On 2 November I embarked on the longest journey of my life. It was also the most extended continuous stay away from my country, and from the world in general.
After saying farewell to my parents in my home town of Larisa, my brother Aris and I drove all the way to Thessaloniki, the second-largest city of Greece, in Macedonia. We tried to make the most out of the night and steal some great moments of amity from the relentless gods of time. Fifteen of my friends, luminous people I am lucky to have close to me, joined us for the last night out.
Even though it was early November, luckily the weather in Greece was exceptional, as is often the case. This was a very nice and hopeful message for me, an ode to joy, and I would like to return to the same sunshine, when I return.
Thessaloniki is the perfect city to say goodbye to the world. Brisk, vivid, lively with young people and, for me, busking with colourful memories, like valuable gems. It is the city where I lived as a student in Medicine and began my training in hospitals. As I looked upon the majesty of the Aegean Sea from the city promenade, leaving the world for an alien Antarctic outpost seemed difficult, for a moment. Luckily, a warm family of close friends was there to alleviate my spirits.
It was a hazy morning when we woke up and I knew it to be the beginning of adventures. The clock was ticking bringing closer the moment I would eventually part.
Saying goodbye was tricky. I tried to focus on what I have come to embrace: Concordia will be a life-changing adventure, one that is really worth living and hard to achieve. At the same time, I am “only” going away for a year. People have been through much worse…
Still, saying goodbyes is challenging, particularly for a person like myself that used to be quite nostalgic. The taste of the last kiss from my girlfriend at the Lyon Part-Dieu station in France stays in my mind, as does the embrace of my parents. I carry the memory and blessings of many friends with me in their parting gifts, many of which are not to be opened for the next nine months or so. The most difficult goodbye next to the one in Lyon was parting with my brother, with whom I share so much in life. A moving moment, but as he said, the feelings will be reversed next year.
Passing through the first of many airport controls at the terminal, the moment had come to embark on the voyage and join a crew of 13 in the frosty lands of Antarctica. There are two kinds of crew members that go to Concordia. The first visit the Station to run experiments or provide technical support in the summer. These people of the Summer Campaign leave with the last planes in early February. The second type of people stay for an entire year at the Station, completing one overwintering at the centre of the Antarctic. We would belong to the second category, our team of 13 is a winterover crew identified by the initials DC10 that stand for Dome Circe, we are the 10th permanent winter expedition to stay here.
Not all the crew would leave together, though. Olivier and me would be the first ones to depart, others would follow shortly, with the last of our team arriving in mid-January of next year. Our trajectories would also differ, as we would set out from different starting points: France, Italy, or Greece. In my case, I caught my first flight a
At Thessaloniki Macedonia airport, in Northern Greece. This would take me to Athens, where I would change planes to end up at Dubai late in the evening. After spending the night there, I went to Bangkok, to catch a flight towards Sydney. The last leg of this trip was a flight to Christchurch, New Zealand, frome where many Antarctic expeditions start, and also the world capital of earthquakes.
There were a few funny moments during the journey. In Athens, for example, airport authorities called their counterparts in New Zealand a couple of times to confirm that I could enter their country on my way to reach Antarctica! In general, traveling to the southern ices is an uncommon practice for Mediterraneans and I beheld the strangest looks in peoples’ eyes when I flashed my passport in the counters and answered the standard “Hello, sir, final destination?” with “Well, Antarctica”.
In Christchurch, I was taken to a hotel and met a lot of people who would journey to Concordia Station with me for the Summer Campaign. Two big bags, full of special polar clothing delivered by IPEV were also awaiting me. Unfortunately, I did not have the time to enjoy the beauty of Aotearoa nor visit such places as the legendary café where Captain Scott stayed before his expedition. I’ll save my excitement for the return journey…
For those who have watched Francis Ford Coppola’s film “Apocalypse Now”, you might remember that the first chapter is entitled “Waiting in Saigon”, and the main character passes his time waiting for the action to happen. This would be our feeling over the next week at Christchurch. Every morning we would wake up early and prepare ourselves to leave for Antarctica, yet every time bad weather conditions at the icy coast postponed our flight.
Finally the day came and, half-dreaming, we were led to a special Antarctic terminal in Christchurch airport. The flags of all the signatories of the Antarctic Treaty were hanging on the ceiling and I was happy to see the Greek flag among them, as well as the flags of many European states.
Clad in our Antarctic outfits, we were boiling inside under the temperate New Zealand weather. Another funny moment came to pass as I forgot my sunglasses, gloves and hat in my luggage! I was definitely a rookie and showing it. Luckily, after short negotiations, the guard let me in the luggage area to search for my equipment and wear it – I would not enjoy arriving in Antarctica without a good pair of gloves and goggles. Next stop: Mario Zucchelli Station, then Concordia.
Seafaring explorers were traditionally accompanied by singing mermaids in their journeys. Not us! The only prevailing sound that ringed monotonously in our ears inside the hull of an aged C-130 was the cacophonous minstrel lurking in the spirit of our aircraft’s engine.
Eight hours of heavy noise in the belly of an iron bird with tiny windows and extremely limited space is hardly a hearty welcome to the seventh continent for those seeking luxury and ease. But the view we caught when we finally touched down on the ice at Terra Nova Bay was totally worth it. You could immediately spot the differences between those that had been in the Antarctic before and the new recruits, myself among them. Olivier and Giorgio seemed to be at home, while I wondered five to six times if I was wearing my gloves correctly or if i should change my sun mask. The rest of the time I did nothing but take photos, capturing the white majesty of the landscape and still trying to comprehend that our heavy plane had landed on nothing but ice, : the frozen sea! I later learned that the ice shelf was 2.5 m thick, with no Earth underneath it, and in a couple of months it would completely melt away as the summer took hold, only to reform under the influence of the frost in the winter.
The temperature was around -14 degrees, a bit low for a coastal area at this season. “Meme comme ça”, as we say in French, we all enjoyed the great hosting of our Italian friends at Mario Zucchelli Station , our middle stop on our way to Dome Circe. We were carried to the base, some by jeeps and some by helicopter. While most of the Concordia crew left a few hours later, Olivier and me, who were to spend the entire year at Concordia, lingered at Mario Zucchelli Station for three days. I remember every meal at the Italian base included pasta; also I spotted skoua birds for the first time.
It was 7 November when I entered Antarctica at Terra Nova Bay, near the Ross Sea. I felt immediately that I had made the right choice to come here. Later I would get my official diploma for entering the Antarctic Polar Circle. The journey would be over soon. ҉