Paint by Numbers

Vern’s Paint by Numbers; done during his first winter in the Antarctica, 1957.

There were several “paint by number” sets in Scott Base – anti-boredom devices, as part of the crew’s winter treats. This one was put on the notice board.

Six Months of Continuous Darkness at the Antarctic

A letter recently written to a lady who is currently a member of the Scott Base Team on how to while away the winter darkness in the Antarctic.

How to cope with the darkness ? It affects some more than others, especially those without a clear program of work for the winter.  For myself, I had to visit my magnetic [actually non-magnetic!] huts every 12 hours.  This involved a trek by torchlight (or flashlight to Americans!), often on hands & knees if there was a bad blizzard, as was common.  I was the only poor guy who had to go out this often.  Others, especially Hillary’s crowd mostly prepared for their summer work and probably slept a lot.  Some over indulged in alcohol but this wasn’t on for any of the scientists with a clear program of work

And, I could conceivably have got lost outside and no one actually checked to see if I had returned from my 12- hourly outing. I only had a glass at the mid winter celebration and then did not miss my 12 hour trek. In later years alcohol was a problem, so I believe.

Do as much as possible in the darkness even if it’s nothing more exciting than writing reports about what you did in the summer.  But don’t tell me that you didn’t come to Scott to write reports!!!

When the sun returns there always seems to be a lot to catch up with even if it’s just taking pictures in the strange new phenomenon called sunlight. (By the way, you haven’t told what your speciality is.)

We had a weekly winter talk, after dinner, on every Tuesday if I remember right. No exceptions allowed. Hillary’s was about crocodile hunting in the Solomon Islands during the War (our war ie.WW2).  Mine was on Interplanetary Travel.  Remember this was a few weeks BEFORE the Russian Sputnik amazed the world.   Bob Miller, who was the effective base leader, talked about Spanish Bull Fighting.  The aim was to avoid anything to do with the Antarctic and why we were there.

Anyway, for most of us scientists the winter passed fairly easily, then.

Vern Gerard.

The Endeavour

Essentially an extract of a brief speech given by Vern Gerard to the Prime Minister celebrating 50 years since the return of the Endeavour to Wellington after the IGY, TAE expedition of 1956-58.


Vern Gerard speaking at Parliament in 2008 celebrating the 50th anniversary
of the return of the Endeavour to Wellington.
(Prime Minister Helen Clark is seated on the left.)

The Endeavour

I have actually been on two Endeavours, but have not sailed on either.

The one I liked best was Cook’s ship and, though I am old I am not that old, and this Endeavour was actually a modern replica of Cook’s which visited Wellington some years ago. She was a very fine ship.

The Endeavour we are celebrating today was being used to transport Scott Base- the future Scott Base, to the Antarctica in 1956-57. I was actually on her for only 7 days in January 1957. This was while we were unloading the future Base.

Most NZers to staff Scott Base went South on this Endeavour because NZ was, as often, punching above her weight, and our IGY scientists and a few others could not be given room on her so the Americans, as usual, kindly helped by taking us down on the US Navy ice breaker Glacier. Icebreakers roll horribly in a bad sea and I well remember being the only one not sick.

I first saw the Endeavour to the east of Beaufort Island just north of Ross Island on 5 January 1957 when the Glacier was breaking ice for US ships. She still had a Christmas tree on her mast head. On the upper deck were most of the people we had trained with at Mt. Cook.

Scott Base was intended to be at Butter Point on the western side of McMurdo Sound; but when the Endeavour got near, it was found to be an impossible place with practicable access only by helicopter. We had two aeroplanes but no helicopter. This rather wrecked our plans, which had been quite settled on Butter Point because a preliminary party had examined it the previous year and reckoned it was alright especially for the TAE crossing party scheduled for late 1958. But actually it would have suited no one well except maybe a palaeontologist

The Ross Dependency is claimed by NZ, but it was the Americans who came to our rescue and more or less decided on Pram Point for our Base when they bulldozed a site there for us. This was a handy 3km from McMurdo – an easy walk. In fact it was not a bad spot with lots of penguins around then – but not now. I don’t think Hillary, Miller, or Helm wanted to be so close to McMurdo, but the Base had to go somewhere.

