There’s something about Antarctica

Syd Kirkby is a legend of modern Australian Antarctica and I am his biographer. This happy fact ‘got me a guernsey’ (to use his expression) on the voyage of lifetime, thanks to the Arts Fellowship program of the Australian Antarctic Division.

Syd Kirkby was an ANARE (Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions) surveyor. He spent three wintering seasons at Mawson in 1956–57, 1960–61 and 1980–81 and was a member of ANARE summer operations from 1961 to 1965 and 1979–80. From his most eastern astrofix to his most western astrofix is 3000 miles. There are no 400 mile spans in the Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT) in which Syd did not have a first landing and a first astrofix. In 1962–63 Syd went to Oates Land, on the eastern extremity of the AAT, and neighbouring George V Land. 1964–65 saw him exploring and mapping Enderby and Kemp lands on the AAT’s most western extremity.

On my voyage south, a community of multi-skilled hands gathered each day to hear lectures on a range of topics, typically covering the areas of research that had brought the presenter to Antarctica. Before we reached Mawson I had the first draft of the first chapter written so I offered a paper in the lecture series — in fact, by voyage end I’d offered two and had to be restrained from fronting up again.

It is wonderful for a historian to present historical narratives to non-historians. My outline of Syd’s achievements was greeted with awe. Equally enriching for me was the astonishment of my fellow expeditioners when I told them that I had completed all the interviews with Syd and other significant ANARE expeditioners, as well as newspaper, parliamentary, archival and secondary research, but that I still needed to see and experience the place before I could write a word.

Historians capture events through time, but we also locate that moving stream of history in its geographical place. We need, in short, to experience the place where the events happened. Visiting Mount Henderson, having a guided tour around old Mawson station, seeing where the dogs were tethered, walking on the blue ice of the plateau behind Mawson, experiencing the lack of horizon and perspective afforded by a white-on-white landscape, being ‘blizzed in’ in a tiny hut as the katabatics shuddered its single skin timber walls into a jittery xylophone of movement; these things set the stage to create the biography.

Our wonderful guide, Vonna Keller, took us out into the field to experience something of the discomfort, exhilaration and fear of the people who traversed and found the crevasse-free highways we travelled over. My diary is full of revelation — some of it basic ('holy cow they must have been terrified!'), to humbled comprehension. I sat at Rumdoodle Lake and thought: this is what led 21-year-old Syd to write, on January 16th 1956: ‘I don’t think I could ever stop trying to get people to come and see this. It makes me feel that it should be the reward for a long life well spent rather than be a gift so early in a life not so well spent'.

By journey’s end I had drafted five of the nine chapters and every word I've written since I arrived home is informed by my recollection of being somewhere, in that wondrous frozen land. I have a sense of the place and I can tell the story of movement through it, because it has become real, familiar, a genuine character in the story. I can’t wait to capture the entire first draft, to get a completed version of Syd’s life in Antarctica. I'll be thinking of my fellow expeditioners and the people who made my trip possible — knowing that they are waiting for the next instalment is pushing me on.

There is something about the life-threatening dark side of the beautiful still land that awakens self-realisation. Everyone should see Antarctica, or at least read books, see movies or enjoy photographs of it. It’s a wickedly wise place and only a fool learns its lessons slowly.

Australian Antarctic Arts Fellow 2008