The base camp at Bunger Hills has been packed up, the scientists have flown home and tonnes of Antarctic ice, sediment and rock samples will soon be shipped back to Australia. The Denman Terrestrial Campaign, at a remote field site in East Antarctica, still has one season to go but it’s already being described as a landmark project, providing insights into ice shelf behaviour for decades to come. We spoke to a few of the people who made it happen.


Dr Souter is the Australian Antarctic Division’s Acting Chief Scientist and was at Bunger Hills for eight weeks as coordinating scientist.

How would you describe what you’ve just experienced? It went very, very well. We delivered so much science, and one of the hallmarks was just how everyone involved, irrespective of whether they were part of the camp set-up crew, a scientist, a field training officer, a doctor, communications operator, chef, electrician, a helicopter engineer or a ground support officer, really delivered in such a collaborative, committed way. It was just fantastic.

What do you attribute that to? One element was the excitement of delivering a deep field campaign. It’s something we haven’t done for a long time. But it was also because of the people involved. We’d say “this is likely what the weather might allow us to do tomorrow, but if it changes, prepare to do this instead”, and people were totally on board with that because they could see that every effort was being made to ensure that everyone got the resources they needed. If they didn’t get to their site today, they’d be prioritised tomorrow.

Twelve projects, 27 scientists, four different funding sources – it sounds extraordinarily complicated. There were lots of moving parts. In reality everyone chipped in to deliver everyone else’s project. Early on we had the RAID [Rapid Access Ice Drill] drilling campaign, which probably took a week or two longer than anticipated so we had to swap a few people out of the drilling crew and a few others, from other projects, stepped in happily, knowing the help they gave would be repaid later and that’s exactly what happened.

Weather was always going to be a major factor. How did that play out? December was fantastic. We only lost one day to bad weather but the last three weeks were very challenging. We had bad weather then we had a medical transfer from Davis to Casey (which meant the helicopters were redeployed for several days). About ten days before the end of the field season, the list of things we still wanted to deliver was very long and we were having serious conversations with the science group about which things were the ‘must dos’ and which were the ‘nice to haves’. We deliberately kept everything on the table because we knew if we had a good couple of days, we could still deliver almost the entire science program.  

Sampling at Mt Strathcona only happened in the final days and it pushed up pretty close to pack up. Was there a thought that it might not happen?  Mt Strathcona, because it’s more remote up on the ice plateau, it blows 40 knots, it’s −20° Celsius, it was always going to be a challenge to get there and you need really good days. Fortunately we got there in the end. There were a few things we didn’t manage to deliver which was a shame, but I think as a campaign we delivered far more than anyone ever envisaged.

There are literally tonnes of rock and ice samples heading back to Australia for analysis. How important is this science going to be?  I think this campaign will ultimately be a landmark campaign for the Antarctic program. The geologists alone collected one tonne of rock and they’ll now be analysed for years to come. That’s an intergenerational contribution to science. The hot water drilling team have probably found things that are genuinely new in terms of how water is circulating underneath the Shackleton Ice Shelf and that will contribute a much greater understanding of how stable our ice shelves are. So the breadth of work that’s been done will be scientifically very important as analysis is conducted and papers are published.


David Knoff is a former army officer and Davis station leader. He was field leader for the Denman Terrestrial Campaign, managing personnel and Edgeworth David base camp.

What were some of the biggest challenges, managing a group this size in such a remote location? You're living in a tent for weeks on end, in 60 knot winds and it’s −10, −15° Celsius and your water bottle is freezing in your tent, but the minute the sun came up, everyone was so keen to get to work again. And that was interesting, having to manage the fatigue of others because they’d work until eight o’clock at night and be up and ready to go the next day. Sometimes I’d have to say “OK, we’re going to do a half day tomorrow. We’re going to get a good sleep and have a late start so people can recharge”. 

You’ve been a station leader before, how different is it being a field leader? Stations are quite routine. At the start, you’ve got resupply and handover and there’s a set list of procedures to follow and through the summer, you’ve got very clear objectives – the ship is coming, or the runway is opening and then flights are coming in and out. We had none of that. We didn’t run to a calendar, we made everything fit around the science, which meant the weather dictated what we did.

