Chapter 5: From My South Pole Diary

Chapter 5
From My South Pole Diary
17th Soviet Antarctic Expedition (1971-73)
Punta Arenas (Chile)
6th February 1972
(21 15 hours, local time)
My Most Respected Bauji and Bibiji,
Kindly accept my heartfelt regards. Just now we have reached the port of Punta Arenas (a city of Chile) from the nearby island Puerto Percy which is a small place where there is a provision for the ships to have the fuel supply. Punta Arenas is free port of Chile. Both Puerto Percy (an Island) and Punta Arena (Port) belong to Chile which is situated in the extreme South near Argentina. Now since our ship ‘Navarin’ got exhausted from the fuel and fresh water and many other accesseries and to get itself fully equipped with all such provisions it had to come to this port. We are still standing in the sea and our ship has not yet been brought to the main port, perhaps it is waiting for all the formalities to be completed before it may set itself at the main port which is hardly one furlong from here (the place where the ship is standing still). The city Punta Arenas can clearly be seen from here and looks to be a very beautiful city. The language spoken here is Spanish and not English. Our ship is expected to have a halt of about 2 days at this port, and tomorrow (7.2.1972) we may visit this city after which I would write you a few words about the city itself.
5.1 Now let me come back to the beginning of the story of this scientific Expedition, and narrate you all that I have noticed and felt so far. Upto the 27th December 1971 everything is in your knowledge as I had written you all about that from the Hotel Taj in Bombay, India before flying to Perth, Australia and had dropped you that leter just 20 minutes before the take-off.
I boarded the Air India’s Jumbo-Jet ‘747’ (world’s biggest Aircraft) on the 27th December 1971 and the plane took off at the scheduled time around 12.30 p.m. The plane journey was in no way new for me as I had already travelled by the Indian Airlines Boing 737, but flying over some foreign land was definitely new for me. Our first stoppage was Madras and the next stoppage was Singapore where our ‘Jumbo’ reached after about 4 ½ hours. I wanted to purchase a photo camera at Singapore airport but the transit passengers were not allowed to move out of the aircraft at Singapore, so I kept sitting in my window-seat in the front row. After a halt of about an hour the plane took off for Perth, Australia. I could have only a bird’s eye view of Singapore and to me it appeared as a city of colourful lights and as a very beautiful and magnifiscent city. A Similar scene was that of Perth when I looked at it through the aircraft window. We landed at the Perth airport at the scheduled time around 3.20 a.m local time. Here I faced a small problem. Prof. P. R. Pisharoty had given a cablegram beforehand requesting Dr. Ananjev, the leader of the Expedition Soviet Group coming from Moscow to leave a message with the Malaysian Airlines as to where he may be contacted and perhpas he forgot to leave such a message. I hired a taxi and went straight to the port of Fremantle which is some 20-25 miles from the airport and was glad to find the Soviet ship Professor Viese standing at this Port.
5.2 Just now (2255 hours, local time) our ship Navarin is ported and some Punta Arenas personnel have entered our ship for clearing it in and doing the other necessary formalities. As soon as the fresh water supply to the ship is completed, it would sail away and the expected period for the same is two days or may be even three. From Antarctica there is no provision for sending letters, only short telegrams can be transmitted. This is the only place from where I can send you letters. However, I have requested Prof. P. R. Pisharoty to keep you in touch with me and also convey to me the important and urgent news concerning our domestic affairs. You please keep giving some important and urgent domestic news in short to Prof. P. R. Pisharoty who in turn would arrange to wire the same to me at my Antarctic station of work “Molodezhnaya”. Also I have requested him to wire Bibiji’s welfare once every month as per news received by him from you regarding Bibiji’s health improvements. I would be giving telegrams from Molodezhnaya almost every fortnightly regarding my progress and welfare. Prof. Pisharoty has been requested to send you a copy of such telegrams along with a covering letter from his own side. I cannot give such telegrams to you directly as they are very much expensive and, therefore, Prof. P. R. Pisharoty would keep us in touch with each other through the Laboratory. You should give him only those news for transmission to me which you yourself would feel as very important and very urgent. I would post you this letter tomorrow on 7th February 1972 from Punta Arenas city.
