Blog 7: 18/12/18

The last words of this blog are written from 37.000 feet altitude in definitely the most comfortable airplane I have ever been in. It’s a Boeing 757 which is normally used to transfer big artists such as U2, the Rolling Stones,… Yet another unique experience but a welcome chance from the vehicle I spent the last week on Antarctica in; the Toyota Hilux.

Wednesday we departed towards the coast to collect our final samples there and install a new site as well. The plan was straightforward. 3 days, 3 locations, 1 day driving up and 1 day driving back, staying in tents, be light, fast and autonomous. We would drive to a location 150 km away from the station were we set up a central camp and work on the samples, each day departing from the camp with the Hilux. Going to the coast meant we were to pass the fearsome sastrugi fields (rough icy terrain) we encountered on the Romnoes trip again. (Small disclaimer; due to abnormal snow accumulation past winter, the terrain really is much rougher than normal.) Luckily for us, Jean-Louis and his team of glaciologists were also planning to stay at a central base camp near the coast for a few days since they wanted to go to the drilling site of last year before starting with the ice coring on a new location. As they have living and storage containers, which have to be dragged to the site on sledges using two Prinoth tractors, the convoy will clear the road for us. Big downside; the Prinoths average around 10 kph, thus the trip took us 16 hours including the refueling stop. Furthermore, due to the bad weather and the ice desert around us the only thing to see was the back of the container in front of us. It was a long day.

On the upside, it did give Manu more than enough time to brief us on the conditions, how to stay warm, how to use your tent (yes, you can use a tent in a wrong way), sleeping bag, food rations and so on. Arriving on the location we encountered some of the best coastal Antarctic weather you will find; heavy winds and almost white out. Challenging conditions to set up a tent, but eventually with some helping hands here and there everyone got his/hers erected and quickly went to sleep. At first, I thought I would never be able to sleep in the tent as the wind makes the tent’s sails move as if someone is physically shaking the tent, but it proved no problem. In fact, I had great nights and learned to sleep everywhere in Antarctica.

The next day the troublesome weather made place for a stunning bright sunshine and a slight sea breeze, perfect! In the morning, we helped Jean-Louis settle and organize a bit after which we departed to the site where they drilled ice cores last year. The glaciologists remained there as we drove on to our most northern (at that moment) sample site. After having had some “technical” issues on which I cannot elaborate but it involves removing the backseat of the car with very little tools (oops) and a little detour, we arrived at our familiar three-pole set-up. It is a stunning location! 15 km from the coastline, with the nice weather, we had a clear view on the ocean and the icebergs. Amazing! Filter exchange again went without issues but the drive and technical problems cost us a lot of time, in the end we made it back to basecamp around midnight.

Next day we scheduled to go for Breid Bay, were we will install our samplers only 2 km from the sea ice. Taking into account the previous troubles, we prepared the Hilux early and departed at 9 am. It was an easy drive and Alain picked us a perfect spot. The weather was even better than the day before! Antarctica at its best! We took plenty of time to install the three poles and spent some more near the location for lunch and to enjoy the surroundings. Coming back early to the base camp also meant we had the kitchen container for ourselves so, take things easy, relax and make a short call home on satellite phone.

Saturday was a special one! The last day of field operations on Antarctica for us. It proved to be a challenge as we had to find the last location in a total whiteout with visibility less than 5 meters. The GPS coordinates however, were perfect! No trouble finding the station and with all the experience we build up last weeks, no problems to efficiently service it in high winds. Our work is done here! And it is a perfect 7/7 as we found back every sample and did everything which was in our program.

There was a lot of euphoria but also some sadness because this incredible experience is about to end very soon. As we will be flying back to Cape Town on Tuesday, only Monday was left to finish some final stuff in the measurement shelter at the station and to prepare samples and hardware for shipment back. It was a busy and emotional final day but it was finished in the best way possible; A reverse wind scoop. The little tour around the neighboring mountain proved to be more challenging in the reverse direction and Daniel let us play around a bit on the big ice blocks and slopes. Under the low standing sun, it certainly is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Then Tuesday, after a lot of hugs, farewells and saying goodbye to everyone and the station which has been our home for more than a month, it was time to go. A bright red Twin Otter took 5 of us back to Novo Airbase where we immediately boarded the luxury Boeing were I’m sitting in right now. Thank you so much to everyone in the station, all the supporting personnel home, the university and Belspo to make such an amazing field trip possible. I come back with so many unforgettable moments and laughs! An extra big thank you to Manu and Henri with whom we worked very hard to achieve all our objectives here! It has been a pleasure and an experience never to forget. Finally thank you for reading the blogs, I hope you enjoyed them all. See you!

