busy OPD hours one circular was placed on my table by my LDC, asking for deputation to Antarctica as Expedition Doctor. I made my mind to apply for this. I talked to my family one at a time regarding my desire for Antarctica. All were excited at first but after seeing the duration to be long 14 months and remoteness of the place and myself being a patient of diabetes thought it will be better if I abandon the plan. Moreover there was problem of my release from the Ministry and above all myself being fit in the Medical (Physical and Psychological) test at AIIMS, New Delhi.
However with lot of discussions with my family members and repeated inquiry from Dr. P. K. Malhotra, regarding the working condition, state of living and food available at Maitri, the Indian Antarctic station , I had submitted my willingness for being deputed as a Station Doctor for the 29th Indian Scientific Expedition To Antarctica.
At last by the grace of God, I got selected and released from my parent organization on 11.11.09. (Though after a little problem regarding release from the Ministry). My long cherished desire was going to be fulfilled now! In the early morning of 12.11.2009. I started from Kolkata. and reached Goa.. After completing formalities at National Centre For Antarctica and Ocean Research, Goa, we left for Antarctica on 15.11.2009. The schedule at NCAOR was hectic. We had to collect polar clothing and give trials, fill up feedback forms .We were briefed regarding our attitude and behavior on the way to and at Antarctica. The briefing was enlightening and we had a glimpse about what to expect at the unknown white Continent. The NCAOR people at GOA were very friendly and helpful. It was like they were seeing off their family members for a long journey.
On 19.11.2009 at about 11 AM local time the giant Russian aircraft IL-76TD (Illyushin) touched the long awaited airstrip (Novlazarevskaya) on continental ice at Antartica.. The journey from Cape Town to Antarctica was tiring due to continuous noise of the flight engine. Excitement of seeing a new continent was mounting as the destination approached. I dressed myself in polar clothing with great difficulty in a limited space of the aircraft. The very first thought which came to my mind was how to step on the ice, how to walk, will it slip or will the glare of the sun and reflections from ice make me blind? However with great caution I placed my feet on polar ice cap. These are hard ice formed by continuous deposition of snow over hundreds of thousands of years. As snow crystals fall and pile on top of each other creating huge weight that compress the earlier snow and converts it into ice sheet. It is blue in color shiny glassy and very hard. Its maximum thickness is more than 4 Km. It is in continuous motion from high interior to the coast. I walked with great caution like a toddler. It was wonderful to see vast sea/sheet of ice everywhere meeting the horizon with the bright sun in the real clear deep blue sky. In spite of the scorching sun above the biting cold seems to seep deep into the bones. There was nothing to be seen in the vast desert of bluish white ice except the Giant aircraft, few feeder planes with ski on wheels, Pisten Bully, Skidoo, some tents, housing modules and some Ground Staff. Pisten Bully is the snow vehicle equipped with heater, GPS and VHF radio sets, from Germany. Skidoos are the snow scooters from Norway. Members of previous team and leader of our team came to receive us in Pisten Bully. They asked us to remove the snow goggles to identify us but with fear of snow blindness we were hesitant to do so. However later we removed it and found no difficulty if eyes are left uncovered for short period only.
At Maitri, the sweet home outside home, there was warm reception for us by the inmates and also by the Antarctic Skuas .They are birds having features of both eagle and duck. They are the regular summer visitors to Maitri. We had light snacks and tea followed by lunch. Later we took rest in summer camp container. This too was unique. It is a self sufficient accommodation for four which is comfortable even in such harsh condition. Though there was attached bath, there was no water supply and we had to use the common bath complex outside. In the evening we were briefed regarding use of dry toilets and other utilities of the main station, rules and regulations. We were introduced to all (Old and new) members. After dinner we went to our summer hut module (Myself alone in my module) about 100 meters from main block. We were tired after such a long and eventful day and the wrist watch showed 11 PM. It was time for bed but outside there was bright sunlight! I drew the curtain and slept.
However in the morning experience in the toilet was not very pleasant. In such freezing cold using the toilet after climbing on the high platform needs expertise. However I went through it without any mishap. Though when I think of it, it was the first horrifying experience in the continent for a man of a tropical country who had had no experience of snow except for some short tours within the country.
The facts which astonished me most were the absence of mosquitoes, cockroaches, ants and spiders. No spider webs hanging hither and thither. Food items like cakes biscuits, bhujia, snacks, lying open on the table are all crisp not attacked by insects. May be Mother Nature preserves them as it is for us, considering the harshness of the condition! Gradually on exploration we could see penguins (Adelie) incubating eggs in their rookery near the coast. Wavy ridges of shelf ice near the coast appeared to me as frozen waves of sea. On the backside (Southern) of our station the receding continental ice sheet touching the clear blue sky (which is supposed to be a million years old) fascinated me. Water from this ice cap accumulates in Priyadarshini Lake and provides water supply to Maitri round the year. During winter water can be found under cover of about 2 meters thick ice.
The solitude is broken by the continuous howling of the winds and grunting of the generators. They are our life line in Antarctica. It seems very funny why till date we are having those giant noise makers especially in the pristine condition like this, whereas in main land we are using eco friendly noise proof gensets.
Here time taken to do any outdoor job can not be compared to that of the mainland. Even driving in a nail is a major job and when done correctly, is an accomplishment. Most of the outdoor jobs are done during the summer months when the weather is good. Actually effective working days are very few due to bad weather like high winds, blizzards and cold which are frequent. We have to watch out for "workable weather" and cannot afford to let go of a single such day.
Members of the expedition team need to go to the ice shelf, about 120 Km. away, to bring the yearly quotas of fuel, food items building materials and other logistic items in convoy. These are kept in sealed containers, brought in ice class ships. During convoy a series of ice class vehicles towing empty containers for fuel, back loaded containers with unused waste materials, container for living module (Banjara) and container for generator set (Jeevan Jyoti), move towards the shelf. The weather condition is quite different from that of inland. Almost always it is harsh and they have to work hard to get the job done there. Sometimes they get stuck up there for days together in blizzards. High winds and blowing snow may lead to almost zero visibility, which is a condition called" White Out" where a person loses his perception to surrounding. On the way, though delineated by the GPS, sometimes they encounter crevasses. These are very dangerous and often life and materials are lost. While returning from convoy a sense coming back to sweet homes arises in the mind at the sight of the Maitri.
It is aptly said that Maitri is representative of mini India. Here people come from all corners of the country and there is ample opportunity to get exposure to various cultures and languages and religions. A unique intimacy grows between the Maitrians which cannot be described in words because such ties will not be possible in the mainland. It teaches us a lot regarding doing all sorts of job leaving behind the rank and status one holds in mainland.
It is a wonderful place where one can come to know one's own self being in the solitude far away from the hassles of daily urban life. Borchgrevink the great Australian Explorer aptly said "The silence roared in our ears, it was centuries of heaped up solitude." Let the civilized mankind not break it!