Two-wheeled Antarctic adventures

For the past 18 months former Antarctic expeditioner (Mawson, 1960), oceanographer, and vintage motorbike enthusiast, Dr George Cresswell, has been corresponding with Antarctic Division staff and scores of former expeditioners (from 1960–1980) to track down yarns and photos related to motorcycles at Australian stations.

This story is the result of two events that were separated by 53 years.

The first was when, as a 22 year old, I rode my 350 cc Velocette motorcycle to the Thala Dan, tied up alongside the Melbourne docks in January 1960, and asked the ship’s Danish coxswain if he could load it on board for me. ‘No worries,’ he said, ‘just drain the petrol out of it.’ And so the bike went to Mawson, where it gave many of us a lot of enjoyment when we rode it on the sea ice.

The second event was in 2013 when Doug Farr of the Velocette Owners Club of Australia asked me if I would give a talk to members at their annual get-together. That started me on a search for yarns and photos of other motorbikes that might have been taken south by Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE) personnel. I thought initially that there might have been three or four, but now, thanks to emails and other communication from past expeditioners, I’ve counted 32 between the years 1960 and 1980.

In most cases the motorbikes were taken down unofficially, with 17 going to Mawson, six to Davis, nine to Wilkes/Casey, and one to Macquarie Island. In 1947 Doctor Alan Gilchrist took an Indian to Heard Island, but the terrain proved too challenging for it to be used very much. The first motorbikes on the Antarctic continent were two 120 cc machines that had been donated by the Husqvarna company to the 1949–52 Norwegian-British-Swedish Expedition to Dronning Maud Land. Charles Swithinbank, the youngest member of that expedition took the motorbikes out of their crates and used one for riding around and adapted the other to become a back-up generator for use on field trips with tracked vehicles. The Husqvarna that he rode had factory-fitted skis on both sides and these proved very useful. Charles said that he managed to start the motorbike at temperatures as low as −46°C. It was an honour to exchange emails and photos with Charles before he died in early 2014.

In 1960 we used the Velocette to explore beyond Mawson station, usually on Sunday afternoons, and to tow skiers and dog sleds with two or three passengers. The speed was exhilarating. Photos from later years and the other continental stations record similar activities. The Velocette played a central role in finding our DC3 Dakota, which had broken its tie-down cables 20km inland in a blizzard in December. The aircraft was carried into crevasses high above the sea ice. It was beyond recovery, but the motorbike and dog teams recovered navigational and photographic equipment.

As one reads through the yarns sent by ANARE motorcyclists, one behavioural trait seems to recur: a belief that the sea ice in late spring and early summer will support the rider and his machine, as it did all winter, even when it’s obviously thin and even looking black. I had the experience of having to change direction when an Adélie penguin popped up through a hole in thin ice 50m in front of me — and I was silly enough to move closer to take a photo.

Others had similar stories. In 1970, Dave Parer, on foot, broke through black sea ice when he and Malcolm Robertson rode the 500 cc Matchless from Mawson to one of the outlying islands. As Malcolm told it, getting him back onto ice sturdy enough to hold him was touch and go, and the ride back to the station in shared clothing was anything but pleasant. They didn’t tell anyone about the saga for 40 years.

Two riders lost their motorbikes through the sea ice, with the first being Don Seedsman in 1964, out from Mawson. He was doing about 50km/hr when his 150 cc Bantam broke through a frozen-over tide crack.

‘The 50km/h forward inertia of my body deposited me on the far side of the hole, and I only got one wet leg as I climbed out of the crash-hole,’ Don said

‘Luckily the cuffs on my trousers didn’t snag on the foot pegs of the bike. I just had time to look around and see the tail-light disappearing into the water; everything happened so quickly!

‘Phil Jacquemin came past on his locally-made ice yacht and offered me a lift back to base, which I readily accepted.’

The second loss was at Wilkes in 1965 when Mark Forecast was delivering fresh bread across the bay from Wilkes to REPSTAT (‘Replacement station’, which later became the old Casey station).

‘The bike lurched into a tide crack and I went over the handlebars. I was hanging on to them to prevent the Bantam from sinking and I could see blokes on the roof of a new building looking at me, but they couldn’t do much to help. I hung on as long as I could, but eventually I could hang on no longer.’

His fellow expeditioner, John McKenzie, added that ‘Mark was wearing non-porous American thermal boots that he had left undone to reduce the perspiration effect and they flew off as the bike went in. He watched them fill up and sink and then ran two kilometres across the sea ice in his socks to Wilkes station’.

Mark said the owners of the Bantam, Ken Shennan and Tony Warriner, ‘were understanding, telling me that I looked like a drowned rat and that it was my shout for beers’.

A property of sea ice that many of us discovered independently was that when it is thin, say 10cm, it is rubbery and will bend under a weight and even make a wave as a motorbike moves across it. The account that I like most is when Bill Burch, who wintered at Wilkes in 1961, was riding on thin ice and saw a wave following him.

‘I remember that the only reasoning I was capable of at the time was to keep the throttle wide open, turn in a very wide arc for shore and look out for thicker ice to get home on. It seemed important to psyche myself to prepare for the machine to break through and to try to make as slow and as spread-eagled a descent to the ice as possible, in the hope I would not follow it through. After another mile or so — which felt like an eternity — the “bow wave” vanished and clearly both the bike and I made it back.’

In 1961 I sold the Velocette to the Mawson chef, Ted Giddings, and he made a sidecar using a wheelbarrow wheel. It was a great success, with sidecars being very common thereafter. In the company of a Snotrac Ted returned the roughly 100km from Taylor Glacier in just a few hours. He towed a sled with tent, radio and food in case of problems.

The use of motorcycles at the Antarctic Division stations seemed to come to an end in about 1980, possibly the result of quad bikes being taken to the stations officially, as well as a tightening of safety rules.

George Cresswell
ANARE 1960