It’s hard to believe that this time three weeks ago I was in Antarctica: it seems like a world away already!
The second flight of the season arrived a day late on Tuesday 3rd November (the Monday flight got cancelled at about 5am that morning due to adverse weather conditions – the “Antarctic” or “A” factor mucking up plans again). On the drive up from station to Wilkins runway to collect those incoming passengers, we stopped briefly to tick off one of the last items on my Antarctica to-do list: playing golf. It was immensely satisfying driving a bright orange ball up the A-line!
This second flight landing was particularly memorable because soon after the plane reached top of descent, three disorientated Adelie penguins materialised from thin air and threatened to walk across the runway (which is 70km inland). Obviously 5kg of flightless bird vs God knows how many tonnes of jet aeroplane had the potential for a very messy ending, so Matty and Steve had to try and shepherd the penguins down the runway towards the coast. Two penguins were happy to co-operate, but one particularly cranky penguin was determined to stand his ground, and the image of him flapping his wings at Matty who was waving his arms back as the plane passed only metres overhead will stick in my mind for the rest of my life (until I get dementia, which at the rate I’ve been drinking since I got home is probably not very far away).
I’d actually really hoped to go out on that flight, because it was pretty obvious that our Wednesday flight would also be cancelled, looking at the weather forecast, and I just wanted to get out of there at that point. However Tasmanian Customs who must be the most idle international Customs mob in the world with about 12 Antarctic flights in a year to process declined to open up on a Tuesday to stamp our incoming passenger cards. As a result we had to wait around like stale bottles of piss for a few more days until there was another weather window. On the one hand it was ok, it gave me time to do a more thorough handover for incoming summer doctors Lloyd and Mal (although they’re both so experienced they have forgotten more about the job than I’ll ever know) and to keep working on my end-of-season reports. In fact, those reports and a uni assignment I’d completely neglected to do are the main reasons this final blog is so late – and of course a hectic social life since returning. The flight cancellation also meant that we’d get to go home on the RAAF C-17 Globemaster instead of the normal Airbus!! But the worst part about staying on for a few more days was that Casey went onto an “Operational Pause” because the new crew had arrived. It’s a new rule and basically means that you are not allowed out of station limits for the first 1-2 weeks of the season because the new SAR (Search and Rescue) crew haven’t been trained – never mind the fact there were now three doctors and five Field Training Officers as well as the old SAR crew on station. In effect that translated to not being able to do the ski loop or visit the penguins. I was pissed off. There are two reasons why I won’t ever return to Antarctica, and the increasingly restrictive rules are one of them. There is a focus on physical safety to the neglect of psychological wellbeing.
Eventually Saturday arrived with a brief weather window for flight operations. After a few hours of agonising delay we received word that the C-17 was finally taxiing down the Hobart runway bound for Casey. We were off!!! I shed a few tears as we departed station for the last time, waving goodbye to friends that we’d made over the 69th ANARE season and soaking up the view of the glittering ocean, icebergs and the rocky coastline. But freedom beckoned…
The weather wasn’t very good up at Wilkins still, blowing about 40 knots that morning – if it gets much windier than that the plane can’t land, especially if there is drifting/blowing snow affecting visibility, and occasionally a plane will boomerang without touching down if the pilots aren’t happy with the conditions as they approach. So it wasn’t until the plane landed that I allowed myself to really believe that I was finally going home. After the helicopters which will be used during summer for science projects and transport were unloaded, we said our final goodbyes to the winterers who were staying on for part or all of summer (Andy, Kiwi, Danny, Sam, Matty, Steve, Nick and Dainn) and boarded the beast via the tail ramp. At 7pm that night the C17 took to the sky and I thought my grin was going to split my face in half. It was a pretty comfortable flight. We sat side-by-side up along the sides of the plane and the lovely RAAF crew fed us (OMG fresh salad sandwiches and fresh fruit!!!!), and let us have a look around the cockpit and plane. There are only a couple of small windows around the fuselage through which we could glimpse the clouds below. Social media policy dictates that I cannot put up any photos of the interior of the plane or the RAAF crew but if you’re really nice and in the area I might invite you over for slide night and show you some of them, along with the other 6000 or so photos from the year, as well as the Yearbook which I finally finished and received in the mail this week – only a few layout errors which I’m disappointed about but otherwise I’m pretty happy with the final product.
