Poles apart

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Al splits time between tranquil Glenorchy and wilds of Antarctica.

Al Fastier lives just down the road at Glenorchy – but he spends summers shivering at the very foot of the world.

The intrepid 49-year-old is leading the restoration of early explorers’ huts in Antarctica as programme manager with the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust.

He’s lived in the freezing southern continent from late October till early February for the past three years, overseeing a six-strong team preserving Ernest Shackleton’s 1907 Nimrod expedition base camp at Cape Evans.
Each autumn Fastier returns to Glenorchy – his home since the early 1990s – to prepare for future trips.

When he got back to the hamlet last month, his team had just finished work on Shackleton’s hut – a century after three of the legendary Anglo-Irish explorer’s party became the first to trek the 1600km to the South Magnetic Pole.

It’s a wee way off, but it’s a fair bet he won’t be spending this Christmas at home.

Fastier’s team has already started working on British pioneer Robert Scott’s hut at Cape Evans, which was the base for his 1910-13 Terra Nova expedition.

The $9 million project – the second of four camps the Trust is charged with protecting – is expected to take till 2014.

As with the prior camp, the international crew spend two blocks of six weeks on site over summer, repairing the hut using timber and other materials true to its original build. They also collect artefacts, including sleeping bags and clothing, used by the early expedition party.

Fastier says they only return to their main camp at NZ-operated Scott Base to get supplies, “have a shower and wash our clothes – we get reasonably smelly”.

But for now the traveller is back in Glenorchy, where he spends winters coordinating the restoration project in the wilds of Antarctica.

He may live on ice three months a year, but his partner Helen Clark doesn’t sit around pining for her man.

She works for the Department of Conservation and is often away from home herself doing fieldwork. She first met Fastier in Antarctica, where he’s lived on and off since 1988.

“I’ve just come back and she just left a couple of days ago to go to the Chatham [Islands] to work with black robins for three weeks,” says Fastier, who gets to phone home just six minutes a fortnight when on the ice-locked continent.

“It’s always exciting to be back together, but we enjoy our time apart doing the work that we do, too.”

Fastier is already busy planning for next summer – recruiting international specialists, managing budgets and sourcing and ordering materials online and by phone.

It’s a big job getting it 100 per cent right – after all, “you can’t pop down to your local PlaceMakers or Mitre 10 to buy stuff”, he says.

But his salary is “fair and reasonable” and as part of the deal back in NZ he gets a three-day weekend, which lets him explore the Glenorchy area he first

encountered as a tramping guide and hut warden.

Fastier first landed at the Scott Base outpost 21 years ago as an electrician.

But after returning to NZ, he retrained in parks management and worked with DoC.

Three years ago he scored a secondment – then a full-time job – with the Christchurch-based NZ Antarctic Heritage Trust.

Fastier has gone south 13 times all up, monitoring expeditions on behalf of DoC, guiding scientific groups and doing logistics with government body Antarctica New Zealand.

And he reckons the past three trips there have been special.

“You can be walking toward the huts carrying a box of food in exactly the same landscape and having the same weather conditions as the early explorers had,” he explains.

“But we’ve got far better equipment and we’ve got communication back home, whereas for them it was probably the equivalent of going to Mars.”

Fastier says he won’t be quitting any time soon.

“I think the day you lose the passion for what you’re doing you should look for other work, but I’m still 100 per cent immersed.

“I’ve got the best of all worlds – living in Glenorchy and also getting to travel to Antarctica to work on such an exciting project.”