5.3. Now coming back to the ship Professor Viese. Well, from the Perth airport I reached the Port of Fremantle (Western Austrailia) at 4.30 a.m. local time and entered the Soviet ship I received a warm welcome of strange looks. Probably many of the Russians aboard this ship had seen for the first time in their life a typical Punjabi Sikh from Indian wearing a red turban, and therefore, they were a bit surprised by seeing me. I must mention here that the Soviets are very polite people and they always give me a special respect everywhere may be due to the recent friendship between India and USSR. I was immediately allotted a beautiful room furnished with all the modern ameneties. As I was fully fatigued, I therefore, went to sleep at 5 a.m. and got up only at the lunch time. Now it was the 28th December 1971.
Just after the lunch at about 1.00 p.m. we had an excursion to the city of Perth. Two special buses were arranged for that. The Perth city is quite beautiful, the roads are wide and very fine just like Chandigarh and have many ups and downs. The houses are mainly tyled-ones, not very high, as one can often find in Massorrie or any other hill station in India. However, there were quite a few very high and magnificent buildings of Bombay type as well. The city is situated on the bank of the sea and the land is mainly desert. The city is quite neat and clean. We visited the two big City Memorials where the names of all those who had sacrificed themselves in the World Wars were carved. Then we came to the zoo where I could find nothing new except a white bear, otherwise this zoo was like an ordinary Indian zoo. However, I couldn’t appreciate the open sex at the beaches, city parks, gardens etc., and didn’t like it at all but anyway this is something very common in the west. We returned to our ship ‘Professor Viese’ after spending some 5-6 hours in the city. I was not having any camera due to which I couldn’t have any photographs of the important city sites.
After the dinner, at about 10.30 p.m., our slip ‘Professor Viese’ started sailing for Antarctica on the 28th December 1971 itself. Thus we couldn’t have much holiday at Fremantle and Perth. The Russian food is not very much different from that of ours and, therefore, I don’t have much food-problem. In the breakfast at 8 O’clock there would be coffee or black tea, cheese, bread, butter and some special preparation out of meat and sewian (which we also prepare at home, made from the wheat/maida) and so on. Russians prefer to take black tea without milk and also black bread but I am always provided with milk the Russian black tea. After a break of 4 hours there would be lunch (at 12 noon) comprising of soup, bread (white&black both) and meat and rice or fish and rice or chicken and rice and so on. At 4 p.m. there is evening tea. A special compound mixture is usually taken (in place of water) etc., But, sometimes there are some other dishes which I don’t like much. To sum up the food being served is quite O.K.
I forgot to make a mention of a special incident in front of the Perth-zoo at Perth. As soon as I came out of the bus, some children of 12-14 years age. gathered around me and started staring till one of them picked up courage and asked me, “Excuse me, Sir!, Are you a king?” “No I am not a king”, “Are you then a wrestler, “No”. Just to satisfy him I remarked, “I am neither a king nor a Weather but I am a singh. Actually, I am from India and hail from Punjab where people often wear the turbans of the type I have.” He got satisfied and after that took the leave. After this incident all the time I kept smiling and now also when I recall it, I have to smile without any reason.
5.4 While aboard the ship Viese I had some sea-sickness for the first one or two days as the ship was, rolling too much, and also it was my first sea-voyage, But after about two days I was alright. Now I am very much used to the ship’s rolling and when it rolls and dances terribly due to the severe storms, I don’t feel any sickness and instead enjoy this rolling because of getting accustomed to this. It was on the 6th of January 1972 (one month back) when we reached Antarctica at 11 p.m. at the Soviet Antarctic station ‘Mirny’. Our ship ‘Viese’ stopped at a spot from where this Mirny Observatory was about 10 km, but my place of work was ‘Molodezhnaya’ about 2000 km hrs. from Mirny. It is 1 a.m., so please allow me to sleep now. Good Night!