The Antarctic summer is short – it was already after the New Year and the Endeavour had on board 9 pre-fabricated huts, 2 aeroplanes, tractors, 6 diesel generators, tons of supplies, IGY scientists and Hillary’s mountaineers, etc. So everyone was quite pleased to settle for Pram Point and Scott Base is still there today 51 years after.

On 12 January 1957, after a week on the Endeavour, I left her for a tent at Pram Point and I have never seen the Endeavour since.

Chapter Six

The first women in Antarctica, and more tales

In those days women never, or almost never got to Antarctica and certainly there were none with Scott, Shackelton, Byrd, Amundsen, etc. But I believe one or two may have crossed the Antarctic circle in the very earli days perhaps with whalers or men like Balleny. Anyway on the 15th Oct. 1957 two women air hostesses arrived at McMurdo or, to give it its official name United States Naval Air Facility McMurdo Sound Antarctica. This in spite of Rear Admiral George J. Dufek’s ruling that so long as he was in charge of the place there would be no women there. Now, of course, women are always there.

Well now, how these two managed it is a long story and not now very clear in my memory. It seemed that the U.S. had an aircraft mishap a long way away – that is not actually in Antarctica, and were short of transport to fly summer people to McMurdo so, being in the USA, they simply hired a PAN AM long range passenger aeroplane to do the job. Now, my memory & interpretation of the facts is that according to the union rules the aircraft had to have a full crew to be allowed to fly, so what happened? The crew included two air hostesses and they came with it on the 8 hour flight from Christchurch New Zealand and it was all outside of Admiral Dufek’s jurisdiction. In those days there was a lot of contact between us at Scott Base and the Yanks at McMurdo, just 3 km away, so we certainly knew all about the 2 girls who were expected. In fact I have a record in my diary of their names!

Miss Patricia Hepinstall and Miss Ruth Kelly said to be blonde! But in full Antarctic clovver who would know & even then women changed their hair colour like they changed their shoes. These, then, are the names of te first women to be so close to the South Pole. Now, 50 years on they will be in their 70’s at least, maybe with great-grandchildren. It would be interesting to hear from them.

Anyway a big welcome was organized for them even if Admiral Dufek gave it all a thumbs down, and we at Scott were included. My notes of the occasion show that it included a dog team race between sledges of N.Z. Scott Base and the U.S. McMurdo Base. And there was a beard judging competition with the girls as judges. Into this competition I was persuaded to enter. We all expected that the prizes would at least be kisses from the girls but it was left to them to decide andthey said that the winners could escort them back to the aircraft. Quite a letdown. The only winner from Scott was our Wally Tarr, an aircraft mechanic, and it’s my guess that he would not have been keen to go all the way back to the airstrip. It was cold outside, around -30 degrees centgrade. For myself, my magnetometers beckoned and I had to return home for the 12 hour proper change on the recorders.

At this McMurdo party I remember seeing old polar explorer Sir Hubert Wilkins. Well, Wally Tarr had to endure a lot of off-colour remarks about his beard which was judged to be the most bushy. People asked things like “Did she feel it? The beard I mean!”


Here is a photo of our Neil Sandford driving a sledge pulled by a dog team with one of the girls a passenger. Neil was in charge of radio propagation research which to you ignuramuses was basically a sort of radar of the extreme upper atmosphere called by scientists, the ionosphere. His work enabled him to organise his day so that, when his gear was operating properly, he could have a lot of time off. Lucky him – I had to be on deck every 12 hours at least. This was definitely difficult at times. In fact it had led to me disobeying Ed’s firm instruction that in the polar winter you didn’t go on your own between the two bases. Buck, our cook, also went on his own at times. If the weather was clear & you knew the route well – carried a torch (flashlight) – it was not really dangerous, just v.cold. Anyway we did it and got away with it. Don’t fall in a tide crack!

