Last updated June 22, 2017 at 11:01 am
Going to Antarctica is an experience of a lifetime, so when Australian author Sean Williams joined an expedition to the icy south pole he took every chance to bring it up – including this article.
This February, I travelled to Casey research station in the Windmill Islands as the 2017 Australian Antarctic Division’s Arts Fellow. My purpose there was to soak up the landscape surrounding the station and the lifestyles and attitudes of those who live and work within it. I’m working on a novel set down there, and there’s no substitute for personal experience.
I’d need far more space than this piece to convey everything I learned on my voyage south. One lesson, however, stood out among all the others.
Everything is cooler when you tack “in Antarctica” on the end of it. Pardon the pun.
My journey wasn’t as epic as those of Scott, Shackleton or Mawson, or any of the other early explorers. It wasn’t even as difficult as most of those I met down there, if they came by boat. My expedition left Hobart by plane in the early hours of February 15th and touched down at Wilkins Aerodrome inside the Antarctic Circle less than five hours later. Three hours in a tracked vehicle brought us to Casey itself.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I nodded off along the way. There I was, on the continent of my dreams at last, and I was taking a snooze!
On arrival at Casey, we were met by the station manager at the Red Shed, the giant structure where people sleep, eat and perform all the other usual human functions, safe from the weather outside. We unpacked our gear, were briefed, and set about connecting our smartphones to the local network.
When that was done, I called home. It was evening, but the sun was still high in the bright blue sky. The temperature was below zero degrees Celsius–a balmy summer night.
My wife was relieved I’d arrived safely and excited that, after months of preparation, my adventure was finally underway. We compared my experience with those early explorers and marvelled at the technology that allowed us to talk with perfect ease across such a vast distance.
And that’s when it hit me: I was talking on the phone in Antarctica.
Not only that, but I had just had dinner in Antarctica, I had taken a nap in Antarctica, I had landed on a plane in Antarctica, I was standing outside, feeling the sun on my face, in Antarctica.
That night, I would take a shower and go to bed, I would sleep and dream, I would wake several times and feel amazement that there I was, in Antarctica, land of ice and penguins and so much more.
Over the course of the following days, I experienced that quiet thrill many times. It was the perfect antidote for any onerous chore, and there are many of them, because life in Antarctica requires constant maintenance, even in this modern age of ice runways and Antarctic telecommunications. Dishes and clothes still need to be washed, floors swept and mopped. Rubbish needs to be collected and disposed of. Beds still have to be made.
Naturally, there were chores that struck this Adelaide boy as almost surreally exotic, such as digging out an icy overhang that threatened fragile pipelines, releasing a weather balloon, and carefully disposing of human waste after an overnight stay off-station.
And you have to suppose that, eventually, the sense of unreality must wear off for everyone, eventually. The phrase “in Antarctica” strikes with a little less impact each time, until it becomes a place one is in instead of an experience one is having.
But I saw no sign of that happening in anyone I met down there.
There were eighty-four people in Casey station at that time, among them tradies, engineers, scientists, military specialists, and one gobsmacked writer. I watched them–unobtrusively, I hope–to learn what kind of people are drawn to this place. I don’t kid myself that I have the complete answer to that question, but I do feel as though I’ve come back with part of it.
In Antarctica, every experience is heightened by the knowledge that you are somewhere utterly unlike anywhere else. You are a privileged member of a team working to the betterment of knowledge, of understanding, of everything humanity stands for. Whether you’re driving a tractor, fixing a computer, studying the weather, or cooking dinner, you’re part of something much bigger than yourself. You’re surviving, you’re contributing, you’re making a difference.
In Antarctica, every moment seems magical. My job now is to convey that magic to my readers, in order that all who want to can experience it for themselves.
Join Sean Williams, along with Director of the Royal Institution and Antarctic eco-tourism guide Dr Paul Willis and Prof John Long Strategic Professor in Palaeontology at Flinders University, as they share their perspectives on the continent that has captured the minds of explorers for generations at a free event Antarctica: Past, Present and Future at The Science Exchange Wednesday 21 June 2017, Bookings essential.
With thanks to our event supporters:
- The Adelaide Festival of Ideas
- Flinders University Palaeontology Society and
- The Royal Society of South Australia