After a short break and some time to process his experience in Antarctica, we caught up with Inspiring Explorer Alexander Hillary to get his perspective on the expedition, find out the highlights of the trip and the big challenges he faced.
What was your favourite part of the trip?
A highlight would have to be when a small group of us—just our kayak guide Jordan, plus Mike, Leah and myself went to kayak around Cuverville Island and found ourselves surrounded by whales. We had been bashing through brash ice for fun when we saw whales ahead of us. We stopped and watched them dive. Everything went really still and quiet and we were just floating around the water just soaking everything in. As I started to turn my kayak around and I looked at my paddle in the very inky, black water, I remember seeing a flash of white and thought it must be the sea floor. Which of course it wasn’t as we were 100 metres offshore, and it couldn’t have been a moving white rock. All of a sudden this shadow under the water just dwarfed my kayak. Slowly the shape started to take form, and a barnacle-tipped white fin started dragging the water right under my tiny, thin, little yellow kayak. The shadow passed in front of me and then just rolled up out of the water, right in the front of the bow of my boat. A huge humpback whale rose up and then slid back down with such grace. There was a plunge and a brief flash of a fluke as she disappeared. I turned to Mike and Leah, and we all had the same expressions of joy, and were giggling with excitement. We had no words for the incredible beauty of what we had just seen. I felt really humble and the experience made me feel like a guest in Antarctica—a very small guest in the whales’ home.
Diary excerpt – thoughts on the wildlife
Today was the most astounding day, I am still buzzing with the thrill and privilege of seeing some of the most astounding natural encounters that our planet has to offer. Today we saw a stray elephant seal sleeping and bobbing in the sea, it was such a surprise so late in the season. Its head looked like a floating rock and it wasn’t until we got close and its huge eyes opened that we noticed. Only 15 minutes after this we were surrounded by porpoising Gentoos following swathes of krill. But the thing that truly left me speechless was the whales. They started appearing all around the bay, with a mother and her three four-tonne calves right next to us. Our small group was utterly ecstatic with power of the encounter. But we also had less peaceful encounters today; we saw leopard seals hunting and violently thrashing their prey, pieces of penguin were floating past my kayak, a sombre reminder of the brutality of the cycle of life down here.
What went through your mind when you were arrived back in Ushuaia after 10 days aboard the Akademik Ioffe?
It was a mixture of things because while the journey was at an end and I was a bit sad to leave Antarctica, I couldn’t wait to share all the incredible things we had seen. I was still buzzing over every single thing that happened and trying to process it all.
What did you learn or discover about yourself?
Something that really resonated with me was the incredible leadership qualities the trip brought out in everyone. Adventures like this, which are quite long and challenging, are about endurance. Supporting each other is very important and everyone stood up at some point and showed leadership and looked after each other. We truly were an awesome team.
What was the most challenging part of the trip?
My old friend seasickness came to visit. The Drake Passage is a formidable place and luckily, apart from a brief spell of bad weather that brought six-metre swells, we had an easy trip but I did resign myself to the fact that seasickness happens no matter what.
My biggest challenge was not being able to wear gloves. As a photographer, I needed proper control over my camera so I didn’t wear gloves at all. But juggling paddles, and turning dials with cold hands was challenging.
What was something you experienced that was different to your expectations?
While I knew what to expect from the continent, it’s still completely beyond anything we are used to. I had no idea what it was going to be like to kayak in that environment. I knew that it’s a place that is kind of beyond imagination – the scale of it is huge, the size of the mountains, the size of the ice, a huge landscape wreathed in silence, the sense of timelessness; it’s just unparalleled and completely beyond anything that we are used to. So being in a kayak where you’re just this tiny little boat floating on the water, I was really fascinated to feel that silence and to feel that scale and sense of being present, and that just completely blew my expectations. Being in a kayak gave a really incredible perspective.
Diary excerpt – thoughts on the environment
I stopped paddling in Paradise Bay today to listen to the crash of the glacier ahead. I dropped back behind the group and was quickly left in silence as the patter of paddles moved on. The sound of the ice was incredible. The ice squeals and pops in the sea as it melts. The ancient ice that was breaking off the glacier was about 60,000 years old. I can barely even fathom that time. I was in awe looking at the glacier above, but then I felt a real sadness, knowing how drastically this landscape is changing, the next generation of New Zealanders may very well never see the magnificence of a glacier.
The overnight camping was also something different from my expectations. I have never camped before in Antarctica and it turned out to be one of the great joys of the trip. In the evening you could feel dusk settling in over you. As we were standing on the side of the ship, gear ready and waiting to go, Mele came and stood next to me, literally bouncing with excitement. She had never been on a camping trip before and now here she was about to camp in Antarctica. I was buzzing because I’ve never camped on the ice before so I really enjoyed sharing that moment with her. Once on the ice and in our spot, we had to dig our little ‘graves,’ complete with a wall so the wind didn’t blow the snow over us, and then huddle in. You feel really, really present, lying in your own silence, and looking up at a magnificent display of stars.
