What we do when we can’t go outside at Mawson, and George Cresswell again takes us back to Antarctica in the 60s.

Blizz day on station

Winter will inevitably bring days of bad weather, so let’s see what people do to stay warm on such days.

Touring the station, trying to stay out of the worst of the weather, I went looking for where people were.

Some were working quietly in the workshop, some in the noisy MPH (main power house), one in Rosella (the chippy’s workshop), two in the operations building, one in the met (meteorological) section, one in hydro (hydroponics — relaxing) and the rest in the red shed accommodation unit.

Myself, I found the best day to be slushy (assisting the chef) is days like this, hanging out in the kitchen staying warm and well fed.


Mawson 1960 as remembered by George Cresswell

Recently, former Antarctic expeditioner George Cresswell gave a talk about his time in Antarctica, one that Mawson expeditioners fully embraced.

Last week the story detailed the use of motorcycles in Antarctica.

Remembering Mawson, 1960

We had 33 people wintering at Mawson in 1960: 21 civilians and 12 aircraft personnel. What that means is that there would be 33 independent stories and I can only give my version and recollections, typed up in an hour and a half, and admit that I’ve probably forgotten many of the year’s events.

My main task was to get data out of a double-telescope four-colour auroral photometer that we took down in boxes. This was somewhat handicapped by the Division only employing brilliant young electronics engineer, Ian Bird, very late in 1959. So Ian took down boxes of components: electronic valves, resistors, capacitors, switches, sheet aluminium, etc, designed and built the four pre-amplifiers and amplifiers that the photometer needed. In addition we had to assemble and align the Meccano of bits and pieces that comprised the telescopes — and build and fit out the new “auroral hut”.

To cut a long story short, we got it running and collected data as we took turns to be inside running the chart recorder and taking notes or outside in the cold pointing the photometer and describing the aurora into a mouthpiece.

Let me add that Ian at age 77 is still designing electronics for atmospheric studies and selling units to places like Dubai and Pakistan. He must be one of the few exporters of electronics in Australia.

During the year there were always shared jobs like providing manpower for putting up or repairing buildings or putting the wings on the Dakota. Then there were the two rostered jobs:

As night watch one had to keep all the coal briquette pot belly stoves going in the sleeping and scientific huts, mop the rec and mess room floors, attend to the toilet, and carry 20 litre-buckets, made from kerosene tins, full or party full of liquid waste some 50m down to a dumping area — a hazardous and thankless journey in a blizzard.

As slushy or cook’s assistant one cleaned up, set the tables, dished out food if required, and washed up.

As to life at the station during the year, we had 30-odd 16mm movies that we knew back to front. At times the movies had quite an effect on how we talked, as did some of the LP records and W.E Bowman’s book The Ascent of Rumdoodle.

Some of us skied in West Valley or rode around on or were towed by my Velocette motorbike or the Ferguson tractor. Darts and chess were popular. There was a stereogram and LP records. Saturday night was party night. We had home brew beer.

The Russians visited every six weeks or so from Mirny in one or the other of their two aircraft. Fortunately we had a Russian speaker, Oleg Zakharoff, to interpret the speeches. The Russians brought vast quantities of de-icer alcohol for their propellers, which they drank. It was the sort of drink that one would try once — then never again. It was incredibly strong. The Russians did a movie swap with us, taking our ‘The Fabulous Texan’ and giving us the exquisite ‘Swan Lake’ of the Bolshoi Ballet made in 1957 with Maya Plisetskaya in the dual role of Odette and Odile. Most of us became lifetime lovers of ballet as a result and were saddened by Maya’s death earlier this year.

Two vehicles were lost through the sea ice: the first was a Weasel en route to Auster emperor penguin rookery. At that time the OIC put out a directive that there would be no more sea ice travel. Several weeks later he had some cause to be out on the sea ice in our jeep. He had taken Neville Collins with him. Nev could see that the ice was thin and so he opted to ride on the bonnet, which was fortunate because the jeep went in through the thin sea ice and Nev’s momentum carried ahead so that he landed on intact sea ice without so much as a drop of water on him. Henk demonstrated remarkable agility and shot out of the driver’s seat like a jack-in-the-box.

There was a busy field trip program, with surveyor Syd Kirkby, geologist Ric Ruker and radio operator Ken Bennett spending a couple of months in Enderby Land early in the year.

Then a two D4 tractor train journey by Henk Geysen, Syd Kirkby, Neville Collins and Doug Machin in to Binders Base in the Southern Prince Charles Mountains, leaving in August and encountering temperatures down to −58 C and dropping one D4 driven by Henk deep enough into a crevasse so that no part of it projected above the surface. Two days of digging followed. From Binders Base there was a significant field trip with dogs and a Weasel by Ric Ruker, Neville Collins and Ian Bird to study the geology of the surrounding mountains. The temperatures were below −40 C and the Weasel broke through a snow bridge over a crevasse, presenting a two-day extrication job.

All the while the RAAF contingent was running aerial photography and mapping flights, as well as flying our Dr Geoff Newton to Davis now and then to check the eight blokes wintering there.

At the end of November four of us — Geoff Newton, Noel Jennings, Viv Hill and I — flew in the Dakota to Binders Base to bring back the tractor trains. They took a couple of weeks to dig out and prepare and just as we got underway Viv received a radio message to inform us that a major blizzard had blown away the Dakota and shredded the Beaver aircraft.

We were relying on the Dakota to deliver fuel to us, as we only had enough to get half of the 300 miles home. The OIC Henk Geysen told us not to worry and just keep going as fuel would be brought to us, part way, by a D4 from Mawson.  That didn’t happen. We got half way home and ran out of fuel. Fortunately we had a petrol-engine Weasel tracked vehicle and our navigator/engineer Noel Jennings and party leader Geoff Newton went ahead 30 miles or so and found a few drums of D4 fuel at a dump left on a previous year. That enabled us to get one tractor train home. We also had several adventures with crevasses that involved more digging and clever work, directed by Noel Jennings, with winches, blocks and tackles, and ‘deadmen’ buried as anchors. And I think we had to re-attach tracks that the Weasel threw off on five occasions.

And that’s it.