Contact Us

Journey to the Wilderness

Journey to the Wilderness

 Email
David Wakil in Antartica
David Wakil in Antartica

Early one morning this past winter, I awoke to find the streets covered in a white sheet of pristine purity. Since I live on a quiet side street, no crude foot had yet stamped upon the white gift from above, and I was privileged to witness snow in its unmarked form. The experience was gratifying. It made me wonder what it would be like to take some time out and live for a while in complete harmony with nature in its purest form. I imagined a life without the humdrum of human and electric traffic. For me, months have passed since then, and it has remained a far off dream. However, David Wakil, a pilot by profession, fulfilled that vision this past winter when he traveled from his city of residence in Sydney, Australia to Antarctica.

Antarctica is the coldest, driest and windiest continent. Since there is little precipitation, except at the coasts, the interior is technically the largest desert in the world. There is no evidence of any existing indigenous population. Only cold-adapted plants and animals survive there, and the weather is very inhospitable to humans. Temperatures reach a minimum of between −80 °C and −90 °C (−112 °F and −130 °F) in the interior in winter and reach a maximum of between 5 °C and 15 °C (41 °F and 59 °F) near the coast in summer. For weeks on end in the summer, the sun never drops completely below the horizon, while in the winter there is almost constant darkness.

Mr. Wakil recalls, "Generally, the weather was relatively mild ... maybe minus 2 or 3 and some wind. It could be beautiful and sunny, but a blizzard could also appear quickly…" Even in these relatively mild conditions during the southern hemisphere's summer, it was difficult sometimes to keep his hands warm.

Mr. Wakil was always fascinated by planes and flying and began his career as a pilot a number of years ago. He first spent some time transporting military paratroopers and flying for regional airlines in North Australia. Recently, he became employed by an Australian aviation company called Skytraders. This corporation works for the Australian government and flies scientists between Australia and the Australian research bases in Antarctica. Mr. Wakil's job involved transporting researchers around the various bases on Antarctica.

Due to the hostile conditions in Antarctica, there are no permanent human residents on the continent; however there are many people, like Mr. Wakil, who come for long periods at a time. Australia has three bases in Antarctica providing a safe environment for these temporary residents of scientists, meteorologists, geologists and other researchers who are there for investigative purposes. Geologists use samples of ice as a time window to see what life was like in historical times. Those who are studying animals spend their time near the penguin's habitat, or at whale observation points. Other studies are done on mosses, marine biology and observing temperature changes in the sea.

Professionals such as plumbers, electricians, cooks and various licensed experts are also needed on the base. The communal kitchen provides regular food, as well as a vegetarian diet. Shifts were given out to provide everyone a chance to help out in the kitchen. Since no fresh food is available in the freezing conditions, preserved goods and hydroponics were mostly eaten. Chicken could not leave the base because of its adverse affect on the penguins.

Though Mr. Wakil's job was to transport the researchers, he still had free time to acquaint himself with the loveliness of pure nature. Those who visit Antarctica are prepared for every eventuality. "Even on a ten minute walk from the station, you must take a radio with you," explained Wakil. "When you drive from the station to the runway, you have to report your departure and arrival."

Each person carries a survival pack every time they go outdoors. The pack includes a good sleeping bag, a sleeping mat, a bivvy bag (large waterproof bag that you can sleep inside like a tent), a throw rope, an ice axe, a water bottle, chocolate, maps, compass, whistle, signaling mirror, extra gloves, goggles and in most cases, a spare set of clothing.

Did Mr. Wakil feel more danger in Antarctica than in the urban surroundings? "In Antartica, there are different hazards and humans have to be careful, especially since it's a hostile environment and we're not as hardy as penguins. However, there is no risk of being run over by a car, for example." Furthermore, there is not much danger from animals in Antarctica. There are no polar bears like in the Arctic. The Penguin species, "Adelie," that live there are not considered dangerous animals. They are very inquisitive and are likely to come up to you out of curiosity. "However, since there is a danger that humans will cause harm to them, regulations are that people may not walk within three meters of a penguin unless the penguin initiates the contact." Leopard seals however, can be dangerous. They have killed people in the past and therefore Wakil was wary of them.

Before leaving to Antartica, Mr. Wakil had a conversation with Rabbi Levi Wolf from Central Synagogue in Sydney who gave him encouragement and was excited about his trip. He was also enthusiastic about the fact that, as a Jew, Mr. Wakil would be able to put on tefillin (phylacteries) in Antarctica which he claimed would be very special – since it is such an unusual occurrence. He gave Wakil a siddur (prayer book), a Chumash (Bible), a book of Psalms and a menorah to take with him.

Mr. Wakil was anxious to light the menorah during the festival of Chanukah which occurred while he was there. This posed a problem for him because fire regulations are very strict in Antartica where it is very difficult to put out a fire since any water poured, automatically freezes. Also, since Wakil was there during the Southern hemisphere's summer, when it hardly gets dark, it would be difficult to light the menorah that should be lit after nightfall. Fortunately, Wakil received permission to light the candles by keeping a fire blanket on hand and being especially diligent. He lit it in a low light since that was the closest to total darkness.

The Rabbi also provided him with a Tefillat Haderech – the text of a prayer said for a safe journey, and he lent him a dollar that he had received from the Lubavitcher Rebbi. Mr. Wakil says "these things made me proud to be Jewish."

Mr. Wakil reflects on the differences between living in an urban society and living in Antarctica which is a virtual desert. "There are fewer complications. Life is simpler despite the natural hazards." There are no cars, little technology and no deadlines. One just lives in accordance to nature since it is obvious that one cannot make any plans. "It can be sunny one minute and soon after there can be a snow blizzard that is potentially life threatening." There is no rush. He speaks fondly of the harmony he felt while living in tune with creation.

Mr. Wakil also reminisces about the community atmosphere and kinship that he felt on the base, where every person is so obviously interdependent on each other, in contrast to impersonal city life.

These days, Mr. Wakil is back at home with his family and friends in Sydney, Australia. Mr. Wakil misses the "untouched wilderness and remoteness of Antarctica." He loved the peace of being in touch with nature, as well as the easy access to animals. However, despite all this, he is happy to be reunited with his family and friends and is not quite sure when he'd once again be willing to make another journey. But still, he often thinks back with fondness at his unique opportunity—and the tremendous pride he felt—in being the only one on the continent to don tefillin or light a menorah.

Rochmy Ollech lives in Israel with her husband and family. She runs TAKE OFF, a self-discovery time management program which helps women find balance and inner peace in daily life. Contact her or sign up for her weekly e-newsletter here.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
 Email
Join the Discussion
Sort By:
1 Comment
1000 characters remaining
Minucha Chicago, IL July 18, 2012

Trip to Antarctica Is Chabad planning another mission to Antarctica? Reply

Related Topics