Sunday, February 12, 2006

Planes, penguins, and dentist's chairs

Having reacquainted myself with Stanley I was soon in the dentist's chair. There's only one hospital in town, and it includes the dentist, optician and pharmacy. The dentist did a better x-ray of the teeth and concluded that there was indeed a fracture so it would be best to go for an extraction. At the time he suggested the tooth would be replaced with a bridge, effectively a false tooth stuck to the ones either side. Unfortunately when I went back a week later he'd changed his mind and decided to replace it with a denture, meaning I would be having to take it out at night. In the event the tooth came out fairly easily, due to it having been dead for quite a few years, and the whole thing was done inside an hour. I was pleasantly surprised that once the anaesthetic had worn off it wasn't too painful either. I'm still getting used to the denture, but it was the best thing to do rather than run the risk of things getting infected in the middle of winter.

The things some people will do for a trip out

I managed to keep myself busy for the rest of my 10 day stay in Stanley. Some of the guys from Halley had asked me get various things for them so I had a fun time scouring all the shops. There were a couple of cruise ships in over the week as well. As Stanley is a small place, with a population of just a couple of thousand, when a large cruise ship visits which might be carrying about a thousand passengers, this makes a huge difference. Everyone in Stanley always seems pleased to see visitors though, and most people are happy to stop and chat and point out various sights in the town. Quite a few of the locals act as tour guides too, taking people to see wildlife, or the battle sites from the 1982 conflict.

Given it's size there is a surprising amount of variety and things to do in and around Stanley. I managed to get to the museum and Cartmell Cottage, both providing a fascinating insight into the history of both people and wildlife in the area. The maritime history of the town is very evident from the multitude of shipwrecks that still lie in the waters around Stanley, most of which I saw on a walk out to Gypsy Cove to see a large Magellanic penguin colony. There are also more unusual sites such as the whale bone exhibition, the owner of which also has a pet reindeer in his front garden! On the social side I was invited to another two Burns celebrations, so I've done very well for haggis this year. There seem to be quite a few Scots down in the Falklands, I think the scenery must remind them of home.

Stanley pet

In order to try and get back to Halley before the end of the summer season, it was decided that I should fly over to Punta Arenas in Chile, and catch a Dash7 from there back down to Rothera. So after a short flight over I found myself in South America for the first time. Punta is quite a small city, easy enough to get round on foot. In some ways it is similar to Stanley, with lots of brightly coloured houses featuring corrugated iron roofs, although there are also larger buildings in the centre, remnants of the city's earlier success in the wool and mining trades. This area of South America is now becoming more popular with tourists, so there are plenty of bars around and bus tours out to the local attractions. We went out for a day to see a large Magellanic penguin colony, and also tried to get to the Natiohal Park, although unfortunately it was shut. Punta was also a good opportunity to get some last minute shopping, and practise my Spanish on unwitting natives.

Penguins enjoying a bath

As with most BAS related transport, weather was a key factor in the timing of our flight down to Rothera, so having missed our intended flight day due to bad weather we were all quite keen to get away the following day. Having been fast tracked through Punta airport we walked out to the Dash waiting on the apron. Unlike most commercial carriers, with BAS Airlines you get to carry your own luggage, load it onto the plane yourself, and make your own tea and coffee. However it all adds to the experience, and you also get to go and chat to the pilots and listen in on their radio conversations. We were expecting a 4 or 5 hour flight so most people had decided to get some sleep, having been up fairly late the night before. As we were awoken by loud banging noises outside the aircraft we started to focus our attention a little. Evidently we had hit some colder weather and were starting to experience some ice build up. The Dash has four propeller engines, and the props have de-icing measures built in, except on the tips which rely on centrifugal force to disperse any build up. In this instance it was dispersing rather large chunks of ice into the side of the fuselage at high speed, with disconcerting results. However we have complete faith in our pilots, and as we were less than an hour away from Rothera hoped this wouldn't be too much of a problem. Our faith was tested somewhat when it was announced that were unable to get out of the bad weather, and so would have to turn back to Punta Arenas! So after about 9 hours flying we ended up back where we had started.

The next day was deemed no good for flying, but the good news was that the pilots had spotted a weather window the following day. The bad news was that they wanted a 5am take off, meaning we had to be up at 3:30 to leave the hotel. Having weighed up the options I decided not to bother going to bed, so was a little bleary eyed when we headed back to Punta airport. We were greeted by a solitary, bemused looking security guard, but were soon back on the plane ready to go, waiting patiently for someone to switch on the runway lights..... Luckily we had an uneventful flight down and arrived safely at Rothera, although I'd only been away for 18 days it felt like much more. Our final hurdle to jump involved having our shoes checked and our clothes hoovered as part of an investigation by a couple of the scientists into alien species being brought into the Antarctic. Soon enough I was back in the canteen enjoying scones and jam, safe once more in the bosom of BAS after my brief sojourn into the Real World.

Dash7 waiting for early morning takeoff