5.5. February 7, 1972 (0820 hours, local time)
Good Morning Bauji and Bibiji,
This is my first morning at the port of Punt Arenas in Chile. The city is looking quite beautiful as viewed from here. May be after a couple of hours we shall go to the city. The Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) had given me one hundred dollars as my pocket money and about ninety five dollars are still in my pocket. Here from this city I am planning to buy a photo-camera and some other accessories which I may need in Antarctica. I have written a detailed report of my Journey to Antarctica and would dispatch the same today to Prof. P.R.Pisharoty. I have requested him to send one copy, of this Report to you at Jalandhar and one copy to Manjit Bhaji at Vallabh Vidyanagar in Gujarat.
This Report, however, may not be differing much from my this letter to you except a few official matters regarding the financial commitments, next year’s programme and the like as the Government of USSR is giving to the Soviet participants a huze lump sum of money whereas in my case nothing is known. It is, therefore, that in my Report to him I have mentioned the various risks involved in working in Antarctica to emphasise that I should as well get all allowances which the Soviets would be getting. Therefore, if you get a copy of my Report from Prof. Pisharoty, please don’t get frightened by reading such lines.
Excuse me as I am not writing this letter all at same time as in between I have to do so many other jobs. Just about an hour back I went to take bath and get ready because at any time we may visit the city. Now it is the lunch time and after taking the lunch I would resume writing this letter.
5.6. February 8, 1972 (0920 hours, local time)
Respected Bauji and Bibiji,
Sat Sri Akal,
I am sorry as I couldn’t complete this letter yesterday as we went to visit the city just after the lunch and in the late evening we went for a movie. The currency of this country ‘Chile’ is esquidos and one dollar is 28 esquidos. The city is quite expensive as most of the things come here from its northern part. Just while roaming about in the city, I stopped at a shop and started looking the show-case. The owner of the shop called me in and talked to me in “Hindi”- He was an Indian and hailed from Bombay. He is here in this city for the last 10 years. He also told me that there are about 25 Indians here who own very-big shops. As many customers were in his small stall, so I bid good bye to him. I would buy from here only the most urgent material I need. Here in this city also, I was a centre of attraction as a foreigner for everyone and many girls just stopped near me to observe my strange looks. I saw that some people were looking out of their windows to see me. I however, enjoyed it very much, because for the city people I was probably the first Indian Sikh here, although there are about 25 Indians already settled here and run a good business.
Let us come back to the story of my Antarctic Journey. On 6th January 1972 around 11 p.m. we reached the Soviet Antarctic Observatory ‘mirny’ and stayed here for 10-12 days upto the 18th of the January 1972. In my childhood I used to dream of running and playing on the water surface and it is here that my age old dream got fulfilled as all around the sea was completely frozen and all around there was ice and ice with frequent snowing and nothing else except the penguins, weddell seals, sea-birds and the other sea-animals. On the 7th January 1972, I put on my special dress and went far away from my ship and walked, run and played with the penguins till I was completely exhausted. On the ice I carved the name of our country ‘INDIA’ and enjoyed doing so. The sun rises here in the midnight in a nightless sky and sets after 23 hours with the result that there is practically no night. This is only our watches which tell us that now it is the night time (but outside the ship there is only day with a strong reflection from the ice) and this is how we assume it to be night and go to sleep.
5.8. The 17th January 1972 was a historical day for me as after taking the lunch I set out for a nearby island and at 12.50 p.m. (Moscow time) I placed my footing on this island and perhaps it was the footing of the first Indian ever to winter on the Antarctic mainland. I climbed this Mountaeous island and wrote with a stone again the name of Motherland “India” and named it for my own reference as ‘Indian Antarctic Island’ on which the penguins had laid lot many eggs. The penguins are special Antarctic birds which can not fly but can walk just like a man, can run faster than anyone, can sail on the ice and swim in the sea water with frequent jumping therein.
