From the frontlines to the Arctic – the guides saving lives in war zones
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead
Polar guiding duo John Rodsted and Mette Eliseussen divide their time between the Arctic and Antarctica, their home in Australia and former war zones they campaign to keep safe from landmines and other threats.
For many polar guides, their home life is a world away from the remote places they help others to enjoy during the travel season. None more so than John and Mette, who also run Safe Ground, a small but mighty humanitarian organisation working to minimise the impact of weapons of war such as landmines.
They were part of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Ban Landmines team that led to the treaty which banned the use of landmines, an issue propelled into the limelight by the late Princess Diana. They are still campaigning to protect people around the world from weapons designed to maim and kill, focusing on prevention and clean-up of former war zones.
Both have a long, varied career which has seen them travel the world from pole to pole. For the past 35 years, John has been documenting life in war zones including Cambodia, Bosnia, Syria and Afghanistan. It is this work that led John to start working with the international Campaign to Ban Landmines in the early 90s, through which he met Mette.
Not your everyday love story
Both working hard on the same cause but in different guises, Mette and John dub Graca Machel, Nelson Mandela’s wife, their cupid. John explains: “We went to the first international meeting that was held about whether there is any possibility to create an international treaty to ban landmines in Maputo, Mozambique. Graca Machel just basically threw us the keys to her office and she said, ‘well, one thing you’ll need is office space, so use my place’.
“So, we were working at Graca’s place and Mette came up this idea of flying a plane over the White House in America dropping 50,000 postcards that the kids in Afghanistan had drawn for expressing the war; and I thought it was a great idea apart from the fact we’d be shut down. So we cooked up another thing which is the infamous Ban Bus.”
The Ban Bus took off on one mega road trip travelling 10,000 kms over six weeks delivering 100 presentations across the country to engage American citizens – and the press – with the issue of landmines and the need for international consensus to ban them. The trip solidified their friendship but they returned to their separate lives.
“Mette went off because she needed a practice marriage,” jokes John. The pair remained good friends and the adventurers were later reunited in Antarctica. John first found himself in Antarctica in the early Noughties off the back of a chance conversation with an operations manager for a travel company who was keen to get him down to talk about photography. This expertise combined with previous boating experience led to the start of a 20+ year career as an Antarctic and Arctic guide.
Early on in his Antarctic career, John invited Mette to join him on the white continent. Now divorced, she had been working in publishing and had gone back to university in the USA but the pair had, thankfully, kept in touch and Mette jumped at the chance to join him down south.
“Antarctica and the Arctic is a world away from the Taliban, so I found it quite relaxing!”, says Mette.
An Arctic awakening
While Antarctica will always be a special place for John and Mette, it’s the Arctic that really captured their hearts.
“It’s a pretty amazing place, Antarctica,” says John. “But if we had to choose, we’d pick the Arctic every single time – whether it’s Greenland, the Canadian Arctic or Svalbard – both of us love the Arctic. Svalbard is great because it’s got so many layers and you never know what the next day is going to be like. There’s so much more wildlife – bears, walruses, reindeer, Arctic foxes, birds. Then you got the ice and you’ve got the glaciers right on the edge of climate change. You’ve got local stuff to eat.
“There are so many discussions to have with people, people leave totally enriched by the experience. There’s so much you can do with it you can blow people’s mind anywhere whether it’s the natural landscape, the ice, the changing environment, the wildlife, the history – and it’s got a really rich history, it really does.”
John and Mette are one of a handful of Arctic and Antarctic guides who are a couple and between them they hold a deep and evolving knowledge of almost every area of interest – from nature and wildlife to history and politics. Asked how they find it living and working together day-in, day-out, John beams: “We’re good together, it works for us as a relationship. We’re not actually good apart, we miss each other; we are better as a team. We’re lucky in that I know that’s not normal for most people, but for us it is good.”
More than a tick list trip
The couple have worked on bigger ships in the past, but are much more driven to the smaller vessels where they can really curate a personal experience for guests.
John says: “The polar bear safari – where people want to blast around and see bears, bears, bears – is not what it should be about. We want people to walk away inspired by how amazing the Arctic is, not just Svalbard or Greenland, but the entire Arctic. Part of the benchmark is when they stop taking photos, they sit and watch. That’s great.”
Asked if they have any plans to stop guiding in the Arctic, it’s a firm no. Certainly not yet. “I don’t need to do this for money,” says John, “I’ve got other things for that. The moment this isn’t fun, and we’re not working with the right people, the right company, we’ll stop. But for now, we love it and it works well for us.”
If you want to join Mette and John on a trip to the Arctic, please see our voyages here.