Continuing from Part Four: “Aurora”
After breakfast on the last full day of my adventure, I chat with Jess, a postgrad who has come here to study the mystery of the Casey spring-tails. They’re not supposed to be here (the spring-tails) but some appeared in moss samples sent back to Australia suggesting either (a) contamination or (b) there’s bugs in them thar hills. Jess knows more about these little critters than anyone I’ve ever met before. In fact, I had never even heard about spring-tails until this week. New stuff to learn! Always a good thing, particularly when I have so little time left.
I finish packing and spend some time in my room reflecting. For the first time in a week, I plug in my headphones and listen to music (this song, all seventeen-plus minutes of it). It’s meditative. Plus psychologically preparing myself for home. That tearing sound you hear is coming from me. I’m still not ready to go, but it will be great to be with the family again.
And I already have enough ideas for a lifetime. (One of them is a mutant fly/spring-tail hybrid storyline that Adrian and others have been kicking around. It could have legs. Too many of them, even . . .)
No use burying my head in the sand. Or the snow. I pack Steven Wilson away and lug my bags to the green shed, where everyone planning to be on tomorrow’s flight is already queuing up. The atmosphere is festive. People are looking forward to seeing loved ones, animals, strangers, green things . . . The weather is a brisk -4.3˚C, but the sun is shining. Antarctica is putting on a good show for us.
Out at the aerodrome, seventy kilometres away, the much-delayed C17 flight is gathering up the krill to take them to their northern home. Later, the big military plane will fly a half-circle around the station. I’m stopped dead in my tracks, amazed by how something so commonplace back home now seems an awesome sight, and a slightly shocking one. So big and grey against the depthless blue. Curse me for forgetting my camera . . .
Adrian Young shows Zoë and me to the Dangerous Goods Store, where of course I hope to find something weaponisable for the thriller in my head (working title Case Y, although I’m pretty sure that’s very dumb). Then I find a bike and go for a quick trundle about. It’s not pretty, my cycling effort, but Zoë does take a photo to prove to my wife that I’ve done it.
Lauren Wise shows us around the remediation site, where the ground is being cleaned of oil spills old and new by voracious bacteria. Long barrows of soil lie covered in black tarps that are surprisingly warm to the touch. It’s great science to a great end, like everything else down here. I’m sorry I’ve left this visit so late. I hope they don’t think I’m not interested! And like everything else, it fills me with ideas. (If you wrapped yourself up in one of those tarps, how long might you survive a winter’s day . . . ?)
Afterwards, Zoë and I go for our last sight-seeing walk, up popular lookout Reeve Hill. Along the way, I spot fragments of blue ice lying on the ground, as translucent as stained glass and hard as rock. Yet they’re made of water. I’m struck by how alien that is to me, coming as I do from a place where water is precious and only rarely naturally freezes. Here, solid water just lies around on the ground, yet if I pick up these shards and cradle them for long enough, they’ll melt away forever. (Later, and with greater success than here, I write up this epiphany here).
At the summit of Reeve Hill, I spare a thought for old friend (and father of modern Australian speculative fiction) Peter McNamara, who would have loved to come to Antarctica before he died. Maybe in a parallel universe he did just that. It’s a nice thought. He would’ve loved this spot.
Zoë and I soak up the vista on his behalf, not alone among those saying farewell. Someone points out an inhabited snowy petrel nest (too hard to get a photo, alas) and four penguins camped out down the hill. Penguins have been roaming all over Casey the last couple of days. Maybe they’ve come to say goodbye to their long-legged human visitors.
Everything feels incredibly intense. Last lunch. Last dinner–sticky date pudding for dessert! I’m tempted to bail on the double screening of The Thing and The Thing in order to hang with my new buddies, but it’s too apt, seeing those movies again. This journey started with the 1982 novelisation. It should finish that way too. And it’s not as though some of my buddies won’t be joining me. There are lots of The Thing fans here, surprise surprise.
