Aneata: the ‘Ice Maiden of Antarctica'

The Australian Antarctic Division possesses many heritage items, to which are attached fascinating stories of Australia’s social, cultural and scientific history in Antarctica. One such item is ‘Aneata’, a little wooden caravan mounted on a surplus US Navy cargo sledge. Former Antarctic expeditioner Bill Burch tells ‘her’ story.

Unique in the annals of Antarctic history, Aneata was designed and built from spare timber and plywood at Wilkes station by Don Butling, the plumber for the 1960 Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE) party. He had been asked by the boss, Harry Black, if he could do it as a preferred option to using tents on extended trips.

Don designed and assembled the shell from Oregon framing timbers and plywood, then fitted her out and painted her in the spacious garage at Wilkes station. As there was no insulation material spare at the station, only a 50mm air gap separated the occupants from the chill of Antarctica. On Tuesday September 13, 1960, the completed van was duly towed out into the open and a short ceremony, with a bottle of Champagne, endowed her with the name of Don’s wife, Aneata.

She was quickly pressed into service, housing nominally three men during trips out to the plateau some 80km inland from Wilkes — a place known as ‘S2’, where the Americans had dug a 30m deep pit into the ice for glaciological observations back in 1957. It was on just one of those trips a year later when I had cause to share Aneata with three others.

It was a clear, calm, windless night and the temperature dropped below −40°C. We stayed fully clothed and climbed inside two down sleeping bags each, yet we all reported a tooth-chattering, bone-chilling night with little sleep. I became the ‘butt’ — pardon the pun — of the camp next morning on attempting to complete a call of nature. Having loosened all the appropriate clothing fastenings, I grabbed the toilet roll from above the stove, jumped out of Aneata and did the necessary. Then, on reaching for the paper, I was confronted by a cylinder of solid ice! Steam from our breakfast cooking had permeated the roll, which had rapidly frozen solid.

But the highlight of Aneata’s travels was in 1962 on a journey from Wilkes to the ‘Pole of Inaccessibility’ — the Russian base, Vostok; a distance of 1500km and rising to an altitude of 2500m. This is where she earned the sobriquet ‘Ice Maiden of Antarctica’, as temperatures plummeted to −80°C. Even a small flask of overproof brandy stored on a shelf froze solid.

Late in 1963 Aneata was already nearing the end of her touring life. The sledge runners were wearing thin and the sand blasting effects of numerous icy blizzards whipping across her skin had peeled back so much paint that a fresh paint job was called for at the very least. The only problem was that the only paint left at Wilkes was two large tins of red and white. The two were combined and a hideous pink colour was summarily slapped all over her, whereupon she was renamed ‘Passion Pink People’s Palace’. She was then taken some 20km south-west down the coast to an observation point near the large Vanderford Glacier, where she became a refuge field hut for glaciologists. Here, she was firmly guyed down with stainless steel wires onto a rocky outcrop known as the Haupt Nunatak.

In 1964 three expeditioners were trapped in her for several days during a ferocious blizzard. The wind tore up rocks, gouged ice from the hills nearby and hurled them at Aneata and her cocooned men. They’d been reported missing as there had been no radio contact, but the guy wires held, the blizzard eventually ran out of puff and the three made it safely back to Wilkes.

Aneata or ‘The Vostok Van’, as she was now known, rather prosaically, continued to be just a field refuge for several years, during which time Wilkes station was abandoned and replaced by Casey station, a few kilometres around the headland.

At some point, a particularly fierce king blizzard succeeded in tearing off some of her plywood skin, so she became uninhabitable. Yet through all this the stainless steel guy wires held her fast to the rock. By 1982, her unique Antarctic heritage was deemed worthy of conservation. Late in that year she was cleared of most of the ice and snow, put up onto a large sled and taken back to Casey. She was eventually returned to Australia.

Aneata now sits just as she was rescued, in a storage shed at the Australia’s Antarctic Division’s Kingston headquarters. She shares the shed with some of the vehicles which escorted her on her many travels, and together they all exude an aura of our proud Antarctic history from the past half-century or so.

But Aneata is very special; indeed unique. She was conceived and built at an ANARE base 53 years ago and travelled over thousands of kilometres, providing refuge, if not exactly comfort, to many ANARE personnel. I am now in discussions with the Australian Antarctic Division and others about restoring her to her former glory. She, and her intrepid story, would be a worthy addition to any future Antarctic museum.

Bill Burch
Former geophysicist, Wilkes 1961
ANARE Club, New South Wales