Paul Woodgate, 40 years of “moving stuff”

Stuff Paul Woodgate1
16 April 2021

If you want to get anything to Scott Base, Paul “Woody” Woodgate’s your man.

Lorde, Sir Edmund Hillary, Princess Anne, Prime Ministers, bulldozers, helicopters, ice cores, avocados, buildings and toilet paper. No matter how big, awkward, fragile or famous, he can get it safely to and from the remotest place on earth. He’s had a bit of practice, the 6th of April marked 40 years since Antarctica New Zealand Logistics Manager Paul Woodgate started the job.

It wasn’t called Antarctica New Zealand back then, it was the Antarctic Division of DSIR and then the New Zealand Antarctic Institute. Three names and six chief executives later, he’s seen it all.

“My driver wasn’t Antarctica, it was to get a job back in the city, which is quite a dag. None of that flowery stuff about Antarctica,” he says.

Paul was a State Service Cadet working at DSIR in Lincoln in crop research, on the strawberry and potato tasting teams and learning the ropes of procurement buying combine harvesters.

“So, a job came up at DSIR in the city doing procurement, stores purchasing stuff, at a place called the Antarctic Division. That was April ’81, and the rest is history. It’s quite funny, as a kid I used to visit my aunty a lot and she lived in Kaiapoi. We would travel from Hornby to Kaiapoi on a regular basis, and I’d always be fascinated by the aeroplanes that went to Antarctica. I’d always bore the people in the car with how many Star-lifters and how many orange-tailed Hercules with skis on there were. I remember that quite vividly, being interested in those things. But I never really had an Antarctic vibe, or an Antarctic interest,” he says.

It was the early 80’s, the Erebus crash was still big news. It was the 25th Anniversary of Scott Base, Muldoon was Prime Minister and Bob Thompson was the Antarctic Institute boss.

“RBT, he was the boss, it was his way or the wrong way. Quite a formidable guy, a tough boss but fair. It was interesting work, things they were buying I had never heard of before, you know like snow machines and all parts of the base. When you think about what goes to Scott Base it’s really eclectic, everything from toilet paper to bulldozers. It was interesting and a good way to see what happens in the place,” he says.

Three years later he got his first trip to the ice.

“It was me and another guy, an old Professor from Canterbury, he was a mosses and lichen man. We were met at Willy’s (Air) Field by a skidoo with a sled on the back. We jumped on the sled and got towed back to Scott Base. They put the brakes on we jumped off, and you’ve got Erebus doing its thing in the background which is always amazing. But my first experience was we pulled up at the dog line. We met the Scott Base huskies, you walk down the dog line and pat each one on the head, and they piss on the back of your leg. I was pretty lucky to see the dogs because they weren’t there for much longer,” he says.

As Logistics Manager at Antarctica New Zealand, Woody is responsible for getting everything needed to run Scott Base and support science to Antarctica.

“I move stuff. Basically, my role is to get stuff to the ice, and that stuff includes people. If you think of Scott Base and what it is, we don’t have a Mitre 10 down the road, so for us you’ve got to get the people to the ice, and you need the infrastructure in place to support that. That’s sometimes not easy ‘cause mother nature still rules supreme and that’s quite sobering at times. Antarctica’s a great leveler.

“So that’s my role, planning ahead and then working the plan during the operational season. During the season we are sort of on call 24-7. If a flight is going, a flight is going. If it’s coming back it’s coming back,” he says.

Although he says it was never about the flowery stuff, Antarctica now runs through his veins. It would be hard not to after four decades and eight trips to the ice.

“The scientists sometimes get carried away and talk to you in science terms, and it’s sort of a little bit over your head. But that’s the challenge, even today, to understand what they are doing and put it in a way that’s something you can work out. I’ve always found it interesting what the scientists get up to, and even down to the fact that they are going to drive out over the frozen ocean, and drill into the ground and dive into the ocean.

“To go at Winfly to experience that extreme cold and the darkness, to go at the start of the season to see a new team bedding in, and an old team departing. To go in the Christmas New Year period where there’s a lot of melt and it’s quite different, and then to be there at ship offload and late season. I saw whales in front of Scott Base, that’s take-to-your-grave type stuff, it’s amazing, and it’s nature doing its thing. To have been there at each of those phases, I’ve been quite lucky. You know you step off that plane the first time, and you look around and see Erebus doing its thing and you realise you are standing on the ice it’s pretty special,” he says.

At 81°29S and 155°59E on the way to the South Pole in the Churchill Mountains there’s a feature named Woodgate Crest. It was named twenty years ago in Woody’s honour.

