Chapter- 15: Sojourn in the South Pole

Chapter- 15
Sojourn in the South Pole
15.1 Summer Arrives and the Antarctic Emergency Lifted
The first two helicopters were joyously welcomed at the Antarctic Meteorological Centre ‘Molodezhnaya’ with the onset of the summer. The icebreaker ‘Navarin’ was once again back to the Antarctic and was docked at the edge of the annual sea ice at a distance of about 150 km from the station ‘Molodezhnaya’.
These two helicopters had flown from the diesel-electric ship ‘Navarin’ and brought fresh food supply including sugar and white bread stuffs, thereby lifting nearly a year old emergency at the station ‘Molodezhnaya’ in Antarctica.
15.2 Antarctic Rewintering Proposal
While in Antarctica, I volunteered to rewinter there in order to do some more scientific work but my proposal could not be accepted by the Soviet authorities. According to the standing rules and regulations of the earswhile USSR Polar Expeditions, nobody is permitted to rewinter in Antarctica consecutively for another year. The Russians were taken aback by my voluntary option of rewintering in Antarctica.
Everyone was happy and anxious to go home but I was unhappy because my wish of rewintering in Antarctica was not being fulfilled. Also, I wanted to make a documentary film on Antarctica for my fellow Indians to investigate if ultimately we could also launch Antarctic Research Expeditions and lay the foundation of some Indian Research Bases in Antarctica. It was not being realised which made me unhappy.
It was something really very strange because all the other Expedition members were anxious to return home but I was not. In fact, I had developed a sort of love for Antarctica and I wanted to spend maximum time amidst its awful arms in order to explore all its secrets. However, the U.S. Antarctic programme gave me a documentary film on Antarctica which I brought home and showed it to all the people when I came back home to India after spending more than one and a half years in the Antarctic continent during my praticipation in the 17th Soviet Antarctic Expedition.
15.3 Sleepless 120 Hours in Antarctica
With the arrival of the relief parties at the Soviet Antarctic Station Molodezhnaya, we, however, got no relief. In fact, the load of work increased because all the fresh supplies had to be carried and put in the stores by the Expedition members themselves. I still remember that for continuous five days I could not sleep at all. In summer Antarctica, literally, sees no darkness because the sun does not set.
I could not sleep because of the load of work and exertion and the recording of all the scientific data which I had to bring back to India for our research work. However, on 24th December at 2220 hours Moscow time, I enjoyed forty winks of a sound sleep in the open cold arms of the blissful Antarctica near a crevasse after having kept awake continuously for about 120 hours. It was again, indeed, a very tough experience.
15.4 Indian Milestone in Antarctica
Knowing the co-ordinates of the two stations, viz., New Delhi as 28*35'N, 77*12'E and Molodezhnaya as 67*40's, 45*51'E, I calculated the distance and the direction between them to a fairly good accuracy and wrote it with paint on a metallic plate. I found out that ‘New Delhi’, the capital city of India is 11014 km distant from ‘Molodezhnaya’, the Headquarters of the Soviet Antarctic Expeditions.
I also calculated the corresponding direction of the Soviet Antarctic Meteorological Centre ‘Molodezhnaya’ with respect to ‘New Delhi’, India as 27*32' which is the angle made by the shortest line between ‘Molodezhnaya’ and ‘New Delhi’ with the meridian of the station ‘Molodezhnaya’. I wrote this calculated distance and direction of ‘New Delhi’ from ‘Molodezhnaya’ in three languages, Hindi, English and Russian on the metallic plate and fixed it on the station milestone on 22nd December.
15.5 Geomagnetic South Pole ‘Vostok’ Revisited by Sledge Train
After having finished my work at Molodezhnaya, I once again boarded the ship Navarin where my Russian friends gave me a hearty welcome. I was now back at the Mirny observatory in Antarctica. The Deputy Chief of the Hydrometeological Service of the USSR was on a short tour to the various Soviet Antarctic stations. I took his permission to accompany the tractor-driven sledge train from Mirny to Vostok, the Geomagnetic South Pole.
It was really a thrilling experience to travel 1500 km deep inland from sea coast to an elevation of 3488 metres above mean sea level on a tractor sledge which involved lot of trekking with footsore. It was my second visit to Vostok, the earth's Geomagnetic South Pole and I stayed there for quite some time and collected important scientific data. Its details are given in one of the earlier sections.
