Nathan Bourke: Ballarat's intrepid Antarctic explorer

SNOW MAN: Nathan Bourke living life on the edge of the Antarctic Circle, almost 3500 kilometers from his home town. Picture: Nathan Bourke/Australian Antarctic Division​.
SNOW MAN: Nathan Bourke living life on the edge of the Antarctic Circle, almost 3500 kilometers from his home town. Picture: Nathan Bourke/Australian Antarctic Division​.

When looking to escape the cold weather of Ballarat, the logical choice, of course, is to travel to Antarctica. 

At least, it was for 26-year-old Ballarat resident Nathan Bourke, who is spending five months on the frozen continent working as an Aircraft Ground Support Officer. 

His duties at the research station include meteorological weather observations, as well as maintaining the landing strip and ski run between the Casey Research Station and aerodrome. 

The former plumber had no previous training in aviation but when he came across a job advertisement from the Australian Antarctic Division to work and travel on the ice, he couldn’t let the opportunity pass him by. 

“It came up when I was searching for plumbing jobs and when I saw it I didn’t realise it was a job available for anyone,” he said. 

“I applied for all the jobs I could including AGSO, even though I had never had much to do with it.”

GROUND SUPPORT: Nathan Bourke is responsible for making sure aircraft can land and operate safely on the icy Antarctic tundra. Picture: Nathan Bourke/Australian Antarctic Division​

GROUND SUPPORT: Nathan Bourke is responsible for making sure aircraft can land and operate safely on the icy Antarctic tundra. Picture: Nathan Bourke/Australian Antarctic Division​

What came next was months of interviews, tests, and training to ensure he was fit and ready for the job. 

“They flew me to Hobart to do the interview and go through all the processes which was amazing because I had never been to Tassie before” he said.

As part of the recruitment process, Mr Bourke participated in training sessions, interviews, medical and psychological tests but he said it was worth it when he found out he had been accepted. 

Mr Bourke even used his experience living in Ballarat as proof he was tough enough to withstand the temperatures of Antarctica. 

“I felt like that was the way the process was, to sort out who was committed enough for the job,” he said. 

“Once I saw the job I was so excited to do it; it’s well paid and I get to travel and learn new skills, I now have a range of different skills relevant to things I never thought I would be.”

OFF STATION: Expeditioner Nathan Bourke on a hike to Shirley Island, near Casey research station. Picture: Nathan Bourke/Australian Antarctic Division​

OFF STATION: Expeditioner Nathan Bourke on a hike to Shirley Island, near Casey research station. Picture: Nathan Bourke/Australian Antarctic Division​

Mr Bourke has been living at the Casey Research Station for about three months and found he has adjusted well to life on and off the station. 

“It’s very cold and very windy but I have adjusted to it and now it feels like summer down here,” he said. 

“At the start when we got off the plain it was negative 20 degrees and I suppose the remoteness was a shock but it’s not hard to adjust to.

“You have the opportunity go home if you really want to and being away from friends and family is difficult but there is so much awesome stuff to do; it’s the best experience ever.”

Despite being so far away from his loved ones, Mr Bourke has found his colleagues at the station have become a secondary family. 

“I've been really enjoying it and it’s got to the point everyone you get along with has become family; I think I will be disappointed when it comes time to leave,” he said. 

We have to carry GPS units and radios with us all the time. I have had a lot of GPS training and navigation, I have learned to use compasses and how to not get lost basically. I have learnt a lot of new skills.

Nathan Bourke

While Mr Bourke has adjusted well to life in the cold, his every day is governed by strict safety regulations and many hours of training in different scenarios. 

He said he will never forget the time his survival training was transformed from simulation to a genuine fight against the elements. 

“During the training, we sleep outside and get given basically a chip packet and a sleeping bag, dig a hole and sleep in that overnight, just is case you get stuck in blizzard,” he said. 

“Thing is, we were stuck in blizzard for about 16 hours with 100 km/h winds and visibility was less than 5 meters.

“I didn’t feel unsafe because our field training officer was really experienced and we did have back up tents we were waiting in to get picked up.

“It was a good bonding session, myself with five other guys in a two-man tent; I wouldn’t do it again in a hurry but it made me realise how unforgiving this place really is.”

HOME AWAY FROM HOME: The Casey Station has been Nathan Bourke's home for about three months now. Picture: Gordon Tait/Australian Antarctic Division

HOME AWAY FROM HOME: The Casey Station has been Nathan Bourke's home for about three months now. Picture: Gordon Tait/Australian Antarctic Division

Along with learning how to survive in one of the harshest landscapes on the planet, Mr Bourke has found time to explore and experience a truly unique perspective of Antarctica. 

He recently took part in a hike to Shirley Island to visit the resident penguins and spent time riding along the coast near Casey Station. 

“It was really awesome, we were sitting on the island and thousands of penguins were waddling around us and they came up to us and were up really inquisitive then would waddle off into the distance,” he said. 

“We also do travel training where we ride a quad bike on 70 kilometre round trip a to a few research huts on different points along the coast.

“Riding along the coasts and seeing all the icebergs was really awesome, I’ve never experienced anything like it.”

Mr Bourke has another six weeks left at Casey Station before he flies back to Australia where his old employer has held his previous job for him. 

“I fly back around February 21, depending on weather,” he said. 

“I eventually I want to head back down here but Pipecon have offered me my job back and they have been really good for me, really supportive about me coming down here.

“I’m also really excited to see my family again but I definitely want to come back to Antarctica.” 

The Australian Antarctic Division is currently recruiting 150 people for a range of roles at three Antarctic stations and on sub Antarctic Macquarie Island.

The Division is recruiting for a range of roles including chefs, station leaders, tradespeople, engineers, IT and communications operators for short summer stints of four months and up to 18 months over winter.

More information at www.jobs.antarctica.gov.au