An Antarctic Traverse (1980)

Enderby Land to Mawson Coast

I sit here tonight, the 21st March 1980, in a blizzard in Antarctica, some 300km Southwest of Mawson listening to myself as my mind just takes charge. The mood is clearly torn between joy and being melancholy. But I am glad of both.

The wind outside is raging past our tractor train, carrying blinding drift with it. And as I listen closely to it I hear it delivering a message to me. It is reminding me of our inability to control the environment. Imagine if we could; it would take a bit of the challenge out of life. And also if it wasn't blowing I wouldn't be here, so well relaxed and listening to the winds from without and within. Antarctica ... what is this place? Why am I here? To listen to the winds? What's in the wind? What is in the wind indeed? Lots of food for thought. As Bob Dylan announced years ago 'The answer is Blowin' in the Wind'!

My mind pursued such issues for some considerable time and it turned out to be quite a philosophical debate going on inside me. It seems that it is only times like these ... time of forced inactivity, does one relax and have time to spare to be able to quietly interogate oneself about fundamental events that are taking place in ones own life.

The melancholy feeling that I experienced at that time was when I thought about my loved ones back in Australia. I then remembered a conversation I had with a fellow expeditioner when we were on the voyage down to Mawson in November 1979. We both agreed that our motives for coming to this great land were largely based in the self. We wanted to have a unique experience in this the last of the continents to be explored ... sort of pioneers in a sense. We wanted to have an adventure. We wanted to do research. During which time our families, who of course were involved in the decision making, had to carry on in the native land without the support we would have supplied had we opted to stay. But comfort was found in the wyzza's, that they were managing well in our absence.

I then moved into the emotional area known as joy. For me joy is sitting on Proclamation Island and looking at a newly hatched Antarctic Petrel. The mother hovering and gliding above, was feeling pretty good about her recent arrival. That's worth gliding for - that's joy - as she proudly darts in and out on the prevailing wind; it's also joy for the little fresh form of feathers, and joy for me in sharing all this; taking up residence in a birds mind. Then there's the traverse itself, being together with seven other guys and reaching out to them; feeling really good about sharing each day as it comes along. One feels special pleasure when sitting up in the operators seat of a D5 tractor drawing a train of sleds and/or caravans behind and watching as the Great Southern Continent slowly passes by. Occasionally one becomes preoccupied but not to the extent that there's not an awareness of being here and deriving joy therein.

Tea

The traverse began for me on the 27th February, 1980 when I flew to Mt King, about 450km West of Mawson. Mt King had been the administrative camp for the Enderby Land programme which had taken place for several summers prior to 1978/80. The geological, geophysical and surveying projects in this part of Antarctica was now complete and it was the job of the traverse party to pack up all the gear at Mt King and by overland tractor train return it safely to Mawson. It was estimated that it would take about 6 weeks. However accurate estimates are difficult to make in such a land of unknown variables. John Marsden piloted the aircraft, a Porter specially adapted for flying in Antarctica and I was joined by another passenger, Brian Ball on the flight.

Hey man

The traverse party consisted of eight men; David Blaby (Brutus), Party Leader and Plant Inspector, Robert Yost (Rusty), Diesel Mechanic, Graham Pryde (Jumbo), Electrician, Garry Hardie (Snoopy), Plumber, Tom Maggs (Radish), radio Operator), Robert Schahinger (Weather), Meteorological Observer and Navigator, Brian Ball (Father), Carpenter and myself Brian Gaull (Big Daddy or Big "D"), Geophysicist. I was on the traverse primarily to measure the force and direction of the earth's magnetic field at seven previously occupied stations (the G.E. stations) along the way. However no matter what our official jobs were, we all took turns at operating the tractors, assisting in various duties with regard to the maintenance of the vehicles as well as domestic duties like cooking and cleaning. It was a team effort.

Waddya mean

Our first task on arrival at Mt King was to dismantle the remaining parcols and equipment and pack them onto sleds. The next two days after my arrival this work was impossible owing to a blizzard which reduced visibility down to a few yards. Radish and Weather had to spend these days in the radio parcol for the duration of the blizzard as the drift had built up near the door and they were trapped. Most of the preparatory work was completed on the first two days in March. Our mail arrived by Porter on the 2nd March. Then on the 3rd, 4th and 5th March a blizzard set in and further delayed our departure. These idle days enabled the crew to get to know one another and did much for the morale of the party.

The tractors and trains that went to make up the traverse consisted of 3 D5 tractors, 'Loretto', 'Jumbo' (unrelated to 'Jumbo' the man, so he claims) and 'Monica', and one D4 tractor known as 'Cannonball'. As far as drivers went, Cannonball was least sought after as it had a very cramped cab with virtually no heating. I think everyone cheered when Cannonball went into a much deserved retirement before we had completed the journey. The trains being towed by these tractors were made up of: 'Loretto' pulled three caravans (living quarters for the crew), one power van/workshop and 2 fuel sleds. Later she also pulled 'Cannonball'. 'Jumbo' towed a van known as the 'Flyers Van', a spare power van, various 'parcol' and other sleds full of gear from Mt King. After 'Cannonball' broke down 'Loretto' at times pulling 9 sleds in all.

