Monthly Archives: June 2014

Mid Winter


SYDNEY-KIRKBYEvery year, the night of 21 June was hallowed. It was the austral solstice—the shortest day and the longest night, midway through the dark winter.

Through the austral dark, the rituals that marked the Antarctic calendar took on deeper meaning.

“Midwinter draws nigh,” Syd wrote on 18 June, with the camp in a fever of activity. The winterers grew reckless and threw open the windows: “unbelievably warm today, got up to -12˚ [Fahrenheit] with a minimum of only -20˚, windows open and bods galloping about indoor, in singlets and shorts. Fine place this Antarctic.”

Haircuts, showers, homebrew-bottling, and rehearsing for the party all added to the excited ferment. On Wednesday, 20 June, the pilot’s suggestion that he and Syd have a friendly boxing round ended badly: “Old Dougie is not looking too good. I guess my punching is a bit uncontrolled. I knew I had split his eyebrow and lip but did not realise I had made such a mess of his eyes and nose.”

In 1956, the solstice moon was round and ruby red, aloft over a windless world.

Celebrations started with hors d’oeuvres and sherry at five, followed by rounds of champagne toasts to dear ones throughout the five-course feast.

In candlelit Biscoe, they sang and told jokes, argued, and solved the world’s problems. They were in Antarctica in the middle of winter, and life in the freezer was thrilling. As the alcohol flowed, one by one the casualties stumbled off to bed. Jock McKenzie, in the midst of illustrating an argument, punched himself in the eye and retreated to his bunk in embarrassment. At eight next morning, the seven who were left went for a moonlight weasel ride and sang some more, then came back and played Monopoly. Two days later, snow fell in drifting flakes, and the whole camp was covered in knee-deep powder.


Mrs Miniver and the Comrades from Mirnyy


Remember the phenomenon of the Rocky Horror Picture Show movie? For years, the quirky musical about a drag queen alien attracted crowds dressed as their favourite character. Throughout the movie the audience would shout the lines and at key scenes, items would fly through the air. References to drinking a toast, for example, produced an avalanche of burnt toast. So it was quite common for popular cultural theorists to declare it the first audience participation movie.

VHS-coverWell, it wasn’t so. There was at least one before it, and it took a hold of the little crew of expeditions at Mawson and, in the height of the cold war, brought the bulky Russians, clutching slabs of vodka, over to visit from Mirnyy Station Base.

Every Saturday night was a formal dinner (complete with shirt, tie, and jacket), followed by movies that were accompanied by lashings of home brew.  Some Saturday nights were more important than others, and the nights that Mrs Miniver was shown, were the most popular of all.

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.

Best loved of all, starring Greer Garson, was MGM’s 1942 classic Mrs Miniver. Adored by Mawson winterers until the 1980s, the WW II propaganda film was also for many years the favourite film choice of the visiting Russians. The Mrs Miniver movie show was especially elaborate: everyone would drink outrageously, the projectionist would switch off the sound, and the audience would roar the dialogue. There are stories a plenty of the projectionist being so drunk he didn’t notice as the film unwound onto the ground and had to be hastily regathered onto the spools, giving everyone time to recharge their glasses. There are even stories about the vodka running out and the enterprising Russians reappearing with aviation fuel. It’s a wonder anyone could remember any of the lines in the movie, but many of the Polyrniks of Mawson can still drag out line after line of that wonderful movie.

Brown paper and amber brew


Making Mead

Throughout the year Antarctic bases sizzled with rituals to mark the passing of time. Drinking and brewing alcohol were important to camp life. Every Sunday morning three volunteers detached themselves from other duties to lay down and bottle the previous week’s fermented home brew.

In 1956, Mawson was victualled from the navy store, and as they worked their way through the supplies, they found that they had seven tonnes of honey and vast quantities of abrasive, brown, military toilet paper.

The scientists calculated that if each of the four seats in the lavatory were used for twenty-four hours a day, their toilet paper supplies would meet requirements for several years.

The proper use for the honey was obvious. John Bunt’s mead was a triumph, although it was never as popular as beer.

The Wyart Earp

Images from Wikipedia, attributed to anon, Australian War Memorial

Images from Wikipedia, attributed to anon, Australian War Memorial

If you clicked on the image of the Weekly‘s coverage of the intrepid explorers setting out on the Wyatt Earp in 1947 (in the last post) you might like some background on the little wooden ship.