Bauji you will be very glad to know that I would be probably the first Indian to visit Antarctica and the first Indian ever to winter on the Antarctic mainland and thus my name is likely to appear in the recent History.
On the Republic Day, 26th January 1972, I sent from here a telegram to the Prime Minister of India, Shrimati Indira Gandhi, congratulating her on our victorious Republic Day. As you know that I am very much ambitious of taking up adventurous expeditions and I am, therefore, enjoying this 17th Soviet Antarctic Expedition (1971-73) very much which is the biggest one. In Antarctica, there is of course very cold but the special warm clothing saves us from the extreme climate. Our Antarctic stations are very nicely equipped with all the modern amenities and are centrally heated and, therefore, inside the rooms and the laboratories, the temperature is always kept comfortable whereas outside it is –50 to –80o C, so there is nothing to worry. There are about six Soviet stations in Antarctica out of which Molodezhnaya where I would work is the biggest one and about 120 people work here. I may mention that my work in Antarctica would prove very useful for my Ph.D. thesis and for my future career. So you must feel happy at this golden rare opportunity which I have got. You may be anxious to know how Antarctica looks. Actually, it look is like some mountains without trees and vegetation and the big ice glaciers form these mountains. The mainland would seldom be seen and would always remain covered with snow except some very big mountainous islands on which the ice melts away in the summer. Antarctica has a short summer of about three months which is, however, colder than the coldest places of India and there is a winter of about 9 months. So far no Indian has ever spent a winter here and I would be the first to do so.
Let me add here that I won’t cut my hair, come what may, even under the extreme conditions. I am not going to follow the practice of many of our Sikh young people who go abroad, fall in love with some girls and on the demand of their girl friends get their hair cut or some people just to escape from the welcome of strange looks get themselves clean shaven but for me I aways enjoy such a welcome. I want to show to the people of my own community that a Sikh once visited and wintered on Antarctica but never changed his original shape. On board the ship there are some Russian girls who do sometimes ask me, “Parmjit, what is this, why don’t you become clean-shaven!” and in turn I never talk to such girls. Also at the Soviet Antarctic station Molodezhnaya there are all provisions for taking a bath and also hair bath even in the coldest weather and I would, therefore, fulfill my promise at all costs.
Well, I had no camera with me and I, therefore, requested Dr. P.R.Pisharoty for the same. He has made arrangements through Dr. Alexandrov, the Chief of Hydromet Services (USSR), to provide the same to me at my station of work Molodezhnaya at the PRL cost. I am, therefore, not thinking of buying any camera now from Punta Arenas (Chile) as it is very expensive here.
5.10 On the 16th of January 1972, I changed over from the ship “ Professor Viese” to the ship “Navarin” as the ship “Viese” was going back to Leningrad. The ship “Navarin” is expected to reach Molodezhnaya in the February end and tomorrow on 9th February or day after tomorrow it would sail from here (Punta Arenas, Chile) to the Soviet Antarctic Meteorological Rocket Launching Station “Molodezhnaya” where I would be working for the whole year upto 1973 I would then be visiting all the other Soviet Antactic stations after which I would sail to Leningrad where I may stay for sometime and then from Leningrad I would fly to Moscow where I have to do some official work for sometime before my return home. You can expect me in India after July 1973.
On board the ship “Navarin” I have found a very good Russian friend, Vataley Evanovich Pashnichney, the chief Navigator of this ship who knows English fairly well and besides being a very good officer, he is a man of pleasing personality. He is my best friend and teaches me the Russian language. He also trained me how to steer the course of a ship and, therefore, for my own interest I drive the ship Navarin for 1-2 hours daily in the evening, and in the mean time he gives me a practice of speaking the Russian language. I have noticed that the Soviets are very good people and they are also very polite and very friendly. I am always given a special attention and respect.