'Monica' was essentially the fuel train along with other equipment from Mt King. 'Cannonball' pulled only 3 relatively light sleds until she 'gasped her last'. The D5's all pulled loads of approximately 28 tonnes. See photograph included which illustrates how the trains were made up.

Tea

Final arrangements were made on the 6th March, followed by our departure for Mawson on the 7th March. However we were further frustrated by 'white-out' conditions which made driving impossible and had to stop after only 7.5 km. The white-out lifted and we were underway again in the afternoon and covered 3.6km for the first day of travel. The average speed was 4.5 km per hour.

Altogether the traverse took five weeks and 2 days once it left Mt King to reach Mawson. Fifteen of these days were non-travel days, when it was either a blizzard, thick drift or white-out conditions which prevented travel. One of the non-travel periods we were stationary for 8 consecutive days. Although the first few days of a blizzard were often enjoyed by the party owing to long hours and strenuous work on good days, some of the party often become a little restless by the end of the period. At no time did morale become low though. Some of the difficulties experienced on the trip other than blizzards and white-out were cold temperatures, mechanical failures, sastrugi, bogging, broken towing cables, high altitudes, getting lost and running out of cigarettes!

Dieso

Temperatures dropped to -40íC causing many fuel blockages when it froze in the pipes and painful minor frostbite - fingers, toes and noses were the most susceptible. Mechanical failure included the Herman Nelsons (used to heat the tractor engines in the mornings), the D4 broke down completely and had to be towed for the last week, problems with one of the power generators and fuel blockages as mentioned. Both Brutus and Rusty and at times Jumbo and Snoopy worked relentlessly on these failures to minimise loss in travel time. The sastrugi at times was hard to negotiate measuring up to 1.5 metres in double amplitude. At other times the tractors became bogged when the snow conditions became soft. This was coupled with broken towing cables and slings. Crevasses at least 10 metres across had to be crossed but fortunately no problems were experienced until the last day when on three occasions, either a tractor or a sled found a yawning hole in the ice. None of these were too serious and the total resultant loss in time would have amounted to only a couple of hours. When travelling on the high plateau at altitudes in excess of 2000 metres all personnel found that even the smallest physical work resulted in breathlessness.

Turners

I am sure that our navigator would resent my inclusion of 'getting' as a problem. However on a couple of occasions the party camped in failing light conditions without a navigational cane in view. This did not create any real problem the next day as the cane-line was relocated without much effort. Praise is certainly warranted to the navigator for a commendable job. Also on two other occasions one tractor train was unsighted by the other three trains for relatively short periods of time and also did not result in real problems. I cannot say that for the last problem listed; On many occasions the smokers in the crew were seen scrounging through the floor of the tractors collecting tobacco from the butts that had been discarded during easier times. The relief visibly observed on their faces was of great magnitude when relief supplies were reached at cane M27 - about 27km from Mawson. Two of the smokers almost fainted when they smoked two cigarettes simultaneously at excessive rates. They had underestimated the effects of the nicotine - especially seeing as they'd been virtually non-smokers for days prior to M27.

Mirror mirror

It was exciting on the last day (12th April) when the destination was almost in view. The reddish hue of sunrise behind the Masson range as the tractor trains weaved their way through Horden's Gap was spectacular. It appeared as though all the ranges were ablaze. The mountains were silhouetted against this ruddy morning sky. The day was fine, the tractors performing well, the crew all 'fired up'. The crevasses already mentioned, hardly dented the elevated morale of the party. The tractor 'Jumbo', sluggish earlier in the trip, found new heart and in sixth gear (the only one with six forward gears) leaped to the front of the line thrusting headlong towards the cheering 'crowds' from Mawson who had decided to meet the traverse at Gwamm. What a day; certainly memorable. The return seemed to be significant even to nature as it was heralded by the most amazing iceberg silhouettes ever to be witnessed by the writer. The party that followed that night will long be remembered as celebrations carried on deep into the night. As the night wore on the wind velocities experienced during blizzards increased. The size of crevasses approached the radius of the earth but no-one really minded. The traverse song below portrays some of these adventures and stories.

In conclusion I would like to say that many thanks go to every member of the party for their respective individual contributions giving rise to an even greater team effort, which resulted in an extremely successful traverse. Brutus had the unenviable task of having to make some rather difficult decisions, which he handled admirably well (there were only two mutinees ... joking) along with ensuring morale remained high. Without question the whole trip was an experience of a life-time.

Big 'D'.


Extracts from the traverse song

We gypsies of the Tundra
Are an intrepid lot
Most men just sit and wonder
Just what it is we've got
We gypsies of the Tundra
Are an intrepid lot
No man can put asunder
No matter what the plot
We gypsies of the Tundra
Are an intrepid lot
Thro' snow and bliz and thunder
Like Shackleton and Scott
We gypsies of the Tundra
Are an intrepid lot
Traversed from King to Mawson
Not dropping in one slot