As scheduled, today we successfully flew from McMurdo Station in Antarctica to Christchurch New Zealand. Here is a summary of the day.
Before boarding the plane, I was able to get one last peek at Mt. Erebus, and what a spectacular view was that! There was a lenticular cloud floating in the sky above the volcano, something which—like the plume of smoke that I saw yesterday—I had never seen before. The cloud hid the upper half of the volcano, but the sky was clear just out and around the cloud and the Sun was able to direct its rays against its lower slopes. This is the scenery I had before my eyes as I said farewell to Antarctica.
We boarded the plane around 9:15 am, took our seats and were each given a pair of ear plugs to wear during the flight, as the airplane engines are very loud. About 40 people were flying and the crew announced that we would be in for a cramped flight, but everything went fine and I cannot say that I felt uncomfortable at any moment. The plane was again a ski-equipped LC-130 with people sitting parallel to the fuselage in the front and cargo in the rear compartment.
Passengers traveling or returning from McMurdo are usually given sandwiches to eat during the flight. Today, I somehow got more than the usual share, with three ham and cheese sandwiches, a hamburger, plus a sausage sandwich that James handed me over. The sausage sandwich was a delightful feature of this trip, and the ham and cheese sandwiches each had a very generous portion of real ham that made for a real treat.
Weather conditions were good throughout, and eight hours later—about 5:15 pm—we landed safely at Christchurch International Airport in New Zealand's south Island.
We cleared immigration and customs in less than 15 minutes, and then headed towards the International Antarctic Center, which is located next to the airport and can be reached after a short 10-minute walk. After 18 days in Antarctica, the 22 °C (72 °F) weather of Christchurch felt oppressively hot and humid. But the sight of vegetation and the smell of flowers was a pleasant surprise.
We immediately proceeded to the Clothing Distribution Center (CDC) where we turned over the extreme cold weather (ECW) gear that had been issued to us three weeks before. We shed all our gear and changed to lighter, casual clothing in tune with New Zealand's summer climate. We were then given woven patches with the United States Antarctic Program (USAP) logo to keep as a gift, and were also handed over our hotel destinations and updated flight itineraries.
A shuttle bus came to pick us up, and the driver turned out to be the same friendly gentleman that had come for me at the airport when I first arrived at Christchurch, very early on January 5. After a short, pleasant ride, we arrived at Hotel Elms in downtown Christchurch.
Tomorrow I will board a commercial flight that will take me to Sydney, Australia, followed by another to Dallas, Texas, in turn followed by a final flight to San Juan, Puerto Rico. A few days after my return to the island I will post one or two additional journal entries explaining my return to the classroom and acknowledging all who helped make my South Pole journey possible.
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