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Bumpy blue ice


BLOG 6 10/12/18

It’s been a while since I wrote a blog, but it is because of the simple reason that not a lot happened last week. Tuesday a new group of scientists, glaciologist, was supposed to arrive and we were , also supposed, to go to Romnoes again. The game breaker was the Antarctic weather! It has been limiting our moves the whole third week here and sometimes even locking us up inside. During this week the most exciting thing was an infection of the water supply on Monday. The water we drink is actually just melted snow so an infection of the centralized system would cause severe troubles. Luckily, when the water engineer detected the bacteria the colonization was still in an early state and they were able to kill the bacteria with a hypochlorite treatment. The infection did cause some rumble amongst the people here as they were informed not to use water that evening. The next day I could let out my inner scientist, Aymar asked me to quantify the remaining free chlorine and we put the bacteria under the microscope to let everyone have a view as a sort of information campaign.

Tuesday, the news arrived that the plane carrying besides the scientists also a lot of food and parts was not going to arrive before Friday. But we were not complaining, the guys who should have been arriving that day must feel terrible with the 3 day delay and furthermore they are stuck in Novo Air Base. Not the most exciting place on the planet. With the high winds outside the choice in things to do is limited. Fitness, watching movies and helping in the kitchen gets boring rather fast so, I offered my services to Mathieu, the chief carpenter. I could help with the isolation of the garage, putting up a vapor screen and finishing the walls with OSB. Mathieu and the guys were very happy with the helping hand and so was I, feeling useful again.

Benoit and I made it our specialty to launch weather balloons in the high winds (50-60kph constant). It is impressive, barely being able to see the station from the launch site 200m away because of the amount of snow in the air and the need to have the balloon firmly between two arms while the other fills it in order to prevent the wind from tugging it away prematurely. Friday, the weather finally got better and it enabled us to check upon all the instruments that were exposed to the storm. It definitely gave us a lot of confidence to find everything in perfect working shape; they should all be able to get to the end of the season before they are brought inside again for the winter. The sunny weather should also allow planes to take off and land again right? Again bad luck for the glaciologist team, a medical evacuation on the Japanese station occupied all logistic services the whole day. Finally the next day, Saturday, the plane arrived and I went with a small team to welcome and unload the DC-3 plane. In the afternoon Manu and I went out in the field to re-flag the route to Teltet. It’s been some years since this was done and most flags disappeared so Alain asked us to put new ones. Every 200m to the mountain, we put a bright red flag indicating the safe route to follow.

On recreation day, Sunday, we immediately got to use our new route since Aymar and I went again to Teltet, this time by skidoo bringing ski’s and a snowboard. The wind of the last week has an advantage; it deposits a fresh layer of snow on the mountain slope. Perfect conditions for some winter sports. It is an incredible feeling to go down, drawing long curvy lines on the powdery slope. Snowboarding in Antarctica; with incredible views over the mountains, we both took some time to just sit in silence and let it sink in! The only downside is that there is no elevator so the only way to go up is to climb, but it is most definitely worth it!

Monday we would finally have another go to try to get to Romnoes to exchange filters. At 10 am we departed, a team of three consisting of Manu, Stefania and me on skidoo’s. The road was, like last time, rough. Consisting of deep icy holes and ridges it was difficult to maintain speed. The bumps also caused issues with the sledge and the cargo to loosen. We were really pushing the skidoo’s, trying to go fast enough to fly over the little bumps but no too fast to anticipate the big ones. After four hours we finally surpassed the point where we had to return the previous time, it already felt like a victory to me. The last 10 km another obstacle came up. Bumpy blue ice. It is beautiful but the skidoo’s have very little grip on this hard ice. It may sound like good times to do some small drifts but the fun quickly ends when the track catches a bump and nearly tips the skidoo. Again, it forced us to go slow and steady but that way we finally arrived at the site. Weather was as good as it gets and because of this we could go very easy and clean on the exchange. Following our tracks with 2 Prinoth snow tractors, a lot of trailers and a Case tractor was Alain and his machine operators. They were going to Perseus 10 km south of where we were to clear a blue ice runway for an Ilushin plane to land. Of course, we stopped on our way back to say hello, drink a coffee and thank them for creating a highway back to the station. The tracks of the big machines broke the tough ice and filled the holes creating a perfect surface for the scooters to go back to the station. Averaging 40 kph everyone in the station was surprised to see us pop up before supper started. Wednesday the final big field trip is planned, we will set up camp near the coast, 130 km away from the station and stay there for 3 days. In that time we will service the two stations there and set one new one up at breid bay right on the edge of the ice shelf.

