Monthly Archives: March 2014

Weasels in the mountains.

Ice flow baseline, Mt Henderson

Mount Henderson

Mon 26th March 1956

The harbour is finally frozen solid as a rock. By day excited expeditioners can be seen out on the smooth surface, playing football and skating. At night, you can still spot one of two of them out there, marvelling at the full moon and a shower of auroras in orange and pink and green.

What a paradise Antarctica is: “as clear as a bell and as cold as charity”, Syd wrote in his diary.

Our young surveyor is excited. He’s about to take his first field expedition up onto the Plateau. In the morning he will be heading out to the Henderson ranges.

That magnificent range of soaring peaks is clearly visible out the window of the accommodation huts at Mawson station.

Magical they are, because the plateau is white, the world is white, the horizon is invisible and the mountains look like they are suspended, hovering in mid-air.

Syd’s up packing for the trip and trying to keep his personal diary up to date as well. “It’s 1:20 in the morning”, he has written, as he works, “and we’ll be off in the morning”.

In preparation, he and Toby Cooper took the weasels and sleds over western arm and onto the ice, just for a test drive. The weasels are little American tracked, World War II mud and sand vehicles. They are having a hard time of it in Antarctica and Syd hasn’t developed any fondness for them. He’d rather use dogs all the time but there is a sense amongst the senior expeditioners and at ANARE in Melbourne too, that dog teams belong to some antediluvian past while the weasels are modern.

Already the surveyor suspects that the best thing about them is they are orange, so when they break down in the field you can find them again on the way home and know you are still on the right track. He never did revise that opinion and always had his best expeditions with the dog teams.

Time to get to bed Syd!


Bedtime, boy-oh!

Kirkby’s diary:

Well to sleep, in 5 ½ hours I shall be up and about again, as excited as a kid with the prospect of getting over this ridge and onto the Antarctic plateau.”


The best rubbish dump in the world at the Wilkes Hilton


station-distance-mapThere is absolutely no doubt about it. The rubbish dump at Wilkes is the best rubbish dump on earth. It spreads in frozen chaos around the almost buried carcass of what was once the American base, Wilkes station. These days it is about 45 minutes trip in a Haaglunds vehicle, or roughly 7 kilometres from Australia’s Casey station.

Hold onto your Ventile and dog fur hats, dear Time Travellers, because I’m about to leap us backwards to … the summer of 1957. Wilkes station, built in a wind tunnel in the lovely Vincennes Bay, on the Knox Coast, is being unpacked from a hundred packing cases. In accord with International Geophysical Year agreements, the base is being set up and staffed by the United States Navy.

The huskies are being unloaded and staked to the ice. In a couple of years some of the Australian dogs will be added to the gene pool. The famous Australian husky Oscar and his long term girl Mukluk supplied offspring to the Wilkes dog teams.

Wilkes remained in American control, with international scientists and observers included, until the United States withdrew from the Australian Antarctic Territory. The USA, by the way, has never recognised the AAT. The official handover to Australia was on 7th February 1959. In 1969 Wilkes was closed and the Australian expedition moved over to Casey Station.

In January 2008 I was lucky enough to be one of the three Antarctic arts fellows, travelling on the Aurora Australis on voyage four, which was the supply trip for Casey, Davis and Mawson stations. I didn’t spend much time in the bases because, to my undying gratitude, our wonderful guide Vonna Keller organised to whisk us straight out into the field, where we stayed in a cluster of rustic tiny little shacks out in the frozen wilderness of that magnificent continent.

One of the trips was an overnight stay at the Wilkes Hilton, which, by Antarctic field standards, is a positively palatial hut, that used is still used as a transmitter hut. in Antarctica.

I visited it in February 2008t feel at all sympathetic to the lobby to clean up the mess. When the humans withdrew they left all the rubbish behind. Now, frozen in time and semi buried in ice are tens, perhaps hundreds to cakes of butter with their labels still legible, biscuits, tea caddies, and the semi-exposed furry back of a dead husky. Sadly, many of the Wilkes huskies were shot when the humans withdrew from the station so it was probably killed then and left behind on the top of the rubbish dump for the winds. s dream.

Wilkes was built in an impossible position. Even when it was fully occupied, the station was always in danger of being swallowed by the snow driven up the valley by the wind. The US navy had inadvertently made the battle with ice much worse when they installed ingenious underground heating devices which melted the ice. Melted water rose up into the buildings and froze. When I visited Wilkes, every building except one was full of ice with just the elegant wooden struts of the Jamesway hut protruding like a skeleton in the crystal glare.

There is an ‘urban myth’ that a piano is still buried in the ice inside the former recreation hut. Naturally we all tried to peer through the opening in the roof, at the frozen opaque block but the bubbles make it impossible to see anything. Dr Lloyd Fletcher, a long time Antarctic expeditioner, swears that in 1986 he crawled into the tight space through the opening in the roof and he could see not only the piano but also the movie projector, still set up and ready to roll.

