We had been on the ice for about eleven months straight. That’s five months of twenty-four hour daylight, roughly four months of twenty-four hour night and two months of frequent sunrises and sunsets. In my opinion, this experience has been like spending eleven months on an alien planet.
Since we had already committed to another summer contract, the United States Antarctic Program requires a forty-two day hiatus for every fourteen months spent on the ice. With my summer position needing me to start work during August, we were scheduled to fly out of McMurdo in July so we could return in time for the start of the 2016-17 season.
There are a few reasons why this was a favorable thing for us. The obvious reason being a breather from six-day work weeks, a healthy and much needed dose of sunshine, repose and fresh food. Keep in mind though, spending nearly an entire year in Antarctica – more importantly, five months of a sunless winter, can make for some curious personality changes.
There’s a common term dubbed ‘winter brain’. This is laymen’s for Polar T3 syndrome. It’s a condition in which the thyroid reduces production of the T3 hormone. This allegedly causes symptoms like forgetfulness, changes in mood and demeanor, and, well, temporary stupidity. Some people claim to experience it more than others. During the winter, some people seem to become utterly touched while others demonstrate no symptoms. There are also theories about being in such a cold climate for so long also playing a role in this phenomenon. I say phenomenon because there isn’t really any hard evidence to support this condition, though it appears there is also very little attention spent on it in general. Additionally, winter tends to reek havoc on your sleep patterns so most people are exhausted from working so much and sleep deprived, which we all know doesn’t bode well for cognitive functionality. Throw in poor nutrition and you’ve got yourself a great recipe for feeling braindead.
I have to admit, there were a couple times when I couldn’t remember much of anything and was really starting to feel dimwitted. There was one day that I was driving the IT-28 and had spaced out for so long that I had driven to a part of McMurdo that I didn’t recognize and wasn’t sure where I was. McMurdo isn’t very big, so not knowing where I was, was the first alarming observation and then not knowing where to go only made things worse.
Then there’s the fact that you’ve been living, working, eating, socializing and surrounded by the same people day in and day out for months on end. It’s great in the sense that you really feel a connection to these people and simultaneously terrible because we were about to be booted back into society and forced to flounder about for forty-two days, unsupervised.
We decided not to fly all the way back to the U.S. The thought of enduring a sixteen hour flight crammed into a solid two days of travel, only to find ourselves pretty much homeless and not sure where to go didn’t sound like the R & R we were in need of. We opted, instead, to spend our time off in Australia. There were numerous reasons why this made sense. For one, it’s close. We fly into New Zealand, where we are abandoned and left for dead. It’s just a short hop to Australia from there, an easy three hour flight. Second, it’s warm. Even though they’re in their winter, northern Australia was still enjoying temperatures in the nineties! Third, we’ve both always wanted to go and what better opportunity than to spend a month buzzing around the worlds biggest island (-continent). Finally, Australia is busting at the seams with wildlife, plants, open spaces, outback and excitement; everything two savage, pale, withdrawn and debased Antarcticans were in need of.
So, July rolled around and we said adieu to our freezing compadres and set off for balmier climates.
We scheduled a week in Christchurch in order to PQ, once again, for our upcoming austral summer season and also because you pretty much have to plan time in Christchurch in case of multiday flight delays on the ice – lest you miss your connecting flight elsewhere. That would be bad jou jou. We booked a room through Airbnb in Littleton, a quaint suburb on the outskirts of Christchurch on a lovely hillside over looking the city.
Dave and I typically don’t advertise our occupational particulars when we’re roaming about. I’ve found this to be a common practice for a lot of regulars on the ice. You simply get bored of answering the same questions; how cold is it, what’s the food like, do you see Polar bears (yes, we all get this question all the time). Also, you start to feel slightly one dimensional, as if the only interesting thing about you is the fact that you work in Antarctica. I’m interesting, dammit! For example, I find it amusing to dress animals up in costumes for my own amusement, I really enjoy chips and salsa and I’m fluent in Pig-Latin. After our first season, it was exciting to talk about McMurdo and we enjoyed being asked questions. However, as our seasons stacked up our interest in talking about it dwindled and now we usually try to skirt the topic altogether. That being said, there are definitely, absolutely times when dropping the A-bomb (as we’ve come to call it) works to our advantage. It gets us through customs quicker, it’s worked to our advantage with law enforcement, we’re a topic of conversation in our neighborhood in Colorado, and our Airbnb hosts were enamored by the fact. So much so that they had us for dinner a couple of times. Our hosts, luckily for us, were a charming couple. While they plied us with questions about Antarctica, we in turn, asked dozens of questions about his line of work, which was, strange to say, selling air.
Gerry, the male component of the couple, worked at a New Zealand company that bottled, distributed and sold breathable air to China. Each individually sized can typically runs between $25 – $30 NZD, offering people the opportunity to inhale breaths of fresh air whenever they felt the urge. At first, I thought it was a joke but it turns out it’s a booming business. Judging from his home, I’d say he was making a decent living at it.