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The Plateau


BLOG 5 02/12/2018

Tuesday we were a bit hungover from the failed expedition of the day before. Since there was no chance of going out in the field that day, we worked on the active sampling installations. We decided to run a test for a few days first to see if everything operates as it should. A few days ago I discovered the ambient temperature sensor on one of the instrument was broken, it’s not strictly necessary in order to sample but we need the pressure and temperature data to calculate accurate concentrations. Since I had some spare time on my hands the sensor was disassembled from the machine and I took it to the electrical ‘shop to figure out what was causing the trouble. The broken part was quickly identified and the colleagues in Ghent managed to order it and dropped it off with a scientist arriving at the station next week Tuesday. It’s not exactly next day delivery but still, not too bad for one of the most remote regions on earth.

Wednesday we had a quick meeting with Alain; we would try to reach the plateau again on Thursday but first we had to adjust the poles a little bit since he thought it’s better to drill them 1 meter into the ice and have the wooden board, which keeps them from sinking, closer to the ice surface. Again, all cases where filled with all the bottles we need for the exchange and installation. There are a lot! Empty ones, clean filters, backups, and that is just sampling material. We also needed to bring screwdrivers, shovels, chainsaws; we checked everything multiple times as we can’t risk forgetting anything or having the expedition aborted by a broken part. Check, double check, and check again. The next day the quick breakfast was followed by preparing lunch for the day, loading the Hilux and departure! We departed early, it is only a 55km drive (:-) .... from webmaster) but the Hilux averages around 15kph, not exactly highway speeds, because of the rubber tracks and the rough terrain. However, it is much more comfortable than a skidoo since you’re warm, protected from the wind and it’s possible to have a conversation. We even managed to take a small nap! The first hours passed quite fast and we arrived at the first site where we would replace the filters. However the poles where not there! Apparently, we made a slight navigational mistake (oops!) which was corrected quickly after which we got the three poles in our sights! Conditions are very different here compared to the valley next to the station! The katabatic wind is constant and ice is deposited immediately on everything staying still for more than a minute, including ourselves! It are difficult conditions to do fieldwork but with the aid of Henri and Manu and some perseverance, we were able to finish everything in around one hour. On to the next one, 20 km further up into the plateau, we would install a new station at an altitude of almost 2400m. Everybody warned us about the conditions there and they were right. Blazing winds combined with -25°C hit you in the face like a hammer the moment you open the door. Completely covered with balaclava, ski goggles and our thickest jackets we went to work! Manu and Henry started drilling while I mounted the sample holders to the poles and Stefania did the snow sampling. Installing the poles into their holes went quite easy thanks to the preparation. Despite the hard work and the body generating enough heat, I did manage to get some cold burn on my cheeks while working face first in the wind to secure all material in place. After taking some quick pictures, we were all very happy to be back in the Hilux, success! Time for celebration tea!

12 hours after departing, we were welcomed back by the station beautifully reflecting the low sun and Christine, the cook, who had kept 4 plates with fish and rice aside for us! Not the average day at the office, thanks to everyone involved! Friday and Saturday where quite calm. As there were some works happening to our measurement shelter we couldn’t run any active sampling. Instead, we took the time to wrestle ourselves through the enormous amount of instruments Alexander from the KMI/RMI has installed here. Some needed complete reinstallation, some calibration and some just a ‘gentle tap’ to get them going again. Also we saw some other people than the 24 currently living in the station as a plane arrived with some supplies. It was a Twin Otter this time and it’s always nice to go and see the plane takeoff up close. In the afternoon of Saturday, 2 weeks in already, we did the final fine-tuning and started with the active sampling. The high volume sampler will run for one week continuously taking into account the wind direction and speed, and will collect around 2000m3 of air. For our weekly recreational activity on Sunday, Aymar, the water engineer, and I went out on Nordic ski’s to do a 16km tour to Teltet, a mountain nearby, and back. It was a nice relief after a busy week to just ski with nothing on the mind, under a bright sun and a slight breeze. For sure, one shouldn’t underestimate the intensity of this sport, the French fries for diner where more than welcome! We are ready for week 3 on the Antarctic.

