Sydney L Kirkby (1933)

Syd Kirkby, 2002
Syd Kirkby, 2002 (Photo: Jonothan Davis)
Mount Kirkby

Nationality and occupation

Australian surveyor and Antarctic explorer


  • 1956–57 – First into the Prince Charles Mountains with dogs
  • 1960 – Journeyed 400 km from Napier Mountains to Mawson station
  • 1961–65 – Surveyed more Antarctic territory than any other explorer

A quiz question might well ask: ‘Who has explored and surveyed the most Australian territory?’ the answer is not Burke or Wills or even Charles Sturt. It is Sydney L Kirkby, surveyor in the service of ANARE, in Antarctica.

Kirkby wintered at Mawson in 1956 and 1960 and was the officer in charge at Mawson (at the age of 47) in 1980. First into the Prince Charles Mountains with dogs in 1956–57, he again used dogs for a remarkable 400 km journey through Enderby Land from the Napier Mountains to Mawson station in the autumn of 1960. He went south on coastal exploration and resupply voyages in the summers of 1961–62, 1962–63 and 1964–65.

There are features named after Syd Kirkby along 6000 km of the coast of the Australian Antarctic Territory, inland at the Prince Charles Mountains – Mr Kirkby – and even in New Zealand’s territory – Kirkby Glacier. Kirkby Shoal can be found near Casey station and Kirkby Head near the Russian station Molodezhnaya. He has personally surveyed more Antarctic territory than any other explorer – including Scott, Shackleton and Mawson.

Kirkby was an unlikely candidate for Antarctic exploration. At the age of five, growing up in Fremantle, Western Australia, he developed poliomyelitis and was severely disabled for years. His father quit his job to manage Syd’s exercise program, to ‘rebuild’ him. Exercises included swimming, and later, boxing.

Syd recovered his strength and credits his father’s demanding treatment.

In 1960 the medical officer examining Syd picked up that he walked with a limp, as a legacy of his polio, and was not going to pass him as fit for Antarctica. Syd bluffed his way through, saying that he had already been to Antarctica. The doctor would have been even more surprised to learn later that shortly before leaving Mawson in 1961, Syd Kirkby and companion Graham Dyke ran 124 km with a dog team from behind the Framnes Mountains to Mawson station in one day – almost a triple marathon!

Surveying in Antarctica was heavy work often involving rock climbing on virgin peaks with heavy packs. By 1964–65, electronic distance measuring had been introduced but it was still necessary to reach the pinnacle of the peak to be measured, carrying batteries, theodolite and other essential gear. The ‘hardest and longest’ climb of his career was on Leckie Range in early 1965, where he had to hang off the peak with a rope around his waist to sight his theodolite. During the six-hour climb a rope broke and Syd fell some nine metres with a 40 kg pack, injuring his back and neck. He continued and finished the work and the climb, and climbed the range a further three times.

He was awarded an MBE for services to Antarctica, complementing the Polar Medal he was awarded in 1957.

While Syd Kirkby seized all the Antarctic pioneering opportunities available to him with great gusto, he never ceases to marvel at his good fortune:

We’d climb a mountain peak and look out and say: 'Wow! In all time, certainly no human being and probably no creature has ever seen it.' It's a funny feeling, It's not a possessive feeling, it's a privileged sort of feeling – 'How did I get this lucky?'

Condensed from Bowden, Tim (1997). The Silence calling: Australians in Antarctica 1947–97, pp 162–163. © Australian Antarctic Division and Tim Bowden.

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