Chapter Five

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Well here was the N.Z. Endeavour in McMurdo Sound in the summer of ’56-57 with nowhere to go. The captain of the Endeavour – a naval ship – was, as all captains are, concerned mostly about the safety of his ship and crew. He was apparently ranked by Hillary for the purposes of the expedition so some friction developed. But the ever-resourceful Yanks kindly came to the rescue by bulldozing a site for us at Pram Point on Ross Island. This had been so named by Scott and was about 3 kms from the McMurdo base and was, in fact, an easy walk. So what more did we want? Theoretically because we were in the Ross Dependency, claimed by N.Z., we could go anywhere without permission of the Yanks but being both English-speaking people (well almost!) there was quite a lot of mutual understanding between us. So the Pram Point site was gratefully accepted and the base is still there today though much bigger.

That year it could be reached from open sea in McMurdo Sound by a relatively short journey across the sea-ice by tractors hauling over pre-fabricated base hut and supplies. But it was one hell of a place for a geo-magnetic observatory being on the lower slopes of Mt. Erebus, an active volcano and thus the source of strong magnetic anomalies. I pointed this out to Bob Miller and he had to agree with me having good scientific knowledge himself. Of course there was no option, so that was where it was put. There had to be some rearrangement of the hut layout so that vehicles could reach out main huts without driving right past the two magnetic huts and rendering the place virtually useless for geomagnetics. Bob Miller and Randal Heke therefore agreed to alter the base layout with the magnetic huts quite far away. And that

[Photo of base with the magnetic huts in the distance]

is the way it is today even after a complete base reconstruction in more recent years.

By the way Randal Heke was the M.O.W. (Ministry of Works) supervisor who flies and few other blokes came that summer to erect the huts from the pre-fabricated sections. This was while everyone lived where they could, some in tents at Pram Point some, like reporters, still on the ship. Randal Heke, and everyone including the scientists, worked hard indeed. Scientific work, proper, of course could not start until the huts were erected so the scientists served their Antarctic apprenticeship living in tents and helping Randal about 26 hours a day! The tents were then cold at about -5 to -15 degrees celsius and it was better to be out working.

When the huts were finished everyone moved in. The designer of the two sleeping huts had seen that every bunk had a tiny cubicle of its own. This was a fabulous bonus but was in fact lost when the base was rebuilt a year later which was bunk dormitories. The cook, Selwyn Buckwell (“Buck”) – what else could he be called? served very fine meals – even the Yanks enjoyed them when they could escape over to us! Buck had a day off on Sundays when a rostered couple of men cooked. The pair for the week also did many duties such as collecting snow for the snow melters, emptying the latrines into a tide crack and pumping fuel as well as, for the scientists, their normal work. A busy week as some work had to be done regardless.

Water is always short in Antarctica. Did you think it was easy to get? Not at all! And fire is an ever-present hazard. So our base comprised of separate huts so we could not be burned up. The exhaust heat from our diesel-powered electricity generators was used to melt snow. About one bath a fortnight was allowed. Fine, for everyone smells the same! And we did actually have a proper bath too.

Now I come to winter activities.


Mid-winter menu 1957

One was the building of Hillary’s aforementioned caboose. I’m still not sure what Hillary and the other non-scientists like Ellis, Bates, Ayres, Brookes, Douglas were actually expected to do in winter. The scientists (we made no distinction between scientists and technicians, even if this is usually made in normal science institutions, and I don’t propose to [here???]) had busy over-field programs and of course cannot normally call upon the assistance of unqualified people without courting disaster in the work. This actually happened the following year.

Here I must say that Hillary himself was sufficiently understanding to know that as my work involved 12 hourly visits to one of the magnetic huts it might be hazardous in a blizzard. So he personally erected a life-line from the main science hut. It was sometimes necessary in the continuous darkness and blizzards when the 12 hourly visits were nasty. Especially when temperature fell down to -50 degrees celsius.

Bob Miller started weekly winter talks – one for every expedition guy. They have the idea that it was done by Scott also. So we had 23 lectures, once a week by one member. The subjects were very diverse and mostly I don’t remember them. Hillary’s lecture was on crocodile hunting and the Solomon Island where he was in the war. Bob Miller’s was about bullfighting in Spain which he had actually seen, the cruelty of this was clearly invoked. It was not the thing to talk about one’s work at Scott.

Mine on “interplanetary travel” was received with open disbelief by many – especially air force people who then, in pre-sputnik days thought I was suggesting a sort of advanced aircraft visit to planets. At that time I was an F.B.I.S. (Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society) so I did know what I was talking about. But to the surprise of everyone, including especially myself, just a few months after this the Russians launched the first sputnik, it was the world’s first artificial satellite. We were still at Scott Base. I was vindicated.

Jim Bates and I wondered if Scott Base could launch its own. This was to be by clobbering together a lot of standard jato – assistance take off rockets (to be stolen from the Yanks!) into a space rocket rather akin to a prewar B.I.S. proposal. Jim was always coming up with advanced ideas, some fine.

Another rather unofficial activity in which I was involved that winter was finding a lot of aviation fuel drums which had been lost in a blizzard of heavy snow. I was to use one of my magnetometers to detect


Vern with a Q.H.M. magnetometer

the magnetic anomaly. Not too easy in the cold darkness, but it worked. But then I found myself involved in digging the buggers out which was also not nice in blackness at -40 to -50 degrees celsius. But sometimes had to do it.

There were fewer aurorae than expected that winter because, although nearer the sun-spot maximum, there were fewer than expected. The aurorae observer had an “all-sky” camera but could not get it to work properly because it needed a heater to stop moisture freezing on the optics. I had had to install a heater on one of my recorder clocks to keep it going – just one of many small problems one needed to front up to.

This whole Blog shows why robots will probably not work well at an extra-terrestrial base. Flexibility of mind is needed – even some of our people at Scott did not have enough, as I have shown.

Future extension of this blog is possible so long as this 83-year-old draws breath.

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