From Wilkes to Casey

Construction of the original Casey station in the 1960s had its share of highs and lows, as former plumber, Rod Mackenzie, recalls.

Wilkes station in the 1960s.
By the end of winter, Wilkes station would be buried in snow drift and summer melt had to be pumped out of the buildings.
Photo: Phillip Law
By 1964 the original Wilkes station, established by the United States in 1957-58 and generously handed to Australia in 1959, had reached its use-by date. Whilst a very comfortable station to winter in, with all buildings connected by corridors, the siting of the station in a drift prone valley had been a mistake. By the end of winter the entire station was almost buried in drift snow, and with the summer melt, some 20 pumps were needed to prevent the station filling with water. The oil soaked floor boards and the lack of exits also made it a dangerous fire risk.

In 1964 the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE) established a team comprising ANARE members, Department of Works architects and Melbourne University engineers, to design an Antarctic station that was drift free, fire proof, comfortable and safe.

The buildings would be constructed of insulated panels – metal on the outside, fibro-cement on the inside – built in a single line with a seven metre space between to prevent the spread of fire. The structure would be elevated two metres above the bedrock, with a rounded profile facing the prevailing east wind to prevent snow build-up. The rounded profile was to be an access corridor to connect all the station buildings, with the exception of the balloon building and garages.

Surveys were undertaken in 1964 and two buildings erected by the 1965 Wilkes party. The project was named 'Repstat' (replacement station).

In October 1965 I was invited to participate in a special 14-man summer construction party, to begin in earnest the building of Repstat. The team comprised carpenters, plumbers, riggers, plant operators and a Department of Works architect.

Nella Dan departed Melbourne on 29 December 1965. The party that night was quite an affair with a great deal of alcohol in a variety of forms being consumed, Dr Phil Law playing his accordion with the ship's officers, and expeditioners vying with each other as to who could sing the most ribald songs. The ship was rolling considerably, which only seemed to increase the hilarity. This climaxed with the entry at midnight of Bill Edgar playing the bagpipes. Moments later a large swell rolled the ship to 50 degrees, sending men, chairs, bottles, glasses, and other paraphernalia, crashing and sliding backwards and forwards across the floor. Fortunately we all escaped injury.

It was on this night that Dr Law announced his retirement from the Antarctic Division. This was a real bombshell to us all. Phil Law was the Antarctic Division. This was his 27th voyage to Antarctic regions. It was going to be hard to find a replacement.

The 1969 over-wintering construction team: Bob Nicholson (carpenter), Rod Mackenzie (plumber), Terry Kelly (electrician) and Brian Rieusset (radio technician).
The 1969 over-wintering construction team: Bob Nicholson (carpenter), Rod Mackenzie (plumber), Terry Kelly (electrician) and Brian Rieusset (radio technician).
Photo: Rod Mackenzie
After a very rough crossing we arrived at Wilkes on 11 January 1966. The daily program was as follows: rise 0530, breakfast 0600, ashore 0630, start work 0700, dinner 2000, lights out 2130.

With fine weather over the next few weeks, great progress was made. Six buildings in the main line were completed, the steel-framed vehicle workshop and power house complete with concrete floors was finished, and the first 30 m of the corridor was erected.

During the winter some work was carried out by the Wilkes 66 party and a big effort to complete the station was to be made in 1967. However, the relief ship was caught in the ice for six weeks, eventually being rescued by the US Coast Guard icebreaker East Wind. This meant a very quick change-over to relieve the station and no building materials were unloaded. Without materials, the 1967 winterers could do little toward the construction program.

1968 therefore became the year for the completion of Repstat. As well as a summer construction team of eight, a four-person team was chosen to winter at Repstat: Bob Nicholson - carpenter/foreman, Terry Kelly – electrician, Brian Rieusset - radio technician and myself as plumber.

The summer saw an enormous amount of work take place: 11 buildings erected, tank farm established, generators installed, radio masts erected, and the lower half of the wind corridor completed. On 10 March the summer party departed and six of us (including two from Wilkes) were left to finish the station, ready for occupation in 1969.

