Monthly Archives: February 2014

Meet Phil Law

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Phil posing as a 'heroic' Antarctic explorer

Phil posing as a ‘heroic’ Antarctic explorer

While you are all recovering from indigestion from having experimented with my helpful recipes for Toad in the Hole (not to mention the enthusiastic rave I supplied about the nutritional and culinary riches of the dish) I want you to meet Phil Law.

Without him, without this difficult, arrogant, courageous man, I have absolutely no doubt that the Australian government would have turned its back on the Australian Antarctic Research project and left the territory for all the other nations who wanted it. I share this conviction with all the pioneers who took the baton passed to them by Sir Douglas Mawson and established Mawson station, then Davis Station and then Casey station, the three major stations in the A.A.T. We all have no doubt at all about the debt we owe Phil, so thank goodness for difficult, arrogant, bloody-minded people!

It’s Saturday 25th February 1956, and we’re still waiting for the blizzard to pass so we can unload the ship. Hans Christian is still pacing, roaring and proclaiming to everyone who is not horizontally vomiting in their heaving bunks, that without a doubt he’ll have this ship out of the ice by …. Whether it is unloaded, whether the expeditioners are on the ship or off, whether last year’s winterers have managed to get themselves and their luggage aboard. He will not risk his ship in the pack ice for any reason. (Another difficult courageous character was Hans Christian Petersen).

Phil is horizontal as he was always totally prostrated by sea sickness so it is a good time to talk about him behind his back because believe me, I won’t get a word in edgewise once he is up again.

Burial at sea today.

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Tuesday 21th February 1956 to Friday 24th February 1956.

On Tuesday an Antarctic blizzard blew in. We gamely battled on with our quest to unload the ship but in 40 knot winds the biggest impression we made was in memberships of the swimming club. We were deluged with new members.

Once the winds exceeded 60 knots we accepted defeat but we hadn’t managed to get off the ship when the gusts began to exceed 95 knots. At that speed the wind is strong enough to hurl rocks through the air, so we made a hasty retreat.

On Wednesday 21st we were blizzard bound all day but our spirits were elevated (possibly to hysteria) when Mack attempted a new culinary dish for lunch.

I’ve hinted in previous posts that Toad in the Hole is part of Antarctic heritage.  Mack is Scottish so he was attempting a cross-cultural exchange and he produced something that was uncannily similar to door mat.

I’ve put some recipes up so you can all have a try at this peculiar, traditional English cuisine. You vegetarians aren’t spared (that wouldn’t be fair). You’ll see that during the first world war, this was one of the scandalous ways housewives wasted lentils!

Eight intrepid expeditioners rose to the occasion and declared our lunch worthy of burial at sea. Out we went, into the howling wind and pelting snow. We read a passage from The Admiralty Manual of Seamanship with the ‘body’ sewn up in a tea towel covered in an Australian flag. With a three gun salute affected by busting three inflated paper bags, the body was reverently nudged off the cutting board and we all hurtled back inside before we got frost bite.

Then we plied the chef with generous lashings of Scotch and Carlsberg. The poor man was in grief! He was down on his knees howling beside the stove … although it could have been the grog he consumed while we were freezing our ears off on the deck.

The latest weather bulletin has the barometer steady with the wind at 65 gusting to 80. I hope we can get a bit of unloading done tomorrow. The clock is ticking and Hans Christian is pacing ominously.

Here’s to Toad in the Hole … long may it sink below the frozen ocean and let’s hope dinner is better (although with the state Mack’s in there is some doubt there).

Possibly as part of the civilian duty to sacrifice creature comforts for the war effort, Toad in the Hole recipes abounded.

In WW1, possibly as part of the civilian duty to sacrifice creature comforts for the war effort, Toad in the Hole recipes abounded.

Gales and Blizzards … and that’s just the Captain’s mood.

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The dongas had seen better days but they were still there when I visited Mawson in 2008.

The dongas had seen better days but they were still there when I visited Mawson in 2008.

The Captain, Hans Christian Petersen has been roaring for days, at anyone foolish enough to be spotted by him. By Wednesday 15 February we were in the grip of a mighty blizzard. Just sixty miles out from Mawson and the ship was hurled around on the icy sea, bobbing like a cork with the contents of our cabins showering down on us. It’s during conditions like this that the skipper earns his keep but my goodness; no-one could accuse Hans Christian of being a pleasant-tempered soul.Fortunately Phil Law is as sick as dog so he had kept out of the skipper’s way because the clash of egos between the two of them doesn’t make for happy company.

