After completing a mammoth 50-day expedition, the first New Zealand woman to ski to the South Pole is due home next week and looking forward to sunshine and a belated Christmas dinner.
Kylie Wakelin, 36, from the South Island town of Twizel, was part of a seven-woman team which reached the pole just before New Year.
The group travelled nearly 900km across some of the earth’s most treacherous terrain, to mark the 60th anniversary of the Commonwealth and highlight the achievements of women across the world.
Many of the group made history for their countries, some becoming the first people from their nation to ski to the pole, and all "ecstatic" as they planted the Kaspersky Lab Commonwealth Antarctic Expedition flag at the southern-most tip of the world.
Safe and sound
Wakelin and other members of the all-woman team each towed an 80kg sled loaded with food, fuel and equipment, skiing for six to 10 hours a day to reach their destination.
The group had spent months in planning and hundreds of hours training.
"The feeling of finally getting here was absolutely brilliant. I enjoyed the whole experience, getting to the pole was the icing on the cake," said Wakelin.
Despite being disappointed at getting a couple of chilblains on her cheek during the final day of the expedition, Wakelin said she was in good shape, although much lighter, and was delighted to have travelled so far without any problems.
The expedition included women from the Commonwealth nations of Brunei, Cyprus, Ghana, India, Singapore and Britain.
Cold conditions, minus 30deg even without the wind chill factor, had made progress difficult at times with the team sometimes not covering the distance they had hoped.
On occasions rough surface conditions also slowed progress but, when it became warmer and flatter during Christmas, the women were able to catch up on lost time and travel further in order to reach their target before New Year's Day.
Speaking from the Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions base at Patriot Hills on the ice before being flown out to Chile, Wakelin said her Christmas wishes had all come true and she was looking forward to getting home to her family on 15 January.
"I also can’t wait to see my dog and having Mum’s roast chicken - you can’t beat that - and I want the works. My family has promised me a belated Christmas dinner and I’m excited about that," she said.
Tired and dirty
The women were all tired and very dirty on arrival at the South Pole, and it was several days before staff at the Patriot Hills base pointed out there was a shower at the base, Wakelin said.
"You should have heard us all - it was basic but the best shower I have ever had," she said. The women had each been rationed to one baby-wipe tissue a day for hygiene during their 50-day ordeal.
Wakelin said the whole experience had made up for the lack of amenities.
"After three or four weeks it doesn't matter any more. You move through that cycle of getting smelly and more feral," she said. Freedom from all the layers of clothing was also another much anticipated pleasure.
"To have some heat for free on the surface of my skin and strip off will be heaven," said Wakelin.
Being part of an all woman team had been a special experience especially sharing the expedition with people from countries where women did not have choices.
"It made me realise how lucky we are in New Zealand. I learnt a lot about others and how they live in countries that are so different from mine.
"But, when you strip all that away, we are exactly the same. We all wore the same clothes, all got dirty, all stank, it doesn’t matter what colour, religion or anything else, we all have the same needs," said Wakelin.
Other benefits of an all-women team was the discipline and the way the team had looked out for one another.
"Perhaps it was vanity and we wanted to look better when we arrived. But women do tend to look after themselves better and not push it too hard through that pain threshold. You can’t actually do that in Antarctica," she said.
NZ and the Antarctic
Asked what it meant to her to be the first New Zealand woman to ski to the South Pole, Wakelin said it was "pretty cool and about time".
"Sir Edmund Hillary did this (went to the South Pole) in the fifties so it’s about time a New Zealand woman got there. New Zealand has always been an integral part of Antarctica’s history so it’s really great that a New Zealand woman was part of this expedition," she said.
The trip had not changed her at all but Wakelin said she had been blown away by the support, encouragement and reaction of people, especially women, to the expedition’s success.
"So many women have said they didn’t think it was possible that girls could do a thing like this," she said.
"I have felt very proud to be a New Zealander and represent my country. Kiwis are practical people, generally have a relaxed approach to things and don’t get flustered easily. Everyone in the team had qualities about them and I suppose I brought that Kiwi practicality," she said.
Wakelin said many people, especially men, were sceptical about the expedition but that made the Commonwealth women even more determined.
After flying to Chile the team goes on to London for a media event at the Commonwealth Club in London next Monday (11.01.10), and will also make an appearance on BBC television on Tuesday, 12 January.
When she arrives back in New Zealand, Wakelin will take a break with family before pursuing her new career as a pilot. She says she is keen to fly the New Zealand airspace - "New Zealand is a fantastic country for everything," she said.
Wakelin says she is also keen to get the word out about the number of Kiwis who are doing great things globally.
"There are so many New Zealanders out there doing lots of great trips, first descents etc, all over the planet, that you never hear about. We need to get the word out there and support each other."
Wakelin stepped in as New Zealand's representative on the Commonwealth Antarctic Expedition in early October, 2009.
Before taking up flying, Wakelin spent 16 years running Glacier Explorers' boat trips in the small lake at the foot of the Tasman Glacier in New Zealand’s Southern Alps.
She has also taken part in ski-touring and mountaineering expeditions, and has worked for the British Antarctic Survey team.