“I don’t think I’ll ever get to see it, but it’s in the All Black Nunataks and there’s a couple of guys from the similar era that have their names in there too. I’m pretty wrapped where it is because it’s got that sporting connection, yeah I guess it’s pretty cool. I got presented with a framed photo of the crest at smoko, I’m pretty proud of that.”

The accolades don’t stop there, in 2012 a letter addressed to Paul Woodgate arrived from Government House, and he had to buy a suit.

“That was a big day out and pretty special to take the family to meet Uncle Jerry. Bloody hell, he pinned a medal to my chest. I think maybe a couple of scientists got together and nominated me for that, and it was endorsed by Antarctica New Zealand. It was a special day because Sir Jerry Mateparae is such a good guy.”

Antarctica also got him the girl, he interviewed his partner for a role in admin 1986, she got the job and six months later they started dating. As he says, the rest is history.

“Jenny’s been to the ice a couple of times, she actually flew south on C5 Galaxy, which I never got the privilege of doing. If she ever wants to annoy me she just asks ‘have you ever flown on a Galaxy,’ and it still irks me,” he says laughing.

“Jenny’s had to manage a lot, the summer is all consuming so they’ve had to put up with me not being around a lot over the summer months, but it’s never been any different. My kids Jorja and Jack, basically they’ve grown up with dad working with the Antarctic. You’ve got to put more effort into the winter months to be around for them, definitely in the summer it’s been tough. But I think they’ve turned out pretty good, hats off to Jenny!”

Over four decades there have been many highs, but there have also been lows. For Woody, it’s a date: the 12th of October 1992. He hesitates, sadness radiates out of him, he lost two mates that day.

“Garth was a larger than life character for this organisation, he really was Mr Antarctica, just a really good guy, and young Terry who was the chippie. I never want to do that again, bring passengers back as cargo. It’s not good at all. That was definitely the worst day without a doubt,” he says.

Garth Varcoe and Terry Newport lost their lives in a helicopter crash near Scott Base. They were returning from a start of season maintenance trip to the hut at Cape Bird. Every year, Woody raises a glass south to remember them, he encourages everyone else to do the same.

After all these years, all that time in Antarctica and being on call 24-7 through the summer months, it’s not the big names, or the time on ice that keeps him going. It’s the generations of Antarcticans - it’s always been about the people.

“It’s a neat job in the fact you meet people prior to them going south and you’re talking about their expectations, and they get a buzz about going, that’s contagious. Then they come back from the ice and you talk to them about the time down there, nearly everybody has a positive experience - so that’s contagious. And we’re lucky, about 95 percent of the people we deal with are good buggers, and you know there’s not really many jobs where that would be your strike rate. In a support type public facing organisation that’s quite rare.

“I’m now meeting the children of scientists I met 30 … 40 years ago, off to Scott Base for their own research. Alex Pynes’ daughter Bex, Lisa, David Craw’s daughter, and I’ve met the children of some of our Scott Base crew who met for the first time right here. It’s all about the relationships you form and the people who go to the ice, that’s the gravy. That’s probably why I’ve been here so long,” he says.

A self-confessed plane spotter, it’s the C17 that reigns supreme.

“I still drive out at least ten times a season and watch the C17 take-off. Like we’re talking stand at the end of the runway and have it go over my bloody head. The C17, it’s an awesome aircraft, it’s a beast. For a logistics man, what it carries and how it does it. If you get behind on flights, what it moves is incredible, you can catch up so quick and they’re good operators. You know, you can go south on a 319 or a 757, the stewards will come up and down and give you a coffee and an OJ. But that’s not flying to Antarctica, it has to be a little bit basic but not too long, so the C17 is the one,” he says.

If you’re lucky, on your first trip to the ice Woody will carry your bags with you right to the tarmac. You’ll want to hug him goodbye, the last pillar of familiarity and reassurance before you plunge into the unknown of Antarctica. Except you wouldn’t dare, because Woody’s not a hugger. When you arrive back in New Zealand in the middle of the night, he’ll be waiting at the arrival gate. You’ll want to hug him again. He won’t say much just a nod of the head and raise of the eyebrow; his van is there waiting to take you home. He’s text your loved ones as well, often he’ll have them waiting at the gate too. This isn’t in his job description, but he’d never tell you that.

He chuckles at the thought of a legacy, looks at me sideways and scratches his cheek.

“There are a lot of stories, a lot of stories which will stay untold. Just the range of people has been awesome. You know I’m a big guy, some people get intimidated by that, cause I’m a bit gruff and I don’t suffer fools. But I’d hope it would be all good. I’ve been here a long time, my name would be connected with a lot of things that went on, some good, some bad. I just think, you know, hopefully I’d be looked on favourably. I’d hope people coming back from the ice would say ‘if they knew Woody was there, things would be sorted out,” he says.

He tangata ki tahi.

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