We had two days of it, with the ship lurching every which way and most of the crew and passengers confined to their bunks, and then suddenly, at five am on Friday morning, 17 February 1956, we had the call to come up to the bridge.

There was the rising dark bulk of the Henderson, Masson, David and Casey mountains, soaring up in a white landscape. The cliff face behind Mawson is steep and then the plateau is flat and glistening and it gives the impression that the mountains are suspended in the air. Right in front of us is our little camp, our home for the next fifteen months: Mawson station, set below the plateau on a sloping rock horseshoe.

It took the skipper six hours to get into the harbour and drop anchor but by mid-day we were ashore meeting last year’s winterers.

Now we have to unload the Kista using the amphibious D.W.K.S (ducks). We’ve got maybe ten days to do it before the skipper will be taking the Kista out of the ice. We got two loads off the ship that afternoon and then the next day, a beautiful sunny Saturday, we put in eighteen solid hours, working like the hammers of hell all day unloading and we have made a noticeable dent in the cargo.

The surveyor Syd Kirkby has appointed himself secretary of the Antarctic Swimming Club, drawing the certificates for everyone who landed in the harbour. Six intrepid members so far, the funniest being John Hollingshead, who actually managed to give an almighty heave on a load of timber and catapult himself up through the air, over the side and into the icy water. The timber load didn’t move an inch but John was as graceful as an Olympic diver.

It was all hands on deck all Sunday (19 February). We stopped only to take a couple of photographs of some seals who came to visit.

We will have to get a move on, the bay is starting to freeze over from the edges and the water is rolling in slow oily waves.

Plane crash in Antarctica.

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The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957), Friday 10 February 1914 February 1956.

While you were been reading about Harry in the Weekly we negotiated with an enormous iceberg. It appeared on the horizon on Thurs (9th Feb) and in zero visibility and very thick pack ice the skipper made just 300 yards of progress for the next 18 hours.

We’re all a bit edgy because the captain has made it clear that we have about three weeks to get to Mawson, unload, and still give him time to get the Kista out of the ice, or to put this the way the captain does, in three weeks, no matter what, I’m turning the ship back out of the ice. He means whether we are still on the ship and whether we’ve picked up the party who are presently at Mawson. That’s added a layer of stress!

Short of useful things to do the surveyor filled his diary with calculations about its weight, having taken readings to establish its height, length and breadth as shown by radar. It’s about 40 million tons of ice.

As the Kista crew were trying to blast their way through the ice, the message came through on the radio that the American expedition had lost another plane. One of their Otter planes hit bad weather and was forced to crash-land on a mountainous plateau 2,700 feet high. They managed to construct shelter, with three sleeping in the plane and four in a hole dug out under one wing. They lost power to the plane but using a hand-powered radio, the ‘Gibson Girl’, they were able to crank out SOS messages which were picked up back at base.

With limited food supplies but with sled and skis they decided to make for the bay. Meanwhile a search and rescue mission had been launched with planes and helicopters scanning for them. Finally the wreck of the plane was spotted and it was possible to follow the men’s tracks. On the sixth day after the crash the men were air lifted back to base.

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The "Death Plunge"!

The “Death Plunge”!

Friday 10 February 1956.
We’ve spent the day stuck in the ice. The Kista thrashed the propellers but nothing happened. We used four stick of plastic explosives around the bow to blast our way through and it sort of worked, but by lunch time we were caught again. This time the skipper sent men overboard onto the ice. They chopped the ice into blocks and pushed it out of the way with a big stick. Not very high tech, but the ship was sliding gently astern before the people on the ice knew it.

Caught unawares by the movement, the scientists and mechanics were knocked off their feet and ended up in the frozen water. We didn’t lose anyone but Bill Bewsher, the Mawson Officer-in-Charge was a strange deep blue when we got him back on the ship.
In the last post I promised to tell you more about Harry Ayres, the  New Zealand mountain guide who we met saving Phil’s life on 7 January 1956 (http://wp.me/p1TH6b-63 ) and just for good measure, here is a newspaper account of that adventure.
The Australian Women’s Weekly ran a number of features on Harry. As we are intrepid time travellers there is nothing to stop us jumping forward a year to have a look at their feature on Harry in February 1960.

In the Women’s Weekly he was described as the man who ‘taught his friend Sir Edmund Hillary many tricks about mountains’ and as ‘one of the world’s greatest ice-climbers’. He didn’t get the honour of reaching the summit with Hillary but he was right behind him in the support party.

