Mawson is one of Australia’s three permanent research stations in Antarctica, and is the longest continuously operating station south of the Antarctic Circle (see Founding Mawson).
Some 36 veterans from the 1954 to 1965 era, and other Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE) members who once called Mawson home, gathered at the Australian Antarctic Division to reminisce and learn more about life on the continent today.
Acting Director, Mr Rob Bryson, reflected on the changes since the early years of Australian Antarctic exploration, when much of the Antarctic continent had never been seen or mapped, when huskies were a vital mode of transport, and when having a shower meant heating snow on a coal briquette stove.
But while much has changed, some things remain the same, including the spirit of adventure, comradery and awe that Antarctica inspires amongst those privileged to visit.
For legendary ANARE surveyor, Syd Kirkby, the place and the people saw him return six times after his first winter in 1956–57.
“Even until the last day I stood in Antarctica, it could still stop me in my tracks,” he said.
“To climb a mountain and look out across the Amery Ice Shelf, the Lambert Glacier, the extent of the Prince Charles Mountains and the Mawson escarpment disappearing 200 miles into the distance; it hit me that in all time no eyes had ever seen this. It was an astoundingly humble realisation.”
Syd was only 22 when he joined ANARE in 1956, after impressing the Antarctic Division Director Phil Law with his “cheekiness”, a shared interest in boxing, and his previous credentials working on the Great Sandy Desert expedition as a surveyor.
After a two hour interview with Dr Law, where they spoke “only about fighting” Syd began a career that saw him personally survey more Antarctic territory than any other explorer — including Scott, Shackleton and Mawson.
As the youngest member of the wintering team in 1956 Syd remembers being impressed by the men, many ex-servicemen, who knew about fear and weren’t afraid to give things a go.
He was nicknamed the ‘Boy Bastard’ by two ex-servicemen who took him under their wing.
“Later that year they held a ceremony and graduated me from being the Boy Bastard to being the ‘Uncouth Youth’,” he said happily.
“The next year I was nick-named ‘Jungle’ after the surveyor in the book The Ascent of Rumdoodle, who was always lost.”
Just as Syd’s older colleagues left a lasting and positive impression on him, former auroral physicist George Cresswell remembers the colleagues who made his 1960 winter at Mawson so memorable.
“Seeing blokes like Syd Kirkby and Ian Bird [electronics engineer] work so hard; I had great respect for them and I developed a good work ethic as a result,” George said.
George joined ANARE for the adventure, after watching the movie South with Scott as a young boy. His adventure started immediately with the unloading of the Dakota aircraft from the Thala Dan.
“We dragged the plane up the hill with the D4 tractors and then we all had to help put the wings on. There were 350 nuts and bolts for each wing and it was cold,” he said.
George was also part of a four-person team trying to bring two tractor trains about 600 kilometres from Binders Base to Mawson station. They had flown in to Binders Base in the Dakota and were relying on it for fuel drops. But the Dakota and a Beaver were destroyed in a blizzard.
“We told the station leader we didn’t have enough fuel to get back and he said he’d sort something out and come to our rescue; but that didn’t happen,” George said.
Two of the party navigated by sextant to an old fuel dump 160 kilometres from Mawson, allowing the return of one tractor train, while the other had to be left behind.
Sometimes though, it’s the little things that stick in your mind — like going to the toilet in a blizzard during a field trip.
“You get into the lee of a tractor and the wind and snow is swirling around and you want to hurry up. When you pull up your underdacks they’re full of snow. I tell you, you don’t forget that!” George said.
Australian Antarctic Division