As I have previously noted, because of the semi-official censorship on radio traffic one couldn’t complain to N.Z. headquarters about the allocation of duties. It was necessary to sort problems out on the spot. Sometimes this involved people with little or no actual scientific knowledge of the research one was supposed to be doing. It helped that we, at Scott, mostly, spoke the same version of English, at least more or less!

Our Doctor, George Marsh was from Shropshire but was generally regarded as a “good guy” even if he got sick himself when the base was being built. He alleged that he had dpihtheria and confined himself to bed with meals brought to him. Who among us could produce a contrary opinion? Well, he looked sick enough for a few days. Later he was, of course sort of responsible that all 23 of us kept in good health & took our vitamin pills which some did! George got the idea that I did not get any exercise. He didn’t know that I had a 12 hourly jaunt to my magnetic huts. Anyway, you couldn’t call that much so he decided I needed a “run with the dogs” during an “off duty” period. When was that? My “off duties” were taken up with helping dig out fuel drms – at least some of the winter, plus mess dties, which we all had. As well as M.D. George wasa “dog-man,” involving training them to full sledges & keeping them in good health for the summer field parties. So a “run with the dogs” was just that except that the dogs, nine of them in harness, were pilling a sledge but you ran too & did not hitch a ride on the sledge. Oh! Dear No! George’s exerise was not an easy ride.

So I went one cold “morning” in the pitch darkness in about -40. Actually it turned out to be -50.

Here I should point out that in those “ancient” days we were still using fahreheit mostly, except for purely scientific measurements, so it can be confusing. But you lot out there reading this blog should know that -40 degrees fahrenheit = -40 degrees celsius just like +68 degrees fahrenheit = +20 degrees celsius. Got that? And of course +32 degrees fahrenheit = 0 degrees celsius, this is the melting point of ice.

Cutting a long story short I did survive my run with George and his dogs. By the way I had to harness some of the dogs too. With big strong huskies this is not easy especially as they soon got the message that you are new to this game so they try out anything to escape to have a go at their nearest rival dog.

Not it is sad to relate that Dr. George, who declared that I was unfit, is now dead. We were both about the same age.

Chapter Five

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.

Chapter Four

Well, having got a bit ahead of myself I must now record just how Scott Base came from a purely scientific IGY base to be a mixed one occupied as support base for Hillay’s antarctic work. This was to support a British transantarctic crossing led by Sir Vivian Fuchs which was also timed to be part of the world-wide IGY activities.

Now the British had always had aspirations to be first to the S.Pole but failed conspicuously to the Norwegians who, of course, were much better equipped mentally & physically to be great on the ice. But the Churchillian bull-dogged determination was always a British characteristic. They don’t give up easily and this has been handed down to Kiwis who are mostly just Britons but one or two generations on.

Sir Vivian Fuchs, a Cambridge don, who was to lead the British Transantarctic IGY endeavour envisaged in the New Zealanders laying bases for his party at the Ross Dependency and of his journey down the Weddell Sea side. This fitted in nicely with N.Z.’s anticipated base somewhere in the Ross Sea area. All these ideas were floated in the early 1950’s even before Ed Hillary of Everest (1953) was appointed to lead the N.Z. party.

When Ed came into the picture it seemed all fine & dandy except that he had little idea of what scientific work involved. For instance during the war bee-keeper Hillary had been in the Air Force along with Wing Commander John Claydon who had ranked him. But this situation was reversed at Scott Base when John Claydon led the small RNZAF group (of three) but under Hillary’s overall command. So the stage was set for some conflict. There were also other sources of conflict but right here it suffices to say that the overall aims of the IGY-Antarctic programs were certainly achieved, and more. Eventually scientific papers were published.

It is now history that Ed beat Sir Vivian to the pole. The media invented this race for it was not intended that Ed’s part should go to the pole at all. Fuch’s party travelling from their Weddell Sea base was carrying out valuable scientific work as they made their way slowly over the continent that summer (1957-58). Hillary’s job was to lay fuel depots on the Ross Sea side which he did fairly easily. Now, in the winter of 1957 at Scott Base he had, along with Murray Ellis and Jim Bates built a sort of caravan on a sledge to be towed by our Ferguson farm tractors.

