I'm in Christchurch!
The last plane out was supposed to leave sometime between the 17th and the 24th. Unfortunately, the weather on Antarctica turns bad fast. On the 17th, they decided that the weather forecast was looking ugly, so they announced that everyone was going home that day. Of course, the weather at McMurdo didn't cooperate, and they ended up cancelling the flights that day.
One the 18th, they had the first plane of returnees scheduled to fly at 11:30 and the second plane scheduled for 1PM. They must have really wanted us out of there, because both flights left an hour early.
Being on the last flight out was a unique experience. We waved goodbye to the 'winter-overs' (the people who are going to stay there until the next plane arrives at the end of October) and got on the plane. The plane took off and then a minute or less after we were airborne, the soldier in charge of the passengers signalled that we could get up and look out the windows. The pilot then proceeded to do a couple of long banking turns around the station and then flew low and fast past the assembled winter-overs as a final goodbye. Several people were competing for the small window I was at, so I didn't really see much except a couple of the visibility markers and the runway, but it was fun to be a part of the 'last goodbye'.
After that bit of excitement, we settled into the routine 3 hour flight to McMurdo where we met up with the passengers from the first flight and, after a couple of hours on the ground, another 5 hour flight from McMurdo to Christchurch.
Once in Christchurch, we needed to walk the mile or so from the airplane, through the International terminal and through a bunch of parking lots to the Antarctic Center. It's funny to think about the unsuspecting travellers watching this parade of people, many still dressed in pieces of extreme cold weather gear, making their way through the International terminal. One of the distinctive pieces of ECW gear is the blue boot (thick boots which keep your feet nice and warm) and the passage from the plane to the Antarctic Center is marked by spray-painted blue boot prints.
Once we made it to the Antarctic Center, we turned in our ECW gear and got our hotel assignments. Since we 'soft closers' weren't due off the ice for at least a few more days, and since all of New Zealand seems to be on holiday, the hotels are jammed full and we got some less than desireable assignments, far from the city center. Fortunately, one of the guys in my group scored a room with multiple beds, so after a couple of days of 20 minute walks to get to town, I'm staying with him tonight.
As for the rest of my time, the main focus is visiting a college roommate who lives in Napier on the North Island. Tomorrow I'll take the train and ferry to Wellington, spend a day or so there, then take a bus to Napier. I'll spend the weekend there, then take another bus to Auckland on Monday. I fly out Tuesday night at 7:30PM, so I'll have a full day to investigate the mysteries of Auckland. And thanks to the International Date Line, I'll arrive in Madison at 9:25PM, two hours after I leave Auckland ... even though it's a 15 hour flight from Auckland to Los Angeles!
I've got to go right now ... I've got a few more pictures to post, so check back again in a few days!