The American millionaire Lincoln Ellsworth made three expeditions in the 1930s in Wyatt Earp, a Baltic pine herring boat reinforced with an iron hull. His last tour inspired a small article in the Canberra Times on Wednesday, 19 February 1936, repeating his prediction that “the work of mapping and surveying from the air and on the ground” of the Antarctic region “would take 100 years.” Hubert Wilkins, an Australian trans-Arctic pilot (who made the first Antarctic flight on 16 November 1928) was the expedition manager of that trip, and, on the brink of the second world war, he convinced the Australian government to buy (and mothball) Wyatt Earp. By the time it was returned to active duty after the war, it bore the gently wry nickname: The Twerp.

When The Twerp did make its trip back to Antarctica in 1947, Phil Law, was aboard. I interviewed Phil in 2004, and he told me how ANARE came to use the little wooden ship.

PL:  Hubert Wilkins. Sir Hubert Wilkins came to Australia and I met him. He told me he had a lot of equipment left over from Lincoln Ellsworth’s Wyatt Earp expedition to Vestfeldt Hills And he had, when he came back to Australia, Ellsworth so much disliked the Wyatt Earp’s rolling and pitching and discomfort that he gave the whole ship to Sir Hubert Wilkins and said, ‘I never want to see it any more’.

War was just breaking out so Sir Hubert Wilkins sold it to the Australian navy for 10,000 pounds. And he put all the gear on it into a store in Sydney on the assumption that on some date in the future he’d come back and run another Antarctic Expedition.

… Without knowing what was there I said, ‘I’ll give you 300 pounds for it.’

So I arranged for army transport to bring it down to Melbourne and was absolutely astonished at the value of what I got: there were two cinecameras and one ordinary camera; one theodolite; a lot of clothing (gloves, anoraks, underwear); various other objects (binoculars, for example); all sorts of stuff. And I used the clothing, not for any of our expedition winterers (they got the standard equipment) but I put this Wilkins clothing aside for use by summer trippers. So anyone who went down on a voyage only would get Wilkins clothing on loan, which would go back into store again.

And a remarkable thing happened: one of the American observers with us was a famous American expeditioner called Ike Slushback. Ike was in his sixties. He had one eye and a glass eye in the other one.  At parties he would take his glass eye out and put in another one with a Union Jack on it, a horrifying sight, to engage with a bloke with a Union Jack looking out of one eye. Slushback was going down to Mawson on a journey, so we issued him with one of the Lincoln Ellsworthequipment from Hubert Wilkins and Slushback was fitted with something that fitted him and he came back the next morning and he said ‘Hey Phil, have a look at this’. And he rolled back the collar of the anorak George Smith had lent him. It had Ike Slushback written across it. It was the one that he used when he was with Lincoln Ellsworthin the Antarctic Peninsular, quite an amazing coincidence.

Phil also had a follow up on the 1947 Wyatt Earp trip. Not long after they left Melbourne the little wooden ship developed engine trouble so they had to return to Australia. After all the media attention about the trip they were too embarrassed to pull in at the Melbourne wharf, so they sailed on to Sydney and had the repairs done there quietly, and then they slunk off again to Antarctica. It was a totally inadequate vessel for the trip and they never did make it to the continent, as Phil explained:


PL:    Yes, because, well, personally I’d seen two extreme examples of Antarctica. I went down in 1947-48 on a little ship, the Wyatt Earp, down near where Mawson was in the early part of the century.

I didn’t actually see the continent because we couldn’t get through the pack ice but we had a good look at the Bellini Islands. HMAS_Wyatt_Earp_AWM301755

I love you I love you I love you


print front coverThe Australian Women's Weekly (1933 - 1982), Saturday 8 NovemberGetting messages from family was crucial to morale at Mawson Station. They came in on the air, floating in on invisible waves  through coded signals.

The expeditioners were all allocated just one hundred seventy-five words a month of coded telegram each—received or sent. It wasn’t exactly a lexicon designed to foster the intimate nuances of a relationship—especially as everybody knew what everybody else was saying. Phil Law, the ANARE director had had quite a struggle to prise even these meagre allocations out of the Department of External Affairs.

