Tag Archives: Australian Antarctic Territory

The Southern Journey



We have been lying here gazing back at the men of old. They stand like beacons to show us the way, to give us inspiration and patience and hope. I find myself wondering 45if I am worthy to carry the frayed banner they have passed to us. Theirs is the past, ours is the future, how will we show in a hundred—or even fifty or twenty years—one thing is sure those giants of old shall never be eclipsed.

—Syd Kirkby, Personal Journal, 30 October 1956


The expeditioners left with the sun in their faces. Some were walking; others were driving the languorous weasels as they headed towards the steep ascent onto the plateau. The dogs’ plume tails waved like cheerleaders’ pompoms, and the curling white wisps of their breath danced ahead like spectral apparitions. The whole party was excited—this was the major endeavour of their year in Antarctica. The ebullient surveyor had irritated and charmed, been a moody bugger and a cheerful brat; he had been respectfully awestruck and disrespectfully rude, but he was their uncouth youth. He was diligent, talented, and committed, and this was Australia’s most important expedition since Mawson Station was established.

Their destination was the Prince Charles Mountains (now the Northern Prince Charles Mountains), first sighted and photographed by the US Air Force during Operation Highjump in 1947. In 1954, Bob Dovers almost became the first man to reach the range overland. He gazed across a physical divide of treacherous crevassing at the pavilions of soaring peaks, observed an astrofix, and turned back at Peak 7, leaving Weasel Three to become a poignant ellipsis in the ice.


Still waiting

Doug Leckie at the Beaver controls

Doug Leckie at the Beaver controls

Throughout October the team at Mawson Base celebrated the return of the sun with higher spirits and more exploratory forays with the dogs and the weasels out onto the plateau. Still, for Syd it was a time of waiting, for Phil had still not approved the Southern Journey.

On Thursday, 27 October, an exploratory flight in the Auster, this time viewing the terrain of the Edward VIIIth Gulf to the WSW of Mawson, found ‘new bays and a couple of new mountains inland. The main interest though was the last thirty or so miles home with cloud down to the deck’.

On the return trip the plane flew into a blizzard. Heavy cloud, drifting snow and strong winds forced the pilot down, keeping visual contact with the ground. Above the clouds, any descent could be straight into a mountain. Without maps or previous visual sightings, a pilot has absolutely no idea when solid rock might suddenly reach into the sky.

The pilot Doug leckie was pushed so far down that they were flying amongst mountain tops and before the ordeal was over, he was flying below the ice cliff height, over the sea-ice in drifting snow, flying on instruments.

Looking out the right hand side of the aeroplane, trying to remember the coastline from the last time they were down there, Syd was calling to Doug, ‘turn left, turn right’, ensuring they kept contact with the coast.

Losing sight of the cliffs brought the double danger of hitting an iceberg and not being able to re-establish contact with the land. The trip lasted twelve hours and Syd went to bed that night ‘on doses of amphetamine and … a couple of Ronicols’.

1956 Obituary  photo

September wobbles




Okay, so things get a bit wobbly in Antarctica in September, but that no reason for the folks at home to lose their nerve, is it? Is it …. Well, back at home the cold war broke out again …

It might be a good idea to remind you why so many nations had set up bases in Antarctica in 1955-1956.

  • A 1952 proposal for an “International Polar Year” gathered momentum and the International Geophysical Year (IGY) was the outcome.
  • From July 1957 to December 1958, eleven countries funded scientific teams for Antarctic exploration.
  • South Africa became the twelfth country to participate, but its involvement in the IGY was restricted to meteorological and oceanographic investigations using ships and aircraft.
  • Scientists drawn from sixty-seven different nations cooperated in studies of the earth’s gravitational field and Antarctica’s meteorology, geophysics, geodesy, cosmic ray, and ionospheric physics, glaciology, oceanography, and seismology.
  • In 1955 Soviet personnel, ships, and planes set up Mirnyy (“peaceful”) Station in Australian Antarctic Territory.
  • The Australian Director of Antarctic Division greeted them as a Godsend: “once the Russians came into Australian territory, my fight for finance was over because the Cold War was on and the government realised they had to neutralise the Russian presence with an Australian presence.”This was the height of the cold war but even though the world was immersed in the catty diplomacy of the cold war, but this model of global cooperation unfolded from a thousand packing crates with feline grace.

In Antarctica, the Australians and Russians got along very well. The Australians had been greeted warmly by the Russians at Mirrny on their way to Mawson and a series of reciprocated visits would take place over the years. The Russians would always be welcomed at Mawson and the Australians would always enjoy their visits to Russian bases.

But Mirrny was right in the middle of Australian Antarctica (it still is) and there has always been deep disquiet about that amongst some levels of political leadership in Australia.