After buzzing around the area for a week, the time came for our flight to Australia. Our flight went from Christchurch to Sydney to Melbourne and then up to Cairns (pronounced Cans, by the way). We booked our first two weeks here so we could unwind and take things slow, catch up sleep and try to work on camouflaging our way back into a tanned community. I shudder when I think of how pallid we must have been. Having spent most of my life in Arizona, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a part of me that truly loathed being so pasty. Loathed.
Cairns was a great spot for us to journey here and there, in and out of town, to the rainforests and up into the mountains, to the beach and around the boardwalk; everyday we picked a different destination, a new attraction to visit and a new site to take in. One day it was the Koala Sanctuary where we held a slumbering Koala bear and hand fed some grabby kangaroos, another day was a gondola ride up Barron Gorge National Park, there was a butterfly garden, rainforest trails, Wallaby refuge, waterfalls and streams to swim in, platypus spotting – to note, spotting a platypus in the wild ended up being a slight endeavor for us. It was a few hours drive to the location where the platypus was said to dwell. Our first attempt was unsuccessful; having spent several hours quietly, utterly still, crouched down next to a stream at dusk. The next morning we left Cairns in the wee hours of the morning to make it to the stream at sunrise. The platypus is, unexpectedly, nocturnal and the best time to spot them is at sunrise and sunset. Though, I probably should not be surprised by this fact given that everything about the platypus is extraordinary, bizarre and unexpected. For those of you who aren’t overly familiar with the platypus, allow me to fill you in on a few of their unlikely features. First, it’s a mammal with a duck-like bill, a beaver-like tail, and webbed feet. As if its appearance alone didn’t make it odd enough, it reproduces by laying eggs, the males have a venomous spur on their back paws, their bills (which are actually a snout made of soft leather) has electro-receptors that are used to detect prey. It’s like something out of a five year olds imagination.
We waited for several more hours by the stream that morning, only to be disappointed and stiff from having been crouched for so long. We spent the day sightseeing around the area waiting for dusk to come and afford us another opportunity. At this point, we had agreed that we had committed enough time to seeing the elusive creature that nothing was going to stop us. Come Hell or high water, we would persevere! Once dusk was upon us, we went back to the creek and crouched in the rain for several more hours. Finally, victory! At last, we got to see the shy little freak of nature, which they are and we all know it. I know this probably seems like an insane amount of effort to a lot of people, it was. But it was completely worth it. How many times in your life can you saw you’ve seen a wild platypus?
Annoyingly, a friend of ours who was also visiting Australia went to the same location in hopes of seeing one. He got out of his car, walked twenty feet to the ‘Platypus Spotting’ platform and saw one within minutes! We had to trek up and down the stream for miles, attempting to spot the entrances to their dens, sit in endless silence in rain and cold, drive hours during treacherous hours of the night through winding mountain roads…What a pisser.
Despite the fact that we’ve been slaving away at the bottom of the planet for months on end, saving up money for the big build, we couldn’t talk ourselves out of forking up the cash to dive the Great Barrier Reef. Convincingly, we deluded ourselves into believing that this was possibly a once in a lifetime opportunity, that for all we knew it might cease to exist in another ten years and that we had to see it for the benefit of all mankind. So we booked a few nights on a liveaboard. We took a little prop plane to an outlying island and boarded a gigantic catamaran where we would spend the next four days eating, sleeping and diving. Literally. You wake up, grab a light breakfast and then dive. Off gas some nitrogen for about an hour and then dive again. Eat lunch and then dive. The get another quick dive in if you have time before your night dive. I started to feel like a machine whose sole purpose in life was to eat and breathe compressed air through a regulator.
Some of the dives were spectacular. An immense array of flashing color and coral, so many fish of such variety it knocks your booties off. We saw sharks and rays, gigantic Potato cods and enormous clams, octopus and Cuttlefish, crabs and nudibranchs. Dave got to check off a few firsts; a night dive and a deep dive to one hundred feet. I implore anyone wanting to dive the GBR to do it before this extraordinary wonder is gone. Better yet, vote for a government that understands climate change and supports environmental protection.
After our time was up in Cairns, we had reserved a campervan to drive across the outback to Uluru and then up to Darwin. I can hear some people scoff us for wanting to drive this enormous expanse of barren land. I can hear this because we did hear this, from numerous people. For the life of me I can’t understand why some people can’t see the beauty of the desert.
