Getting the measure of Macquarie Island field huts

Hiking 80 kilometres in 13 days over steep, rough and sometimes boggy terrain, in driving rain, and with more than 20 kilograms on your back, is not for the faint-hearted. But when the weather gods smile and your journey takes you past vast colonies of penguins, seals and seabirds, on your way to six iconic Macquarie Island field huts, it’s as good as it gets. Especially if you’re already an outdoorsy type.

For the Australian Antarctic Division’s Macquarie Island Infrastructure Project Officer, Paul Farrow, it was the trip of a lifetime to asses each of the six huts for replacement or refurbishment.

The assessment is part of a broader modernisation plan for the island’s infrastructure, which includes building a new research station and decommissioning the existing 70 year-old one (see Australian Antarctic Magazine 35: 6–7, 2018).

“The field huts are as integral to life and scientific research on Macquarie Island as the actual station, so it’s important to get this right,” Mr Farrow said.

Antarctic Division spatial ecologist Dr Aleks Terauds, and one of the site foremen for Managing Contractor VEC Civil Engineering, Ben Woods, also joined Mr Farrow.

“The three of us worked together to assess the structural and functional aspects of the six huts, while Aleks also undertook an environmental impact survey of each hut’s current location and any proposed new locations, or extensions or renovations,” Mr Farrow said

“Our reports will form the basis for recommendations on which huts should be refurbished or replaced, where new huts might be sited, and how much it will cost.”

While assessing the structural integrity of each hut Mr Farrow also undertook a detailed inventory of fixtures, fittings and equipment, including photographs and video. He developed floor plans for each hut, surveyed levels around the hut sites, and marked up site plans with potential staging areas for construction crew and equipment.

In terms of function, the team looked at what works and what doesn’t, based on discussions with past and current users of the huts and Dr Terauds’ extensive knowledge from years of seabird and terrestrial research based out of the huts (see next story).

“Some of the most important functional elements we identified were the need for roomy, ventilated cold porches to dry and store wet gear and other supplies, plenty of natural light, and clever heating,” Dr Terauds said.

“Then there are things like access to water and managing grey water disposal, the interaction between spaces inside the huts, and even having a few creature comforts, like bucket showers.

“In my view, the key thing is that any new build, extension or renovation should not be over-engineered, because simple often works best in this environment and generally requires the least maintenance.”

Dr Terauds also conducted a flora and fauna survey around each hut and any potential new hut locations, including areas for temporary accommodation, helicopter landings and construction materials.

“Most of my report is about the plants or animals found in the vicinity of the huts or new build sites,” he said.

“Fortunately, most of the huts are away from penguin colonies, so wildlife considerations generally relate to helicopter landing or drop sites.”

The team’s reports will feed into an existing ‘functional design brief’ for the huts, which sets out the standards required of each hut. These include the number of people each hut should accommodate, the purpose of a cold porch and protected entrance, the tasks that need to be supported by the kitchen and living space, power generation, water supply, heating, lighting and waste management, amongst other things.

Only two of the huts, at Green Gorge and Hurd Point, come close to meeting this brief and are the most likely candidates for renovation or extension. Two prefabricated fibreglass ‘googies’ at Waterfall Bay and Brothers Point are too small, and poorly suited to the wet subantarctic environment. The old hut at Bauer Bay now has a creek running beneath it, while at Davis Point, a water tank is currently used more as a refuge.

Once decisions have been made on which huts will be replaced or refurbished, the architects and engineers subcontracted by VEC will turn their thoughts to the detailed design of the huts, factoring in the logistics of getting construction materials or flat-packed structures to sites.

“It’s likely that we’ll have to fly everything to site and have construction crews walk in, so the design of the huts will have to be simple,” Mr Farrow said.

“We may be able to construct them in Hobart and flat-pack them for transport, re-erect them at Macquarie Island station and then fly them to sites. This will reduce the amount of time the construction team need to spend at each site.”

Despite the sentimental values attached to the current huts, expeditioners know it’s time for change.

“The reality is that the huts are at the end of their life and, like the station, they have become a cost and maintenance burden,” Mr Farrow said.

“This is an opportunity to rectify the issues and make the huts comfortable to work in.

“It’s exciting to think that the new huts will be designed to respond to their local areas, including the views, wildlife and weather. They will become places people want to visit for the experience of seeing the huts and staying in them.”

For Dr Terauds, who spent years of his life in the huts, and walking the tracks and beaches between while conducting a range of research, it’s a bitter-sweet but necessary step.

“This will allow the Australian Antarctic Division to leave a legacy for the next generation of researchers. It will be good for the island and the science that will happen there,” he said.

Wendy Pyper
Australian Antarctic Division