15.6 At the Geographic South Pole in Antarctica
The climax of our Antarctic Expedition came in when we reached the Geographic South Pole at the bottom of the world from the Geomagnetic South Pole ‘Vostok’ I got lost in my deep thoughts while standing at the South Pole (90*S) on a high ice-covered plateau more than 9000 feet above sea level. The temperature at that time was -60*C and the pressure much below the normal.
It was the place first reached by the great Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen on 14th December 1911. On January 17, 1912 about a month after Amundsen, Captain Scott and four other English men stood on the same spot who were later trapped by a blizzard and never returned home. I consider myself quite fortunate that from India I became the first person ever to get the privilege of wintering over the South Pole and circumnavigating and exploring the Antarctic continent during my participation in the 17th Soviet Antarctic Expedition.
At this historical place there is an American station called Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station which is in operation since 1957, the International Geophysical Year (IGY). The sun sets here for the winter on March 22, not to rise again until September 21. A full year consists of only one day and one night, each of six months duration! On June 21, the sun begins its ascent marking mid-winter day. As at all other Antarctic stations, this turning point of the winter was celebrated with gusto. With the day marked by the holiday routine, practically everyone of us slept late. The only exception was our cook who was busy preparing a lavish meal for that evening.
Roald Amundsen was a Norwegian explorer who led an Antarctic Expedition that reached the South Pole first. A British Expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott lost the race of reaching the South Pole first by about five weeks only. Roald amundsen was born in Borge near Oslo in 1872. He studied medicine and later took to sailing.
He was a typical Norwegian, about six feet tall, blue eyed, with light hair. He was inspired by his countryman Fridtjof Nansen, who had led the first party across Greenland and made an unsuccessful but valiant sledge journey to the North Pole. With an ambition in mind, he joined the navy and served as an ordinary seaman. He wanted to gain the hard experience in northern ice-bound waters. Later he took part in the Arctic and the Antarctic expeditions. He realised the importance of careful planning, determination and courage for achieving success.
When Rold Amundsen was about 31, he decided to complete a task that had begun long ago. He hoped to complete the voyage from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Arctic waters. Keeping the past experiences of the previous explorers in mind, he carefully planned the route. He was aware that ships had been crushed in the ice and hundreds of men had lost their lives due to storms, starvation and harsh weather. He thus took all the essential items with him.
He decided to use a small sealing vessel, the Gjoa. It was a strong vessel ready to face the perilous voyage. Besides the sails, she had a little motor to take her ahead when no wind blew. Six enthusiastic spirited men accompanied him on this historic voyage. After struggling against many odds, they finally arrived in Alaska. He had completed his task in three years.
His most famous exploit was yet to come which was the race to the South Pole, the other contestant being Robert Falcon Scott. The great explorer Roald Amundsen and his four companions had to sail, sledge and ski to their destination. He arrived at the South Pole on 14th December 1911 leaving a tent and a Norwegian flag there. His experience in the Arctic had thus enabled him to gain success. Next to arrive there was Robert Falcon Scott on 17th January 1912 alongwith his companions from the British empire who were later trapped in a blizzard and could never return home alive.
Patience, planning and a will to succeed gave this man the courage to face the fiercest of gales, stormiest of seas and even the jaws of death. A keen desire for adventure and an urge to explore made him explore the unexplored and open passages for other explorers, the way many before him had done for him.
This also helped me a lot in earning the unique historical distinction of being the first person from India ever to winter over the South Pole and circumnavigate and explore the Antarctic continent with my participation in the 17th Soviet Antarctic Expedition. In turn, my Expedition to Antarctica with the Soviets brought lot of laurels to India with its 100% success, which sparked tremendous interest in India for further exploration of Antarctica including opening of some Indian Research Bases in Antarctica, e.g., ‘Dakshin Gangotri’ and ‘Maitri’, with the regular launching of Indian Antarctic Expeditions since 1982 which was like a dream come true for me.
15.7 Welcome Home and Confrontation with the Customs Officer
All the polar explorers after having spent the harshest winter in Antarctica are heartily welcome when they return but I was rather tortured by the receiving customs officer at Calcutta. He asked me, “Where are you coming from”? I told him ‘Antarctica’. He again asked me and I gave him the same answer. He then said, “Please tell me the name of the country and not the city, since I do not know any city by the name ‘Antarctica’ in the world”. I said, “Antarctica is not a city, but it is a continent”.
