Matt Williams and David Knoff applied to the AAD’s station leader selection program. After numerous rounds of testing and interviews, they were invited to Casey research station for a week long familiarisation visit, to better understand what they signed up for. These are their views…
On finding out
Matt — It was an email I’d waited for some time to receive — “Matt, attached are your flight details to Antarctica”. As much as I'd hoped for and anticipated that note, the exhilaration was palpable. An explorer by nature and from a family of adventurers, I knew I was ready.
Still, when the endorphins abated, and I sharpened my thoughts, all I could think was “time to get your stuff organised” (but of course I used more colourful language in my mind). My motto has for a long time been “to see behind the walls — of places and people”. I was excited to get a taste of what hides behind one of the last great frontiers on earth and the people that inhabit it!
Dave — Telling your boss that you need a week off at short notice is always interesting, and made even more interesting when you have to confess that it’s part of you’re plan to leave and find another job.
Luckily, both of our employers are federal government departments and are supportive of our interest in the Australian Antarctic Program — so we packed our bags and made our way to Hobart. Surprisingly, after seeing Deb in kitting at the AAD’s equipment store, plus the numerous jackets, beanies, gloves, socks and jocks I’d already packed, for a simple one week trip I had enough luggage to almost necessitate a Sherpa.
The flight and arrival
Matt — Both of us have flown on C17’s in Afghanistan and other overseas deployments, so our mode of transport was far more novel and out of the ordinary to family and friends, than to us. Luckily, we knew we were in the safest hands in the business, and in one of the most impressive pieces of machinery around.
I’m always happy to give up a little of my comfort in support of saving my skin. While I probably had to jiggle around a little more to find a comfy sitting/sleeping position, not once was I worried about the noises or movements of the plane. The trip to the cockpit made for a fascinating interlude and the pilots and engineer were as kind, and hilarious, as you could hope for.
It was the landing that was completely out of this world to both of us — a marvel of engineering in an incredible terrain. The thrill was obvious, worn on every face on the plane — even the most seasoned veteran of the journey. An impressive runway, literally carved out of the ice, sitting on an ice cap 1500m in the sky, amongst the clouds.
Like waking up as someone quickly draws open the curtains on a bright summer’s day, when that ramp lowered the glare and sharpness of the light took our eyes a while to adjust. Who would have known there were so many shades and textures of white? I guess we were lucky to have landed on a perfectly unusual perfect day. Even without the flurry of photos we all took, the image is etched in a special place in my mind.
Dave — They say first impressions last, and straight away we could sense the history of community and welcoming nature of the villagers who inhabit Casey. From our orientation tour to ‘smoko’ breaks, everyone we met was open about their role and keen to help educate the two of us on what life was like at station.
Almost immediately, it became crystal clear that nobody here could be defined by their job description. Each and every person we met had a variety of side hustles and part time jobs to keep the community functioning. From brewmaster, to fire fighters, knitting, music, writing, to name just a few, all helped shape the feel and vibe of the station.
The evening presentations by Dr Karl whilst visiting Casey as part of his radio show, and Ben’s presentation of his life aboard the replica HMS Endeavour, provided a window into some of the social aspects on station that help take you away from the nine-to-five station duties and bring people together.
The quality of the home brew, and variety of beers available behind the bar at Splinters, was arguably the most surprising discovery of our trip to Casey and a testament to the Australian spirit being alive and well. It’s a spirit that has also evolved with the times, for in 2019 you're as likely to see a group of mates sipping tea and playing darts whilst sharing a yarn.
Matt — Without a doubt, it is all about the people. Yes, Antarctica is an alien and incredibly beautiful landscape. For sure, the vehicles, infrastructure and buildings are utterly different to what we experience at home in Australia. But I am leaving (when the Antarctic weather gods permit) with a profound taste and smell of home.
No matter the differences, the Aussies that inhabit this wild place — the men and women who have incredibly tamed this tiny corner, and the trades folk, scientists and adventurers who steward some of the most precious land, life and sea on earth — have forged a home here, for them and for future expeditioners.
This little town possesses all the diversity and accumulation of skills you could imagine in any much larger city — and anyone spending time here will feel the quality, talent, resilience, warmth and ingenuity of this incredible community in this magical and unpredictable place.
I have lived for years on remote bases in Afghanistan and in humanitarian camps in Africa, in alien and fragile surrounds. The Aussies there, as here, crafted a home out of similar building blocks, and allow you to know and feel part of a community.
My experience on Casey station is another profound reminder that Aussies possess a resilience, creativity, sense of purpose and value for diversity that enables us to explore, overcome, thrive — and always have a laugh — in places most would consider inhospitable.
Everywhere can be home, and everywhere can be made into a thriving community and workplace, if you have the right mix of people and a sense of purpose. Aussies, particularly those we encountered at Casey station, know that a place doesn’t bring you joy — you take your happy with you.
From both of us, thank you everyone at Casey station for your hospitality, time, patience and commitment to the task. We wish you all the best for the winter ahead, or those returning to Australia after a long summer, a well-earned rest on return. We hope to see and work with as many of you again as fates allow. And to the AAD — a huge thanks for all the support in getting us here for this opportunity.
Matt & Dave