Many of the nations involved in the IGY research indicated early that they would stay in Antarctica only for a couple of years. The Americans, for example, handed Wilkes station established by the United States in 1957-58 over to handed to Australia in 1959. In 1964 that base became a rubbish dump and the Australian base moved to nearby Casey station.

In September 1956, as Syd and his colleagues emerged from the dark winter, there were dark mutterings in Australia that the Russians might not to home after the IGY.

So a storm of disquiet fluttered through the Australian press and then was forgotten. As September’s dark blended into October’s light, the mini cold war was forgotten and the polyarniks in Antarctica began to plan their excursions into the great unknown frozen wilderness beyond the coastline.



The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), Wednesday 26 September 1



The rays on the horizon.


The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957), Tuesday 11 September

Syd and the Mawson winterers looked eagerly at the crepuscular rays which were beaming weakly from below the horizon, a little higher each morning, staying a little longer each day.

Back in Australia Phil Law was assembling and training the teams for Macquarie Island and Mawson.

Phil was also busy assembling the team for a pioneer settlement in Prydz Bay for Australia’s second mainland base, Davis Station. The incoming relief team would spent ten days finding the site, behind a pebbly beach fronting the Vestfold Hills, off-loading and building a sleeping hut, community hut, engine hut, store hut, balloon-filling shed, and auroral observatory hut and raising the flag. A party of four men would be left there for the winter while the Kista pressed on to Mawson.

Thinking about a team preparing to replace them gave Syd a severe pain in the stomach for they were still confined to base, waiting for the sun to provide more daylight hours to allow plane reconnaissance and, much more importantly, waiting for Phil to approve their major exploration into the inland. The Southern Journey would be Syd’s great exploratory foray into the unknown in Antarctica but through September he had little success in assembling the team to come with him and Antarctic Division had still not approved it.

800px-Antarctic_Region copy

The Theodolites froze

Photo by Richard Ruker. Syd Kirkby using a theodolite in Enderby Land 1960

Photo by Richard Ruker.
Syd Kirkby using a theodolite in Enderby Land 1960

Previously: In the middle of August, Mawson’s OiC (Officer in charge) gave Syd permission to do another short reconnaissance trip out onto sea ice, this time heading west.  Six men were going, this time taking two weasels.

They set off on Thursday 9th August, 1956, and we didn’t hear from Syd again, until Saturday, three days into the journey. He sounded happy enough, but this was sea level surveying. He was to head onto the plateau and up many mountains to carry out his surveying work in Antarctica, but even here, on the sea ice, the problem of frozen equipment and batteries was substantial and slowed his work while he stood in the below freezing winds.

Saturday 11th August

On Saturday we got away by about ten (in the morning) and set sail happily. All went well till we got about twenty miles up and then our troubles started.

We could see … ahead of us … a terrible jumble of pressure ice. .. Decided it was better to push on rather than turn back so we crept gingerly into the midst of it.

It was heart-breaking and weasel-wrecking progress though we were slowly getting nearer to a firm camp. We had a nerve-wracking mile or so while we crept along an open pressure crack as it was the only travellable route.

However dark saw us on the island and getting a brew going so life did not appear too bad despite the rapidly dropping temperature.

By night though, I would have told a very different story.

The temperature had dropped to -67°f   [-55° c]   so work was not a very happy business. I have reduced the observations and they look really nice, I don’t quite know what to do about this business, the results are good but I have to crucify myself to get them.

I had a good deal of strife with the jigger {theodolite] and lighting; one theodolite freezing solid and refusing to move at all. However the other, despite being very stiff, behaved well.

I eventually defeated the cold killing the batteries by getting two lengths of the aerial wire and making long leads so that the batteries could stay in the weasel where they had a cooker going. In bed by twelve and poured a hot milk and honey into myself plus a couple of Ronicobs and slept like a log.


What do you do with a restless surveyor?


 In the second week of August, still fretting over who would be going with him on the Southern Journey, and still waiting for Phil to give permission for that trip to proceed, Bill gave Syd permission to do another short reconnaissance trip out onto sea ice, this time heading west.

Six men were going, this time taking two weasels. I’ve never seen Bill’s diaries but I get the impression he’d have given Syd permission to mount a lunar expedition if it meant getting the restless young surveyor out of everyone’s hair for a while. Just for good measure, Syd was scheduled to take the night watch before he set out.


This is Richard Ruker's photograph of a much later expedition in 1960 but you can see the size of the weasels

This is Richard Ruker’s photograph of a much later expedition in 1960 but you can see the size of the weasels

Tues 7th August 1956

 The day was rather knocked about by last night’s watch. Got up at midday, ate and did a skyline trace for fun and am now drying the negatives. Have crawled into my bed nice and early so that I shall be set for tomorrow. The weasels will have to be loaded and gear checked over for a seaice trip to the west. It is a combination work and filmic trip. … it will be quite pleasant on the sea-ice with weasels to live in.

Weds 8th August 1956

All set for a flying start tomorrow.