Harry is a lovely man, fully endowed with the courage and team spirit you’d expect of these pioneering Antarctic adventurers and I wish I could tell you that life went well for him, but it didn’t and you’ll have to read the book (Fixing Antarctica) to hear more.

Harry is aboard the Kista with us as a member of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, led by Dr Vivian (Bunny) Fuchs. There is an excellent film available through YouTube of this expedition. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wQ-HmwXBF84

Harry in the Weekly.

Harry in the Weekly.

Edmund Hillary is leading the New Zealand party and Harry will be part of his team. You can read more about that eventful trip in Fixing Antarctica. Harry is heading for Mawson with us to pick up twenty-six of the huskies bred at Heard Island and now living at Mawson. Phil had promised them to the Trans-Antarctic Expedition without any consultation with the Mawson OiC or the surveyor and it’s a fateful decision which almost cost the lives of Syd Kirkby and his party his life. (Yes, of course, you’ll have to buy the book to hear more!).

We’re just wild about Harry.

Let’s drink a toast to the Australian Women’s Weekly!

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cover of women's weekly posterised

Glamour, science and intelligent reporting. The Women’s Weekly was a lone voice commending Antarctic exploration for the sake of science.

6 February 1956.

It’s time to salute to a lone voice. The Australian media were mean spirited about Antarctica.  They pushed the line that at some stage there had better be clear financial returns to justify the expense of maintaining a permanent base in such a godforsaken land.

When the Kista left Melbourne, the Right Honourable Richard Casey (the perceptibly tired and emotional Australian Minister for External Affairs) was amongst the crowd of well-wishers gathered to see them on their way. He gave a stirring farewell speech in which he stressed the scientific importance of our Antarctic project. It was essential for Australia to honour our commitment to the International Geophysical Year, he explained.

Harold Campbell, editor of Melbourne’s broadsheet The Age, covered the Minister’s statesman-like speech like this: “Results Please Mr Casey: Australia Steps Up Antarctic Development”.

So you see what I mean. For the press, Antarctica was a story of minerals and loot.

There was one outstanding exception.

Frank Packer’s full-colour, illustrated magazine, The Australian Women’s Weekly. The reporters at the Weekly loved Antarctica because it was huge and beautiful, because it was a wild frontier, and because the men and women who went there were thrilling and adventurous. Their lead articles were outstanding, both for being informative and for focussing primarily on the scientific significance of the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition.  

The Weekly ran some wonderful features on some of the real heroes of Antarctica.

The first woman to be featured in an Antarctic story by the Women’s Weekly was Radio Australia’s Jocelyn Terry, and the Weekly was there, too, covering the first Australian woman to visit Mawson, when Phil Law’s stylish, artist wife, Nel, was basically smuggled aboard—against DEA orders—in 1961.

They ran a wonderful double-page spread on the pioneering surveyor Bob Dovers, who I’ll write about in more detail as the year progresses and they featured someone who is aboard with us this year, who I’ve mentioned already, and that’s Harry Ayres.  So in the next post, I’ll feature the Weekly’s report on Harry and fill you in a bit, on why we all owe Harry a debt (even if he did take our best dogs to New Zealand).

 

We’ve done our bit for the cold war.

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Friday 3 February 1956.

Russian launch

The Russians arrive and so does the vodka.

We left the Russian base this morning and steamed north-west for a while and now we are caught up in some very dirty weather. A full gale is blowing and ice bergs are crushing up against the ship. Snow is pelting down, there is a white blanket around the ship and we have nil visibility.

More importantly, we all are nursing the mother of all hangovers! Damn the Russians, they are a diabolical lot!

On Monday Phil went over to meet and greet but that night, while he was having dinner at Mirnny, sixteen Russians came over to the Kista for a party. True to all rumours, they really do play drinking games with vodka, and they’ve had a lot more practice than us!

On Tuesday Olik Strogonoff and Constantine, first and second mates of Lena sent a launch over to pick us up and we were rushed about in snowmobiles, fed Vodka out of a silver teapot and fed caviar, smoked salmon and crab meat until we nearly burst.They have women cooks and stewardesses and nurses on their ships and Olik got them to do several dances and songs for us. They were very good.

None of us could understand a word of Russian and they couldn’t understand English but we “paschli-ed!!!” and “cheered!” all day and we’ve all extended our miming skills and done our bit for the cold war.