When good expeditions go bad.


men and dogs15 July 1956


Robbie’s dream that Syd was about to find his vocation as dog food might have been an omen. The trip on sea ice in the winter dark was difficult.

They really had very little idea where they were going. The maps were poorly sketched and Douglas Mawson’s notes show that he thought the islands were about forty miles from Horseshoe Harbour and ten miles out to sea.

Syd and the team sledged out as ghostly forms in the ethereal gold-tone light, aided by a gentle, lunar-ray path. Within hours they thought they were very clever boys indeed! They were pretty sure they’d found the illusive crystal quartz isles.

They conducted block searches (I might describe this in another post) until a dark, rocky outline against a pale horizon, about twenty miles off the coast, revealed the lost islands—lower in the sea than Mawson’s description had suggested.

Sea spray, whipped into a meringue, had coated the rocks and obscured their edges.

The Douglas Islands were an inhospitable campsite but they must have been very tired for they overslept in the morning, and it was almost noon before they were on the move.

The dogs pulled well, and they made twelve miles due north during the afternoon, stopping at a couple of small islands where they “puttered about and got the camp up and started a star observation at five.” They slept well again, but another shambling, uncoordinated decamping had them departing late again, headed for Welch Island. The journey had already taken a day longer than planned.

Then it all went a bit hay-wire.

Heavy ground drift pushed by fifty-knot winds impeded their progress. For a while the dogs ran well, and the men could see through the drift to the peaks on the ranges, but then the wind intensified. The huskies turned their heads away from the blizzard’s blinding fury and refused to pull.

Two men (down on hands and knees, with the lead dog tethered to their belts) performed as lead dogs. Visibility was less than an arm’s length, and they could feel cracks opening as the sea ice swelled. Syd navigated using Mawson’s notes, and after five hours of crawling on the shifting, cracking surface, they felt the land of an islet beneath them. It was “a most inhospitable spot,” skirted by sea ice with a sheer forty-foot cliff face. But they were off the sea ice.

They staked the huskies out, on their nightline, on the footing at the edge of the rock wall. It took time and energy to climb the cliff and almost three hours to get the tent set up and a primus lighted.

They were high up on an exposed tabletop. Their uneasy slumber was interrupted by ferocious gusts snapping the guy ropes. The tent fell inwards with its corner poles flailing. Outside before he was awake, Syd took a serious tumble and fell heavily on an elbow and knee. Through the hectic night they were forced to go out twice more. Briefly, on Wednesday morning, the wind stopped while Peter cooked breakfast, but then “all hell broke loose again.”

The tide crack in the sea ice opened wide, and the ice shoulder around the islet, where the dogs were staked, started to crumble.





About lynettefinch

Dr Lynette Finch. Once I was a poster designer and illustrator. I ran a small poster business called Mantis Prints, specializing in political posters during the odd days of the Bjelke-Petersen Government in Queensland. I’m told my posters hung on the walls of Rizhsky railway station in Moscow, although I’m not sure about that. They are in the collections of the Queensland Art Gallery, on several on-line websites, and in the following book: Lynne Seear and Julie Ewington, eds. Light II, Contemporary Australian Art 1966-2006, Queensland Art Gallery Publishing, 2007, pp. 110-117. In my next incarnation I was a senior lecturer in history. I published books and articles on urban health and feeding people in modern industrial cities, on the Queensland home front in the second world war and the role and history of war propaganda. Sometimes I wrote about Marxism and its impact around the world as well as intimate oral histories of communists in Australia, their experiences in conservative society, their role as social and political radicals in small towns and cities. Once I went through a death phase and wrote about the role of the Coroners Court in colonial society, about abortion and infanticide in nineteenth century cities, and about the role of gossip in policing. My research took a decidedly happier direction when I was granted an Arts Fellowship to Antarctica in the 2007/08 season, as research for a biography about Antarctic surveyor and explorer Syd Kirkby. I bunkered down in a blizzard in Brooke's hut near Davis station and imagined what it was like for Syd, caught for twelve days in a 150-knot blizzard, high in the plateau beyond Mawson in 1960. Some of my books: Australia’s Frontline: Remembering the 1939-45 War. With the rapid escalation of the Pacific War in 1942, Queenslanders suddenly found themselves perilously close to the frontline, especially those in the far north. The book is based on interviews of men and women who worked their farms in the north, some of them Italians and Germans who were interned as enemy aliens. Nevertheless, the book is essentially a story of courage, of community spirit and neighbourliness, and of the public and private war effort of a community facing crisis and loss. Dark Angel: Propaganda in Modern Warfare. This book traces the origins and development of propaganda and media manipulation from the 1800s to today’s ‘spin’ and ‘false news’. Why have governments at war allocated resources to propaganda leaflets, broadcasts, movies and art during major military conflicts? Read the book. You’ll find the answer. The Classing Gaze: Sexuality, Class and Surveillance. Concepts like sexuality and class share the same moment of birth during the nineteenth century as social inquiry turned to analysis of the workings, population growth, thought patterns, economic systems and internal bodily workings of humans (or Man, to be historically accurate). How did these ideological concepts impact in the real world? A great deal, is the short answer, outlined in this book. Young in a Warm Climate: a history of childhood in Queensland is an edited volume about childhood on the Queensland frontiers, at school, at home, in hospitals and other institutions. Fixing Antarctica: Mapping the Frozen South. In 1956, in the height of the cold war, the biggest wintering expedition that Australia had ever sent to Antarctica set out to map the great frozen landmass of Antarctica, driven by official fears that the Soviet Union meant to take the continent for themselves. The fourteen scientists were chosen from a field of hundreds of applicants. The surveyor, the central character in Fixing Antarctica, was Sydney Kirkby. Over the next twenty years, Syd Kirkby explored and map more unknown regions in the world than any other person in history. Earth, Wind and Fire is essentially twelve generations of my father’s mother’s family but it’s much more than that. It’s kind of Game of Thrones without the dragons. It starts with a kidnapped girl in Shelford, Nottinghamshire in the east midlands of England in 1618 and follows an unbroken chain of recorded births, deaths and marriages which spans four centuries until, six generations later, her descendants flee their farms in Ireland and join the diaspora to Australia. Using family stories, family photographs, published diaries and official documents, it’s the interwoven stories of five families struggling to survive amidst the most tumultuous times in European history. What’s next? I’m wandering into the boggy territory of creative fiction, writing a series of crime stories set on King Island, a beautiful windy island in the Bass Strait between Victoria and Tasmania. I’ve finished the first draft of Book One, The Rock. There will be seven, I think. I’m also writing a stand along novel, called The Key Collector. It’s about a World traveller, Angela who settles in a Tasmanian village near her daughter and grandson where she witnesses a car crash that kills three women. Convinced the collision was an act of murder, she digs into the tragic lives of the victims and is mired in a mystery stretching across three continents and reaching into the second world war.

4 responses »

  1. Thought I had better reply to this reading to tellyou what I thought of it it makes good reading in the installment you put out how are you anyway not to cold for you I bet it is with your high cealings to much room for the cold air to circuitlate it is dam cold in this house it is 11 deg Istafford today anyway I had better go and put some meat out for supper tonight it will take forever to defrost

    • Hi Rita, how wonderful to get your comment all the way from freezing Stafford. Thank you for your positive review of my instalment on the trip on sea ice to the Douglas Islands.

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