They called this contraption a “caboose.” It was a bit of a carbon monoxide death trap though no one actually expired in it. I was even asked – being the only qualified physicist there – to compute in what wind velocity the thing will blow over. A really knotty problem involving almost unsolvable problems in fluid dynamics as any physicist can tell you. I just looked up a few ideas in Encyclopedia Brittanica and came up with 40 mph as not much more than a guess. “Encyclopedia Brittanica,” you ask, in Antarctica? Yes, indeed, our effective leader and 2nd in command had wisely ensured that we got a very good library there. He was tower-of-strength Bob Miller who could be relied on for wise words in any calamity.

Hillary, no doubt at all, had the scheme of a dash to the pole in his mind all the winter (1957). He built this caboose to this end. Then ensured that there was enough fuel around, got Fuchs’ fuel dumps laid smartly and when things were going okay informed us at Scott Base that he was heading for the pole. None of us were at all surprised. We had assumed he would but could not foist our beliefs to the outside world because of an unofficial censorship imposed by radio operators Peter Malgrew and Ted Gawn. Any outgoing doubtful message was blocked or referred to the boss by this capable pair. Remember both had had wartime service, indeed Malgrew was still a Navy officer and of course at the time of the crossing was with Ed’s polar party. So censorship of messages was automatically considered as if the base was a military one. Anyway, mostly everyone had had wartime service, and for people who had lived then censorship of news was to be expected, even if today (2008) it seems strange and abhorrent. For these reasons news of Hillary’s dash to the Pole to get there, if possible ahead of Fuchs was greeted with surprise, dismay, or elation, depending on one’s concerns, but for us at Scott was expected and not of great import. We just carried on doing our scientific work – which was on-going forever. But I can imagine that Sir Vivian Fuchs and the British party – indeed the whole of England found the news rather upsetting. For England had lost out on at least two polar attempts that century and now it was losing another to upstart Kiwis. Never mind that Fuchs’ crossing was never intended to be “race for pole”. In any case the Americans already had a manned base there which I was privileged to see on the flight from McMurdo that summer.

The media made a great thing out of it and it was they who promoted it to be the “race,” which it never was. Well, the Americans just looked on with some cold amusement at this conflict between two sets of weird English speakers! But to this day, this event still rankles a bit with the English and was especially strong when I was, a few years later, working in the UK at Cambridge University. Who can blame them, for the pre-expedition agreement was fairly clear: Hillary laid depots for the Fuchs crossing party as far as “depot 700” and then returned to Scott.

While on this part of this story I must sadly record that Malgrew was killed in the terrible AirN.Z. Erebus event crash in 1979. This could be the subject of another blog for it is an event of great controversy still. I didn’t particularly like Malgrew, but one could not have wished this disastrous end on him.

As I have said Scott Base was originally intended to be entirely an N.Z. base built by Kiwis for Kiwis. While all this was being organized by the N.Z. Ross Sea Committee three people went south with the “Yanks” in the summer of 1955-56 to scout out a possible site. Even this early the Americans already had a small base at McMurdo, this grew each year into the small city which it is now.

Our future base site was decided to be at Butter Point, on the other side of the McMurdo Sound. The three guys who made this misguided decision were Harrington, who wasn’t part of the final expedition, Hatherton, a Yorkshire man and Bernie Gunn, a pleasant well-clued up geologist from Dunedin who didn’t agree with the other two that Butter Point was a good place. Well, the majority of two ruled and in spite of Gunn’s great misgivings Butter Point was decided on.

Gunn turned out to be very right and when the “Endeavour” turned up in McMurdo Sound a year later with the N.Z. expedition ready to unload the prefabricated huts and all the other gear it was quite impossible to reach the place. This was because of bad ice conditions and it can’t have been much different the previous summer when the misguided two H’s (Hatherton and Harrington) decided it was suitable. Hatherton later made other bad decisions and some scientists simply went ahead with their work ignoring this.

