British aviator in Polar rescue (armed with can of petrol)

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The Independent Online

Explorers have been drawn to Antarctica since the days of Scott and Shackleton but, for scientists manning research stations on the frozen continent, the steady stream of adventurers arriving on their doorstep is, frankly, a pain.

So when Jon Johanson, an Australian aviator, landed at the McMurdo-Scott base after running out of fuel this week, he received a reception that could only be described as frosty. He was given some food and grudgingly allowed to sleep in a refuelling shed, but the Americans and New Zealanders who jointly run the base refused to sell him petrol to enable him to fly home.

A plea by the Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, to his country's two closest allies fell on deaf ears, and Mr Johanson's plight threatened to strain diplomatic relations. Until yesterday, when help materialised in the shape of Polly Vacher, a British aviator who had run into a spot of bother herself and offered to sell fuel to the Australian.

Ms Vacher, a 59-year-old grandmother, had been planning to fly across Antarctica as part of a round-the-world charity venture, but was forced to abandon the South Pole trip because of high winds. She had stashed petrol at McMurdo in advance, and said yesterday via her website that she was prepared to release two barrels of it to Mr Johanson.

Her intervention was manna from heaven to Mr Johanson, whose plane is currently stranded on an icy runway, but it did not stem the scathing attacks by authorities at the base. Lou Sanson, chief executive of Antarctica New Zealand, a government-funded research body, contrasted Ms Vacher's meticulously planned operation with that of Mr Johanson.

"Polly's trip was well organised and properly planned," Mr Sanson said. "She and her staff spent two years preparing for her flight, with significant advice from national Antarctic programmes. It is ironic that she is now assisting a stranded pilot who embarked upon an ill-prepared and secret flight over the South Pole."

He added: "He appears to have gone in there without a search-and-rescue plan and without a contingency plan, and he's expecting the New Zealand and United States governments to pick up and be his contingency. The US don't run a gas station in Antarctica ... and nor does New Zealand."

The research bases - isolated communities of scientists who examine the ice for clues to humankind's past and scan the pollution-free skies with telescopes - have a long-standing policy of refusing to sell fuel to adventurers, in order to deter them from flying over the continent. As Mr Johanson told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: "I guess the officialdom is afraid to be seen to be helping, in case the hordes come down and invade."

Mr Johanson, 47, described by the New Zealand Press Association as "a qualified nurse, midwife and carpenter" ran into problems after achieving his ambition of becoming the first pilot to fly a single-engined fixed-wing plane solo over the South Pole. He left Invercargill, a chilly town on the southern tip of New Zealand, last Sunday and flew his home-made RV-4 aircraft 5,880km (3,652 miles) to cross the Pole - a journey that took 26 and a half hours.

But high winds thwarted his plan to fly on to Argentina, and he was forced to land on the inhospitable terrain of Antarctica, where winter temperatures can plummet to 80C below zero. At McMurdo-Scott, according to his partner, Sue Ball, he has been denied even a shower, and his request to buy 104 gallons of petrol was declined.

The authorities did offer him a seat on the next military flight out to New Zealand, and said they would ship his plane, at his cost. But Mr Johanson was unwilling to follow that course, as he feared that his aircraft - which he has flown three times around the world and once over the North Pole - might get damaged.

Ms Vacher, from Drayton, near Abingdon in Oxfordshire, is at Britain's Rothera base, on the other side of Antarctica, awaiting suitable weather to enable her to fly to Argentina - and, from there, through South America to California and across the Pacific to New Zealand. Her trip is to raise money for disabled fliers.

Mr Johanson, from Adelaide, has denied that he was ill-prepared and carrying insufficient fuel, and said he gave advance warning of his travel plans. "We had no intention of landing on the Antarctic continent," he said. "But unfortunately the weather didn't abide the way it was supposed to."

Asked what had been the point of his adventure, he said: "Let's face it, Hillary, when he got to the top of Mount Everest, he was asked 'Why did you do it?'. Because it was there."

He is not Antarctica's only current visitor. Jennifer Murray, a 63-year-old Briton hoping to become the first helicopter pilot to circumnavigate the globe over both Poles, landed there last week. Nor is Mr Johanson the only adventurer to get up New Zealand noses lately. Jim Shekhdar, a solo British rower plucked from the South Pacific last month after losing his oars in a severe storm, was told yesterday that he may have to hand over his eight metre boat to New Zealand authorities to help meet the cost of the rescue operation.