What, you may be wondering, has this got to do with our expeditioners, over at Mawson station, 2000 kilometres to the west?

In an earlier post we saw our 1956/7 winterers going out onto the semi frozen ice (having taken the precaution to rope themselves together – united we drown!) That reminded me of another story.

In 2008, travelling on the voyage, was an expeditioner who was returning to Antarctica after a forty-six year gap. Bill Burch was just twenty-two years old when he was appointed to run the Geophysical Observatory at Wilkes in 1961. The departing American penguin expert Ron Penny had  a motor bike at Wilkes, a BSA Bantam 125 cc bike, and young Bill bought it off him and added some home grown modifications. By putting 50 mm brass gutter bolts through the tyres, he relied on the cold rather than air to keep the tyres in an inflated shape and the bolts gave great traction.  Bill couldn’t wait  to test it on the ice. He rode right out onto the semi-frozen harbour with the wind in his hair before he thought to look back. The bolts were hammering puncture marks into the surface behind him and a creek of water was being created in his wake. He rode back very carefully and lived to tell the tale.

Bill is helping the Wilkes historical group keep their website updated and there are lots of photographs and even videos of Wilkes history, but as far as I can see he hasn’t yet posted the story of his ride on the ice. It’s a good site. Have a look.

Update on book publication


I’ve just updated the home page of Quills and now it features the front cover of Fixing Antarctica. If you click on home, you’ll see it.

The cover illustration is drawn from a huge hyperrealist portrait of Syd, painted by Tom Macbeth. The original was purchased by Syd’s old school, Hale School in Western Australia. Tom kindly gave me permission to use the portrait as a cover.

Tom is an internationally recognised, multi-award winning, self taught, Australian artist working in oils. He focuses on photorealistic portraits and has been a finalist in both the prestigious Archibald Prize and it’s associated Salon Des Refuses as well as the Black Swan Prize.

You can see other photographs of Tom painting this portrait of Syd, which he entered in the Archibald Prize competition and see other example of his work on his website:!/page_servicesTom

Gardenia slurpies and primrose ice.

Pretty soon these lovely colours will be brightening up the brown science labs.

Pretty soon these lovely colours will be brightening up the brown science labs.

Friday 16th March.The Harbour is freezing. There has been a noticeable drop in the temperature and two-thirds of Horseshoe Harbour has frozen. The ice is about six inches thick already. The rest is a thick crunchy brash, not unlike a slurpy. The scientists need a frozen harbour … in the first place they can’t wait to ski – no, literally, they can’t wait.

They’ve been out there all roped together giving it a try already. It’s not rocket science guys! It’s NOT ready.

Apart from the need to ski, the planes will be using the frozen harbour as the airstrip, so they can’t do any exploration yet, until they can get the planes in the air. The four huts are finished and painted.

Saturday 17th March.

They found three cases of paint, so painting everything brown wasn’t necessary after all.  As soon as the walls dry they’ll repaint them with the new colours: blue, yellow, primrose, gardenia (sounds like the 1950s doesn’t it?)

Sunday 18th March 1956.

There goes the nice smooth bay ice for skating on. The wind came up during the night and smashed the sea ice to a jumbled mass of brash. At 8 o’clock at night the generator broke down.

Syd’s diary can take over as the rest of us went to bed:

Lin (Lionel Gardner) asked me to give him a hand to pull the fuel pump off and do it up. It is now 1215 p.m. and I have just crept into bed after sixteen hours toil. I hope it is foul tomorrow and I can rest with a clear conscience. I don’t think I will be able to get up early anyway.


What do mature scientists do on a Saturday night in Antarctica?

The bunks inside the dongas all looked like this, but this is the special one for the OiC. He had his own desk.

The bunks inside the dongas all looked like this, but this is the special one for the OiC. He had his own desk.

Why, they pull out their weighty and learned science text books, brush up on their quantum physics and double check all their instruments are working before retiring early to do the same again on Sunday. Yeah, right!

Let me set the scene in this little base in Antarctica for our first Saturday night in early March 1957.

There are twenty scientists and mechanics and the cook. The Kista  docked on  Friday 17 February 1956 and left 12 days later. (1956 was a leap year).

While the departing team was packing and getting on the ship, the wintering team was unpacking the cargo holds and getting off the ship and there were several days of blizzard when none of the above was happening.

At the time Mawson station was composed of Biscoe Hut. The  A-frame Norwegian hut arrived with the pioneers in 1954 and served as mess hut, kitchen and accommodation. The first team in 1954 also brought four dongas that served as laboratories, and the power station where the diesel generator was housed. It supplied electricity to all five huts until it burnt down in 1959.