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Antarctic wheather


BLOG 4 26/11/2018

The good weather had to end at some point, so guess what happened Friday. High wind speeds combined with blown up ice made it difficult to work outside. We did find a little window between the blazing winds to go outside and install the automatic weather station of Utrecht University we put on the roof earlier to connect with its satellite. Installation was easy thanks to the straightforward design and easy-to-read guide included. If only every scientific instrument was that easy to handle, congrats to the developers. Data is available on so if you are interested in the weather we are experiencing you can check it out.

While Stefania was working on one of Alexanders (KMI) instruments, I was in a place where I feel very at home; the workshop. To optimize the sampling of dust particles for isotope analysis (one of Stefania’s topics) the inlet system of the pump put in place last year had to be improved. In the preparation, we decided we were going to use one of the passive sampling devices and turn it active. However, with no details on the already installed connections the modification was impracticable to do in advance so we took the risk to do it in the station’s ‘shop. At the end of the day and with the help of Pierre, the chief mechanics, we had a sampling head to be proud of! During diner I met a familiar face, Bryce, who gave me a lesson in how to use GIS for Antarctica some months ago, suddenly turned up at the station. With a team of four they are looking for the oldest ice in Antarctica and their plane had to make a refueling stop.

Saturday the weather continued on the same trend. We were warned by Henri to stay inside as whiteouts may occur. Even trips to our measurement shelter were to be registered. So the only option I had was to do some more work in the workshop (poor me). This time we prepared all the new poles and plates on which we will mount the samplers at the new passive sampling sites and dry fitted everything. We got notice Monday we may leave for the plateau to do the two sampling sites there so everything should be ready to go. Boxes and bottles were prepared and made ready to fit on the vehicle taking us there. A heavily modified Toyota Hilux truck with rubber tracks instead of wheels.

But first, the next day; some relaxing. With a small group including our field guide Manu and the Doc we did a skidoo tour to Dry Valley, around 45 minutes. The route on the ice plane between two mountain ridges was beautiful. Towards the end of the tour, the wind picked up and there was no fun in continuing the tour. We turned off the route and drove up to a smaller but steeper glacier bringing us up to 2200m altitude where it got too steep for the skidoo’s so we walked to the ridge on foot. Views were, again, breathtaking and the remains of the bad weather of the last days added a slight amount of drama to the mountain peaks.

Monday Stefania and I woke up early and excited, today were going to the plateau. Then, minutes before departure, we got a phone call from Alain, there is a storm on the plateau and we can’t go. I went to vent the frustrations on the roof of the garage where a pile of snow had accumulated because of last week’s weather. Shoveling it off together with a few guys proved an ideal way to turn the bad energy into something good! And good news followed. We would take the preparations we made for the Plateau and hop on the snow scooter for a trip to Romnoes (70km) where another one of the already installed sampling stations is located. The schedule was to drive 2.5 hours but the rough terrain made it very difficult to maintain speed. After 3.5 hours of driving, we were still 10km from the site and facing almost impossible terrain to cross. Furthermore, the weather started to become threatening with wind speed picking up. Manu had to make a call, which was to return on our trace and drive back to the station. The disappointment was enormous but in the end, safety is more important and Stefania and I both agreed with the decision. But we will get you next time Romnoes!

