Sunday bloody Sunday

I’ve always marvelled at how dreams can seem to be prescient; you reach a critical point in the dream, waiting, for instance, for a knock on the door, and then when the knocking comes you realise that it is in the real world, at just the right time.  I’m sure that there are perfectly good explanations regarding the comparative speed of dreams versus reality, or the temporal disjunction of recollection, but I still find it fascinating when it occurs.

This morning I was working hard in the hospital, moving briskly between the emergency department and intensive care and dealing with some very sick patients.  A rather rotund gentleman with severe fluid overload was worsening in the ICU, and I suspected that he had been misdiagnosed – although he certainly did have an element of congestive heart failure, I suspected that his kidneys were to blame for the deterioration, and had asked the nurse to start a drug infusion and ring me in the on-call room as soon as the results of the urgent blood tests were available.  I climbed into the on-call bed, wrapped the blankets in a tight cocoon and was barely asleep when the phone began to ring.  Groggy, I wondered why the air-con was making such a rumbling noise… and then realised that I wasn’t in the hospital; this was SANAE IV; there was a storm wind outside making the whole base rumble and my telephone was ringing.

In my corporeal dimension, it was not the nurse from the ICU, but rather our mechanical engineer, Anton.  My heart sank.  You see, an unwritten rule has emerged this year, no doubt written by Murphy himself:  If it can go wrong, it will, and it will happen on a Sunday. The fire, several burst pipes, power failures – all have happened on a Sunday, and usually (inspiring a rider on the law) while Anton himself is in the shower.  Hence, having him phone me before 07h00 on a Sunday morning did not bode well.  The message was simple:

“Sorry to wake you, boss, but I need you down in the engine room.”

“What’s wrong?  Is someone hurt?” I responded.

“No-one injured, but come down here right away,” he replied.

Although still dim and grey outside, I couldn’t see past the thick blowing snow battering my window.  The passage lights were shining under my door, putting my fear of a complete power failure to rest.  I think the ability to go from deep somnolence to scalpel-sharp awareness is an occupational trait developed as a junior in the hospital, and so it wasn’t more than a minute or two before I was dressed and striding into the generator room, the authoritative image of my brisk and purposeful walk perhaps dented by my fluffy slippers.  Anton, in his shorts and stokies, was waiting with a flash-light.  His greeting included the word ‘Sunday’ preceded by a few minor but effective curses.  He led me through into the hangar to survey the problem.

The final outflow pipe from our sewage processing system was blocked, and the backed-up water was leaking under pressure from a joint and dripping down onto the valves and pipes below.  This is not immediately as bad as it sounds – the sewage system is completely contained in the base (read about it in our July Newsletter) and so the small amount of outflow water is ‘clean’ – at least, it is at what is known as ‘SA River Standard’, or of sufficient quality to be released into a river back home.  By the time we let it back into the environment, the water has been through an arduous process which includes ultraviolet and ozone sterilisation, leaving what was now pooling and freezing in the corner theoretically potable.  Some theories, however, I don’t wish to test.

The ice at the end of the hangar had a fresh dusting of powder snow, forced in around the doors by the powerful wind, but this made it easier for slippered feet not to slip as I clambered over to get to the pipe where it exits through the northwest corner.  From here it travels, heavily insulated, along the edge of the helipad, across a ‘bridge’ over the ice-road to the satellite hut, and thence over to the edge of the cliff, where the water is released to form an attractive ice waterfall we know as the ‘lolly’.  Throughout its insulated course, the pipe is warmed by a spiralling set of heater-tapes, which prevent the outflow water from freezing and blocking the pipe.  It was to the origin of this tape that I clambered over the ice and climbed up to, where it originates at the power point and plunges into the insulation of the pipe.  A quick feel confirmed our fears – stone cold.  The ‘mechanic’ relaxed visibly… this was an electrical problem.  With the heater-tape out of commission, the water in the pipeline would have frozen, blocking the pipe completely.  Here was the real problem – if unable to dispense with the water from the sewage system, we are unable to use showers, wash dishes or clothing, or flush toilets.  More insidious than a power failure and less urgent than a burst water main, it is a foul situation nonetheless.

Saziso, our electrical engineer, was in surprisingly good humour about being woken, and came down quickly with a resigned expression.  Anton and I explained the problem and our findings, and Saz rapidly traced the wires to a distribution board in the generator room.  A circut breaker hanging idly by its wires in a corner of the BD was found to have an old piece of duct tape with ‘heater tape WS’ marking it – WS likely representing ‘West Side’.  It had tripped, probably due to the inevitable and unpredictable static build-up from the storm.  Soon he had the power restored, and the tape was warming up.  My repeated traffic over the ice at the back of the hangar removed the dusting of snow, and my slippers were my downfall – literally – but no serious damage done.  Now we wait: when the pipe warms and flow is restored, someone (likely the first to volunteer, aka moi) will have to venture out and make certain that the pipe has not burst, but it looks as if yet another crisis has been averted… until the next Sunday.

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