Saturday 4 January 2014. Day 28. Day 2/3 on the Aurora Australis

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04 01 14 - 23:22

Hello world!! Yes, I’m safe and sound, on the Aurora Australis on our way west to Casey. It’s so good to be back in touch and on ourway home!

Arriving on Aurora Australis was like returning to Australia after a long trip away. Friendly Australians to greet and welcome us, offer us cups of tea, make us feel at home. The relief of being safe and sound. Thanks flowed genuinely and profusely from all of us as we arrived.

I’ve got such a lot to write about – so much has happened insuch a short time.

Two days ago, Thursday morning, we were still stuck. Still in limbo, with no expectation that the next day would be any different to the last. We knew that despite improved weather that our rescue ship the Aurora Australis was still 2 nautical miles from Xue Long the Chinese icebreaker, and so the plan of us landing on the Xue Long’s helideck and being transported by barge to the AA was not about to eventuate in a hurry.

So that meant the Antarctic Writers Festival could go ahead. Was that really just the day before yesterday? We erected a magnificent orange and blue 10m diameter dome tent on the ice in glorious sunshine. The festival was fabulous. Ten or so of us shared some pieces we had written during the journey, and enjoyed each other’s company. It was a great way to keep up morale and combat the limbo listlessness that was settling over us like a fog . As we concluded, and headed back to the ship for lunch, Ben commented that the tent could stay up all afternoon and would be a great place to hang out with books and music.

So the call after lunch for volunteers to help dismantle the tent was the first sign that things were on the move. We were briefed a short time later about the negotiations between Xue Long and AA. Given the good weather window they had agreed that the XL helicopter could potentially land on an ice floe adjacent to the AA.

Marking out the perimeter of our helipad with Milo and soy sauce quickly followed the tent dismantling. I watched amused as an Adelie penguin investigated the soy sauce, flexing its neck muscles, vigorously moving its head around as it was either overwhelmed or intrigued by the smell.

Things unfolded quickly. The shared emotions we all felt: grateful, relieved, and excited, were palpable when the massive Chinese helicopter landed at 6pm to assess the suitability of our helipad. The Chinese crew disembarked, and set to work efficiently finalising the set up to suit the rescue mission. The helipad passed muster. We stood on deck and applauded as someof the Chinese arrived on-board, thanking them profusely. They were heroes.

Eighty percent chance of going within the hour announced Greg, depending on the suitability of the helipad on the ice-floe at the other end.

By 6.30 our bags were completely packed, and the luggage being hauled out to the ice. The helicopter arrived to pick up the first group not long after 7. I felt such a mix of emotions as they headed off: relief that it really was happening; awareness of the significance of the event, and excitement about beginning our journey home.

By the time the helicopter was due back 45 minutes later formy group – the second of five – I was mostly just excited. But then the sadness in leaving the Shokalskiy really hit home. It had been our home for the last month, and we were leaving the ship and 22 crew still stuck, probably to be cut out by the huge Russian icebreaker Fedorov or the US Polar Star at some indeterminate time in the future.

I thought about how what we had been through had changed my perspective about ships. Previously I’d thought that a ship is a ship is a ship. But it’s not. A ship is home. You place your trust in the ship and the crew. One’s life depends on one’s ship.

I hugged Maxim, thanked Sergei as we proceeded out to the ice.

I’ve never travelled in a helicopter before. It was mesmerising to stand under its double whirring blades, with a cirrus flecked blue sky above, noise and wind enveloping me. It was a 15 minute trip, crammed in with luggage as well, and from my seat not much of a view, but a big ‘wow’ factor as we flew over kilometres of ice floes.

The Aurora Australis crew were fabulous as we arrived, and since. We’ve been made to feel at home and welcomed into the routine of the ship by everyone.  And to a person there has been great acceptance from them that our rescue was just something that had to be done, even though it had upset plans, and put them out considerably. It’s been a real insight into how things work in Antarctica. The A factor is the essence of the Antarctic Treaty. It is such a harsh environment with so few people, that survival relies on everyone looking out for everyone else. Things happen,and plans change.

We went to bed exhausted. Such a huge day.

I woke early yesterday morning. We hadn’t made much progress through the ice overnight. I sat outside for an hour before breakfast on the top deck in the wind and sunshine. Sitting alone, looking over ice fields stretching to the horizon I felt an almost contradictory combination of feeling safe, at peace, but in awe of the expanse, the majesty, and the power of nature. Feeling small and insignificant despite being ensconced and safe in a big and powerful ship.

Nature shows her upper hand here in Antarctica. She is in control. Yes we are changing her with global warming, but like a lion roaring when disturbed, that doesn’t mean she is becoming meeker, milder or more able to be subdued.

All yesterday we moved backwards and forwards through the ice. It was heavy going. We needed all the power of the ship to crunch, push, barge, smash our way through.  A small part of me worried about whether the Aurora Australis would become the third ship beset here.

We made it through to open water last night. I was up on the bridge when we did. An iceberg on the horizon glowed orange in front of the setting and then rising sun. Amidst the stunning beauty conversations swirled around the bridge about whether now that we had reached open water would we would be heading onto Casey or staying put to support the still beset Xue Long.

The Xue Long Captain had rung Murray our Aurora Australis Master earlier in the evening to say they were not in danger and were happy for the AA to return to Casey. But that decision was in the hands of the maritime authorities.

The ship was in a holding pattern as I went to bed. I thought of the Shokalskiy crew, and the 111 people on board the Xue Long, who are going to be in a holding pattern for alot longer than us. The Shokalskiy and Xue Long crews are the ones paying the biggest price of our becoming beset, and I want to thank them profusely, and let them know that we are all thinking about them.

The decision to sail onto Casey was made in the early hours of this morning. So Aurora Australis is now back on mission, sailing at 12 knots towards the west, and we are on our way home. We are due at Casey in 4 days and in Hobart potentially around the 20th January – but this won’t be confirmed until after we leave Casey.

But our relief is bittersweet. We won’t be able to feel completely at ease until the Shokalskiy and Xue Long are also on their way home. What’s more, this experience will live on in us for a long time as a humbleness, a knowledge that Antarctica is a place where beauty and harshness exist side by side and a place where ones survival depends on cooperation, collaboration and people putting themselves out for others.

Thanks from the bottom of my heart to all involved ingetting us here safely.

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