Tag Archives: Australians in Antarctica

And the weather was lovely


In early November, Phil’s approval for the Southern Journey finally came through, and the process of dropping fuel depots increased the pilots’ workload. RAAF squadron leader Douglas Leckie faced one of the greatest challenges of his career. Having flown Bill and Peter out to a staging depot at the north of the Prince Charles Mountains, he landed before realizing that he’d put the plane down in drifting snow which hovered over a crevassed area amidst blue ice. Unwilling to take off with passengers, he dumped out the survival tent and food before taking off, planning to return with better visibility to find a safer landing. He refuelled at Mawson and flew back to the depot by himself, but there was no trace of Bill and Peter—or even a sign that they had ever been there. He searched until he needed to refuel, went back to Mawson, refuelled and returned, scouring the white ground with tired eyes. Peter and Bill had just the barest of survival gear in snow-covered crevassing.


Doug Leckie at the Beaver controls

Doug Leckie at the Beaver controls

Syd arrived back at Mawson at the same time as Doug landed the Beaver for the third time, ashen grey, deeply distressed, and very fatigued. Syd and Jerry Sundberg joined the hunt as Doug fretted that he was no longer sure where he had left Peter and Bill. Syd spotted them through a gap in the twenty-feet-deep drifting snow, where they’d been all along, able to hear the aeroplane above them the whole time Doug circled. Now the problem was that there were five men to get home. Against Syd’s suggestion that he would get out with more gear and stay the night with the other two, Doug simply refused to leave anyone there.

The overworked plane took off into the mountains, with its nose pointing down in the full-flap altitude. At that site they established 250-mile depot, or Southern Depot, over the next few weeks, knowing that, as much as they would have liked the aircraft to be available for support while they were sledging, the Mawson landing strip was on a sea-ice surface that was about to disappear.

At the Southern Depot, Doug and John constantly dumped supplies, seal meat, human food, fuel, and spare parts for the weasels. The field party switched to thirty-hour cycles. A five-man party was assembled. Bill Bewsher, as party leader, Peter as geologist, Lionel Gardner, the senior diesel mechanic, John Hollingshead, the radio technician, and Syd as navigator and surveyor would travel with two weasels and lightly laden dogs. On Sunday, 18 November 1956, the Mawson expeditioners held “a fine ding,” all wanting the ten-week one-thousand-mile polar plateau journey to be a success. Syd sent home a YIKLA (this is the life), but the note in the diary he left behind at Mawson farewelled his family:

 On this night, the beginning of what will probably be one of the most important periods in my life, I make thanks to my family for all they have given me. Not only the educational advantages but the whole patterns of our life. To Joy I say ‘God Bless you Darling, I have been very happy and helped greatly by the thought of you’.

Five men, eight dogs, and two weasels left Mawson at 1030 on Monday, 19 November 1956, with “a deafening click of camera shutters and hands wrung to a pulp by well wishers.” The sledging party packed three novels: Oblomov, The Three Musketeers, and The Odyssey. Australia’s most ambitious inland Antarctic exploration was underway, and the weather was lovely.




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



pup 2Previously at Mawson base Antarctica:

August is a difficult month for expeditioners in Antarctica. From mid-June, the stations are blighted by gloom but the lowest emotional and physiological ebb is in August for, by then, it has been dark and cold for far too long. Syd was pushing ahead with plans for The Southern Journey into the unexplored country behind the Prince Charles Mountains, but lethargy and depression amongst the winterers affected everyone’s interest in putting the preparatory plans into action.

I don’t know what is wrong with the party that just came back. Peter has not been up for two days. Lin and Pat are both decidedly off form and I feel as though I have been beaten till I feel heavy and slow. Jim is the best of the lot of us, at 43 he is marvellous, it would appear that there may be something in this business of an older man standing cold better than the young, though I know that while I keep going I can go as well as any here and better than most, but when I stop I feel really washed out.

The arrival of three litters of pups provided a tonic, and the chubby little strangers were constantly visited and pampered:

Have just been to let Dinah go for a walk. It is rather pleasing outside. Light falling snow with the temperature up to -22°F and the wind down to 18 mph … the pups are going like little champions. Their eyes are now well and truly open and ‘the Palooka’ can walk with the rest.

A cable from Joy about the wedding date was “a bit of a nuisance, don’t quite know what to do,” and news that the Beaver was damaged from constant overloaded takeoffs meant that reconnaissance was on hold. No chance then of assisted expeditions, so they would have to set off from Mawson. “It looks now as though our next move will be onto the plateau with dogs, it will be pretty bitter, and possibly worse still windy, though if we were to sit in base and wait for warm weather we would get nothing done.”


The Ambush




Waiting at the base for the next trip was never Syd’s strong point. The three sea-ice expeditioners nursed very severe and painful frostbite for over a fortnight before Syd’s diary entry showed he was bored …

Wed 25th July 1956.