Bisco had eight square metres of space. The 1954 pioneers put five bunks down each side, an AGA stove and sink at the western end, a table in the centre and there was a porch on the eastern end which contained the toilet and meteorological equipment. That was pretty cramped but there were only 10 of them.

I’m not sure if the1955-6 winterers brought any buildings with them (perhaps someone can write in and tell me).

Our 1956-7 winterers were positively bristling with buildings. The 1957 winterers are a team of 20, so their priority was to find the packing cases which contained the four pre-fabricated laboratory and accommodation huts.  Three days after they arrived, on 20 February 1956, Syd Kirkby reported that the huts were “going up like steam. The blokes put up the outside shells of two today and another two days should finish them, afraid the hangar will be a different story.”

Inside each of these tiny, the prosaic, bolted together, plywood dongas, six men slept in two rows of triple decker bunks.  The doctor slept in the surgery, which was also a donga. No doubt you’ve already done the maths. They hadn’t been planning on having twenty in the party, so someone had to sleep in the cold porch of one of the huts. There are only so many places where pee bottles can be stored so it wasn’t a great honour to be the man on the porch.

The new buildings allowed Biscoe Hut to become just the mess hall.  It was lit through four skylights or at night by a thin stream of electric lights.  Biscoe is lovely again thanks to the restoration work of the heritage carpenter Mike Staples who began restoration work on it from ruin in 2006. I was extremely lucky to be chosen as an Arts Fellow in the 2007/08 season and it already looked wonderful then.

The 1957 winterers also brought with ANARE’s first and the pre-cut metal plane hangar. For years the plane hangar was the biggest building in Antarctica and it was all put together by the 1957 winterers, none of whom had been employed as builders. They worked with with spanners in roaring winds, without any heavy machinery.

They started the hangar while the Kista was still in harbour, while two other teams worked on the dongas.  On the Sunday, 26 February 1956, under an overcast sky driven, in intermittent forty-knot winds, the metal plane hangar began to take ghostly form: with “one bay up and the mast moved to the second position.”  The planes were stored on the ship for as long as possible to protect them against the weather. The hangar was finished in March.

So back to my opening question. What do you think this team of overworked winterers did to celebrate their first Saturday in Antarctica?

On that, as with every Saturday night, there was a formal dinner (complete with shirt, tie, and jacket), followed by movies that were accompanied by lashings of home brew. That year the camp had ten feature-length films to last the year, supplemented by wartime propaganda films on how to build spitfires, how to defeat the beastly Germans, and how to gain the advantage in hand-to-hand combat. From the BBC came a collection of greatly-loved, shellac audio disks of Churchill’s wartime speeches.

On that first Saturday night, on Sat 10th March 1956, it was Jim McCarthy’s birthday. After the dinner, they pushed back the tables and played  insanely boisterous indoor football. That night it was “Rugby versus Australian Rules. In the morning the doctor cheerfully dealt with: a cut cheek, a split lip, a cut requiring two stitches over one eye, a swollen nose, one black eye, and a ‘marked face.”

“I guess we will make this a regular ding feature, I reckon it is the best way in the world to help a mob living happily together, we work off steam that otherwise may come out as blues and being as we are, the more we knock each other about the better mates we become,” was the young surveyor’s philosophical summary of the event.

Handel’s Water Music meets a Darlek


keymaticProfileJPEGorigThe Kista has gone and the team are settling into a happy rhythm knowing they’ll be here for fifteen months. “It’s our show now!” is how Syd Kirkby felt as he watched the little red Danish vessel disappear over the horizon on 1 March 1956.

As there are twenty expeditioners, everyone will have a turn at nightwatchman, except the chef. In a nineteen-day cycle, it will be someone’s duty to stoke the night fires and watch over the sleeping station.

It’s a rare treat they will all come to love for the night watchman can do their laundry in a little Hoover washing machine. Many of you will remember these twin tub machines. They noisily tied  clothes in knots as they rattled and vibrated, effectively walking themselves around the laundry like little darleks.

Alone in the frozen night, the nightwatchman checked the instruments, and visited the dogs staked outside in the cold. The rituals affected each man differently, but for all of them, the pleasure of the hot bath due exclusively to the keeper of the night fires made the solitary duty a privilege and pleasure. The water that was melted around the diesel generator exhaust pipes ran through a tank and heated enough water to fill a deep tub. Syd’s diary entries as night watchman were his most lovely for there was time to play classical music loudly and think philosophical thoughts. Syd’s first watch was on 6 March, 1956 and here is a brief excerpt from his diary:

 Tuesday 6th March 1956

Impressions as night watchman.

