A Desi's Guide to Surviving the Antarctic

'I had my first sip of liquor on New Year’s midnight on Antarctica—just so I could say this sentence right here.'
July 23, 2018, 7:30am
Krishna Pranav does not boop penguins. Image: Krishna Pranav

There are basically two ways for an Indian to get to Antarctica—be very rich and buy a tourism package, or prove you’ve done research on anything related to the polar environment to the National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCAOR). If your work checks out, you can apply for an all-expenses paid research trip to the last continent discovered by man. Specifically to India’s two permanent settlement research stations there, Maitri and Bharti.

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Krishna Pranav, 22, is among the lucky researchers sponsored by NCAOR. While working on his civil engineering degree at IIT Hyderabad, he stayed in Antarctica between December 2015 and February 2016, developing an oil spill contingency plan for the Maitri research station. We spoke to Pranav, who is now a grad student at Yokohama University in Japan, about how to survive an Antarctic summer.

VICE: So how cold is it really?
Krishna Pranav: Summer research teams stay for three months, while the winter teams stay a whole year. I went in the less harsh months, so anything above -10 Celcius was “good” weather. Forget stepping out without protective gloves and winter gear. The airport, or more accurately the plane landing area has to be on flat ground, which the winds can reach life-threatening speeds. Some days it’s strong enough to blow you away, so you can’t walk from your housing to the main Maitri building, which is about 100 meters away.

How does one even reach Antarctica?
To Maitri, the closest route was a six-hour flight from Cape Town, South Africa. The flight was a humongous Volga-Dnepr with no windows, that made disturbingly loud noises. It was shared by scientists from different countries who hung their flags near their seats, so it looked like a cargo plane made for the United Nations.

En route to Antarctica. Image: Krishna Pranav

What kind of training or equipment did you need?
I had never even visited a mountain before visiting Antarctica. I witnessed my first snow there. Walking on solid ice can take some getting used to, but it’s nothing out of the ordinary. The slipperiness is intense, but nobody uses crampons or anything besides really warm clothing (provided by NCAOR), at least not in the summer. Research stations are very warm on the inside, like a cozy, budget old-school room at a remote hill station.

What about food?
The concept of money doesn’t exist on Antarctica. From the moment I landed at the Novo Airbase, I noticed its cafeteria had no attendant or payment counter. It was essentially an all-you-can-eat feast. Even at the Maitri station, vegetables come in frozen packets, while regular items like lentils, rice, grains, fats and confectioneries are stocked in bulk.

Maitri Station. Image: Krishna Pranav

There is 24/7 storage room where you can grab whatever you want, whenever you want—no questions asked. It’s essentially a basic supermarket—everything from biscuits, Haldiram snacks, instant noodles, pastas, chips. With constantly cold temperatures outside, food basically never goes bad.

Did you have to cook for yourself?
Regular meals are made by a cook there, and personal dishes must be washed by individuals in the kitchen. We’d all take turns on galley duty, cleaning common utensils, pots and pans, and assisting the cook. It was a fancier version of my hostel setup, with a daily menu of basic Indian foods like poha, paranthas, rice, bread, jam, cereal, and a lot of varieties of Indian pickles for breakfast.

Paneer at the pole. Image: Krishna Pranav

Lunch included combinations of vegetables, lentils, rice and rotis. Everything was made fresh by the cook from scratch, with ghee and vegetable oils. No dehydrated or freeze-dried foods were used. I’m a vegetarian so I didn’t try the meats, but chicken and mutton are a daily option. You can also make your own sandwiches or noodles whenever, courtesy the infinitely free grocery store. Food is the least of your worries.

What about communications? How often could you call home?
Believe it or not, there’s basic WiFi at Maitri. It’s usually so slow that it takes a few minutes to send images, but if you match your timings right, you can make a pretty decent internet-based call. I’m not sure why, but on this most remote continent on Earth, the WiFi was password-protected. There’s also an Iridium phone but the timings are limited to about 10 minutes a month and the signal is horrible, so it’s best to use internet-based calling on your smartphone.

Inside the Maitri Station. Image: Krishna Pranav

Can you boop penguins on the head, or take a leak in a lake in the hopes of making a unique evolutionary microbe?
Good god, no! You can’t do any of that. I mean you technically can, since the system works on self-regulation and common-sense, but you really shouldn’t. You’re supposed to ignore the penguins and not contaminate the landscape, especially the water sources. You can’t dunk your feet in the lake—partially because they’ll freeze instantly—but also to prevent contamination. Before the waste disposal plant was set up, India would bring back its waste manually—that’s how careful we are to not contaminate the place.

What do I pack, if my winter gear and food are sponsored?
Probably TV shows on your laptop—a whole hard disk full. You should bring a cache of DVDs and CDs to connect to the projector for common viewing. There’s a really vintage library with lots of books at Maitri, but don’t go to Antarctica if you require constant stimuli and entertainment.

Image: Krishna Pranav

Also carry more spare eyeglasses than you think you’d need. I broke two pairs early on arrival, and had to manually fix them.

What about vices—how do you celebrate the end of a great day?
Alcohol isn’t a part of the government ration here, so scientists bring their own (mainly whiskey), which means it’s limited. After a long day of work, they share a few drinks and eat, chat and bond, often playfully arguing. Smoking seems to be a very popular activity too.

I had my first sip of liquor on New Year’s midnight on Antarctica—just so I could say this sentence right here.

Image: Krishna Pranav

Does the feeling of being so alone and small on this gigantic floating ball of stardust ever hit you when you’re out in the field?
I’m really not an emotional or a sentimental person. For me, it was all about doing that research, socialising, making new friends, sharing their stories. And eating my Nutella and toast while watching TV in my bunk as it snowed outside.

Any advice for potential visitors to the Antarctic?
Well over a 100 Indians visit Antarctica every year, but admittedly not many as young as me. Drink the cleanest possible water, created millions of years ago. Click photos. Don’t go if you can’t handle loneliness.