This is my last post for the NY Times. I have provided a selection of images charting my ‘re-entry’ back into civilisation – from Antarctica via New Zealand to Hong Kong to my return to UK.
A few last tricks are played on you as you try to leave Antarctica. Almost as a last jest to remind you that nature is in control, the continent threw up several delays to our planned departure. For a while, it was a groundhog day of sorts with flights being planned and then canceled because of bad weather.
After some time, a fellow crew member, peering out of the window of the 1940s DC-3 Basler, excitedly exclaimed, “There’s something.” And there was — a mountain, something we had not seen while living on the blank canvas high up at our isolated base.Finally we were on the runway for take-off. I caught a glimpse of Concordia Station, perched on its grand white plateau, before it disappeared from sight. Then it was three and a half hours of slow descent to sea level to an Italian coastal station.
Soon more mountains, valleys and bare rock face followed. Then we saw what appeared as a mirage — a strip of glistening, sparkling sea in the distance as we landed on the blue ice runway.
As I left the plane, I took a long, deep breath. Then, finding my movement unrestricted, I took a little jog. There was oxygen again, served on a salty sea breeze.
I picked up some earth and let it run through my fingers. A coastal wind felt strange as it caught my long winter beard. We headed in for dinner and later to our beds, but our altered day-night cycles drew a colleague and me out at 3:30 a.m., our reward a wonderful sunrise.
One more day’s delay, and we were finally boarding our flight to New Zealand. This time there were just five passengers on a South African Hercules C-130 aircraft.
The wheels kissed Antarctica a gentle goodbye as we lifted off in style, on board one of the greatest flying machines ever created.
We flew over Antarctica for nearly an hour of our eight-hour long flight back to civilization. As we swung a hard right, I watched as the ice disappeared from sight. The sun had set, and eventually all was dark until a few lights appeared below — signs of civilization. There were shouts of joy, cheers and hugs as we landed. My mobile phone buzzed, you have a message, then another and then many more.
At the hotel, I stood at the door until I remembered I needed a key. I hadn’t used a key all year — after all, what was the point of locking your front door when we hadn’t expected any visitors while living buried deep in Antarctica, our nearest neighbors astronauts orbiting in space?
My partner had flown out to meet me and helped me re-adapt — crossing busy roads, ordering food and more. One week off-continent, and things still take me by surprise.
I stood in a supermarket with aisles stacked as high as my previous home on the ice. People buzzed around, busily fishing for supplies, as I gazed shell-shocked and unable to move.
Jack, a local hairdresser, chopped away my Antarctic beard and hair, which had been a science experiment to see how long they could grow over a year. The process of “de-bearding” was a traumatic experience in itself, but I soon began to recognize my former self in the mirror. Every so often I caught myself reaching and gesturing for my absent beard, like a phantom limb.
I sat in a mall sipping a skinny latte coffee, awkwardly selected from a menu as long as my arm. For a year I had only been able to order “a coffee.” There was choice again, alongside trees, people, cars, noise and smells. Initially I was overwhelmed, and my perception and perspective flooded — this was sensory overload. It was as if I were a child again, learning things for the first time, except with prior memories. I felt free.
To escape from the city, we hired a convertible and drove into rural New Zealand. Surrounded by every green I could ever imagine, and after an hour of sunshine with the wind through my hair, it rained heavier than I could remember, soaking me through to the bone. It felt wonderful.
Driving through the magnificent New Zealand countryside, I felt as if I were in one of my Antarctic mid-winter dreams. Burdened by luxurious excess in all my senses, I shuddered at the prospect of waking up, living again in black and white in the height of winter.
I realized this dramatic change when returning from long periods of isolation is just as interesting as the isolation itself, involving a period of rehabilitation to “normal living.” For some the landing can be rough and off-target.
In remote environments, people undergo a well-studied change and can develop “winter-over syndrome,” which can involve depression, irritability, anger, insomnia, inability to concentrate and avoidance tactics — not to mention the ‘1,000-yard (Antarctic) stare.” I saw it and felt it; no one in our crew was spared.
However, comparatively little has been done to study the minds and processes of those undergoing re-adaptation when returning to civilization after such periods, though it often manifests itself with similar symptoms. I have termed this process of (mal)adaptation “re-entry syndrome.”
Those experiencing it have an overbearing feeling of disconnection, uncoupling and detachment from civilization and “normal life.” They can also suffer avoidance and social withdrawal, seeking solitude and seclusion, alongside troubled sleep and dreams, similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is almost as if we had been stripped to our raw forms by the Antarctic winter, left protected only by our ingrained behaviors.
I have heard many stories of “Polies” (South Pole winter-over members) disappearing into Asia for months or choosing to live behind closed hotel room doors before again answering the call of the Great White Wild for another winter. In fact, I will be back on the continent after a month at home, but only for the tourist’s summer season — a mild experience compared with wintering.
Meanwhile, my memories return, and I am reassured that all has not been lost. It is as if my own internal hard-drive is being successfully recovered and rebooted.
I soon arrived in Hong Kong. At the Hong Kong Royal Geographical Society, I delivered a presentation about my experiences. Hong Kong was wonderfully tiring; I also visited two schools where I also delivered further presentations. I was inundated there by questions from curious young minds. Being in Hong Kong, I had plunged into the deep end after a year of treading water, and the contrasts were vivid: Above me, skyscrapers towered precariously on misty hills; downwards, I was reminded that I still faced the challenge of re-learning to tie my shoelaces.
The rain fell hard and fast, and I dug my hands into my jacket and walked off into a sea of people. It was a long way from the Great White Silence.
In years to come, those of us who had endured the past winter will recall it, in the quieter moments back in our normal lives, as one of the world’s greatest, most challenging and peculiar journeys. I have called it “The Worst Winter in the World.” Make no mistake: on Planet Concordia, you can leave feeling as if you had fought in a war — against Antarctica, for survival. But in time, only the best parts will be remembered.
Back in Britain, as I close my laptop and this blog, my thoughts drift back across the Antarctic Plateau. I close my eyes, remembering feeling as tiny as an ant, hypoxic, in minus-80 degrees Celsius in the perpetual darkness under the Milky Way, as Aurora danced above me the tango of the universe.
It was Bob Dylan who helped me, the lone station doctor, through the difficult winter. In particular, the lyrics of “Mr. Tambourine Man” had rung true:
“Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves,
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.”
I think of Louis Armstrong. Sure it may not be a perfect world, but “what a wonderful world,” indeed.
Thank you for listening and sharing my journey.