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Training days


BLOG 3 22/11/2018 Training Days

Hello dear readers,
To measure the composition of the atmosphere in Antarctica, that is why we’re here after all, we use different types of sampling methods. One of those methods consists of passive samplers that were put up at sites on a 200 km line (which we will extent even further this year) from the Ser Rondane Mountains plateau to the coast. This way we will get information in function of the distance to coast and station, altitude level and surroundings. The samplers are set-up and left there for a year after which, the filters inside are exchanged and the process of collecting material starts again. However, for this experiment you need a lot of field work and to do all this work outside safely in the challenging environment of Antarctica we needed some specialized training. Therefore, Monday started with some medical training were we refreshed our first aid skills but we also got some specific training for cold and remote environments. You’d better not break a leg here because a medevac will take anything between 24 and 72 hours. After this, the medical training focused on ‘mountain rescue’ were we learned how to fixate and transport an injured person in need. In the afternoon we got up and close with what would be our transport method of choice the weeks to come. Skidoo’s! Or snowscooters, each scientist here has one appointed to them personally and also should take care of it, so learning the basic mechanics is useful on the base as well as in the case of a failure in the field. The day was finished with an introduction to GPS and navigation here on the continent.

Next day that GPS and Skidoo training was immediately put up to a test. In bad weather conditions we had to do a 15km tour around a mountain named Teltet, via the remains of one of the first Belgian expeditions here in the region, after which we stopped at a big rip in the ice. Time for the strawberry on top of the training days; Crevasse training! Crevasses are longitudinal cracks in the ice, often tens of meters deep and hundreds long, created by the movement of the ice. They pose a big danger for the people in the field, so learning how to rescue someone who fell in to one is essential. Of course we all had the chance to go into the big ice cave hanging on a rope, it was a magical experience. Winds increased pretty badly which gave us a challenge for the final task of the training, setup a storm tent. It was a good exercise since we will be spending some nights in the same tent when going to the coast. In the afternoon we got some free time on our hands so decided to clean up our shelter were we will be doing the active sampling, while already starting to install some of the equipment needed, like pumps, flow meters, sensors and the radio system for the weather balloons. While doing this we noticed the power was cut so we informed Benoit, the electrical engineer, who performed wonders to make sure the power was returned and steady.

Benoit is also the person who will be launching the weather balloons this year. We aimed for Wednesday 11UTC to launch the first one of the season. And so, under a bright sun, Stefania, Benoit, the Doc and me all launched our first weather balloon on our own. It did relay all data very well and flew to a stellar 24.5km high. Since the meteo was nice that afternoon we also went out in the field on a skidoo to visit the closest passive sampling site about 5km from the station. I have to admit there was some euphoria when suddenly out of the snowy planes we saw five shiny samplers mounted on their poles. The exchange of filters went fast and clean and within one hour, we were ready with our field work. See you next year samplers! Unfortunately we lacked some material to service the inorganic samplers from Stefania so… we already had to return to the site the next day to finish everything. This time we took Manu, our field guide for the upcoming field expeditions, so he had the chance to get to know the instruments, and the Doc who also is social media manager from time to time. The upcoming days we will be completing the setup of all the active sampling equipment and preparing the field expedition to the plateau were we’ll set up one new sampling site and maintaining the one that’s already there. See you!

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Finally arrived


BLOG 2: 19/11/2018: Polar Jetlag

Last days were very interesting! Thursday evening we all went for diner together for a last time in civilization. Stefania and I will only stay for one month but many of us are staying there for the whole season, until March next year. The separation from family and friends for this amount of time takes a mental preparation and you could notice. After the diner, we said goodbye to the darkness of the night we will miss for some weeks and went to sleep. We’ll be getting up early the next day to go to the airport.

Friday fly day! We arrived at the airport where, again, Michel was already waiting for us to show us where to go check in and to guide us through security. Fun fact, the departures screen was actually showing the flight to Antarctica and there was a regular check-in desk dedicated to the ALCI flight to Novo Air Base. Many people looked at us with envy of the amazing place for which we were queuing up. One person offered to trade our ticket with his but we kindly, I’ve got a PhD to do. At the gate we tried to catch a quick nap and said goodbye to Michel, the awesome logistics manager who made cape town a stop without any stress. At 9.20 am everything became very real when boarding began on the Boeing 757 plane modified to carry more cargo. It would take us 5 and a half hours to reach
Novo Air Base where the pilot nailed the landing on a blue ice runway!

