Scullin Monolith Endeavour (by dogs).
So, finally it was our turn to prove we could ride the dog sledges! During the year the others came back with glorious reports of their 'Intrepid Encounters' of the Antarctic environment with the ever contradicting knife sharp judgements on the individual dogs performances.
This time it was our turn to make a contribution to the rich history of Mawson's field trips, by making a dog trip to Scullin Monolith. The group consisted of Magus (Tom Maggs), our devoted dog man, just resigned as radio operator, Drobo (Dave Robinson), our devoted Goon impersonator, in normal life Ipso, Gnome (Andy Crook), our devoted whip handler, in normal life diesel mechanic, and Sojo (Sjoerd Jongens) our devoted ham operator, in normal life electronics engineer.
Magus made sure he was well prepared for the trip by reading all he could find about Sir Douglas Mawson's Antarctic experiences, to which he regularly referred, and collecting maps and reports of previous trips in that direction. But Magus reckoned we would set a record because Scullin has never been visited by a dog team! A depot has been dumped near Scullin by helicopter last summer, on which trip Gnome was a passenger, so he could tell us all about the location.
On the weekend before our departure Magus, Drobo and our OIC Syd Kirkby set out in a snow mobile to set up one day travelling from Mawson, so the first leg would not be too hard going uphill onto the plateau.
During the last days of preparation we loaded the two 'best' sledges we could find around the base in the vehicle workshop, our departure date a bit delayed by bad weather for a few days: snow drift and winds up to 80 knots! The freshly formed snow layer would cause us some trouble as we later discovered.
The weather cleared up on Friday October 31, so we made our last minute packing and repacking: our sledges ended up weighing about 300 kg each, and it would end up about 400 kg after we loaded the first depot. We better eat a lot in the first few days!
We took off at 09.15 MBT on Saturday morning November 1 and nobody saw us out because everybody was occupied elsewhere in the 'Saturday Council Duties'.
Contrary to previous experiences we didn't need the assistance of motorised vehicles to pull us up the plateau. Both teams pulled very well. Magus and Sojo were running ahead with Moby as lead dog. Apparently the leading sledge was a bit top heavy so the sledge toppled over about five times before we reached Gwamm, breaking a handlebar in the process. Maybe this story is a bit distorted or maybe the handlebar broke when Sojo was trying to hold on to the sledge taking off in top speed. Anyway we reached the depot (60km from Mawson and 600m up) 7.5 hours later.
Ten minutes after our arrival a snow drift started to pick up, so we hurriedly put up the tent and crashed.
Next morning Magus fell for Noogis's affection and decided to swap dog teams. Also this way the heavier sledge was pulled by the following dog team, which was a lot easier to spur than the leading team. Noogis was back in his favoured position: 'The Great Leader'.
We made about 15 km today: slow going over heavy sastrugi made of snow that wasn't really strong enough to support us, so we regularly sank about a foot deep. Weather forecast from Mawson that night:
Fine weather tomorrow.
Monday November 3: snow drift
Tuesday November 4: snow drift (over 60 knots)
Wednesday November 5: ground drift.
Highlights of the day: having to get all dressed up to feed the dogs or obey nature's call.
Thursday November 6: finally let's go! Let's get out of this place. The dogs jumped into their harnesses and pulled our arms out walking up to the traces. We took off by 13.30 MBT. The sastrugi was partly filled up, but it was still hard going. After about 2 hours struggling, Magus discovered that we broke a longitudinal support of our sledge. We stopped at a comfortable location to try to patch it up. We opened our St Johns first aid handbook and treated the broken support with a splint that used to be a spare tent pole.
Next morning we took off with great confidence in our repair capabilities and made a good start until Drobo discovered that he had lost his camera bag. He started to walk back until he became a very small spot on the white horizon. Gnome decided to follow him and led Moby's team all by himself of which he was very proud. On their return, after one and a half hours we discovered another nasty breakage, this time Gnome and Drobo's sledge had broken it's runner, and was only held together by the Teflon lining. Magus decided this was too much to continue travelling.
What a disappointment. Only about 50 miles (90 km) made and not even half way to Scullin! Dogs and men were in good condition but obviously the sledges weren't! We decided to spend the remaining time leisurely. We pitched up the tent with nothing but snow to the horizon in every direction: Mt Henderson was out of sight.
Sojo decided to use the carefully saved batteries and to set up the ham gear on the sledge. First attempt not very successful; batteries too weak.
That night the wind was very apparent by it's absence. Drobo said he couldn't sleep because of the silence. Or maybe it was today's consternation?
The next day we decided to spend also at our makeshift holiday resort. In the afternoon going for a bit of a walk. Very careful not to let the tent out of sight! We brushed up on our card games.
That night Sojo made another attempt on the ham radio, this time inside the tent, with two batteries parallel warmed up in a bucket of steaming hot water. He chatted for over an hour to a female ham operator in South Africa, occasionally handing over the microphone to Magus. A female voice out in this wilderness was obviously appreciated!
Next morning (Sunday November 9) we decided to swap sledges, so the leading, and lightest, would be the one with the broken runner. The dog teams stayed as they were: Noogis leading. Weather was exceptional - no wind and brilliant sunshine. We decided to take off some clothing, and there we were - sun baking on a dog trip in the Antarctic! Pity the dogs couldn't take something off, they had a bit of trouble with the temperature. The pace was very easy, Noogis mostly followed the old track and hardly needed any guidance. We just sat on the sledge and enjoyed the Antarctic at it's best.
That night we had trouble sleeping on our sunburned backs! We reached Mt Henderson but the next day after a fast and mostly easy run. Even the run up Mt Henderson to the caravan went in top speed. The dogs smelled home! We could see the sea-ice from up there and could nearly smell Mawson ourselves.
Ah, we could sleep in relative comfort again, on a bed, and sit up, make tea over a stove and lay cards on a table! That night Sojo made another two contacts by ham radio, laying in his sleeping bag, talking to the South African base Sanae and to Zimbabwe.
On that morning, Tuesday November 11, we made some 'group pickies' with Mt Henderson in the background, and at 14.30 MBT took off for the home run.
That last bit downhill on the hard 'blue ice' is quite hairy! The sledge continually tends to overtake the dogs, so you sit there on the brake all the way down, your bones shaking to bits over the rough surface. Anyway we made it to Mawson by 16.30 MBT the way we left - not another soul in sight. Nice to be back home . . . .