I’m a planner. A list writer. Someone who gets deep satisfaction from seeing everything on my to-do list crossed off. So naturally, ahead of my trip to Antarctica I’ve been making lists for weeks. Lists of things to pack, to buy, to remember to do before I go.
For me, part of the mental preparation ahead of a big trip is knowing I am as organised as I can be. This trip is different though. There is so much that I don’t know about what I will be doing, and then there’s the fact it’s Antarctica! A totally unknown environment for me. Sometimes I forget that I have no idea what it’s really like down on the Ice even though I’m living and breathing all things Antarctic for work most days. Read enough of the stories about the early explorers and it can feel like you are right there with Shackleton and his men. (I re-read South by Shackleton this year – I think it might be my favourite book about Antarctic exploration)
Given that I am surrounded by a team of incredibly experienced people on the Antarctic campus where our offices are based, I started asking people for their hot tip for a first trip to the Ice.
It was fascinating hearing the myriad of responses from those who are Antarctic veterans (like my team leader Al who first went there in 1987) and those who had more recently done their first trip.
What surprised me was the range of responses from the extremely practical to the more ethereal.
Below is a collection of hot tips for my first trip to Antarctica. What you would add?
A hot tip passed to me by two of my female colleagues – take a mini hot water bottle for when you are camping out. Apparently it’s the ultimate luxury to have it in your sleeping bag after a cold day out digging snow!
As it’s 24-hour daylight at the time of year we are going an eye mask is a must. Particularly for those days camping out. The body’s hormonal triggers that we normally get to tell us it’s time for sleep won’t function in the usual way so an eye mask will help ensure you can doze off.
To quote one of our Inspiring Explorers who recently returned from Antarctica – “gloves, gloves and more gloves”. Luckily Antarctica New Zealand supplies us with eight pairs of gloves of different varieties. On advice, I added an extra pair of fingerless possum fur gloves, good for keeping your hands warm but enabling you to do data entry at the same time.
The other essential item is sunscreen. It’s easy to get burnt in Antarctica so liberally applying sunscreen will be a constant for me with my fair skin. A good dose of chapstick and moisturiser will be key too as Antarctica is so dry. It’s easy to forget that it’s the world’s largest desert.
One for the Girls
Practise with your She-Wee. A hot tip I got from a very experienced colleague was to get a She-Wee well ahead of your trip and practise with it in the shower. Very practical and helps you get used to peeing standing up (it’s all about relaxing). I think the toileting situation is something that a lot of women are anxious about (I definitely am!) but it’s something that has to be dealt with. Using a She-Wee once you have your many layers of clothing on is a different thing altogether so I look forward to getting some hot tips on how to do that best when I’m on the Ice.
Be Prepared for the Plane Journey
We travel on US Military planes like the C17. They are big, loud and basically a cargo plane so not designed for comfort. Some of the great advice I received is take noise-cancelling headphones (especially if you are sensitive to noise), a good book to read, music or podcasts to listen to or some work to do. I’m actually finishing this blog while on the plane.
Don’t sit in the front row by the toilets (literally the worst seats on the plane). Side note: yes that is exactly where we are sitting! There’s a constant queue of people passing in front of me and a strong whiff of scented room spray every time the door swings open.
Whatever you are expecting – it’s not that…
A number of people commented that time runs differently on the ice. That what you would expect to do in a day here you can’t do there. Everything takes longer to achieve. Just putting on your clothing can take 20 minutes and good luck if you are walking out the door and realise you have left your [gloves, hat, drink bottle] in your room and have to return for it.
Just clomping on to the plane with our huge ECW (extreme cold weather) jackets and boots is cumbersome so it’s already shown me how you have to take extra care with how you move, and where you put your feet and your gear.
I like the way my boss described going to Antarctica. He said, “It’s so alien a landscape – you really can’t prepare for it.”
The other piece of advice that resonated for me was “don’t expect too much, let it come, let it happen.” Perhaps it’s normal to expect a lot on a trip to the Ice so I liked the advice to manage your expectations and just be present in the moment with whatever is in front of you.
A hot tip I thought was a really good idea was to go out for a walk and orient yourself once you have completed the Antarctic Field Training. Walking up Observation Hill or similar and getting your bearings is a good way to get a sense of this magnificent place.
Say Yes to Everything
One piece of advice that was common from those who had travelled many times to the Ice and those who only ever had one trip, was say yes to everything! Most people are down there for such a short time that the advice is to pack in what you can. There are always people heading out to do interesting things and are happy for people to tag along. While I am there primarily to get my job done I do hope I can say yes to things I never thought I would do.
Finally, “don’t forget to enjoy yourself” is worth mentioning. It’s easy to get caught up in all the planning and trying to get work finished before heading away that I needed to remind myself that this is going to be an amazing experience and to ensure I relax and enjoy it.
Now that I am on the plane (fingers crossed no boomerang flight) it’s all starting to feel very real. In a few hours I will be landing in Antarctica – the world’s most extreme environment. I’m only there for a few weeks; already I have met people heading down for months. My Great Uncle Leon used to go down on the first plane in and last plane out. I would have loved to have asked him what his hot tips were for the first trip.