Expedition leader - Rob Easther
At age 13 or so, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I wanted to be a pilot.
What town or city are you from?
I grew up in Rymill Place which comes off Mawson Ave in Mt Gambier, South Australia, where my parents still live, and believe it was my destiny to go to Antarctica.
What were your educational/technical qualifications when you first worked in Antarctica?
Master of Science (University of Oregon, USA), Certificate in Outdoor Education (National Mountaineering Centre, Wales, UK), Bachelor of Arts (University of Adelaide), Diploma of Secondary Teaching (Adelaide Teachers College).
What was your work experience before undertaking your position in Antarctica?
I started as a secondary school teacher posted to a small country high school where I was the sports master and drove a school bus morning and afternoons and lived in the bush on a sheep property. I travelled overland to Europe on a working holiday that lasted three years and included truck driving, house painting, dish washing in a German hotel and sports teaching. In 1973, I returned to Australia to resume teaching in the growing field of outdoor education. Following several years of tertiary teaching, I commenced working at the Australian Antarctic Division as a Station Leader in 1985 and have worked there ever since.
Why did you want to go to Antarctica?
As a boy, I was excited by the adventures of explorers, having read the 'Boys Own' volumes and accounts of the expeditions of Scott, Amundsen, Shackleton and Mawson. I would gaze at the black and white photographs of their expeditions, particularly those inside the huts, and hauling sleds with dogs, that evocative shot of the ship Endurance in the moonlight just before she broke up, and imagine how exciting it must have been to be on one of those expeditions. I saw Sir Douglas Mawson one day in the fifties at Adelaide University and the Kista Dan in Port Adelaide prior to one of her voyages south. I applied for positions as a weather observer and a cook's assistant in the 1960s but was unsuccessful. I paid $3,000 and joined a private expedition to Heard Island in the summer of 1982-83 aboard the maxi yacht, Anaconda II as a mountaineer and photographer and gained a position with the Antarctic Division as an Officer in Charge in 1985, satisfying a long held ambition. Going south these days still has that same romantic aura for me.
What is your Antarctic experience?
One winter, four summers and seven round trip voyages.
What did you do in Antarctica?
- A summer on Heard Island as mountaineer/photographer.
- Winter at Davis in 1986 as the Officer In Charge.
- Summer at Davis in 1989 as Station Manager.
- Summer in the Prince Charles Mountains as a Field Leader in 1990-91.
- Voyage management positions as a Cargo Supervisor then six as Voyage Leader.
- Investigator, Mediator and Manager at Casey 1996-67 to deal with a dispute between the Leader and Expeditioners.
- Expedition Leader/Project Manager for AAP Mawson’s Huts Foundation conservation expedition 1998-2000.
What skills did you need to do that work?
These have mostly been leadership positions and with the variety of people who join the government expeditions, a wide diversity of leadership and management skills are required if you are to gain the respect of expeditioners. Most of our people are independently minded, resourceful and used to being in charge themselves or working without direction. They don't like bureaucracies and too many rules and are often attracted to the remoteness of Antarctica to escape such restrictions. So striking the balance between complete lawlessness and over-restrictive management is a great challenge to an expedition leader, requiring openness to criticism and accountability, courage to stand firm and the ability to balance personal distance with leadership responsibilities, leaving your integrity intact.
What did you like most about living and working in Antarctica?
- I hate the heat and work best ‘comfortably cool’ as against ‘comfortably warm’ - around 10-15 degrees is my ideal.
- The sense of remoteness - like being on a small island.
- Infrequent visitors.
- The sense of being somewhere really unique.
- An adventure in a beautiful environment.
- The sense of history that is still evident on our stations in the old buildings, station and field reports, field huts and some machinery
- There you feel free to do as you want, 24 hours a day.
- And most of all, the relative freedom that comes of independence from the normal trials of traffic - the need to shop and pay bills, the usual workplace pressures, and pressures to conform to endless advertisements.
What was the scariest thing that happened to you?
I'’ve been scared several times while down south - in helicopters flying fast between bergs and low over the ice plateau, in a 'white-out', stuck in the ice in a ship with sea ice coming over the rails and thrown out of bed by rough seas - wondering if the ship will roll over, blown away in a tent in strong winds, and kept awake all night in a hut as it shuddered in the wind. But the closest encounter I had was the time a four wheel drive motor bike catapulted down a mountainside past me from my companion higher up. His call alerted me in just enough time for me to dismount my own bike and jump aside as his 400 kg machine crashed into mine and continued well down the hillside from where we had to rescue it with a helicopter.
What was the greatest challenge for you?
When I was a leader for the first time, I was concerned about the degree to which I could be free to express my opinions about things like social issues and still retain the mantle of leadership in the group. I was afraid to get too close to any member of the expedition, fearing that at some point in the future, I might have to deal with them in an 'official' capacity which would destroy my friendship with that person and lead others to think I was not trustworthy. In later expeditions, I have not been so concerned about this, finding that if I simply remain true to my own values, most members of the expedition will respect my integrity, a greater reward to me than having people like me. True leadership, that is required in Antarctic expeditions, is not a popularity contest but you can be liked and respected and that is the most rewarding of all.
What did you miss most about Australia?
Real milkshakes, the bush, sailing, my children and partner.
What was the most striking thing you noticed when you returned?
- Noisy, fast traffic really scared me, thinking about what would happen if a car just rode up over the footpath as I walked along - somehow, the risk seemed much greater than I remembered.
- Having to pay for food and household items was really strange for the first couple of days.
- And I felt lost without the other members of the group and the lifestyle that had become so familiar.
- Having enjoyed the role as the leader immensely (having been the one who people sort advice from, and who made decisions about what we should do and how we might do it, having been important to other people as the leader) I found it was a real let down when I returned to the office and I have found no other job that provides the same degree of satisfaction.
Do you want to go again?
Yes, and I plan to return as leader in 2000 of an expedition to conserve Sir Douglas Mawson’s Huts at Cape Denison.
What do you think should happen to Antarctica in the future?
The places on earth which are free from the effects of too many people and the industry and resource depletion which accompanies population, are now very few. Antarctica is more accessible than the moon but its real allure remains its remoteness, there at the bottom of the earth. Like the summit of Mt Everest, it is totally wild, extreme and dangerous. Although I don't fully understand why that is important to humankind, I find comfort in thinking it will always be there, like it is now.