After having tried my best when I could not convince him, he switched on to Hindi and said, “O.K, for how much time you want to stay in India and when are you going back to your native place Antarctica”. I said, “I am a citizen of India and a native also. Antarctica is not my native place. I had gone there on an Expedition”. “But where is this place located? I have still not followed,” said the customs official. “Please show me this place on the world map”.
So we turned to the map but, unfortunately, Antarctica was not shown there also. Then, I told him that I had been to a place known as the South Pole in the Antarctic continent where there is six months day and six months night. “Oh, I see! I had read about it in my school days, and now I have forgotten about it altogether, said the customs officer. So far I have not come across any Indian going to that place. Does it mean that the people from India have started settling there also..........”!
The customs officer who was the only official to receive me there, thus to some extent entertained me with his ignorance about ‘Antarctica’, and also bored me much when he saw some sample rocks from Antarctica with me saying that "These could be some costly stones such as some diamonds etc., I will, therefore, have to call a specialist to check them". Ultimately, the Russian Group Leader came to my help, and I was thus relieved from the customs office. This was the welcome I received on my return from such a horrible cold place, while in other countries the polar explorers get a hero's welcome.
15.8 Conclusions
On reaching home, I fell ill for about a fortnight due to the difference of extreme weather conditions of Antarctica and India and after having recovered from this illness when I was about to return to the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad where I was a Research Scientist, my father told me about the heart-sinking tragedy which shocked the entire nation after my departure for Antarctica. However, I could not know about this tragedy for almost two years. I was greatly shocked and upset by hearing these sad news on my return from Antarctica. In fact, to respect the wish of the great scientist Prof. Vikram A. Sarabhai, I had volunteered for the perilous Antarctic assignment of more than one and a half years.
We human beings like to dream, like to have ambitions and hopes. We cherish some ideals, we hold some ideas dear to our heart. While in Antarctica, I too used to dream of opening an Indian Research Base in Antarctica but I never knew that on my return to India, the source of my dreams and hopes will no longer be in this world. Professor Vikram A. Sarahbhai would have certainly appreciated my ambitions and dreams and also might have made them true. He would have very much liked to continue the Polar research by having such collaborations with the nations active in the Antarctic and Arctic and possibly by opening some Indian Antarctic Research Stations there. It should be now our commitment to achieve all the goals that the great soul had and would have strived to reach.
My Antarctic Odyssey in connection with scientific exploration of the upper atmosphere should, therefore, not be the end of the Indian contribution to Antarctic exploration but, in fact, it should be the beginning. I am really looking foreword to the day when India makes a landmark on Antarctica and opens an Indian Base there, which in addition to scientific explorations will also uplift our national prestige.
This dream has now come true with the launching of regular Indian Antarctic expeditions since 1982 and the opening of the Indian Antarctic stations ‘Dakshin Gangotri’ and ‘Maitri’ there.
15.9 Recognition and Awards for Antarctic Exploration
The Gujarat University Ahmedabad, India, has awarded me Ph.D. (Science) Degree for my Antarctic research work “Atmospheric Structure: Exploration over Antarctica and Interhemispheric Comparison.” In recognition of my active participation in the 17th Soviet Antarctic Expedition and scientific exploration of the Antarctic atmosphere and its environment, I have been awarded the prestigious ‘Soviet Antarctic Medal’, ‘Soviet Antarctic Ribbon’ and a special 24-hour ‘Soviet Antarctic Watch’, all of which bear a beautiful map of Antarctica.
The special Polar watch is so designed that it can distinguish between the conventional day and night even though there may prevail a six-month day and six-month night because its hours’ hand makes only one revolution in 24 hours and the dial is, accordingly, sub-divided into 24 radium-lit markings. This special Antarctic watch is the first of its kind in India and I have the privilege of being the only Indian recipient of these great Soviet honours.
The New Zealand Antarctic society has also honoured me, and I have also been elected as a Fellow and Member of several reputed International Learned Scientific Societies in the USA, UK and Canada, e.g., MAMS, F.R. Met. S., and MCMOS, respectively. I was also selected as a WMO/UN Expert and thus served in the United Nations for a long period.

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