An Antarctic Dream

Words by: Chloe Power

Photos by: Matt Palmer, Chloe Power

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Antarctica from the air by Matt Palmer.
 

For as long as I can remember, I have always been drawn to the south... The cruel coldness. The irrefutable wild ocean. The untouched and isolated. The somewhat unknown. 

I studied marine and environmental science for almost five years where I learned about all things terrestrial, tropical, temperate and more, but I still felt the urge to continue studying this great blue orbiting ball of life. For it was the polar environment that was a mystery to me, a malevolent yet magical place. Another world. My feet were itchy, and my mind was ready. 

During my first semester in a Marine and Antarctic master’s degree in the wild island state of Tasmania, Australia, an opportunity came up that I couldn’t ignore. A 14-week intensive Antarctic course in Christchurch New Zealand, open to anyone in the world with a bachelor’s degree in a related field. When I found out the course involved a trip to the icy continent itself, I ran home and applied right away.

A few weeks later, I got the most exciting email of my life - I was one of 15 successful applicants! I packed up my life and moved to New Zealand for the summer, and soon met my fellow students. Ranging from different countries, ages, backgrounds, and culture, it was an eclectic mix. From zoology to geology, international relations to history, civil engineering to geography and marine biology to medicine - we all brought something different to the table. 

The best thing about the course was how accommodating it was for all disciplines. You didn’t have to be a scientist to study Antarctica, for we studied all facets of Antarctica in class: Antarctic art, poetry, wildlife, history, politics, logistics, geography.


It was the polar environment that was a mystery to me, a malevolent yet magical place. Another world. My feet were itchy, and my mind was ready. 


There was something special about going to class every day with these incredible people who were all so different, yet our shared love and passion for the polar environment brought us together. After almost 3 months, we were more than just classmates - we were a family. 

On the 4th of February 2018, it was time to journey down to the place we thought only belonged in our wildest dreams. That morning boarding the United States Air Force C-17 hanger was without a doubt the most exhilarating and exciting experience of our lives.

The flight was noisy, yet became quiet with the silence of our excitement and shock. The passengers on board ranged from the United States and New Zealand air force crew, scientists, and tradesmen to Antarctic veterans that seemed amused by our unwavering keenness and permanent smiles. The aircraft had no windows, except a little porthole that gave us small snippets of the outside. And then, to our joy, our pilot announced that we could have a sneak peek at the approaching white continent through the cockpit. 

Antarctica as seen from the C-17 aircraft cockpit

Antarctica as seen from the C-17 aircraft cockpit


It was an emotional experience. I awkwardly climbed up the ladder in my big Antarctic boots (it was mandatory to wear Antarctic gear on board in case of an emergency landing), and I was welcomed with the most breathtakingly beautiful, cry-your-eyes-out view of nothing but white mountains, indigo water, and vast endless ice. The tears streamed down my face. I had never seen anything so beautiful. 

The immense size of this place made me feel small and insignificant, yet so grateful I thought I would explode. I looked over at a fellow classmate and knew he was feeling the same.

It was finally time to land, and just when I thought I couldn’t get any more emotional, Antarctica got me again. Those first steps on the most isolated and southern continent on Earth… It was the one moment in my life that I felt the most alive.


Here we were - a bunch of aspiring Antarcticans, standing on an ice shelf in the middle of nowhere, about to pitch a tent and live and breathe and sleep out here amongst nothing but white and silence. We were ants in the biggest desert on Earth.


We were welcomed at Scott Base (the New Zealand Antarctic research station) on Ross Island, which would be our home over the next few days. Despite being jetlagged, dehydrated, and tired, we explored our new surroundings and instantly fell in love. Huge Weddell seals were hauled out on the frozen sea, pressure ridges formed where the sea ice met the ice shelf, and we were surprised to see brown volcanic rocks. This place was raw, rugged, dry, and unreal. 

For the next few days we surveyed seals from the top of the hill, recorded weather, and started our Antarctic field training which would allow us to camp out on the ice shelf for a few days. The Hagglunds (tractor-like ice vehicles) were packed and we were ready to go. 

Something about the wide white wilderness created a distortion of time and space, and objects appeared close when they were, in fact, several kilometres away. A trip that seemed like it would take ten minutes to reach our camp ended up being closer to an hour.