I load up with a mug of vodka, orange juice and pineapple juice (properly an Aloha Screwdriver) and settle in for the night. And it’s wonderful. I’ve never watched the movies this way before, starting with the more recent (and flawed) prequel and then going straight into the original (and best) John Carpenter film. It’s a horrific tale, the only one that ever gave me nightmares, but there’s hope in it too, I think. For life of all kinds, human and non-human. As Alan Dean Foster himself once said: the thing has its own motivations. That doesn’t make it a baddie, necessarily. Just a survivor. And Antarctic history is littered with struggles for survival.
I sit up chatting in the bar for a long time after the movies finish, loath to go to bed even though I’m tired and aware of an early start tomorrow. The nights here have been as interesting as the days. Landscape shapes people as well as the other way around, and I’ve yet to finish my exploration on that front. This is one job I will have to leave unfinished. Until next time, if there is a next time.
Everyone is up and washing their sheets etc ahead of meeting in the Wallow at 10am, the same time our plane is due to leave Hobart. Crazy to think it’s going to come all the way from Australia in the time it will take us to get to Wilkins aerodrome!
It’s -6.2˚ outside, the coldest day recorded all season, and brilliantly blue and bright. I go outside in tracksuit and t-shirt to take some last photos. Andrew has baked us scones as a special farewell treat. Man, I am going to miss this food and the excuse to eat so many calories.
We load up and set out, glancing behind at the brightly coloured sheds one last time as we leave. (There are some tears as people part.) It’s a surprisingly quick trip to Wilkins–just two hours, as opposed to three and a half coming the other way the day we landed. That gives us a couple of hours to cool our heels until the plane lands. And I mean “cool” literally: despite thick socks and enormous boots, my toes do start to get seriously cold. So do my hands. I’ve lost one of my good gloves, and it’s colder here than it was back at Casey. But the sky is just as bright.
Most people crowd into an overheated lounge that smells of chicken noodle soup to wait for the plane, but I join a handful of others in the cramped hallway outside. Occasionally I’ll step right outside to take photos of the aerodrome and its surrounds. People live out here, in an environment that’s even harsher and windier than Casey. They too had sticky date pudding for dessert, and there’s good-natured competition between the chefs to see who made it best.
I remember how I felt on landing at Wilkins, so hot and flustered. That feels like weeks ago, and at the same time just yesterday. Experiences like these really screw with our sense of time. Or maybe it’s life back home. A third possibility is that there’s no “normal” at all. Every moment can be an adventure, if we choose to think of it that way.
The word goes up. Our plane is coming! It flies in a straight line to the runway and touches down: I try to capture the exact moment, but it’s hard to tell later if I managed it. (You can watch a “video” of the landing here.)
The whining of engines seems surprisingly faint, drowned out by the emptiness around us. As the plane taxis and comes to park (is that the right word?) in front of us, light gleams off its smooth, white shell. It looks like a thing of ice itself, perfectly matching its surroundings. I can’t compare this mode of travelling to taking the boat, but it seems a fitting vehicle, at least.
We gather, ready to board, as new arrivals disembark, wearing the same cold-weather garb as us but strangers behind their goggles. How weird it must be at the end of winter to see new people. And then to go home. What I am experiencing is sincerely felt, but a pale shadow of what others must endure. Or enjoy. Each to their own.
We board, spreading out through the empty rows, most people to a window seat, but some like Zoë on the aisle. I have my long lens to take photos of the pack ice, if we’re lucky on that front this time. We’ll exchange photos later.
I keep hoping for a sudden change in weather to cancel the flight, but I know that’s not going to happen. I’m leaving Antarctica. The dream I’ve had for thirty-five years is now fulfilled, in a way it wasn’t a week ago. One must do more than just arrive: one must get home as well.
Standard flight attendant announcements. Engines roar. We accelerate and rise smoothly off the ice runway. I try to catch that exact moment too, but really I want to see it with my own eyes. The whiteness falling away. That moment of severance that I try hard to capture in an article later, for the AAD. That strange mixture of achievement, excitement, and loss.
Turn it up to 1000, and is this what Mawson once felt?