 A dirty old day, a gusty wind averaging 50 knots with low cloud and fairly low temperatures. Pottered about getting ready to go to Bretangen Bay and giving Haggis  a hand … Gave the met boys a hand to get a ’sonde away about four, she was quite  a spirited old release but she went which means they still haven’t missed a day this month.

My only bright spots of the day were the reflected sunlight on the clouds to the south making the plateau look like a great low pearl grey cloud and the moonrise in a gap ’specially arranged in the clouds so that we could see the view. It was shiny as platinum and as big as a cart wheel and flashed by blue grey draperies of cloud. Beautiful.

Mad men and husky dogs


Husky_edited-1 with colour more colourJuly 1956

Previously on the dark sea ice: Their first expedition in the dark winter was a dangerous journey on the treacherous sea ice high way, to find a group of island that Douglas Mawson found in 1930. Dark omens snapped at their heels as they set out. They found the islands and turned for home. Camped at the top of the cliff, with the dogs below them, they heard the sea ice break. After trialling a new technique of getting the dogs to the top of the cliff, they eventually returned to their tent on the cliff face while the dogs ate beside them. …

At midday the sun appeared, but the barometer plunged dramatically. A four-inch swell rocked the ice, and the tide crack grew wider.

Syd was confident that the full moon’s light was sufficient for navigation, and so they lowered the dogs down, one by one, and staked them on the shifting ice shoulder.

It was not easy to build an ice bridge across the six-feet-wide gap, but it was an even greater challenge to convince the huskies that this wasn’t another example of human treachery. Eventually, at three in the afternoon,  the three men and six dogs crossed the ice bridge and left the island.

They  “made good time for the first seventy minutes (six miles) but were then slowed by an increase in the wind.” There was still some light from the moon, and after two hours they had made ten miles.

They stopped for a block of chocolate and to rest the dogs. Nils was stiff; his feet were sore; and his face was frostbitten. He rode in the sledge for the next four and a half miles as they pressed onwards towards Welch Island in a steady fifty-knot wind directly into their faces. They arrived at Welch an hour later.

Calculating that they could cover the remaining six miles in the three hours it would have taken to pitch camp, they decided to push onwards to Mawson. “Fate had one more nudge in the ribs for us. About a mile past Welch we ran into heavy sastrugi.”

There were no records of high, ramped-up rolls of hard snow on sea ice, and yet they were confronted with: “stumbling, tumbling backside over breakfast sastrugi.” The dogs could hardly see over the high piles, and the exhausted men could barely keep on their feet, but they pushed themselves through hours of horrible effort to be rewarded the next day as they stumbled into Mawson, in serious need of reassurance of their sanity.

If a man’s going to die …


July 1956

Previously on the dark sea ice: Their first expedition in the dark winter was a dangerous journey on the treacherous sea ice high way, to find a group of islands discovered by Douglas Mawson in 1930 but never again seen. Dark omens snapped at their heels as they set out. They found the islands and turned for home. A wild storm blew in and the dogs refused to pull. The men yoked up, crawled on all fours and led the dogs onward.

Now, camped at the top of the cliff, with the dogs below them, they heard the sea ice break ….


men crawling 001_edited-1




A horizontal spray blasted, and ice broke into bombarding weapons while they clambered down to the dogs. Staked on the breaking ice, the dogs were wild with fear.

There are rules for taking huskies up cliff faces. Mostly, it is done one dog at a time. It’s unorthodox (to say the least) to pull seven dogs, still on their mooring line, up a cliff.

They all knew it was a bad idea, made worse by the fact that Denny, the one bitch in the team, was in season. Of course, there was the blizzard to make the climb up the cliff a bit more exciting. Just the same, they decided that that was the plan they’d put in place.

Peter was on the front of the trace; Nils was in the middle; and Syd was on the tail end, going diagonally up the steep cliff. Halfway up, Peter slipped and let the dog line slacken.

In the midst of a life-threatening manoeuvre, in a blizzard, the dogs used the slack to investigate whether this allowed them to get to Denny. She stepped backwards into space and fell over the cliff, hanging on her collar, taking two dogs with her.

Now the three men had 120 kilograms of tethered, struggling husky, hanging off a trace in space. Have I mentioned that huskies are directly descended from wolves? They are enormous and they can be a bit moody!

Peter eventually secured a hold of his end of the trace while Streaky, whose nose was simply too close to Denny’s tantalising hindquarters, came up with a new plan of his own. “Ah, well,” Streaky reasoned as he hung in space by his neck. “If a man’s going to die, he might as well die happy.” Swinging in the wild wind, he attempted to mount Denny as they hung in space.

Three expeditioners dragged seven enraged huskies up a sheer wall of exposed rock and tethered them carefully. Around the tent the animals ate, while the men wondered at their own foolhardiness.dogg