Chapter Three

To digress a bit from the biographical you have learned now about the history of I.G.Y. (International Geophysical Year). Earlier, there had been “Polar Years” for the international study of phenomena, usually aurorae, clearly associated with the polar regions. You don’t usually see aurorae far from the poles. They were known to be associated with sunspots and magnetic storms that is violent perturbations of the aforementioned earth’s magnetic field were known to accompany aurorae which were known to occur simultaneously at both poles at times a great number of sunspots and at 11 year intervals, roughly.

There had been two “Polar Years.” The first being in the late 1800’s and the second in the 1930’s. Now, with the war over it was obviously time for another so international scientific organizations got every one enthused up into having one in 1957-59. This was to be a grand event. Not just in the Polar regions but everywhere. Governments were talked into great activity to establish observatories in Antarctica, it being the least understood of earth’s continents.

Now N.Z, had ports on Campbell Island and one had been mooted for the Ballery Islands, both in the Southern Ocean, not long after the war. Indeed Sir Ernest Marsden had co-opted me to be involved with the Ballery Island base on the magnetic side. For several reasons nothing came of it but with IGY came the idea of a true Antarctic base for N.Z. Everyone & his brother seemed to be enthusiastic. The Americans, of course, had no conception of the notion that some nations regarded their sector of Antarctica as holy territory not to be intruded on by others. They put bases just where they fancied and now, being top dog, who was to deny them?

So they established a base at “McMurdo” situated on Ross Island in what was regarded as N.Z. territory – regarded that is by Kiwis! Other American bases came into being at other sits like Cafe Hallett and the S.Pole. This was very good if you regarded the opening up of antarctica as a “good thing.” Certainly it wasn’t a good thing for the penguins who were once plentiful

Adelie penguins near Scott Base, Ross Island

at Pram Point, Ross Isd. but where there are now none because it is adjacent to the U.S. McMurdo Base. The Americans brought long range air-transport with facilities at McMurdo and the Pole to give non-stop flights from Christchurch N.Z. This ended Antarctica’s isolation except for the remote points and in the long polar night.

Antarctica is a huge continent, the size of the U.S.A. and more or less totally covered in thick ice even in these days of climate change. One must note a few things about day & night so near the pole. The notion that days are 6 months long followed by 6 months darkness is wrong becase the two equinoxes are periods of virtually continuous twilight during which it is never truly night or day. Explorers and scientists there take full advantage of the long summer daylight to do things though one can easily overdo it and work for “days” without a break. For instance just before the official start of IGY I was, on my own, able to establish a fully operational Magnetic Observatory at Scott base in a matter of about 3 months.

The two non-magnetic huts comprising the Magnetic Observatory at Scott Base

In N.Z it had taken 2 years for one man to do only a partial job in the lead up to IGY. Of course, in one respect, much of the “organisation” had already been done in that all the apparatus was neatly packed in boxes to be right on hand when needed. Careful attention to detail before sailing from N.Z. had ensured this, but did not obviate upsets by other scientists-cum-explorers with other ideas of priority.

Chapter Two

Living through the deadly horrible times of the Great Depression which occurred between the wars, growing up in Christchurch New Zealand which was the departure point (actually it’s Port Lyttelton) for many an Antarctic endeavor, led inevitably to an interest in polar exploration. This, in spite of being conscripted for a short time into the N.Z. forces at the age of 18-19 to repel the Nazi and the Japanese attempts to take over the world.

Concurrent with the excitement of a potential invasion of New Zealand, which, of course, did not eventuate even though it was close, was my first job. At the same time was “fire watching.” Yes, we really had nightly fire-watching in remote Christchurch N.Z. To much of the populace this seemed a needless burden on an already stressed country, but not to the authorities who we later learned were in receipt of top secret information straight, one assumes, from Churchill’s mouth. At this time Sir E. Hillary, who will of course feature in this blog, was in the Air Force in the Pacific helping to prevent this and hunting crocodiles in his spare time.

It is essential to relate all this to show how I ever got to Antarctica for, being just interested meant that one merely took one’s place with thousands of other young men. In those days there was no thought of young women ever going, a bit like going to Mars now – remote and incredible. But I anticipate things a bit. In those days school leaving was automatically followed by military service for boys – no ifs or buts – you did it more or less straight from school. But I got a job straight from school because I was a year younger and had enrolled part-time at University.

