A life-changing ice experience

Henry and Charlie at the South Pole

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 life.

Henry Sunderland is well-known in Canterbury as a gnomologist, artist and tutor. Most recently he has cheered up the earthquake battered people of Christchurch with his promotions of road cone creativity, best captured through his Facebook page.

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!

Charlie survives a fire

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 rubble.

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.

He has had a 'gnome in his bonnet' since 1975. He has gathered a wealth of information on gnomes, has a collection at home and lectures and gives after dinner talks on the subject.

View one of the cartoons which appeared in the McMurdo Sometimes.


Henry also took a photo that won him a $1000 award in the Cold Snaps Photographic Competition in September 2007.

Henry also appears in the book Gnomeland 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.

A special request granted

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.

Captain Norhill
US Navy.


At 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 continent.

Transporting the gnomeWe 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.

Originally published for the Monday 26 November, 2007 edition.