I have written to Prof. P.R. Pisharoty a brief account of all our domestic affairs and have requested him to wire me the important and most urgent news from home. So you should keep giving him such news in short which he would wire to me at Molodezhnaya in Antarctica. He would also keep you informed about my progress and welfare by sending you a copy of each telegram which he receives from me once or twice in a month regularly.
I am sending an authority letter in your mame to get any sum of money in full or part from my salary from the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad as and when demanded by you at your own discretion subject to a thorough identification of your signatures, to Prof. P.R. Pisharoty who would arrange to dispatch the same by Registered post for your specimen signatures on this authority letter; and in case you need some money you can get it from the PRL. You have to see that everything goes well lest this authority letter should go in the hands of someone else who may start misusing it, like my University certificates incident happened at Allahabad which I think you very well know. This authority letter is very important and if someone else gets it, he can misuse the same by giving false specimen signatures from your side. This authority letter is being separately sent to Prof. P.R. Pisharoty along with my latest Report to him. In turn the PRL office would dispatch it to you at the village address (or may be at Jalandhar address) by a Registered post. You can keep this authority letter with you with a great care and if and when needed please use it, although I know that you may not need it at all. It is only a redundancy.
I may once again emphasise that there is no danger of any type in Antarctica and all the stations are well equipped and are centrally heated and are comfortable from inside. So, please don’t worry at all. I would take full care of my health and as well of our Sikh religious practices. I have written to PRL emphasising on the daily allowances which I should as well get similar to the Soviets and I hope that PRL would agree to that.
I must finish this letter now as otherwise I may not be able to post it. After the lunch I would go to the city (Punta Arenas, Chile) to drop it. Please convey my sincerest regards to Bibiji (mother) and Bhayiaji (grandfather) and love to Rana and Ambi (younger brothers) and Rani (younger sister) and Sat Sri Akal to Manjit Bhaji (elder Brother) and all other dear & near ones. The photographs of all of you are with me and whenever I want to talk to you, I talk through these photos I keep your photos always in my pocket so as to have your as well as God’s blessings every moment. I am extremely sorry for not being present at the marriage of my only sister Rani. I also send my best Regards to all our colleagues, friends and well-wishers. Although, I don’t wish to stop writing this letter through which I am talking to you, yet I would have to stop because time never waits for anybody and it is we and only we who have to make best use of it. Now I know a Russian word “Dasveydaniya” which means “Good Bye” – “Phir Milange” and I, therefore, now with your kind permission, would use this word for you all. Before this let me tell you about the covering map given on the envelope. It is the map of Antarctica –South Polar Ice Cap and shows the following Soviet stations at various spots:
i) MO - “Molodezhnaya” Meteorological Centre
ii) Mi - “Mirny” Observatory
iii) L - Leningradskaya
iv) B - Belingshausen
v) N - Novolozarevaskaya
vi) V -Vostok.
There is one American station right at the South Pole which I may visit in the near future during my present sojourn in the Antarctic continent. Rest in all fine. Hoping to meet you all next year in 1973.
With best regards to everyone.
Yours Lovingly – Pammi
(Parmjit Singh Sehra)
(First Indian ever to winter over the South Pole and circumnavigate and explore the Antarctic continent)
(Project Scientist, 17th Soviet Antarctic Expedition, 1971-1973).

1 comment:

Suman tandon said...

This report is bit confusing.
Please clarify:-
1. Did he winter at the Amundsen-Scott, US Stn at the Geographic South Pole.
2. Period spent from... to...
3. How many Russian were with him at the South Pole for wintering in the US Stn.
4. Was the wintering a combined pgm of US and Russian
5. Tractors/ Vehicles used to reach the SP Stn.
6. Brief on the return journey ? How and where to?
7. What happened to the Equipment carried to the South Pole Stn?

Kindly get the reply to these and fwd on email ID