Founding Davis and Casey stations
With Mawson station established by 23 February 1954, Phillip Law was anxious to use the rest of his charter time with Kista Dan to explore the Antarctic coastline to the east and try and locate sites for further Australian stations.
Unable to land on the Scullin or Murray monoliths, they continued east through the grounded icebergs on the Fram Bank, which extended out from Cape Darnley. Law was particularly keen to get to the Vestfold Hills, a huge area of rocky terrain on the north side of the Sorsdal Glacier, remarkably free from snow in the summer. This 412 square kilometre expanse of low rocky hills and spectacular fjords had been discovered, and a landing achieved, by the Norwegian whaling captain Klarius Mikkelsen in 1935. Lincoln Ellsworth landed next in 1939 and the area was extensively photographed from the air by the United States’ Operation High Jump in 1946-47. Law wanted to see it for himself.
Captain Petersen was less keen. He wanted to go home and resisted Law’s plans, saying exploration was not part of the ship’s charter. Law challenged him with telegrams to the Lauritzen Line and the Antarctic Division, and had his way. Although later known as ‘the Riviera of the South’ because of the amount of sunshine and settled weather there, it was cloudy, gloomy and threatening to snow when Law and four companions moored their ship’s boat to some fast ice, and set foot on the mainland on 3 March 1954. Conscious of Law’s determination to stake Australia’s claims in Antarctica at every opportunity, his Deputy Leader Dick Thompson had prepared an Australian flag lashed to a short pole: ‘We struggled ashore, built a cairn out of rocks, planted the flag on its pole, while Phil took our picture. Then I took pictures of him with the flag, and a cine film of the three of them waving their caps like a trio of scat singers.’
They had to moor their boat to a section of fast ice offshore because of the shallow, shelving nature of the coastline. This proved a problem when Law returned on Kista Dan in January 1957 to set up Davis station in time for the International Geophysical Year (IGY). The Vestfold Hills in summer was more reminiscent of a chunk of the Simpson Desert transplanted to Antarctica, and apart from finding a location where the ship could get reasonably close to the coast, Law was dismayed to find that the snow banks he hoped could provide water for the new station through the summer had all melted.
On 12 January Law was about to give up when he found a small sandy beach leading to a flat terrace, which looked promising, and unloading began. By 20 January Davis was established enough for Kista Dan to sail. Only five men would winter there, with no doctor. However it was hoped that a Beaver aircraft from Mawson could fly in and evacuate a patient in the event of a medical emergency.
Photo: Phillip Law
In 1957, the United States took 17 days to build a station for the International Geophysical Year (IGY) on Clark Peninsula, on the coast of Vincennes Bay, Wilkes Land. Named Wilkes Station in honour of the American explorer Charles Wilkes, it was unfortunately placed in a hollow to be out of the wind. Consequently, by the end of its first year of operation snow drifts had built up to the roofs of the huts, and some could only be accessed through trapdoors on their roofs!
At the end of the IGY in 1958 the Americans wanted out, and Phillip Law saw an opportunity to get a third station for Australia. He would have preferred a straight handover, but the Americans wanted a shared station. There were problems about which nation’s flag should take precedence over the other, solved by having two flagpoles. There was an Australian leader with an American deputy, but it quickly became apparent that this arrangement was unsatisfactory. In 1959 Australia took over effective control of the now almost invisible station, with all of its buildings submerged in snow and ice. Its entombed huts and rubbish dumps today pose one of Antarctica’s most intractable clean-up dilemmas.
It was clear that Wilkes was not a long-term prospect for Australia, and in 1963 Cabinet approved funding for a Replacement Station, code named REPSTAT (Australian Antarctic Magazine 15: 24-26, 2008). The name stuck for the station’s entire operational life, despite officially being named Casey station on its completion in 1969. (Davis station had to be closed from January 1965 for four years to defray the expense of building REPSTAT.)
With the Wilkes disaster in mind, REPSTAT’s designers made sure it would never be overcome by drift. It was built about five kilometres from the buried Wilkes on metal stilts down the slope of a hill, so that the drift would blow underneath it. Unfortunately, scaffolding piping was all that could be afforded, which immediately began to rust. The wind proofing was assisted by a corrugated iron tunnel, which ran down its entire length like the leading edge of an aircraft wing, and deflected the blizzards over the top of the linked huts, and underneath them.
Photo: Micky Loederman
Those who lived in REPSTAT were fond of it in an eccentric kind of way. Also designed to be fireproof, the predominately metal structure shuddered noisily as the blizzard howled around the guy wires that anchored it to the rock. Only nine months after it was completed, a blizzard blew away six sections of the tunnel. The tunnel was also unheated, and so cold in winter that ‘Casey tunnellers’ returning from a shower would get back to their dongas with their wet hair frozen solid! Plumber Rod MacKenzie, who worked on its construction, said it looked ‘like Alcatraz sitting up amongst the rocks’.
REPSTAT lasted 19 years before its rusting stilts and deteriorating panels caused it to be completely dismantled (unlike its predecessor Wilkes, still entombed in the ice) and construction of ‘New’ Casey station began in 1979. It was opened in 1988, and was the first Australian station to be completely rebuilt and modernised during the extensive re-building program through the late 1980s and 90s.