Since everyone boarded the plane in summer clothes, we brought our polar clothing with us in a separate bag. The moment the stewards announced to change into polar clothing the adrenaline levels rose with everyone! This place is amazing, endless ice planes as far as you can see under a bright polar sun. However, the euphoria we experienced with the first steps onto the Antarctic ice turned quickly! The chef of the air base told us our plane to the Princess Elisabeth base most likely wasn’t flying anymore. We took mental hit but decided to make the best of it and prepared for a cold night in a container, until suddenly a guy ran into the room to tell us we should be ready in 5 minutes because the plane would land in 10min and then fly straight to the base.

The plane in fact was a modified Douglas DC-3, which was an experience all on its own. The three Canadians flying this historical plane managed to put down its ski’s rather roughly on the skiway close to the Belgian base. The welcome party was large despite of the late hour (2 am local time – still daylight however) and we were received with only smiles and happy faces! That is when I realized all the regular visitors have a second family over here and I hope that soon I will be a small part of it!

Saturday started with a very relaxed tour around the station by the one and only Alain Bernard! Being a zero emission base, the energy and water consumption is monitored and controlled very tightly. A central computer controls every outlet and when the energy provided by the wind and sun is insufficient, the energy to some is cut off. Only when one walks around in and around the station you really start appreciating the amazing beauty of the surroundings and the way the station fits in.
Despite the futuristic look of the building, the inside is really comfortable and nice to live in. Before ending the day with a drink, we decided to put one of the instruments for metrology on the roof to initialize and got to experience how simple actions become much more complicated by the constant wind and cold.

Like in many other parts of the world Sunday here is a rest day. However, since a bunch of adrenaline junkies surround us no one stays in the couch and watches a movie. Actually there are many activities around and you can join whichever you want going from hiking, climbing, snowboarding etc. as long as you respect your limits. I decided to go with a group of 8 on the ‘Windscoop’ tour, which is a 3 hour walk on the glacier around the nearest mount peak. Equipment existed of crampons (spiky things to put on your shoes) and ice picks to climb the glacier walls. The wind and heat from the mountain erodes the glacier resulting in breathtaking passages between blue ice and rocks. After the tour, one of the mountain guides, Zavat, asked me if I wanted to climb to the top. Off course! So we split off in a smaller group of four and left all the heavy clothing (it was a sunny day after all), rucksacks and crampons to be lighter. The first part of the climb went over big boulders that were quite manageable for the average climber but due to the steep walls which faded into ice (remember we left the crampons) the level rose quickly to the point I thought I could not do it. However, Zavat really pulled me trough and together we got to the summit. The adrenaline rushing through the veins, the sight was amazing and the feeling was even better, these memories will last forever and I have 1 man to thank for that! Anyhow, regardless of the 24-hour daylight here falling asleep was no problem that night. Next days we will be occupied by various trainings (Skidoo,
Medical, Mountain rescue, crevasse and navigation) and towards the end of the week, we will visit the first passive sampling sites installed last year by Christophe and Nadine!
See you!
Preben and Tefi.

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Departure to Antarctica


BLOG 1: 15/11/2018

It is been 3 days already since our departure in Brussels so the time for a first blogpost has come.

Tuesday evening after a long flight, we finally arrived in Cape Town where Michel was already waiting for us. The next day immediately started with practicalities. Michel drove us in the back of his pick-up truck to the ‘IPF store’, an office building filled with all the equipment you can imagine needed for a polar expedition. The whole team tried a lot of different boots, hats, jackets, etc. and with the help of the experienced members, everyone put together their polar equipment bag.

After a quick stop at the airport, to check if our air cargo boxes loaded with experimental equipment arrived well (it was!), we had the rest of the day off. Thus in the afternoon we went out to go climb Lion’s Head; it is a relatively easy hike of 4 hours, although there are some more challenging parts where one has to use chains and grips to cross some ledges. Lion’s head is a small mountain right in the center of Cape Town and the top gives amazing panoramic views over the city, the ocean and table mountain. We walked down during the golden hour with the sunset in the background, a perfect end of the day.

This morning we had the briefing with ALCI (the flight operator) and already had to drop off the bag containing most of our clothes we will wear in Antarctica. Tomorrow we will fly to Novo airbase by a Boeing 757 aircraft that will take off at 9.00 local time to arrive around 5 hours later. Then a connecting flight should take us to the Princess Elisabeth Station. So next blog will be written from the most southern continent!


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