Historic visits to Antarctica

Federal Environment Minister the Hon. Tony Burke and the ground crew of Wilkins Runway in front of the A319 Airbus
Federal Environment Minister the Hon. Tony Burke (centre) and the ground crew of Wilkins Runway in front of the A319 Airbus. (Photo: Tony Fleming)
Governor-General Ms Quentin Bryce, dressed in Antarctic clothing, stands beside a plaque commemorating the centenary of Australian Antarctic explorationThe new 'Hawke's Hut' facility stands amongst the other buildings at Wilkes runway

The Wilkins Runway crew hosted a number of senior guests in Antarctica this season during a successful summer flying program for Australia’s A319 aircraft. 

First was Federal Environment Minister, the Hon. Tony Burke, who flew to Wilkins Runway, about 70 km south-east of Casey station, on 13 December 2012. He was accompanied by Members of the Senate Standing Committee on Environment and Communications and the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories.

The Minister and his party were shown around the operations at Wilkins, including a deep-field camp and a demonstration of ice coring. They then proceeded to Casey station for further briefings on Australian activities and a tour via aircraft and small boat. The Minister spent a night at Robbo’s hut, near Casey – the first overnight stay of an Australian Cabinet Minister at an Australian Antarctic station. He also visited nearby Shirley Island, where he learned more about Australia’s research on penguin biology and ecology.

At a dinner on the eve of 14 December, 2012, the Minister gave a short speech to mark the 100th anniversary of the death of Douglas Mawson’s sledging companion, Lieutenant Belgrave Ninnis.

Minister Burke said the visit had helped him to better understand the operational challenges in Antarctica and the importance of maintaining a strong operational capability in support of science.

‘While the work that we do is very much science driven, to make that science possible the logistics required are enormous…[for example] the team of people who’ve been working for six weeks to make sure than an airplane can land,’ Minister Burke said.

‘I’ve got a much better handle on the emphasis on logistics now and the fact that if you don’t have your logistics in place, none of the science can occur at all.’

On 5 February 2013, Governor-General, Ms Quentin Bryce AC CVO, became the first Australian Governor-General to travel to Antarctica.

Her Excellency flew from Hobart to the Wilkins runway as part of the ongoing centenary celebrations of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition 1911–1914 led by scientist and polar explorer, Dr Douglas Mawson.

Ms Bryce was greeted at Wilkins by Casey Station Leader, Allan Cooney, and a number of scientists and support personnel. She also toured the communications facilities and living quarters, and experienced the confines of a remote field camp.

In honour of the Mawson-led expedition 100 years ago, Her Excellency unveiled a plaque that had been set behind a sheet of ice. Ms Bryce cracked the ice with a small hammer to reveal its inscription marking the event.

Ms Bryce paid tribute to Douglas Mawson’s courage in adversity, his dedication to scientific exploration and his foresight in recognising the significance of Antarctic science not just to Australia but to the rest of the world. She said that Mawson’s discoveries and painstaking research resonated today as modern science continues in the region.

The Governor-General was accompanied on the early morning flight from Hobart by the Director of the Australian Antarctic Division, Dr Tony Fleming, and Climate Program Leader, Dr Tas van Ommen, among others. She flew back to Hobart that afternoon along with expeditioners returning from a successful summer season.

One week later, on 12 February, former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke flew to Antarctica to officially open the Wilkins Runway Living Quarters, named in honour of his contribution to Antarctic protection and conservation.

The Hon R J L Hawke AC Living Quarters, or ‘Hawke’s Hut’, is a two-storey facility housing a mess, kitchen, lounge, laundry and bathroom facilities for runway crews during the summer season. The Hut is sled-mounted to ensure minimal impact on the environment and can be easily moved during winter months to avoid snow build-up.

More than 20 years ago Mr Hawke’s Government led a push to reject mining in Antarctica. That action eventually led to the signing of the Madrid Protocol in 1991, designating the frozen continent as a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science (see Reflecting on an Antarctic legacy).

Nisha Harris and Wendy Pyper
Corporate Communications