SPECTACULAR SETTING: Graham Cook’s other home, Mawson Station in Antarctica. Photos: Graham Cook
SPECTACULAR SETTING: Graham Cook’s other home, Mawson Station in Antarctica. Photos: Graham Cook

Office at the end of the earth

LIVING and working in Antarctica has to be one of the most fascinating career options out there and Clarence-based station manager Graham Cook is here to spruik it when he delivers a talk on it at Grafton Regional Gallery tomorrow.

But first things first, there are some serious questions to ask before you sign up to what is basically 18 months in one of the most isolated locations on the planet.

So do you guys need fridges down there?

"Yes we do," Graham laughs. "Otherwise everything freezes. And you can't drink frozen beer.

"We do enjoy a good social life down there. It's not all about work."

Graham has spent the past 10 years working in the vast frozen environment of Antarctica, spending 18 months away from home at a time then six months off back in the Clarence.

"Generally you spend about 12 months on the ice and a few months doing pre-departure training and then debriefing on your return. I've been station leader, the equivalent of general manager, in all three of our stations Mawson, Davis and Casey."

The exhibition Graham will be promoting and speaking about is Traversing Antarctica: The Australian Experience, acknowledging 100 Years of this country's presence in the region. It was officially opened last night and Graham's talk will be presented tomorrow from 11am.

Graham said the pioneering period a century ago was known as the heroic era, 1911-1915, when Charles Mawson first arrived and stayed over a winter.

He said Australians continued to visit over the years, establishing our first permanent station there in 1954 named after the legendary explorer. "A lot hasn't changed since then but we do have many more comforts down there now. It's not five-star but it's close."

He was aware the exhibition was coming to Grafton so was a shoo-in for guest speaker since he lived at Glenugie.

He said it was a great display featuring interactive displays, historical photographs and information and some interesting items of taxidermy so you can see what the wildlife is like.

"The kids will really enjoy it as it's entertaining as well as educational."

Graham said he is looking forward to his presentation and hoped it might pique the curiosity enough to come along and find out about what it's like to work down there.

"We are always looking for new expeditioners to join our crews. My job is to look after them so really I can be anything from priest, mother, father, disciplinarian and counsellor down there."

He said it could be very testing wintering in Antarctica as "it's virtually impossible to leave. No-one has done it in 60 years."

Graham recognised that working in close proximity with a group of people in such isolation and not being able to go home for a year is a big ask.

"A lot can happen in people's lives during that time and even with significant events you are still stuck there. I remember one young guy who lost his two mates, his grandmother and his parents split up all in that same year."

Even Graham has had his share of family tragedy to contend with. "I lost my brother a few years ago in a motorbike accident and couldn't return for the funeral. It's just the way it is down there. People have also died down there so we don't let people go into this lightly. Everyone has medical tests, physical and mental,"

But the rewards for such a seemingly unforgiving climate are endless and Graham said it really is the experience of lifetime.

"It's not like we are in darkness for 24 hours at a time. The days are shorter but we get a beautiful twilight that lasts for four to five hours. The photographic opportunities are endless."

Graham said he always tried to ensure people who go down to Antarctica feel a sense of place.

"I'll take them on quad bikes 5km off the coast across sheets of frozen sea only a metre thick to see 10,000 emperor penguins breeding among huge icebergs. I'll ask how high they think they are and they might say 100m but these icebergs are planted on the ocean bed which is about a kilometre deep.

"It really helps them gain perspective about its vastness. It can be a quite humbling and spiritual experience for some people."

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