Preparing for a night on the ice
When you go out and share your story, what will be the thing you want to share most?
What I want people to take away when I share the story of what we saw and did in Antarctica is that nothing is impossible, and that adventure and exploration is really, really valuable and life changing. And it doesn’t have to be a trip to Antarctica that is really far away and hard to get to. In New Zealand, we have the most unbelievable backyard with incredible natural places that are quite accessible. It just takes an inspiring mind and some bravery to go out and explore these places and have a lot of fun. I want to spark a desire in people to go out and explore, near and far.
What other messages will you be giving to audiences about the trip?
No matter how much I try, I struggle to really capture the feeling of awe and timelessness of Antarctica and its scale. It is a truly amazing place that always leads me to think about my place in the world. It shapes my perspective about things and drives me to want to explore more. It inspires me to think about how I can help other people to have similar experiences.
What skills did you bring to the team, and how were you able to use those skills on this trip?
While my role was as a photographer — so I was taking a lot of photos and recording people’s experiences — I’ve always been really passionate about, and have a good understanding of Antarctica and Antarctic exploration. It was a real joy to be able to share something that has been a passion my entire life to the rest of the team. It’s cool to see an iceberg the size of a small city sail past you in the Gerlache Strait, but when you find out that it’s 60,000 years old or more, the amazing becomes mind-blowing.
What are your thoughts on photography in Antarctica?
A lot of planning goes into a trip to Antarctica and gear is a big part of that. Nigel said that after ‘about eight days you’ll get your gear right and then you’ll have two more days of the trip’ and then it’s over! I feel that any big adventure is always accompanied by a struggle to get the gear right, and no matter how well you plan there will always be one thing that can be improved. In this case it was keeping my camera dry and my hands warm.
Any comments about the team itself?
It was an incredible group of people that got through in a really strong way by pushing each other, but also helping each other and making compromises. It was just fun to have a really passionate and but also thoughtful team. The wellbeing of the people was a priority and that is something that I really value and is really important on trips like this.
Would you recommend others apply for future expeditions and why?
Absolutely apply. It is a fabulous experience and you get to meet and spend awesome time with really cool, young adventurers from a diverse range of backgrounds from all over New Zealand. It’s a great way to grow as a person as you challenge yourself to do things you normally wouldn’t.
How do you think you grew as a person?
For me a big part of my growth was related to the team. Often when I am out on my adventures, I’m really pushing myself physically. That is something I had to keep in check because we were working as a team. The kayaking wasn’t easy and our hands and feet would get really cold. I know people were sore and tired at times but there was always passion and excitement for what we were doing. I was really impressed by that and humbled to be part of it. We all got to the end of this adventure really successfully and we all had a lot of fun.
What do you think your grandfather Ed Hillary would have thought of your expedition?
I do expect he would have been doing similar things to me. There was a moment at Deception Island as we were walking around the deserted, old whaling station that we spotted a half-buried Massey Ferguson tractor. It wasn’t one of Ed’s but it was the same type that he used. Nigel took a hilarious photo of me sitting on it. It was nice to be in a place that was quite special to Ed. I felt like our team was having its own adventure in a place that Ed cherished and where he had his adventures. He loved the idea of young people getting out and exploring. He was always encouraging that spirit of adventure in us, even on a small scale like climbing trees at the beach house, or around the garden. He would have been thrilled to see this awesome team of young Kiwis camping out in this incredible landscape.
Alexander with a Massey Ferguson tractor similar to those used by his grandfather Sir Ed in Antarctica
Diary excerpt – thoughts on history and heritage
Speaking to a Kiwi historian on the ship last night I learned something incredible about Antarctica’s history and heritage. Near where we had been kayaking off the Gerlache Strait is a place called Waterboat Point. It’s a place where two young men decided to stay in Antarctica after their expedition collapsed and retreated. The youngest of the two was 21-years-old and he threw himself into recording detailed observations of wildlife and climate, all from their base made of an upturned discarded flat-water boat. The astounding courage of this action boggles my mind. Apparently the two budding scientists took shifts around the clock so there was always someone keeping track of their observations. I wonder if they knew that they were the only people on the entire frozen continent that winter.
You were travelling more than a century after the early polar explorers who first visited the continent. How would you compare your experience with theirs, what would the similarities and differences be?
It was exhilarating to think of early explorers in moments of adventure and challenge on our kayaking trip. Unlike them we always knew that we had the comfort and support that a 6,000 tonne Russian icebreaker can provide. Explorers 100 years ago, in the heroic age of exploration, were very much alone on the far side of the planet at the mercy of the ice and wind. We formed our own adventure and tested ourselves in a new and foreign place, but explorers like Amundsen, Borchgrevink (whose expedition was the first to winter over in Antarctica), Scott and Shackleton were forging tracks into an the unknown, so unfamiliar and far from home that it could have been another world. For me, our Antarctic adventure was a test to my adventurous spirit and a way to grasp the physical and emotional accomplishments of these great adventurers.