The seatbelt sign comes off and everyone rushes to take photos. The view is extraordinary, the scale even more difficult to grasp. It’s like watching a world fall apart with every mile, white marble splitting and fracturing and crumbling into blue jade ocean. My awed reaction is mixed with a feeling of dread anger from the sure knowledge that, although this has been occurring for thousands of years, this calving of ice from glaciers, it is happening much faster now thanks to climate change. When our grandchildren watch the last of today’s millionaires coastal mansions vanish under whitetops, I hope the names of those who did nothing to stop it are cursed and blackened.
But for now, it’s beautiful and I snap away like mad, feeling like part of me is melting to nothing as the white inevitably gives way to blue.
When we hit cruising altitude, the captain announces that we can get out of our cold-weather gear. The return to normality properly begins here. It’s weird seeing people put on civvies after ten days of yellow and black, tracksuits, work garb, etc. I realize only then how similar people looked in Casey: there was no uniform per se, just a certain casual aesthetic most of us gravitated to. I wonder if we all smell the same too. Probably. There was a common brand of liquid soap, deodorants, shampoos etc that weren’t compulsory but certainly seemed easiest to use. Perhaps our hormones got in sync. There are probably studies.
People who have been in Antarctica for any length of time are eagerly anticipating the prospect of a fresh fruit snack on the plane: they haven’t had melons, pineapples and strawberries, the bane of any frequent flyer, for months. I’d rather another of those delicious scones. Should’ve pocketed one for the trip!
In a reversal of the trip down, it now feels very strange to be flying north to Hobart. My disorientation is complete when land does come into view. I was expecting the shock of green, but the truth is it looks more brown than anything (thank you again, global warming). It’s so busy with evidence of human habitation. There’s no natural environment anywhere.
My feelings are mixed as we land and disembark and go through customs. What was it I loved so much about Antarctica? The cold? The simplicity? The sense of communal endeavour? All that’s gone the moment we step from the plane. Maybe it was just the shock of the new, in which case I’m underwhelmed by the old. But I do feel as though I’m seeing it through a slightly different filter now. It’ll take me a little while to readjust. Nothing like the long-timers, though.
We move on to the luggage carousel, where friends and loved-ones are waiting. The reunions are moving, and I’m honoured to be introduced to some of the people I’ve heard about. Jill from AAD has very kindly come to pick me up. I’m glad to see a familiar face. It’s been a long day, and I suspect I might be babbling again.
Jill drops me at my friend’s place and I reacquaint myself with the comforts of my old life. A big bed! Showers that last more than three minutes! Silence! A long night!
And heat, humidity, emails, social media . . . I resolve to leave my “Antarctica” autoreply and voicemail in place for a while, to give me time to decompress.
I call home and sleep uneasily, too exhausted to rest. Tomorrow I’ll stay in Hobart before flying home to Adelaide on Saturday. My plan is to go to MONA, but when birdsong wakes me up in the morning, I resolve to have a quiet day instead. Maybe I’ll walk in the park. Listen to music. Take the slow lane back into reality.
And that’s exactly what I do.
Assorted Observations & Musings
Now I’m home and still processing the trip. As I write this final entry, I’m remembering many things I didn’t raise or comment upon before. Here are some of them:
- There are a lot of sci-fans in Antarctica, which is fitting given the history of aliens-in-Antarctica stories. The Thing was based on a story published in 1931 (“Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell), which was itself one of many such tales at the time. There were so many, in fact, that Arthur C. Clarke took the piss out of the trope in 1940.
- Being in a seriously cold environment totally confused my sense of the seasons and the calendar. It took me a week to remember that it was Summer in February, not Winter in July.
- I’ve never shared house in the He Died With A Felafel In His Hand mode, but I expect there are parallels to the arrangement in Casey. Except there everyone does a psych test to get in, every tenant also works in the house they live in, and three of them are professional cooks.