The completed Casey station in January 1969 showing the rounded profile of the tunnel which connected the buildings behind.
The completed Casey station in January 1969 showing the rounded profile of the tunnel which connected the buildings behind.
Photo: Brian Rieusset
By the end of April the 620 m corridor was complete and work began on the installation of the central heating system, together with the fitting out of all the buildings. Water was scarce and a bucket shower once a week was the norm.

We had to visit Wilkes on odd occasions for radio scheds and supplies. Sometimes five of us would go over and while three would socialise, the other two would be raiding the food or clothing stores for needed items that the store-keeper at Wilkes was reluctant to let us have. As a result, we got the nick-name 'Repstat Raiders'.

Early in June we borrowed the dogs and the dog sled from Wilkes. When we went to return the team, the sled hit a concealed rock and the three of us on board were thrown off. However the sled righted itself and, despite our shouting, the dogs continued all the way back to Wilkes on their own.

We suffered a misfortune in July with the loss of one of the Wilkes party through carbon dioxide poisoning in a field caravan. This event weighed heavily on us all and made us very conscious of our vulnerability and remoteness.

Rod with huskies.
A dog trip to the Vanderford Glacier was a highlight of Rod's time in Antarctica.
Photo: Rod Mackenzie
By the end of September the central heating system at Repstat was commissioned and life became more agreeable. The coming of spring was greatly anticipated, for it meant not only sunshine but the return of the wildlife; the birds, penguins and seals, and the opportunity to use the dogs. On the first cloudless, sunny day, everyone went mad, behaving like schoolboys on the first day of summer holiday, with bob-sledding, snow fights, and stripping off winter clothing. We were filled with a joy de vivre we had not experienced in a long time. Morale reached an all-time high.

Shortly after, three of us participated in a dog trip to beyond the Vanderford Glacier, visiting many of the off-shore islands along the way to discover anything of biological importance, such as penguin and bird rookeries, lichen samples, and seal colonies. The trip was the highlight of my time in Antarctica.

With plenty of daylight hours, every evening after dinner, and on Sundays, I began a biology program that included numbering 41 snow petrel and 12 Wilson storm petrel nest sites and making daily observations of these sites to record egg laying dates, incubation times and so on. With the help of others I also banded over 100 skua gulls and giant petrels and over 200 Adélie penguins.

The station was ready for full occupancy by the end of December and we eagerly awaited the arrival of the relief party in February. However Thala Dan became fast in pack ice. Morale was low as we faced the possibility of another year in Antarctica on emergency rations. But six weeks later, to our great relief, the ship was rescued by the US Coast Guard icebreaker South Wind.

With the help of the Americans the proposed 10 day change-over was completed in two days. Repstat was named 'Casey' and handed over to the 1969 winterers. It was an emotional moment for me when the flag was raised for the first time and I know we all had a sense of pride in what we had achieved in our year at Repstat.

ROD MACKENZIE (O.A.M.)

Rod banding a giant petrel as part of the biology program; October 1968.
Rod banding a giant petrel as part of the biology program; October 1968.
Photo: Brian Rieusset

Rod Mackenzie was born in Melbourne and educated at Geelong High School. He began a plumbing apprenticeship in 1949 and served his National Service with the RAAF in 1954. In 1960 he became a plumbing inspector with the Geelong Waterworks and Sewerage Trust. After returning from Antarctica and a summer at Macquarie Island, Rod opened his own plumbing consultancy in Geelong. In 1979 he was elected to Parliament as the MLC for Geelong Province. He went straight to the front bench as the Shadow Minister for Public Works and in 1982 he became the Minister for Forests, Lands and Soldier Settlement. He was elected President of the Legislative Council in 1985 and became an Independent in 1988, until he lost the seat in 1992. He returned to Antarctica in 1997, visiting the Australian stations and the Russian station, Mirny. In 1999 he was awarded the Order of Australia for his services to the Geelong Community and in Antarctica. Rod has written a book about his time in Antarctica, which he hopes to self publish in 2009.

This page was last modified on 4 December 2008.