Our camp site was at Windless Bight on the McMurdo Ice Shelf, only 50 km from the world’s most active southern volcano, Mt Erebus. She was active alright - I could see her puffing out little clouds of smoke and although we were assured she wasn’t going to blow anytime soon, it was humbling to be so close. 

Here we were - a bunch of aspiring Antarcticans, standing on an ice shelf in the middle of nowhere, about to pitch a tent and live and breathe and sleep out here amongst nothing but white and silence. We were ants in the biggest desert on Earth.

Ice kitchen at the field camp, McMurdo Ice Shelf

Ice kitchen at the field camp, McMurdo Ice Shelf

The next few days were spent constructing ice kitchens, hauling ice blocks, hiking rocky outcrops, and digging snow pits for glaciology projects. We were learning and laughing. This place, these people - it was all so unreal. 


The never-setting sun shining down on the bottom of the planet felt nothing short of magic.


The average temperature was around -10 degrees Celsius, quite balmy really for the coldest place on the planet. There was no way to shower, the ‘toilet’ was a bucket in a tent, and we were living off backcountry meals and stale chocolate. We were roughing it. 

To get in and out of our polar tents took around 15 minutes by the time we had to undress/re-dress our Antarctic clothing. To sleep, we had to keep anything we didn’t want to freeze in our sleeping bags. Boot liners, sunscreen, water bottles, the whole lot. It was quite cozy in there.

Reflecting on my time on the ice still has me speechless. Antarctic summers mean 24-hour daylight which made my mind a little weird and my dreams a little stranger, but the never-setting sun shining down on the bottom of the planet felt nothing short of magic. I got about 3 hours of sleep per night in those little yellow tents, for being outside in the wide white wilderness kept me awake and dreaming at the same time.

As the days went on, we fell more in love with Antarctica and the endless white that almost hurt your eyes. There were no smells, no noise except the flapping of our country flags in the wind, and no worries. It was as if time itself had frozen and we were simply living without a clock. 

Flags representing the student’s countries at the field camp, Antarctica

Flags representing the student’s countries at the field camp, Antarctica

As the end of my Antarctic stint drew close, I started to feel an overwhelming sense of emotion. Whether outside observing the seals, finding an Adelie penguin shedding its coat, reading a book by the window in the base loungeroom, or being with my classmates, I would often find myself shedding a tear. Even writing this account now I begin to feel emotional. 

If I had to try and pinpoint the emotions I was feeling, it would come down to connectedness. Connections to a place, to people, to life. Finding my passion and my place in the world. Being surrounded by like-minded people that share my same polar dream. 

Despite how small Antarctica made me feel, it also made me feel connected to these people and the continent itself. Antarctica will always hold a special place in my heart. It was the place that made me feel the most in tune with Mother Nature as well as a strong sense of belonging that I’d never felt before. 


It was as if time itself had frozen and we were simply living without a clock. 


My time there made me realize that you have to trust your gut and follow your passion. Do your heart and yourself proud. Step out of your comfort zone, explore new places, challenge the norm. And always be kind to yourself and be kind to nature. Time aboard this orbiting ball of life is temporary. So dream big. Stay curious. Love hard.

Looking back now, my most treasured memory down south was a cold windy day hiking back from McMurdo Station to Scott Base, looking for Orcas in the polynyas (ice-free areas among the sea ice) with some of my favourite people on Earth. 

We had no luck with Orcas, but we did find something else. In the distance we spotted three figures - they were slightly too small to be Weddell seals and perhaps too big to be Adelie penguins. They turned out to be three majestic, beautiful, impeccable Emperor penguins. One of my most favourite animals. 

The photographs we took were incredibly zoomed in and we could only see them clearly through our binoculars and camera lenses. There were no constant camera clicks, no selfies, no picture-perfect detail. But something about the silence of watching them simply just ‘be’ in their habitat still creeps up into my memory and makes me smile from time to time. Moments like these are the ignition for my polar passion, my fire. The Antarctic dream that I hope will never end.

 
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Letters From the Ends of the Earth is an online multimedia platform that brings the polar regions to you - through real stories, stunning photography, inspiring artwork, and informative resources. From Antarctica to the Arctic, Svalbard to South Georgia, this project shines a new and different kind of light on the unique experiences found at the Ends of the Earth.
 

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