Tag Archives: Global warming in Antarctica

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.


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

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 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.


Euphoria amidst the gloom


IA31270August 1956

Previously at Mawson base Antarctica:

August is a difficult month for expeditioners in Antarctica. The long dark winter has created a deep lethargy but the first rays of sun appear over the horizon, and the mood swings each day are quite observable in the diaries. As Syd pushed ahead with plans for The Southern Journey into the unexplored country behind the Prince Charles Mountains, lethargy and depression amongst the winterers affected everyone.  For inspiration, Syd Kirkby was reading the books of the men he hoped to emulate. It worked, except that one day he was as enthusiastic as one of the new pups and the next he was down in the depths of gloom:

Straight from the diary:

Summer is returning rapidly, the sun is now above the horizon for about five hours a day and for another two or so we have that beautiful Antarctic dawn and twilight. It is odd that nothing has ever been written about the beauty of the scenery, it is hard and cold but the grandness of the scale and the utter virginity of it gives it an appeal that no pretty, pretty scenery can rival. All the personal diaries of past men speak of it yet it is never printed. Probably it would not sell, what goes down best ands becomes the Antarctic are the misfortunes, Scott, Shackelton, Ninnis, Mertz, Hoseason, Forbes, Taylor, Jelbart. Even Amundsen, the greatest ever, except maybe Shackelton is not read because he did not perish and was a success. That is the 0330 auroral obs done, outside it is beautiful, clear and calm with no moon so that the sky is a glossy black with the artificial looking stars pasted onto it and cold which makes one gasp as soon as he steps out and instantly clears a sleepy stuffy head. Oh hell, I’m off again, if anyone ever reads this diary they will swear I am bush happy.

The next day he was in deep despair: 

We are having a bit of bother finalising the party for the southern journey. There are only two who will be really free at the time and unfortunately they are not really suitable. I would just as soon have only the basic three along but the decree says it must be six. I feel that with the three of us and three weasels we are completely self contained and could extend our range considerably, also we each have a job to do and are professionals rather than amateurs. By that I do not mean that amateurs are no good but where conditions are a little uncomfortable for an extended time the professional has a background and an aim, both very powerful spurs, and God knows we will need spurs after two or three months of it. My trouble is that I am so keen to do a solid job that I would not be happy short of a party of Peters.