It’s Monday 30th January 1956 and the Kista has dropped anchor in Farr Bay. Right there, in front of our astonished eyes is Mirnyy station.
Our party has twenty-six in total but that includes the people who are doing the round trip (the tourists, we call them) and we’ll be dropping off eighteen to stay through the dark winter although there is talk that one of the fellows already at Mawson and one of our ‘tourists’ will also stay. Then we’ll be twenty.
We’ve got a plane hangar and a little Beaver plane, three metal donga huts and a sand vehicle called a Weasel, all strapped on the deck of the ship. At Mawson station there is an A-line wooden hut and a donga hut. That’s our station.
We will have a handful of dogs after Harry Ayres takes twenty-six of the best of them back to New Zealand when the Kista leaves us in February. The Mawson huskies bred at Heard Island after they were sent there from Melbourne Zoo. Phil Law promised them to the Trans-Antarctic Expedition without any consultation with the Mawson OiC or the surveyor, and so, when the Kista returns to Australia so will ANARE’s fittest dogs.
Now imagine this: Across the dark blue icy water what we can see are Mirnyy’s prefabricated plywood-and-aluminium-frame buildings being unpacked and constructed by about 500 people. There are two 8,000 ton ice breakers anchored. We can see four planes, ranging from a DC3 to the equivalent of our little Beaver, two helicopters, thirteen caterpillar tractors and bulldozers, four caterpillar cross-country vehicles, and ten trucks specially fitted to carry the expedition radio stations, repair shops, portable electric plants.
It looks like the Russians will be leaving over ninety men (and women!!!!) as their winter expedition. There are at least 50 dogs chained out on the snow. Phil has been invited ashore but the rest of us are hanging over every available space on the Kista ogling the incongruous site of a city emerging on the ice.
Unless our eyes are deceiving us (and as improbable as it may seem) we can also see, a shining black GAZ-69 car, which is more or less the Russian equivalent of a Rolls Royce (just what the doctor ordered in Antarctica!).
Friday 27th January 1956.
Three lovely days heading north and then west. On Wednesday we passed close to the Kosmos III and five chaser ships. Kosmos is the factory ship for a Norwegian whaling company. The chaser ships go out and harpoon the whales and bring them back to the factory ship for processing.
There are five Japanese factory ships in the Southern Ocean too, but we haven’t seen them yet. We saw dozens of whales once we crossed 65˚S. For the last three days we’ve been close to the coast and on full alert for rocky outcrops. We’re charting the coastline as we progress.
Syd Kirkby has been up on the bridge at 4 am most mornings, beside Phil Law, watching the radar for bergs and rocks in the heavy snow, and taking running fixes from the ship and doing coastline plotting.
There is quite a swell and the ship is rough, so some of the travellers are feeling a bit seedy.
The Kista is covered with a heavy layer of snow and every shroud and stay is covered with icicles, in the sheltered spots up to four feet long. The icicles make a low sad hum as we steam onwards through the pack ice.
Early this morning we received a radio message from the Russians. They’ve offered to fly over and drop a map of the ice conditions but Phil said it wasn’t necessary. They are in Australian Territory and we probably have to be careful about what we accept from them by way of help. We don’t want to assist them in having their presence legitimised.
23 January 1956.
Melbourne’s Age newspaper ran another story today about the Soviet presence in Antarctica, painting a sketch of an orderly village with orderly streets unfolding in Antarctica. It will be called Mirnyy (“peaceful”) station. What the Age didn’t say is how anxious Mirnyy is making political leaders around the world.
Why? Antarctica might be a useless big lump of ice …. although everyone hopes it isn’t.
Our newspapers are sticking to a line that the major rationale for our territorial claiming of Antarctica is exploitable natural resources. There better be minerals in those ice hills or we’ll be pretty grumpy about all the expense … that’s the main line in our newspapers.
But the real reason for the sudden interest in Antarctica is blocking the nuclear-armed Soviet Union from establishing bases on a continent within firing range of the southern tips of Australia, South America, and South Africa.
Already in Farr Bay, a huge diesel-electric ship the Ob has moored at the narrow ice strip, making the first Soviet landing in Antarctica and we’ve received word that, steaming nicely along and soon to join the Ob is the Lena. Both those ships are bigger than the Kista.
We’re all looking out for Russians!
*The Soviet Union sent a much bigger presence than any other nation participating in the International Geophysical Year. We don’t know it yet but Mirnyy will be the first of nine Soviet Antarctic bases built by 1959 and the first of a network of science-city homes for armies of academics and scientists, pushing out the borders of Soviet territorial claims. Later this year the Soviets will establish a little honeymoon village and export young couples to have babies who’ll be the first real Antarctic citizens. They’ll begin a real colonisation of Soviet Antarctic territory, right in the middle of the Australian Antarctic Territory. We’ll hear about it only when it ends in tragedy.
21 January 1956.
Heat wave! The temperature has soared to 35°F (which is 1°C.) and everyone is complaining about how hot it is! We must have already acclimatised to Antarctica because we’re having trouble sleeping.
We’re on the move again, heading westwards. This morning the skipper dropped anchor off a little island and Syd went ashore with Peter McGregor, the geophysicist. Lewis Islet is a bare rock outcrop with ice cliffs and we could all see Peter and Syd, with their heavy packs laden with of surveyors equipment, climbing to the top.