How important was weather forecasting? The Bureau of Meteorology has three forecasters at Casey and one based in Hobart, and the support we got was incredible. To be able to get accurate forecasts for so many different locations meant that every afternoon we’d look at the forecast for the next couple of days and say, OK Monday looks good for this area then Tuesday, it’s better somewhere else, and Wednesday it’s going to be limited so it’ll just be a half day. Sometimes if the helicopters were grounded people could walk to a sampling location and walk back, or camp if they had to.

How did the day start? The generators would start up at 6am and then you’d get yourself up and dressed and make some porridge for breakfast. One challenge we had was that in −10° Celsius, honey isn’t overly liquid so we repurposed a battery heater to be a honey heater. Then we’d sit around a WhatsApp conference call at 9am for a weather brief – myself, the pilots, the senior field training officer, the science coordinator and the comms operator. Most of the scientists would gather around a central spot near the coffee, so we’d go in and confirm the plan for the day.

How many people could the choppers take at a time? You could get five or six in there, with the pilot, but it really depended on how much gear there was. If a group was doing sediment coring or rock sampling, they’d have some really heavy drills or they’d be bringing back a lot of samples so it could take two or three trips. The helicopters were actually used to do science as well – the hot water drilling teams used a ground penetrating radar so there’s a radar attachment that they’d sling under the helicopter and they’d fly over the ice and do survey work.

How often would you set up a remote camp?   There were about a dozen and some were for very long durations. RAID 1 went for about a month but others were just three or four days. We did a lot of overnight trips for the drone UAV teams because it was often easier just to send them out with all their gear and they’d stay out there and fly their patterns.

There was a delay at one stage because one of the helicopters needed a spare part. How did you manage that? They kept a spare engine at Casey so that every possible part they could need was there. The original plan was to send an engineer to get the part but in the end they sent the whole engine back to Bunger Hills, very carefully packed!

It sounds like the schedule was pushed to the limit to get that last bit of sampling at Mt Strathcona done. It was getting very late in the season and there was pressure to pack up the camp and start sending people back to Casey. That was probably where I earned my money as field leader because I had to go OK, we need to walk the fine line between wringing out the last important science we need to do, retrieve a few instruments that we still had lying out in the middle of nowhere and start packing up the camp. We started to make things a bit more austere – we packed up the shower tents and started to get rid of the freezers, so dinner became a bit simpler and the vibe changed but people were just so happy to get the last of the science done. And we finished on a very high note, which was an absolute blue sky day.


Don Hudspeth is Operations Planning Manager at the Australian Antarctic Division and Project Manager for the Denman Terrestrial Campaign.

Don you’ve been planning this for nearly two years. It must feel good to see all that preparation pay off.  Look we tested everything in Hobart first. The kitchen was set up at a local warehouse in Hobart last year, to make sure everything worked, and we engaged an expert to help with field camp design. There was a lot of consultation with chefs and about the amount of electricity we’d need and it all worked terrifically well. There were a few minor glitches with the generators but you get that, and we used some solar hubs in the field to keep things a bit quieter.

Was there anything that didn’t go to plan? There are always unanticipated aspects. People asked to spend more time camping in the field but they actually spent more time at base, flying out to their research sites. We ended up using more fuel than anticipated but we changed helicopter types from single engine to twin engine. We put 300 drums out there last season and thought we might need more and we did.

Edgeworth David Base camp has been packed down for winter. Is that a big job? We got terrific help from Casey’s trades teams with that. They were extra hands but they were also fresh hands and that really helped because people were really tired by then. All the tents have been pulled down and containerised so hopefully it’ll all be useable next year.

What happens next year? We’re setting a maximum of 25 to 30 people – we had 40 this year – so there’s a reduced number of scientists going back, either to do science that hasn’t been done before or to retrieve instrumentation. Given we’ll have two helicopters again, it’ll be a similar set up. We might rotate people to Casey and back to give them a break a bit next season but we’ll see – you need some people all season for continuity but you need to be careful you don’t burn them out. Some people were really tired by the end of this season. A huge thanks to everyone at Casey who helped so much. It all worked really well.