Sick of COVID? Move the continent where there is none – at least not in the Australian part of it. Rhys Harding did. He has worked in Alice Springs and other parts of the NT as a doctor. Now he is the GP, dentist, anaesthetist, surgeon, nurse, radiographer, laboratory scientist and the whole allied health department for the skeleton crew of just 24 at Davis Station in East Antarctica, one of Australia’s research stations. Where did he gain the special skills needed? “I think working out in Nhulunbuy has definitely helped. As opposite as the climates are, the medical and personal challenges of living and working in a remote, isolated environment are similar.” This is his story.
We are entering the winter season in one of the strangest circumstances in history, completely removed and essentially unaffected by COVID-19.
As the pandemic evolved, the Australian Antarctic Division enforced strong protective measures for its population on the icy continent, ensuring that all three of Australia’s continental stations as well as Macquarie Island being completely COVID-free.
Despite the temperatures dipping below -20 C and the long darkness encroaching, in a strange turn of events, enduring an Antarctic winter is now probably extremely appealing to many around the world, and they would not be wrong.
Davis station, its ribbon first cut in 1957, is perched amongst the Vestfold Hills, a sprawl of rocky terrain and emerald saline lakes that make up part of the roughly 1% ice-free geography of Antarctica.
Over the back lies the Antarctic plateau, a barren, fierce and unrelenting white expanse that ascends into the distance.
Out front is Prydz Bay, swirling with deep blues and greens and purples and scattered with the pristine reflections of huge icebergs that inhabit its depths.
Penguins waddle in great hoards with robust inquisitiveness and monstrous elephant seals laze beneath the midnight sun in their wallows.
In winter however, these animals flee as quickly as the sea freezes and we become the only souls to wander about on this frozen carpet.
On station, each expeditioner contributes to its function and maintenance and plays an important role in the overall well-being of the community.
We have a highly experienced trades team ensuring our survival by providing power, heating and water.
Ironically they also make sure the fridges and freezers work effectively, why would we need them, right?
There is a communications officer and an electronics engineer helping us stay in touch with family and friends back home as well as increasing our entertainment options.
We had just worked out how to stream the AFL on the big screen!
There is a meteorological team providing up to date weather information and this becomes crucial when venturing into the field in case of storms or blizzards.
Other members of this isolated workforce include an expert field training officer, station leader and the most important person in our little world, the chef. We eat extremely well and since the “first layer” for warmth is food, we lean on this excuse a lot.
Keeping people healthy is my job, the station doctor.
In fact my greatest fear is having to shave my beard if coronavirus is still around when I get back.
In any case we have plenty of masks, hand sanitiser, gowns and thankfully there are no line-ups or feuds over toilet paper.
Despite being the sole doctor, if COVID had reared its ugly head there was always my trusty lay surgical assistants, consisting of a carpenter, plumber, fitter and turner and a diesel mechanic to help me manage.
We could probably build more ventilators or perhaps an iron lung, but having COVID here would be a true disaster. There are of course concerns from expeditioners about how this is affecting loved ones back home but morale is high, in fact, we are thriving and probably experiencing far less anxiety than the rest of the universe.
With these new lockdown laws, I have been asked by many how to cope with isolation and confinement. The mainstays here are developing a good routine and solidify basic healthy habits around eating, exercising and sleep.
Most here utilise the gym, do yoga, go for hikes, ride mountain bikes, kick a footy and do a little cross country skiing.
To aid in relaxation there is a small library, a theatre and after a hard day’s work in the snow, the sauna and spa become extremely popular.
What do we eat? Everything. There is a huge assortment of foods and are spoiled with an amazing hydroponics system that harvests a variety of salad greens, vegetables and herbs.
There are even apples, pears and oranges still filling the fruit bowls from the last Icebreaker visit.
Meals are a scaffold for life here and provides an opportunity for a tiny group of people to get together and somehow be amused and confused about being one of the largest social groups representing the country.
Sleep is an issue in Antarctica due to the poor light-dark cycles, but many have become familiar with good sleep hygiene and fatigue management practices.
This includes going to bed at a routine time, limiting alcohol and caffeine intake, getting plenty of exercise and avoiding excessive stimulus from phones, computers and TVs.
The only hindrance to sleep at the moment are the amazing Auroras (Southern Lights) that come out to play when the clouds are on holidays: Thick waves of green, violet, red and blue fill the sky in one of Mother Nature’s finest showpieces. A spectator to this event beneath the Milky Way, braving the brutal bone-chilling temperatures is of course, extremely worth it.
One of the brilliant things about Antarctica is living and working with people of expertise in different fields. There is a constant learning of new skills and we have congregated to form a type of ‘community college’.
As far as social distancing goes, well, we don’t have to worry about that. Drinks on a Friday evening make us realise we may well be the only “Aussie Pub” open in the world. We even considered organising a sporting game and let the country tune in for their amusement.
So yes, life goes on as we normally perceive it. Our thoughts go back to everyone in Australia and the rest of the world struggling through this incredibly stressful time of change. We know we are the lucky ones, tucked away from it all, and even luckier to be able to experience life on this polar continent in the first place.
For that, there is nothing to regret.