The longest living Australian Antarctic motorcycle

Malcolm Robertson astride the Matchless and sidecar that he claimed during the 1969-70 changeover.
Malcolm Robertson astride the Matchless and sidecar that he claimed during the 1969-70 changeover. (Photo: David Parer)
The Matchless motorcycle towing skier Neville Dippell on the sea ice at Mawson’s Horseshoe Harbour. The Matchless G80 500 cc single at Mawson in 1968, with its upswept exhaust and muffler and South Australian number plateRider on the Matchless on the sea ice at Mawson.The Matchless with its MC01 number plate and sidecar with an easy chair from the rec-room. Mawson vicinity 1970.

In 2013 George Cresswell set out to collect information on motorcycles that had been taken to Antarctica by members of the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE).

George had taken a 350 cc Velocette to Mawson in 1960 and expected that other motorcycle enthusiasts had since done the same. What he didn’t expect was the number – some 35 bikes between 1960 and 1980. One was a 500 cc single cylinder Matchless, which stood out because of its long life, from 1968 to 1977.

Malcolm Robertson had a love affair with the Matchless during his year as geophysicist at Mawson in 1970. When the 1970 expeditioners arrived at the station they found that it was littered with all sorts of interesting relics, including, as Malcolm wrote, “a 500 cc single cylinder Matchless motorcycle of indeterminate age that still ran. I claimed this immediately as a geophysics field vehicle and registered it MC01”.

The Matchless provided much entertainment and was used around the station as a bit of a trail bike, bouncing its way to the remote corners of the boulder-strewn site and occasionally onto the lower reaches of the ice plateau.

One of its uses was to tow intrepid skiers, and a photo shows it speeding towards an equally intrepid photographer, David Parer, who, thankfully, avoided being decapitated by the tow rope. Close inspection shows a rope wrapped around the front wheel in an attempt to improve traction.

Some time into 1970 Malcolm painted the petrol tank yellow and fitted a horizontal exhaust muffler from the Triumph Thunderbird that “Snow” Williams had taken down in 1962. The yellow petrol tank, horizontal exhaust and the sidecar made the Matchless distinctive.

Malcolm had taken a Super8 movie camera to Mawson and in 2016 it was transcribed to digital. The camera had been passed from person to person during the year and there is good footage of station life, including when Malcolm taught himself to do a pirouette on the Matchless on the sea ice.

In 2010 for the 40th anniversary of wintering at Mawson, Malcolm wrote an exciting yarn, The Day the Ice Turned Black, for the ANARE Club journal, Aurora, about an adventure that he had with David Parer.

In early November 1970 Dave suggested that they take the Matchless twelve miles out to Rookery Island so that he could photograph the giant petrels on their nests.

Although we had been having twenty-four hours daylight for some time and summer was just around the corner, we didn't give the state of the ice a second thought. Even as we motored past patches of seaweed floating in black holes in the ice, we didn't think that the roadway we had been safely riding along for the past months might be wearing a little thin, as the warmer ocean currents swirled around underneath.

How wrong we were! Before long, as we approached the rookeries, the ice became noticeably darker. From experience we knew that at thicknesses quite safe for man, beast or machine, it was either a pale blue or white, yet stretching out in front of us was an expanse of quite black ice…we could feel the ice moving and creaking as we covered the final metres.

Dave shot off several rolls of expensive film and Malcolm looked down from the island and could see that they had crossed quite a dark patch of ice. He decided that they should go around it on the way back. But Dave “headed straight back the way we had come, while I started out on the circuitous route...”

Suddenly there was a cry from Dave and I turned to see him disappear into the icy waters through the ice. He quickly hauled himself out only to find that the ice would break under his weight. I raced over and lay on my stomach, reaching out a hand, but I couldn't see how that would help. Dave hauled himself up again, but again the ice broke and he fell back in. We both saw the problem: "Swing the cameras around to your back," I screamed. "They're breaking the ice when you haul yourself up and lie on them!"

He hauled himself out again and this time the ice held. He slithered towards me and I pulled him to firmer ice and helped him to his feet. We staggered back to dry land to review the situation. One expeditioner soaking wet, two cameras and lenses soaked in sea water, twelve miles from base, temperature below freezing...

We rationalised our clothing - Dave took my windproofs and turned himself into a walking wet-suit, I steeled myself for a chilly return trip with only jumper and strides to keep the wind out.

[We] kept well away from any darker sections of ice, and especially away from floating seaweed and drove slowly to reduce the wind chill, but it didn't seem to help much. On arrival, both freezing cold, we sheepishly slunk into our dongas to change and warm up.

“I don't think we ever told anyone about that little adventure, but I can assure you we both had nightmares for several weeks afterwards,” Malcolm said.

No yarns or photographs have come in about the Matchless from 1971 to 1973, but Narra Johnson said that in 1974 the winterers were “spoilt as far as transport was concerned - we had a fleet of the jazzy and nifty skidoos". 

More than half a year later, with summer approaching, Narra went on a trip towards Welch Island with Feathers Walters in the armchair of the Matchless’s sidecar (an easy chair taken from the recreation room) and Marko Oliver on the pillion seat. It was 11 pm and the sun was behind them. Visibility was good, but black ice encouraged Narra to be prudent and turn for home.

They got up to a good speed as they rode into the low setting sun reflecting off the ice. All was good until they hit a pile of snow and the bike stopped dead. “Marko went hurtling over my shoulders accompanied by Feathers from his armchair and landed on the softish snowdrift.” Narra landed upside down on the front wheel still hanging on to the handlebars. But it all ended well. The stalled engine started and they returned to the station.

The last gasp of the Matchless seems to be at the 1977 midwinter race around Horseshoe Harbour. According to the station report (Aurora, Spring 1977, p 200) “the red hot favourites with the bookies were Des Williams and Col King on the motorbike. The race began 10 minutes late, with a fast track and threatening drift conditions. The red hot favourites suffered major mechanical breakdowns with the collapse of their back wheel and withdrew”… RIP Matchless.

George Cresswell (Mawson 1960)