My job was at an almost unknown establishment known as the “Magnetic Observatory” in Christchurch. This was part of the old D.S.I.R. (Dept. of Scientific Industrial Research) led, in those times, by Dr. (later Sir) Ernest Marsden. Ernie Marsden was quite a character with quite a history. It was he who, together with the better known Geiger – yes the Geiger of the counter – was discovered, by bombarding gold atoms with alpha particles, that the atom was largely empty space. Well the story of how this was done under the guidance of the great Nobel prize winner Ernest Rutherford has often been told so I won’t promise a future blog! Ernest was a popular name then – we have already met three in this short blog.

Well, here am I a junior on the staff of the “Magnetic Observatory” Christchurch, a place with observed and recorded changes in the earth’s magnetic field. To the uninitiated that’s the field or force, if you like, that controls a magnetic compass and causes it to point to magnetic north and not the geographical north. Incidently because this magnetic declination, or “variation” changes in both space and time it often causes great confusion to amateur navigators.

In times before the days of satellites, and exact modern navigation systems, a good knowledge of the earth’s magnetic field was quite essential for decent navigation so the work was regarded with some importance especially as there was a war on and the Americans were unofficially reported to be forever getting lost in the Pacific!

As well as geomagnetism “my” little place also contributed to meteorology (that’s weather) & seismology (that’s earthquakes) so, as well as the great Sir Ernest, I also got to meet people like George Eiby (of seismology) and Richie Simmers (of meteorology) while still a part time undergraduate.

Magnetometer at Scott Base similar to those at Christchurch

Chapter One


Old Antarctic Days

by Polar Medallist Vern Gerard B.Sc., M.Sc., F.InstP., F.B.I.S.

Once upon a time in a continent far away there was a semi-mystical place called the South Pole of Planet Earth. For many years this had been the goal of many explorers of the planet and great was the kudos to be gained by anyone reaching it by whatever means.

Eventually it was reached by the Norwegian Amundsen, and his conrades, travelling by dog-sledges but within days they were followed by the Briton Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his team who were man-handling sledges, but also he and his team of 4 others all perished of cold & starvation not far from the place near to where the New Zealanders now have their Scott Base.

Scott Base in the summer 1957-58 with dogs lined up

As a young boy of about 10 I remember reading about this great British epic journey in a “Boys Own Paper” which was a weekly of the kind which does not appear now. This around say, 1934, was publishing “South with Scott” in serial form which, with fine line illustrations, evoked the magnificent tradgedy of the explorers Scott, Wilson, Oates, Bowers & Evans. They died of hard work, cold & starvation. The final remaining three men were just a few kilometers from a depot of food & fuel which was, in modern terms, hardly any distance from their bases on Ross Island which is where lies the modern Scott Base of New Zealand. You must remember they were man-handling sledges. Scott’s pony’s having proved to be real “white elephants” in the extreme cold of Antarctica.

This marked the start of the modern age of polar exploration which produced flights in the recently invented aeroplane – airplane to Americans – to the N.pole and by Byrd, an American, over Antarctica.It was a time for all sorts of semi-crazy but noble ideas. One was Shackelton’s Trans-Antarctic attempt which ended up with his party getting to 11 miles of the Pole and with his epic open-boat sea journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia in mid-winter. This was at the time of the first World-War. Because they had no very effective wireless in those early days their plight was quite unknown to the outside world. If you haven’t read accounts of this incredible boat journey please do so because it is considered by many to be a much more arduous journey than Bligh’s open boat jaunt across the Pacific, though the latter was longer. But Shackelton, unlike Scott, lost no lives except one man’s pet cat and that is another story worth telling.

A trans-antarctic crossing was actually achieved many years later by Sir Vivian Fuchs which will be related much later in this blog when the Hillary-Fuchs expeditions are discussed.

One of Fuchs’ snow cats after arrival at Scott Base 1958