 It is 3.30 and I am sitting in the mess playing Handel’s Water Music. I reckon tonight I will run through that and Brandenburg concerto no 5. It is rather pleasant sitting alone with music and one’s thoughts … what a fantastic place this is. Just before I came in there had been a burst of strength four aurora. Great green-white bands undulating across the sky with rays bursting from them towards the zenith. The air is as clear as a bell, I’ve seen stars twinkle the way they do here. It is breathtaking with the moon and the aurora lighting the scene up. There’s our little group of huts sitting on the bare rock with the bay in front and behind the towering white mass of the ice cliffs to the plateau. The wind is whistling round the huts and their guys and moaning through the wireless mast. It is like a gigantic discordant wind orchestra.


Not all heroes are humble!


Sunday 3 March 1957.

A lot has happened in between blogs so I’ll briefly fill you all in: the blizzard passed; the crew worked like dogs and the ship was unpacked; Phil got in everyone’s way with his ubiquitous movie camera, and the Kista will leave tomorrow.

More about the 1956-57 winterers in a minute: right now I want to tell you a bit more about Phil Law, the long term Director of Australia’s Antarctic Research Division.

Phillip Law was a University of Melbourne physics graduate who was appointed as the chief scientist, then as director of science division of the expedition and then as Director of Antarctic Division. The Division was established inside the Department of External Affairs in May 1948. The director was a senior public servant and his budget was controlled by the DEA.

Instantly there was tension with the arrangement because Phil didn’t like to back down and the bureaucrats in External Affairs made it a personal mission to cripple his budget and curtain his expeditions. Even after the Menzies government signed on as one of the eleven original participants of the IGY, Canberra’s commitment was never accompanied by generous funds.

So Phil became quite a talented rag and bone man. Let’s take the example of the dogs:

Ever wondered how Australia came by a team of healthy breeding huskies?

In 1948 a ship bringing twenty-one Greenland dogs to the new French base in Adelie Land was forced to turn around due to heavy pack ice and the captain returned to Tasmania. It was illegal to import huskies into Australia so the dogs were scheduled for destruction.  Phil stepped in with a solution: put the dogs in the Melbourne Zoo under quarantine until a new French station was constructed. Then he told the media what he’d done and of course letters poured in to save the poor dogs. From March to December 1949 the huskies waited and some beautiful puppies were born and it was the pups who were sent off to the Australian research station on Heard Island to breed or, as Phil put it, until such time as we got an Antarctic expedition together.”

He did that sort of thing over and over. That’s how ANARE came by Norwegian huts; the aircraft, and the weasels. But even so, with all his talents, he still had a terrible time doing his job with the ‘bean counters’ as he called the public servants who strangled his budget.

Early in the summer of ’54, Phil dropped off ten men, thirty-one dogs, three weasels, one tractor, and two caravans to establish Mawson Station and spend the winter. By the time he got back to Australia early in 1955, the accountants of the DEA had stepped in and frozen his budget for the following year. Phil’s last visit with Syd was in October 2005. He was small and frail by then (and as deaf as a post), but he still burned with the ornery passion and intense intelligence that had driven him all his life. He still wore that sharp Lenin goatee. He told me about this particularly difficult year with the bean counters:

A lot of the equipment I had to purchase was from overseas. I had to lodge orders before August, before I had the budget. So I was taking a risk of spending government money that I didn’t have to lodge orders in London for equipment to be brought out to Australia for the following year. And when you think how stupid it was; they should have given me authority for the following year’s budget in April. Think of this: if I hadn’t got the money we’d have had ten men down in Antarctica who couldn’t be brought back to Australia. It was obvious they had to be brought back, so we had to have a budget. But the Commonwealth Public Service procedures were so slow. It took all that time to confirm anything.

The tussle was carried out in private, while publicly, the government claimed to be totally supportive of Australia’s commitment to the International Geophysical Year research project and to our ongoing presence in Antarctica.

"Old blokes remembering" is what Syd called this lovely study of the two of them at a mid-winter dinner. Phil was in his nineties by then and they'd been friends for half a century.

“Old blokes remembering” is what Syd called this lovely study of the two of them at a mid-winter dinner. Phil was in his nineties by then and they’d been friends for half a century.

Now to get you back to Mawson station in March 1956. I told a little fib.

The Kista has actually left already, on 1 March, 1956.

By then the winterers were well and truly exhausted and very happy to see the ship steaming off through the crunchy sea water of the almost frozen harbour. Syd Kirkby recorded his feelings in his diary that first night after the Kista disappeared over the horizon:

 Thurs 1st March 1956.

 Well, here we are in our own station, it is our show now. She’s a cold old night. I am lying here in my new bunk, looking through my window and the moon and the shadow of the plateau, blue and clear. For the first time since we arrived the wind died down below 20 knots, just as well, I was beginning to doubt if the wind would ever stopped blowing.