- The Splinters bar at Casey (made from bits of the old station) is the site of one of the worst games of darts I’ve ever played. It’s also where I played one of the best turns I’ve ever had. There are few things more satisfying than taking someone’s turn while they’re in the loo and throwing them a perfect bed (three of the same number).
- People talk about the dull palette of Antarctica, everything being blue or white, etc. Maybe that’s true inland, but wherever there’s exposed rock I was struck by its incredible beauty and vitality. You get a sense of the planet as a living thing, metaphorically, albeit on a slower scale compared to animals and even plants. Next time I go, I plan to pack a geologist.
- The station is full of memorabilia, such as mementos from previous stations, competition tables, photos, etc. I didn’t document them because they felt private. Not in the “What happens in Casey stays in Casey” sense, but in the sense of cultural appropriation. I didn’t want to take any of that stuff home with me without asking permission first. That story doesn’t belong to me.
- The plane we flew to and from Wilkins is also chartered by the Australian government to service Manus Island. Ugh. Thanks to the pilots for letting me sit and chat in the cockpit. I haven’t done that since I was a kid!
- God, was it great to put some distance between me and Trump. My news intake was limited to what was printed out and distributed through kitchen, and one Trump-related article a day felt like a much more balanced informational diet than what I’ve become used to lately. Trump is the junk food of news.
- Thanks once again to Jodie Bignell for the beanie that saved me from getting frostbite of the scalp several times over!
- And speaking of clothing: I get to keep all the gear that spent long amounts of time against my skin, such as thermals, woolen gloves, beanie, work clothes, etc. I’ll keep it all as mementos of this incredible trip. If Adelaide experiences a cold snap, maybe I’ll even get to wear it!
- Finally, I’m proud that my facial hair drew the attention of a repeat offender, who described it as a “proper Antarctica beard”.
On a larger level, I’ve come home with a greater understanding of and much deeper appreciation for everyone at the Australian Antarctic Division, either on the ice or off. The moment I arrived in Hobart, I was welcomed into a community dedicated to the expansion of knowledge concerning all things Antarctic. Some of the finest minds on the planet are part of this project, and some of the nicest people, too. There’s a sense of common purpose uniting everyone I met. It’s invigorating being in such a place–and when you add it to the moneyless environment, the standardised quarters, shared duties etc, my old Leftie heart beat a little louder.
While I’m talking politics, it’s refreshing that Australia’s Antarctica presence retains bipartisan support, as it has throughout our country’s history. Long may that remain the case. It’s easy to unite people in the face of a common enemy, real or imagined–much better, but much harder, to find unity in search of knowledge.
I’ve written approximately fifteen thousand words of non-fiction since my trip to Casey in an attempt to get these experiences down as thoroughly as possible. (That’s been a key purpose of this blog, obviously.) Meanwhile, the ideas generated by the Fellowship continue to flow. I’ve submitted piece of flash fiction directly inspired by my experiences at Casey, unconnected to either Lone Soul Standing or “Case Y”. It’s called “Summer Can’t Last Forever” and may or not be a sequel to The Thing. I also penned a haiku in the Wilkes Hilton, inspired by my adventures there, which I’ll conclude with here:
I have no doubt there are many more words yet to come, not just of my adventures, but of other people much more interesting than me.
Watch this space.
For other blog posts about Antarctica, click here.
More photos here.
PEOPLE I HAVEN’T SPECIFICALLY MENTIONED OR THANKED YET: Daniel for generously plying me with wine and follow-up emails, Andy for book recommendations and good company, Mick for offering to take me on a tour of the Green Store that I ended up not having time for, Lloyd for offering his time also, and Simmo aka “Seismo” too (there were a few places I didn’t get to see, alas), Kiwi for photos, ideas and the occasional strummed tune drifting up the corridors, fellow writer Adrian Fitzgerald, Narelle for her blog posts . . . The list goes on and on. Everyone was so generous. I am in your debt forever!
IF YOU’D LIKE TO KNOW MORE about the Australian Antarctic Division, including its Arts Fellowship program and the work of previous recipients of the fellowship, I can’t recommend its website highly enough.