Wednesday, May 7, 2008


david ellis

WHEN Don and Margie McIntyre decided to get away to the snow, they didn’t take out travel insurance.

Instead each had their doctors take their appendix out.

And rather than a cosy chalet with an open fire and a bar with plenty of like-minded folk to chat with, they pre-fabbed themselves a wooden box just 3.75m long, 2.5m wide and the same high, and headed off for the most remote rock they could find at Cape Denison on Antarctica’s Commonwealth Bay.

To spend a year there. Alone.

And because they knew winds could reach 240kmh, they took enough chain amongst their four tonnes of supplies to anchor their box to their rock, just so it – with them inside – wouldn’t get blown away.

To get to the Antarctic, Don and Margie hired a crew of stalwarts to help sail their 18m yacht Spirit of Sydney from home-town Hobart.

After putting their box together on their rock just 400m from Mawson’s Hut and watching their yacht sail back over the horizon towards Hobart, Don and Margie prepared for the year ahead.

When the sun shone they did outside maintenance jobs, took photographs, analysed and photographed every plank of Mawson’s hut to determine its deterioration rate, conducted a census of the penguin population, and did experiments requested by scientists from around the world.

Their only visitors for the whole year were the crew of an American helicopter who dropped by for half an hour on Christmas Day 2005, as an after-thought giving the McIntyre’s a pack of gum. Happy Christmas.

Most of their time was spent in their box sending our newsletters to schools around the world about their daily lives in the Antarctic, keeping diaries and journals, and doing domestic chores from cooking to mopping-up leaks.

Margie also hand-made 80-something teddy bears that were auctioned with an “Antarctica Birth Certificate” for up to $5000 each for childrens hospitals and charities. And at night they’d surprise talk-back radio hosts back home with a call. “G’day, we’re ringing from Antarctica,” they’d say.

Temperatures inside their box hovered around ten to fourteen degrees – with the heaters on. At night with the heaters off, 5cm of frost built up on the walls and ceiling.

A tiny annexe doubled as bathroom and food store for everything from food to medicines to kerosene for cooking. And because the annexe “was about the temperature of your home deep freeze,” says Don, baths were restricted to weekly… with toilet moments an art form in speed and dexterity.

And yes, they saw through 365 days of what they called “a glorified camping opportunity,” called up their yacht, and went home leaving their rock as pristine as if no one had ever been there.

Back in Hobart they finished their book ‘Two Below Zero,’ re-visited Antarctica several times as cruise ship lecturers and aboard their own icebreaker Sir Hubert Wilkins – and for something totally different joined a search for lost treasure in the jungles of the Philippines.

Today they go back to the Antarctic every summer in the luxury of the Australian expedition ship Orion, as lecturers and expedition leaders to 100 adventurers keen to explore this last frontier.

They take guests out amongst the penguins, seals, and sea birds, get up-close to whales, ice-cliffs and calving pack-ice, and go inside Mawson’s Hut – where, Don says “many just let go and cry openly with the emotion and enormity of where they are.”

And for the braver, there’s a Polar Plunge into the Antarctic waters. “They get out a lot quicker than it takes us to talk them into getting in,” says Margie.

Orion visits either the McIntyre’s Cape Denison region, or the Ross Sea area where Scott and Shackleton’s huts are visited.

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