Van life

In the early days of the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE), caravans were used as temporary accommodation during the construction of station buildings, and for reconnaissance and survey journeys. Tracked vehicles, such as Weasels and Caterpillar tractors, were used to tow caravans into the field.

Today, vans are still used as accommodation for short periods in the field, allowing scientific projects and field operations to reach remote parts of the Australian Antarctic Territory. Vans are towed using oversnow transport vehicles such as Hägglunds, and are often accompanied in a traverse convoy by Caterpillar tractors, towing 20 tonne sleds with equipment and supplies. Vans have traditionally been painted international orange for maximum visibility.

The history of vans used by Australia in Antarctica provides a fascinating insight into the evolution of design. In practice, it was often a case of trial-and-error as to which design would work best in the extreme Antarctic conditions. In terms of performance and comfort, each had its strengths and weaknesses.

Barge survival caravans

Built in 1953 by Benson and Shaw in Melbourne, expeditioner Bob Dovers’ design of the barge caravans may have been influenced by the French ‘scow’ — a flat-bottomed boat used for transporting cargo to and from ships in harbour. They were constructed with marine plywood in two pieces, bolted together with narrow steel-capped sledge runners for towing across the ice.

Watertight and weatherproof, barge vans were designed to float if they broke through the ice. During an epic journey to Scullin Monolith in May 1954, this capability was inadvertently put to the test. In his diary, Officer-In-Charge Bob Dovers wrote: “A very worrying night ensued. The caravan was under constant bombardment by ice fragments that rattled on the plywood walls…We could hear water lapping…and the caravan was continually bumped by moving floes that scraped loudly against the thin plywood hull”.

Despite their simple design, barge vans were heavy when loaded with field equipment, and difficult to haul.

PID caravans

Built in 1957 at the Gordon Institute of Technology in Geelong, with design input from expeditioner John Béchervaise, the PID caravans were one of the first purpose-built for traverses. Named ‘PID’ after the colloquial expression for a bed, they were light but strongly built, and mounted on cargo sledges. Constructed with bondwood, their sloped walls were designed to glide through sastrugi ridges, and reduce wind effect and drift accumulation on the lee side.

Aneata caravan

Designed and built by expeditioner Don Butling in 1960, using spare Oregon framing timbers and plywood, the Aneata caravan was bolted onto a surplus Weasel cargo sledge with steel-shod runners (Australian Antarctic Magazine 25: 22–23, 2013). Due to the lack of available insulation material, only a 50mm air gap separated its occupants from the harsh Antarctic weather.

Named for Don’s wife, the Aneata caravan made several trips across the plateau to a site called ‘S2’, 80km inland from Wilkes. It housed expeditioners during the 1962 epic journey from Wilkes to the Russian base, Vostok; a distance of 1500km traversing to an altitude of 2500m. Temperatures plummeted to −80°C, earning Aneata the moniker ‘Ice Maiden of Antarctica’. Later used as an emergency hut at the Haupt Nunataks, it was eventually returned to Australia, and today occupies a unique place in the Antarctic Division’s heritage collection and Australian Antarctic history.

RMIT vans

In the 1960s, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) constructed a traverse van based on the PID design, but built using fibreglass and composite mouldings in a two piece shell. With smooth lines and rounded corners, its lightweight design was mounted on a Norwegian-type sledge.

The external fibreglass skin was insulated with polyurethane. An internal skin of fibreglass and an external coat of resin finished the sandwich style construction. A Perspex observation dome mounted in the roof, provided natural light. Inside were benches and four bunks that were integrally formed into the walls, and a custom kerosene heater.

After a series of modifications over the years, this enduring and versatile form of field accommodation is still in service today.

ANARE living caravans

Used extensively in the early 1960s, the ANARE living caravans, known as ‘freighter vans’, were designed as a four berth, sledge-mounted container, constructed with light-gauge pressed steel sections that could be hauled by a D4 tractor. The van featured double armour plate glass windows and a rooftop escape hatch. It was insulated with three inch Onazote rubber, while the walls and ceiling were clad with Masonite. Gas bottles in the cold porch supplied fuel for the stove and radiator. Ventilators were provided in the roof and at either end of the van, and electrical lighting was powered by a generator mounted on the tractor.

Franklin caravans

For many Australians, the iconic Franklin caravans were synonymous with family vacations. From the mid-1970s until the mid-1980s, ANARE arranged for several fibreglass moulded Franklin caravans to be manufactured to serve as traverse vans, automatic weather stations and auroral radar observation shelters. The Franklin caravans were insulated with two inch thick walls. The traditional chassis was replaced with Smith sledges. Still sought after today by vintage enthusiasts, Franklin holiday caravans were renowned for their longevity.

Container traverse vans

Today, container traverse vans constructed from insulated panels or shipping containers, mounted on traverse sleds, are used in the field. Capable of enduring long periods of overland travel behind tracked vehicles in tough conditions, they often serve as living vans, science laboratories, communications centres, or generator vans, in modular field camps. Container traverse vans are well-insulated and provide a high quality working and living environment.

Opportunity or ordeal

Traversing in Antarctica is a noisy, bumpy and slow process — caravans offer the joy of modest comfort and cosiness in an otherwise hostile climate. In the words of Jim Dragisic, team leader of the 2002–03 Prince Charles Mountains Expedition of Germany and Australia traverse: “For some, traversing can be an ordeal that they would sooner forget; for others it can be a special experience that presents many challenges and gives them the opportunity to see some of the most wonderful sights imaginable”.

Tess Egan1 and Dave McCormack2
1Librarian, Australian Antarctic Division
2Former expeditioner and Phillip Law Medal recipient