While some retirees seek out golf courses and palm trees, UK born New Zealander Robin Davies prefers something a little more rugged. The intrepid mechanic, 59, whose contract work for Polar Field Services most recently included traversing from Greenland's coast to Summit Station in a long caravan in the 2010 Greenland Inland Traverse (GrIT), spends much of his retirement contracting traveling to remote places of the earth for a variety of companies, all of which specialize—on some level—in exploration. "When I wake up in the mornings I am a little stiffer than I used to be," says Davies. "But that's really the only change. I hope to carry on with this lifestyle for as long as I can."
It's a lifestyle that began when Davies was a teenager. Having finished school, he apprenticed as a mechanic in UK and cultivated his natural talent to fix things. He also nursed a nascent wanderlust that would eventually drive him far from his home in a rural area on the Welsh border to all seven continents.
"We had farm animals and no car," says Davies. "My traveling was very limited. I don't know why I was keen to travel, but I certainly was. Although I wasn't quite sure what else I wanted to do with my life."
Since he was young he'd had an inclination to take things apart, "have a look," and then put them back together. By the time he was 10 he was wiring electrical plugs. Fueled by his own curiosity, he "wanted to see how things worked."
"There's a certain learning curve," Davies says about that early education. "You don't always get things back together as they were."
But with strong mentors and an established apprenticeship program ("that was pretty standard back then in the late 60s early 70s"), he quickly developed coveted skills for keeping trucks and heavy machinery running.
Call of the Wild
During his free time, Davies honed his mountaineering skills. He funded climbing trips to the Alps, and developed friends in the climbing community.
"Before climbing, I'd never been good at sports," says Davies. "I was useless at anything involving a ball, but I was hooked on climbing."
Once he completed his apprenticeship, Davies applied for a job in Antarctica and landed an interview. Almost immediately after, he set off to northern India, driving overland with a few mates, passing through Iran and Afghanistan along the way, and climbed for three months in the Himalaya.
He also got the job in Antarctica, a two and a half year contract from 1974-77. Davies was on Adelaide Base (long since closed down), some 50 miles from Rothera, the present day field operations base.
At that time BAS (British Antarctic Survey) was changing their mode of transport from dog teams to Skidoo snowmobiles. One of his responsibilities was to help that transition, working both as a mechanic and as a field assistant. During his second winter, Davies took on the role of Base Commander which also ment being sworn in as a Magistrate (Something the British did back then to strengthen their claim on the “British Antarctic Territories”).
During his third and final summer in the Antarctic, he worked with a geologist on Rothchild Island. There were two mountain ranges that had never been visited before. While the geologist was busy hammering rocks he was able to "nip up some of the easier peaks and made several first ascents."
A Formative Experience
One night when they were camped in a pass between two mountains, they were hit by a sudden storm that blew down and damaged their Scott tent. It was two days before the wind abated and a plane was able to get them with a replacement tent. This is now on the map as Bivouac Pass. Also among the place names proposed (and were accepted) by the geologist that he worked with was Davies Cliffs, an escarpment with easy snow slopes to several unnamed summits on one side and dramatic cliffs on the other.
Around the World
After Antarctica and travels through South and North America, Davies found himself in Scotland where he met his wife. After a spell of traveling through Africa and a couple of seasons in Spitzbergen with Cambridge University they returned to Scotland and settled for about 10 years, had a son and daughter, and then Davies got an opportunity to work for Schlumberger doing seismic survey work in Kenya.
Seismic in Africa
Seismic survey is the mapping of oil fields using an energy source—either dynamite or large vibrator trucks that vibrate the ground. The shock wave/vibrations reflect back off the rock layers under the ground and are picked up by geophones (like little microphones but they sense vibration in the ground rather than noise) at the surface.
The job was six weeks on and three weeks off, and he went to try it out. He worked for the company at locations in Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Oman, the UAE and more recently, in between spells in Greenland, Australia for 18 years.
A Family Man
The family moved to New Zealand for a home base, and the kids had a childhood drastically different from Davies's.
"We certainly took them on quite a few trips," says Davies. "We had family holidays when they were younger to South Africa, Namibia, Oman. They're pretty adventurous now."
About five years ago, while working in Saudi Arabia, Davies met Paul Rose, who had worked in Greenland for Polar Field Services. Greenland sounded enticing to Davies.
"At that time, my normal schedule was six weeks on, three weeks off, and I suggested to the company that rather than flying home, I fly to Greenland," he says. "I got there at no cost to myself or PFS."
The recon trip yielded a contract, and Davies loved Greenland.
"I'm attracted to areas with dramatic scenery, to remote areas," he says. I'm not big on cities. In Greenland you get tremendous light shows, phenomenal aurora borealis, sun dogs and halos."
Into the PFS Fold
In Greenland, Davies was the Summit Camp mechanic during the summer seasons of 05, 06 and 07, and in 2008 he was the winter-over mechanic for the third phase of the year. After the third phase, from February to early May, he returned to Summit Camp in July to join the first Traverse for the return trip to Thule; weather conditions prevented the traverse from reaching Thule, and Davies returned during the October expedition to retrieve the equipment.
Greenland Inland Traverse (GrIT)
This year, Davies participated on the 4-week traverse (plus a week route finding through the crevasse zone using ground penetrating radar) from Thule Air Base to Summit Station. Day after day the team slogged south.
"The first 100 miles were spectacular as we wound are way through the coastal mountain range, but after that one could say it was quite boring as every day is the same, but I really like that type of travel," says Davies. " I like aiming for a destination that is a long way off, knowing that you have to get up and get some mileage that day. It's very much like running a marathon. Not that I've ever run one. But you have to pace yourself."
Advice from the Expert
Davies has paced himself his entire life, and he's forged an admirable, adventurous career. As for those who want to follow in his footsteps, Davies offers the following advice:
When an opportunity to travel comes along, grasp it with both hands and don’t worry about the details. I often have little panic attacks before a big trip about how to cope in a strange country or environment, but I’ve found over the years that things always work out. And a bit of stress during a trip makes for better stories afterwards!
Setting an Example
Beyond his words, though, is his example. Davies has pursued a path that takes him to places he's curious about and enjoys.
"The places I like to go are often deserts," he says. "They can be cold or hot. I worked in the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia where the sand dunes are the size of mountains. Oman has beautiful rugged country. And Greenland, I love Greenland."