The opportunity arose after former Tihoi instructor, Cam Walker, told him about jobs going for the cruise line company he was working for, Quark Expeditions.
“He said they had expanded their fleet of vessels down in Antarctica, that they needed more kayak guides and that I should apply.”
So, Callum did, and spent the last summer school holidays on the ice.
The job involved taking tourists – mainly wealthy Americans, but with a few Australians, Canadians, and the odd backpacker – on day kayak adventures to get up close to sea life, like whales, penguins and seals.
He flew to Buenos Aires in South America, and then down to Ushuaia in Argentina where cruise ships depart for Antarctica. “There we met up with our ship and did a week and a half of training involving emergency scenarios, risk management and safety, and learning to navigate the Zodiac boats.”
The next seven weeks were spent based on the cruise ship – a luxury new vessel – doing four expeditions of 180 people each to Antarctica on voyages lasting 12-16 days.
It takes three days to get down to Antarctica, but just two days to get back because of how the currents work.
Callum says he met some interesting people.
“It was mainly people looking for some adventure; a lot of people who are there to just tick a box to say ‘I have been to Antarctica,’ and you get a few people who are there for spiritual reasons, they are looking for solitude and they are looking for a connection of some sort.”
Callum, 42, has some amazing ‘work stories’ getting up close and personal to literally thousands of whales – animals he describes as ‘absolutely stunning.”
One magic moment was when he was helping people into their kayaks, loading the last passenger.
“….I just had this feeling I was being watched, and it was crystal clear water, and I looked down and there was this eyeball looking at me and the eyeball is probably 20-30 centimetres across. It was a massive humpback whale just below the surface of the water.”
“As soon as it saw me, it rolled away from the boat before coming up and having a breath.”
At any one time in the summer season there are 10-11 cruise ships in Antarctica – not that passengers know. “The cruise ships are in constant contact with each other, so they don’t see each other. They go out of their way to hide behind icebergs when another cruise ship goes past.”
It was truly a unique experience – and a landscape not easy to describe.
“It is absolutely, stunningly big. It is like being in a frozen Milford Sound, but for weeks on end. There would be a massive mountain rising up two kilometres into the air.”
“There are times when fog sets in and you can’t see anything and when it starts to clear you find yourself in a bay surrounded by massive glaciers. Then in the morning these glaciers, that you can hear but not see, are all calving and breaking apart.”
He spoke of the ‘golden hour’ when the low-lying sun reflects off the ice – at about 1am in the morning – causing a golden hue, which the tourists on the deck photograph.
A personal highlight for him was following the last journey of famous explorer Ernst Shackleton during time spent off the ship.
“That was pretty cool for me as an outdoor instructor, and someone who aspires to leadership, to see where that happened. It was almost a spiritual moment for me.”
He also had a valuable life lesson about facing fear – a reminder of what teenage boys experience doing things for the first time at Tihoi.
“I remember being in the water in the South Shetland Islands and a leopard seal was trying to have a go at the boats. These creatures are notoriously nasty. They will bite you, they will have a real go at you.”
“It is what we call ‘spy hopping’, it was coming in really fast just below the water and shooting past, really close.”
He said it was the first time he had been fearful in a long time and it was a great levelling experience.
“It was one of those moments when you understand what the boys go though at Tihoi when they’re fearful.”
“For you it is work, but for these boys it is a brand-new experience. So, it was a great reminder for me about what they are going though.”
Callum arrived back home just before the first intake of Tihoi boys arrived in 2020 – refreshed and invigorated from the experience and grateful for the opportunity.
“If you look at what has happened with Covid this year, you look at your life and acknowledge the things you could do when you were able.”
“It gives you a new outlook and makes you realise what you are setting these boys up for, to go out into the wider world and to have experiences, not to sit in your office and do the same thing that you have always done.”
Callum has been at Tihoi since 2005, when his wife Kate got a teaching job there. Their children aged 11 and 9 have grown up there and attend school in Taupo where Kate now teaches.
He had previously studied Outdoor Leadership and secondary teaching at Lincoln and Canterbury Universities, and before that attended Riccarton High School.
Callum says he has a laidback approach to most, but not all, things. “I am also in charge of discipline so there is probably a hard edge on that.”
“The first day of each intake, I always draw a box on the board and I talk about what the rules are that fall in that box. And anything that goes within that box is within the rules I am absolutely fine with.”
“But it comes down to showing respect for everybody and responsibility for your own actions. If you can do that you are able to go anywhere.”
He says there are currently 71 boys on the second intake for 2020, doing the 18-week programme at Tihoi Venture School, where he has been teaching for 16-years.