Until 1950 ANARE parties had to pay for their own telegrams, something the Australian Woman’s Weekly found downright mean-spirited. The reporters in the Weekly pushed hard for the daring expeditioners in Antarctica, which is how they saw them. They began a campaign, in 1947 in a double page-spread, explaining the scientific and mapping role of the Australian National Antarctic Expedition which ended with a call for a more generous allocation for communication between Antarctica and Australia.

 Arrangements are also being made for men to beam private messages home when the radio is not too busy. However, every time a lonely man feels like saying ‘I Love You, I Love You, I Love You’ to a wife or sweetheart it will set him back three bob! G.P.O. takes the view that these intrepid Antarctic dwellers are still officially civilians.


back to The Wyatt Earp

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Bob Dovers in the Women's Weekly ... again.

Bob Dovers in the Women’s Weekly … again.

The humans in the dark


Weather radar Mt KingIn 1956 there were a lot of theories being tested on the human body in the dark. During the first week of winter the team at Mawson were surprised by three days of quite lovely weather, and although the days were dark, they set about cheerfully, repainting the burnt office, changing cracked windows and painting and replacing charred wood inside. They were all eagerly looking forward to the mid-winter party and the diaries were quite pre-occupied with reports on how the home grown beer was progressing.

Each team of brewers is out to beat the last lot. Haggis and I are the due to put down a batch each of Emu and Swan next Sunday,” Syd reported. He was looking forward to his 23rd birthday as well.

Then on Friday 8th June 1956 a blizzard blew in ‘at an astounding rate it was calm and clear at nine and by ten we had a two poler. It is quite a refined blizzard really but enough to remind us that such things do exist so we had better be careful.”

The doctor had them all experimenting with a UV lamp to see if it could help maintain high morale, or indeed, help with the disturbed sleep patterns that seemed to accompany the dark winter months in Antarctica.

It certainly helped with Syd’s frost bite and offered the advantage of nice tans.

Got a bright idea this afternoon and tried a dose of UV on my hands and feet. The fact that my face came good after a couple of general basks made me think it may clean hands and feet up. The feet are really stinking mess, all the dead frost-bitten skin is coming off and seems to be sort of rotting away. My hands are drier but not really much better. The twice weekly dose of UV makes me feel a ball of muscle, probably partly psychological but I think it must be good for us. Besides it is better to see reasonably healthy tanned bodies around the place rather than the ugly pasty things we were a month ago.

The husky bitches seemed to come into season more often in the dark of winter and that caused problems for the nightwatchman as the males, even carefully staked at a safe distance from each other, were forever fighting.

But the little team of scientists settled into the winter’s dark at Mawson in good cheer. They were quite cramped in their accommodation but so far, their morale was high. There were no stories in the Australian newspapers about Antarctica for all of June so they had good reason to think they’d been forgotten and they might have felt that way, were it not for the coded messages coming in by relayed messages from Macquarie Island.

Of course it was still very early in the winter. The deep gloom did eventually get them all, even the cheerful young surveyor, but for now, the team at Mawson as happy chappies, full of good will to all men, and looking forward to the rest of their expedition.




1956 Obituary  photo

As the long darkness descends, lethargy disrupts sleep patterns in Antarctica. “It is easy to see why animals hibernate,” Syd noted at the beginning of June. A few days later he added: “With no sun and very short hours of light, it is becoming increasingly difficult to get up each morning. Also without light, the cold seems much more antagonistic.”  Only two days passed before he was conceding in his diary that “I must be a sun-operated mechanism because, with the retreat of the sun, I have found it daily harder and harder to whip myself to work.”

From the first day of winter, the team began to be obsessed with the rituals that mark the passage of time. The Saturday party nights (the ding nights, in Antarctic parlance) were eagerly awaited.  Planning for the winter solstice celebration took over more and more of the day.

In Antarctic stations, the solstice celebration is as important as Christmas Day, even though the winterers are only a third of the way through their expedition. In the grip of the perpetual winter dark, the stations are blighted by low morale. The lowest emotional and physiological ebb is in August for, by then, it has been dark and cold for far too long.

On the first day of Winter, Syd sent off his monthly message to his fiancé, Joy: WYSSA Joy. (WYSSA was Antarctic code for I love you) There was no reply: “probably run off and married a Chinaman,” was his gloomy prognosis. “WYSSA Mum and Dad.” He had used up his allocated monthly communication.

“It’s getting pretty dark here,” is what he would really have liked to have told them.  You can read more about the ANARE codes hereSyd Kirkby giving a lecture last year