Last night some of us were out watching the ship gliding and crunching through the heavily piled ice and I got a chance to ask Syd what his job is. “Why do we need a surveyor in Antarctica?” I asked him. “There aren’t any accurate maps of Antarctica,” he said. Except for little bits of coastline, no-one knows anything about it. So today at Lewis, he is trying to get an astrofix to ‘lock’ the rock feature in place so that everyone can see where it is with reference to the stars. “With an astrofix begins the possibility of creating an accurate map over any extensive area because it allows the ‘fixed’ features to be plotted on the world-wide grid of latitude and longitude”.
This astrofix at Lewis Island will be Syd’s first Antarctic astrofix so he is excited. Syd’s astrofix will be added to a handful taken by earlier parties over a hundred years but he is hoping to add a dozen or so this year. International good practice in mapping requires an astrofixes at every degree of latitude and the equivalent distance apart in longitude, along the coasts and inland. In most places of the world, a surveyor (and the booker recording the numbers as the surveyor peers through a theodolite) required three or four hours to observe an astrofix but in Antarctica it will be slower.
Astrofixes are taken from the highest point of the landscape and in Antarctica, the gales at the top of a mountain and the surveyor’s shivering bumps the equipment. So it takes hours to obtain enough observations for a fix. It takes longer in summer because the sun is above the horizon for up to twenty-four hours a day, so only the brightest stars are visible for observation. Sometimes he will be forced to use a much less accurate technique of observing the sun for a minimum of six hours to obtain satisfactory geometry of the fix.
*Syd Kirkby went to Antarctica to observe astrofixes and, in his first expedition, he completed eighteen. From Lewis Island in the East to Amundsen Bay in the west, almost 5000 kilometres of crevassed icy terrain lie between them.
Monday 16 January 1956. Since Tuesday we’ve been stuck in the pack ice so this might be a good time to learn more about our little red ship the Kista Dan. When ANARE chartered the Kista Dan in 1954, on a two-year contract, it was by far the best vessel they’d ever had. It’s not an ice-breaker but an 1A1 class, ice-strengthened cargo ship. The ship is Danish and so are the crew. Securing the Kista meant that, by 1954, ANARE was ready to establish Mawson Station, the first permanent base in the Antarctic mainland. It’s been occupied ever since the first party arrived in 1954.The ship’s crowded, especially in the fo’castle where the winter expedition is housed. The other twelve travellers who are doing the round trip are in the best cabins inside the ship but the winterers are stuck out in the cold, in the extreme front of the pitching ship, sharing one toilet and two showers. Eight days into the trip, the pipes froze solid, and the fo’castlers had to use the facilities in the aft superstructure by scrambling up and over hundreds of drums of aviation fuel and building materials lashed onto the main deck in mountainous piles. With the sea raging over the icy foredeck, the “fortunate fourteen” became far too familiar with the cargo nets rigged above the bulwarks to sieve out the humans as the water frothed back over the side. The expeditioners share the kitchen with the Danish crew. Our chef, Jock McKenzie, is assisted by a rotating band of “slushies,” as he prepares the meals for the twenty-six Australians. Positioned in the poop deck, at the extreme aft of the main deck, the kitchen is protected by a half-metre-high step-through metal hob, designed to hold back the green walls of water that lob onto the main deck. The ship regularly rolls 60˚ each side of the vertical and pitches twenty metres at a time so the cooking teams get extremely wet. Poor Jock is more irritated by his slushies’ inability to understand his broad Scottish accent. Sometime he sends them off for items for the pot and they return from the below-deck storeroom with creatively misinterpreted items. Not long ago John Hollingshead the radio supervisor came back with a four-gallon tin of currants. He might not have understood every expletive Jock had unleashed, but he understood the general drift. Jock was expecting dried carrots to add to a stew. The skipper hopes we’ll be moving again tomorrow. He is not enjoying the pressure of the ice on his ship.
The first book of the Ice and Fire series (dramatized by HBO as A Game of Thrones) had me entranced from the first page. I had to overcome a deep prejudice against the fantasy genre to read this book but I need not have worried as a powerful writer immediately took me into a world that might have been about 400 years ago, to a continent that might be located somewhere near Mongolia, to a time when summers and winters span decades and the land is divided between the seven kingdoms inside the vast wall and the world beyond the wall. In this book Lord Ned Stark is called by his old friend, King Robert to leave his northern castle and travel to the south to be his Hand, or second in command. Robert has married into the dangerous Lannister family and no one is more dangerous than his beautiful wife, Cersei. The court of King Robert is a nest of vipers and intrigue and very quickly all of Ned’s children (the two girls he took with him to court and the four sons he left behind with his wife) are all in deep danger. I bought a seven-book boxset of Martin’s books and I’m trying (unsuccessfully) not to race through them because then they’ll be finished and I won’t have them to look forward to any more. Martin writes beautifully and poetically. There are a lot of characters to follow, with each chapter following the next stage in the lives of three Lannisters, eight Starks, as well as Dani, the daughter of the deposed “Mad King”. I didn’t get lost because I’d seen the first two seasons of the HBO dramatization but I suspect it would be a good idea to put the book aside for holiday reading, just in case the enormous cast is confusing. I loved it and the next three and I’m happily consuming book four as I write this.
Friday 13 January 1956.
This morning we received a radio message from the British ship Theron that they are stuck in pack ice in the Weddell sea. The Americans radioed that they were close by and should be able to assist within a fortnight. The big news is that the Russians have landed.
Syd Kirkby, our surveyor recorded this in his diary:
“We should meet the Russians after we finish at Chick Islet. They have landed … and are establishing a base. It is Australian Territory but they don’t seem to be concerned about us. We shall see.”
Meanwhile back in Australia, newspapers recorded the massive Russian presence in Australian Antarctic Territory to a bemused public.