It doesn’t take long to get out of civilization in Australia. You just have to head inland and before you know it, all signs of people start to fade in the distance. Red dirt, open space, kangaroos, cockatoos and not a soul to be seen. With my bare feet treading the soft, crimson soil I felt at home in the austere void of Australia. I will forever love this country. Not only for the beautiful landscape and vast wilderness, but also because of the Australians themselves. I consider them to be cousins, twice removed; rejects and miscreants of the motherland. Cast out to unknown territory without a second thought. Paradoxically, Americans are a result of ‘religious prosecution’ (those fun-loving Quakers) and Australians are the descendants of criminals and felons. I much prefer the company of an Australian to an American. No offense, America. There’s something to be said about the sense of humor of a country derived of prisoners. Really. I know, as a country, the Australians don’t particularly like to acknowledge this point in history but I really wish they would embrace it! It’s funny and it’s symbolic. If you look at the United States, founded on people the English considered to be too religious and compare where we are now with Australia – I’d say Australia is doing better.
During the drive, I enjoyed incessantly telling Dave, “Onward, hoe!” He didn’t find it as amusing as I did, as least not after hearing it for the fiftieth time.
It took us four full days of driving to get to Alice Springs. We drove sunrise to sunset, careful to find a place to stop before the kangaroos were hopping out and about. Quite unfortunately, kangaroos are regularly hit by vehicles in Australia, many of them with baby kangaroos in their pouches still. Seeing them dead by the side of the road was relentless and depressing. We didn’t want to add to this burden.
Thankfully, Australia has a great system of roadside pull offs and camping areas that you never have to go far to find a place to spend the night. Some of these locations are basic, just a space of dirt by the side of the highway. Others have toilets, showers and barbeque grills (it’s Australia, barbeque is in their blood). We spent each night sitting outside, watching the sunset over the open horizon, listening to all the wildlife, sipping wine. Most notably, each night we watched Australia’s night sky explode. We both have been to exceptionally remote locations; sailing in pitch black waters so far from land that no radio contact could be heard, and had just spent a winter in Antarctica – however nothing came close to the stars we saw in the outback of Australia. No words can really describe how beautiful it was. I was in love.
We had made reservations to visit the Kangaroo Sanctuary in Alice Springs. This was something that I had been bouncing off the walls, insanely excited about for months.
The man who founded and runs the Kangaroo Sanctuary has been dubbed the “kangaroo whisperer”, nicknamed Brolga (named after the tall and gangly bird). He first set up the baby kangaroo rescue center, which then grew into a wildlife sanctuary. Now he’s working on a wildlife hospital. When you get to the sanctuary, you are surrounded by kangaroos, moving around you freely. They’re docile and mellow – they keep the more aggressive bucks in a separate part of the property. We were able to bottle feed and hold the joeys (baby kangaroos). It’s quite possibly the most unbelievably-cute-I-can-hardly-take-it thing I’ve ever seen. You hold an open pillowcase at ground level and they just come hopping over, spring in head first and hang out there while you’re cradling them in your arms like an infant. Yeah.
His love of the outback and of its wildlife is palpable. If you plan on visiting Central Australia, this place is seriously worth the visit. Also, if you feel like donating to a good cause, I’m not sure I could think of a better one.
Then there was Uluru (also known as Ayers Rock)…The rock formation itself was remarkable. However, Uluru seems to have grown into a tourist trap. The five-star resort community just minutes outside of the parks gates was an affront to the senses. We had an aversion for all of it and left as quickly as possible. “Look kids, Big Ben.”
Our drive north to Darwin was interrupted with a few nights spent in the outback, camped at a charismatic place called The Purple Mango and Brewery. There we spent our time ordering delicious food from their limited but satisfying menu and enjoying some craft brews. Between indulging, we loitered on the property, watching the local wildlife blithely wander about the premises. We amused ourselves for hours in the evening watching the Wallabies. At night the ground would be overrun by toads and frogs. This was when we’d slip into the outdoor shower available to guests, which was only us with no one else staying there, and bathe under the stars, surrounded by Tree frogs.
Finally, the time came for us to drop off the campervan, which meant having to drive into the large city of Darwin. I would have preferred spending the right of my nights in the pitch black of the outback but our trip was already scheduled and planned, with reservations and plane tickets paid for. We spent a couple uneventful evenings in Darwin. Had we more time, we would have liked to explore the cities surrounding mangroves forests, laden with Crocodiles and a vast array of birds.
We really only had time to shower, repack our belongings, get a nights sleep and board another plane for Sydney. With only a few days in Sydney, we tried to cram in the major sites; Sydney Opera House, where we watched Ben Folds perform, the Rocks, the Sydney Aquarium, which was not worth the visit, and the Botanical Gardens. Sydney is a bustling and cultured city, the locals are all smartly dressed and always busily moving about. It has the energy of New York City with the ease of Australian life and the civilization of Paris. I’m not much for large cities, but Sydney, as far as cities go, is a stunning and intoxicating one.
Suddenly, before we knew it, our precious forty two days of leisure had come and gone and we were flying back to McMurdo to spend another six months on the Antarctic continent. And that’s where we are, still.