A life-changing ice experience
Sumner's Henry Sunderland pictured at
the Geographic South Pole at 2am on February 4, 1977. Charlie was the
first gnome at the pole, and survived a fire which left him white as the
day he was made. Sunderland says the Antarctic experience changed his
Henry Sunderland is
well-known in Canterbury as a gnomologist, artist and tutor. In this
personal account, he tells how the Antarctic changed his life and how he
delivered the first gnome, Charlie, to the South Pole in 1977.
My God, it’s been 31 years now since I
first stepped onto the Ice and my memories as a Kiwi mess cook at McMurdo
Station are still as crisp and clear as the Antarctic air.
We were quite isolated back then and
communications with the outside world consisted of a walk over the hill to
Scott Base’s Post office. We could post a letter dependent on flights or
make a planned ahead of time phone call with time delay and static. Today
it's dirrrt, dirrrt TEXT; dirrt, digital photo or dirrt, dirt, dirrt,
dirrrt - "Hello, honey
it’s me… look how cold it is down here!"
I took two friends, Harry and Charlie,
with me to Antarctica. Harry went off to the Dry Valley’s Vanda Station in
early November 1976 and Charlie had the honour of going to the Geographic
South Pole Station on the 31st October, 1976 with some American scientist
friends. Lucky buggers travelling the white continent while I was left in
Mac town washing dishes!
However in early November word came back
from the pole with some returning polar scientists that Charlie had caused
quite a stir there. On arrival at the South Pole he had been left in an
old Jamesway hut (like a half barrel canvas hut with windows). Two days
later the hut burnt to the ground and Charlie was discovered in the
He was still smiling but all his paint
was burnt off making him white - as if he had morphed and adapted to his
frozen environment. 'God' I thought, 'I will have to see this; how
incredible'. I had to go to see Charlie. I wondered how on earth I would
get to the South Pole to be reunited with him and make sure that he was
okay. I was after all only a mess cook on a military station.
Artist and gnomologist Henry
Sunderland’s main mission in life is to make people smile. While he now
devotes most of his time and energy to teaching at the CPIT School of
Art and Design in Christchurch, he has had a 'gnome in his bonnet' since
He has gathered a wealth of information on gnomes, has a collection at
home and lectures and gives after dinner talks on the subject.
took a photo that
won him a $1000 award in the
Cold Snaps Photographic Competition
in September 2007.
Henry also appears in the book
by Margaret Egleton.
As civilians we did have greater freedom
than the US military ratings. I worked at nights (it didn’t really matter
as it was 24 hours of sunlight anyhow) and this allowed me to spend the
days helping Scientists to catch Weddell seals. They then later operated
on them and I produced anatomical drawings of the seal’s insides. These
drawings were used in scientific medical journals.
At other times I helped Dr. Art DeVries
fish for the pre historic Antarctic cod. Although the four Clubs/ bars at
Mac town were a distraction I did however produce a drawing a week for the
local newspaper: “The McMurdo Sometimes”, becoming Antarctica’s first
comic strip cartoonist.
Despite all of this I still couldn’t
manage to get to the South Pole to see Charlie and time was running out,
it was almost February 1977 and I would be going home at the end of
February. How would I get to the pole to see Charlie?
There was only one thing to do: go
straight to the top. I wrote to the Commander of the base Captain Norhill
requesting a trip to the South Pole on a C130 military aircraft.
I waited and waited for a reply. Days
passed. Then a letter was handed to me via Chief Petty Officer Webb.
I opened it:
"On behalf of Operation Deep Freeze I
would like to say that we are going to manifest you on the next available
flight to the South Pole to see Charlie. This is in recognition for all
the extra efforts and services you have performed down here.
9.45pm 3rd February I boarded the C130 at Williams field and being the only
passenger on board every window was my private viewing of this magnificent
We flew up the Beadmore glacier onto the
polar plateau and finally touched down at the South Pole at 12.45am.
Stepping from the aircraft the cold air burnt my nostrils, but I was greeted
with a warm welcome and taken to the geodesic dome to see Charlie.
At 2am on February 4, 1977 I was standing
at the ceremonial pole with Charlie. What a life changing moment: standing
there with the first garden gnome to reach the geographic South Pole.
Things have never been the same since.
After this I couldn’t but become a gnomologist and spend my creative time
promoting garden gnomes as friendly reminders to all of us to take better
care of our mother earth.
For this reason I coined the acronym:
G-N-O-M-E: Guarding Naturally Over Mother Earth.
PS. Jernome and the North Pole, well
that’s another story.