Many expeditioners at Davis and Casey station are packing their bags and preparing to get on a plane or a ship after a year away from family and friends.

They’re excited about the reunions they’re about to have. But many are also experiencing a kind of anticipatory grief for the connections, and simplicity of life, they’re leaving behind.

There’s also a lot of work to be done first.

“There’s a huge range of emotions,” Davis station leader Karen Pye said.

“There’s a mixture of excitement about seeing loved ones again and having access to freedoms that aren’t available here, to a sense of nostalgia about not seeing the people we’ve grown close to over the year and missing the beautiful environment.

“Not many people have icebergs and penguins in their front yard.

“There’s a lot of talk about having to cook your own food, pay for groceries and remembering to lock your house and take the keys.”

Ben Patrick has been the station leader at Casey for the past year and has had to deal with infrastructure challenges, the medical evacuation of a seriously ill expeditioner and a storm that set back handover preparations by weeks. 

“Antarctica is a learning experience,” he said.  

“After a year of being here we have too much knowledge to hand over. The best we can do is pass on the form of the work, the idea of the year ahead and let the new crew discover the hows and the whys.

“That, and notes. Lots and lots of notes.“

“The only way to learn about this place is to live here”

Before the newcomers arrive, the stations are deep-cleaned and readied for a huge increase in expeditioner numbers.

Buildings that have been closed up for winter are heated again, carpets are cleaned, floors scrubbed and bedrooms fitted with mattresses and sheets.

“We’ve been rearranging all the furniture so it becomes a place for 120 people to live again and not just our cohort of 35,” Ben Patrick said.

“It means removing many of our own photos which have gone up over the year and making way for the new community to make their mark.”

Then there is handover, where the departing crew tell the incoming one everything they know about station operations.

“You can’t do it justice, the only way to learn about this place is to live here,” Ms Pye said.

“There’s a formal handover period of around 48 hours and the handover of lots of documents and a walk around the station. The excellent coffee machine and chocolate box are always a highlight – essential survival items over winter.”

“We all have our moments but it’s generally short-lived”

RSV Nuyina will reach Davis station in mid-November and flights have begun bringing expeditioners to and from the Wilkins Aerodrome, about four hours drive from Casey.

The summer crew is brimming with enthusiasm. The winterers have a lot to think about. 

Asked whether there are social events held to farewell the place, Mr Patrick said “we’ve probably had our share of organised social events by now.”

“A quiet moment to finish off the last few drops of a precious whisky is a pleasant way to reflect and hits the mood for those ready to depart.

“It’s lovely having the summerers here and seeing new and familiar faces. The winterers are more reflective about the year that’s been, and our year ahead is a different path.”

Karen Pye said although fatigue was a factor by this late stage, people generally tried to cut each other slack.

“We all have our moments but generally it’s short lived,” she said.

“There are lots of moments keeping people excited about heading home, like moving out of our rooms, knowing the ship is less than 200 km away and the arrival of the Twin Otter (plane) last Sunday.”

“We don’t know how we’re going to react”

Expeditioners participate in a debrief, run by the Australian Antarctic Program's psych team, when they finish their season and are given tips and suggestions to help them readjust. 

The Program’s Separation Guide says expeditioners sometimes report feeling overwhelmed by smells, crowds or the sensation of driving in a car at speed.

There can also be a period of readjustment for the expeditioner's family. Things will have changed at home and sometimes roles and responsibilities need to be renegotiated. 

“Returning home by ship provides an opportunity to rest and a gradual shift from Antarctica to home, which can help the transition,” the handbook says.

“Returning home by air takes much less time but can mean a more difficult transition given the abrupt shift.

“If you do return by air, try to build some ‘down time’ into your first couple of days home for rest and readjusting. Don’t schedule too much, you’ll be more tired than you think.”

 “We don’t know how we’re going to react to being in civilisation after a short 4.5 hour flight,” Mr Patrick said.

“We’ve heard from those who’ve gone ahead of us that life down here is simpler, quieter, slower,  more familiar with all the same faces.

“But we would love to eat fresh berries, find a dog to pat and a beer on tap.”

In the cruellest twist of all, sometimes all the anticipation comes to nothing.

On at least one occasion, a plane has left Hobart for Wilkins, only to have to turn back due to bad weather and try again the next day.

The ‘A’ (for Antarctic) factor messing with plans, right to the end.