Our arrival into Hobart was very late, almost midnight, and it was a lovely surprise to be greeted by some of the senior AAD staff. Customs stamped our cards (sucked in for having to meet us at midnight on a Saturday instead of the early evening on the preceding Tuesday) and we were released into Australia and the real world! Hobart was a very gentle introduction back into society and the Australian climate. 14 of the 15 of us caught up again on Sunday for breakfast, which turned into a day-long pub crawl. Slowly people drifted off, a few flew home that day, and at 2am the last three standing (I wasn’t one of them) hit the sack.
Monday saw me back at the Div (Head Office) where I spent the rest of the week finalising jobs and catching up with the staff members I knew there, and doing the end-of-season debrief with the Chief Medical Officer Dr Jeff Ayton and his deputy Dr Roland Watzl. It took a few hours and was a chance to talk about the season, what work had been done, what I felt could be improved and so on. The other big debrief was with Dr Kim Norris, a psychologist who specialises in psychology in extreme environments. The PMU doctors generally use her, and in fact I’d used her a couple of times during the year to help with my own personal struggles. I had a tough year due to an interpersonal clash and I didn’t cope very well at times. The environment down there is very disempowering, there is no escape, and it’s as hard as you’d imagine to have to face someone whom you dread at every meal. I am eternally grateful to Dr Jeff and the other PMU doctors and my friends and family for their support and help in getting through the winter.
Being home is incredible. I am so aware of how precious everything is! Being woken by the sound of birds, seeing animals, patting dogs, smelling flowers, enjoying the warm sun on your skin, admiring the bright colours of the city and countryside, catching up with friends, playing with kids, shopping, wining and dining, making choices, not having to get permission to go for a walk, and so on. I went and saw a musical about Antarctica in my first week back which was brilliant. It was written by a scientist who works for the AAD and she nailed it! Her portrayal of the events throughout the year, the diverse characters that you meet in Antarctica and the emotions that a lot of people experience from time to time were really spot on. And I want one of the little penguin puppets!
I even loved being back at work. I spent the second week upskilling at the Royal Hobart Hospital, which I’d arranged because I was freaking out about going back to work in Naracoorte next month without having put in a cannula or intubated someone for over a year. Seeing babies being born, talking to patients and medical staff, and watching sick (and obese – Tas has just taken the crown from QLD for having the highest population of overweight adults in Australia) people being operated on was exciting. I’ve really missed clinical work!
Elise, the doctor who’ll be going down to Casey for the 70th ANARE winter, was also training at the Royal Hobart. She is a Kiwi girl who’s done a lot of Emergency training in NSW, and I think she’ll be great – very level-headed, smart and good fun. I’m glad I got the chance to meet her and I wish her and her crew an amazing year.
The best part of being home has been catching up with friends and family. Mum came down to Hobart for a weekend and we enjoyed visiting the Salamanca markets, Richmond, restaurants and more. I stayed with friends over the fortnight, and was delighted when my good friends Lisa and Zach had their first baby, Henry, in Hobart during my second week!
Ox flew back down to Hobart at the end of last week to share the drive home. We visited Cradle Mountain and Launceston and then caught the Spirit of Tasmania ferry back to the mainland on Sunday night. I shared a twin female cabin on the ferry and hadn’t met my fellow roommate until I went to bed. I opened the door and switched the lights on, and what I saw scarred my retina – a very voluptuous woman in a short hot pink nightie lying on her side with her very ample thigh thrown over the top of the rolled up quilt. She was not a quiet sleeper either, as you can imagine. Thank god for my custom made earplugs and my eye mask.
So this blog ends where it began, with a boat ride from Tasmania to a continent. I’m back on the mainland now, back amongst the traffic and the rush and the trees and the insects. It was a remarkable year, I’ve seen Antarctica before human activity changes it too much, seen auroras and Antarctic wildlife, experienced the hostile environment and the utter isolation, met some absolute legends and made some new friends for life. I’m proud to have survived the winter, relieved that my fellow expeditioners did too, and excited for the next chapter. Thank you to my friends and family who have read this blog and said nice things about it. I look forward to catching up with you all in person over the next few months!