There’s plenty Outdoor Education alumna Maddie Ovens will miss about Antarctica once she leaves today; waking to the sunrise over iceberg alley, hot thermos cuppas by the ocean, the fresh whiff of penguin poo when the wind blows westerly… not to mention the southern lights. “Honestly, everyday has been a highlight,” she says.
For the past three months Maddie has been a field training officer with the Australian Antarctic Division, working with everyone at the Casey station, from the station leader to chefs, tradies and weather forecasters. “Everyone on station receives basic field training that aims to equip them with enough gear and knowledge so they could survive in an Antarctic environment should something go wrong or the weather catches them out,” she says.
“I’ve also been a field guide and trip leader for a range of science projects and deep field operations. I might be out on a boat pushing ice away from a fuel line in the morning and then flying out in a helicopter to a glacier to help on a science project… or teaching tradies how to ride quads!”
Suffice to say she’s putting her tertiary education to the most remarkable use, as was always the plan. Maddie says she was in uni when she learnt about the role she’s just completed.
“In my head I thought this actually wouldn’t be something I would get to do until I was much older,” the 2012 alumna says. “It’s just the allure of Antarctica, the challenge of the environment and the job itself.”
There was also an interesting family connection that put this place on Maddie’s bucket list. “My uncle came to Antarctica as a scientist before I was born, back when there were still sled dogs down here, and I grew up with his photos decorating our walls at home. I think some of that must have sunk into my skin.”
After ten days on a ship…
Maddie arrived in Antarctica on the Australian Icebreaker ship, Aurora Australis, in good time for a white Christmas. Here she discovered a station of shipping container-like buildings, cheerfully coloured blue, red, yellow and green.
“It’s kind of like what I imagine a mining camp to be for the most part, there’s lots of big machinery and building materials around, lots of funny looking vehicles parked here and there, and it’s all centred around the ‘red shed’ which is our main living and domestic building,” she says.
“The station itself is kind of cool, but it’s the immediate surrounds that are really amazing; the view from the red shed over Newcombes bay shows ice berg alley, where hundreds of icebergs are grounded and can be seen all the time. There’s also a penguin colony just offshore and when the wind’s blowing a westerly you get a nice whiff of penguin poo across the station. Ice often drifts in and out of the bay depending on the winds and everything else around it is a big expanse of white snow and ice cliffs. It’s unreal.”
Life on the station
Maddie says she’s had a comfy room in the ‘red shed’, however it took some getting used to no window. “But was actually not bad considering most of my time here was spent in bright sunshine all day,” she says. “We work Monday to Saturday, with Saturday being a station clean-up day and usually the afternoons off.
“Over summer we had three amazing chefs which goes down to just one over winter. During the week we have breaky, 10am smoko, which is always delicious, lunch and dinner. And on Sundays we get a really extravagant brunch. Definitely the best meal of the week. I do miss fresh fruits and veggies. The food here is great but doesn’t beat the abundance of fresh stuff available at home.
“The working week is usually pretty busy, but after work there’s lots of opportunities to get out for a nice walk or ski around the loop out the back of station, which is groomed about once a week if the diesos are feeling generous. There is also a brewery here which keeps the fridge stocked with beer so that’s also a popular post-work hobby for some!”
Maddie describes the animal sightings she’s had as awesome, starting with thousands of adelie penguins, which have colonies by the station. “There was a surprise visit from some emperor penguins before I arrived, but I’ve seen lots of Weddell seals, a baby elephant seal and even a couple of leopard seals, including watching a leopard seal thrash a penguin around to turn it inside out and eat it! That was amazing. I’ve had lots of exciting whale sightings from the ship, and seen some really cool birds – big petrels, little snow petrels and skuas.”
Maddie meets the scientists
Maddie also had some unforgettable encounters with other visitors to the station, namely celebrity scientist and “awesome dude” Dr Karl, who came for the station’s media program then stayed for a week when he got stuck due to a blizzard.
There was more mixing adventure and science, too. “I was trip leader on a traverse out to a deep field science camp at a spot called Law Dome, where the scientists had spent three months drilling ice cores and measuring trapped gases as part of some really important research into climate change. Our job was to get the ice samples back to station without them melting and the priceless work of the team being destroyed… no pressure! All went well though. That was a really amazing experience.”
When Maddie leaves the continent today she’ll take with her lifelong friendships forged in the ice, memories of playing kick to kick on snow, of skiing and quad biking and standing in awe under those amazing technicolour night skies.
She may have achieved a life-long goal, however it’s far from crossed off the bucket list. “I would love to come back to Antarctica,” she says. “For now though I’m going to do my favourite freelance work and go travel a little. And figure out my next move.”
And that’s the life of an outdoor ed alum.