Portrait of Syd Kirkby by Tom Macbeth.
Portrait of Syd Kirkby by Tom Macbeth. PHOTO COURTESY: TOM MACBETH

'Yes' to a life of huge icy challenges

THE universal reaction to first experiencing Antarctica is "awe and wonder", according to one of the country's trailblazers, Syd Kirkby AO MBE.

The 86-year-old retired surveyor, recognised by the Australian Museum as one of our 50 greatest explorers and by The Australian newspaper as one of our 10 greatest adventurers, said he had seen people "actually incapacitated by awe, they were just so overwhelmed by the grandeur, scale and magnificence".

And despite wintering (1956-57, 1960-61 and 1979-81) and summering there (1961-62, 1962-63 and 1964-65 and 1979-80) as part of Australia's Antarctic program, undertaking extensive sledging journeys for exploration and mapping, and returning in later years with tourists, he said Antarctica remained fascinating and incomparable.

Syd is recorded as having explored and mapped more of the Australian Antarctic Territory than anyone else - much of it by dogsled in temperatures to minus 70 degrees Celsius.

He established the most easterly, westerly and southerly astrofixes in the Australian Antarctic Territory and with two comrades became the first and only people to explore the Prince Charles Mountains on the ground more than 60 years ago.

While he has not personally noticed any climate-related environmental changes over the years in Antarctica, he said "it behoves us to treat the planet with complete circumspection and care because that is the right thing to do" rather than continuing with our "profligate and careless use of resources".

SET041119 ali Syd grandThe immensity of the snowy cliffs and the vastness of the Antarctic made Syd Kirkby feel small as he set out with his dogs, sledges and two comrades.
SET041119 ali Syd grandThe immensity of the snowy cliffs and the vastness of the Antarctic made Syd Kirkby feel small as he set out with his dogs, sledges and two comrades. PHOTO COURTESY: SYD KIRKBY

Living on the edge

Syd said he had never felt any enmity or opposition from the continent, as some people articulated, but it was certainly not an environment to be taken lightly.

He recalled winds so strong they had picked up and blown a cable-tied DC3 plane over 12km, and spending months in a 2m x 1.5m tent, hundreds of miles from Mawson station, with just a handful of dogs and two comrades, knowing that a simple tear in the fabric could mean they perished.

"Knowing there is no salvation except as a result of your efforts and those of your two comrades is a very privileged feeling," he said, comparing it to the bond of fellow soldiers or those united by natural disaster.

He said he had learnt a lot "as a 22-year-old kid" working with former Second World War servicemen including Battle of Britain veterans during his first winter in Antarctica.

"They knew themselves, and they knew about bravery and honour and comradeship," he said.

"To run like billy-oh trying to keep up with those men and then realise after a few months that they treated you just like one of them was pretty heady stuff ... mind you, you're not like them at all."

However, Syd had fought his own battles to be there. He overcame childhood polio and being told he would never walk again through his own determination and his father's dedication and gruelling exercise regime.

Syd described the comradeship between sledgers as "probably closer than most family relationships", because so much time was spent in complete dependence on each other, traversing terrain knowing that "no feet have ever been where your feet are".

Working with the sledge dogs, which he described as "wonderful and beautiful animals", he said was also a privilege, although "a fairly sweaty and hardworking privilege".

However, he admitted it was also a gruesome activity.

"It was dirty, filthy, brutal, and often a death sentence for the dogs, but it worked at a time and place when nothing else would," he said.

Syd Kirkby is recorded as having explored and mapped more of the Australian Antarctic Territory than anyone else.
Syd Kirkby is recorded as having explored and mapped more of the Australian Antarctic Territory than anyone else. PHOTO COURTESY: UNIVERSITY OF TH

Although in his earliest expeditions about 85 per cent of Antarctica was unexplored, Syd does not see himself as an adventurer, with the label "explorer" sitting more comfortably with him.

"An adventurer is someone who does things for the gratification of the thrill; I and the people I worked with are some of the most rational people on Earth - you have to be to survive," he said.

But having worked in both Antarctica and, at the other extreme, in the Great Sandy Desert with some of the last Aborigines living completely traditional tribal lifestyles in the 1950s, he said: "I have certainly been blessed to work in wondrous places".

Places which bring out the best in people.

"I have practically never seen anyone not ennobled by Antarctica and Antarctic service," Syd said.

"It demands a great deal of you and you step up to that - you look at your comrades as giants, and they are tough as goats' knees yet as concerned as any mother."

He recalled his team running beside or behind the sledge typically 20 nautical miles (38km) a day - on one memorable occasion covering 67 nautical miles (123km) because they were heading home.

"That's a decent day's work," he laughed.

The Antarctic Treaty and Honours

Syd spoke to Seniors News prior to a lecture on The Getting of Australian Antarctica at the University of the Sunshine Coast in association with Royal Geographical Society of Queensland.

Australia's Antarctic territory covers nearly 5.9 million sq km, about 42 per cent of Antarctica and 80 per cent of the total area of Australia itself - as Syd said, "a serious bit of real estate".

However, what he marvels at is that Australia gained this land at a time when we still only existed as a colony. He regards the 1959 Antarctic Treaty as "remarkable", its essence contained in a few short lines in Clause 4, which states that no unilateral action by any power will affect existing territorial claims.

That ensures there can be no "territorial ructions" or power plays, as feared in the Cold War days and just as likely during today's political turmoil, to put the land or the scientific work carried out there in peril.

And for Syd, that is paramount.

"I'm intensely aware of my good fortune ... It's been a great life," he said, adding a salute to the wives and families who had made it possible for all those who worked in Antarctica "doing these hair-brained and immensely dangerous things" at a time when it was very unusual for women to have to cope with raising a family on their own.

"And the majority did it bloody brilliantly," he said.

They and all his fellow comrades and mentors, he said, stand beside him every time he talks about or accepts an award for his work in Antarctica.

Syd has been honoured with a number of Antarctic landmarks in his name - Mount Kirkby, Kirkby Glacier, Kirkby Shoal and Kirkby Head - and following the Polar Medal (1958) and his MBE (1966), was awarded in 2018 both an Officer of the Order of Australia Medal (AO) and the Australian Geographic Society's highest honour, the Lifetime of Adventure Award.

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