Our planet’s most inhospitable continent is dotted with landmarks bearing Syd Kirkby’s name.
A profound life of icy wonder
FOR MUCH OF HIS CAREER, toppling off the edge of the known world into vast, uncharted landscapes was all in a day’s work for Antarctic surveyor Sydney ‘Syd’ Kirkby. Recipient of the 2018 AGS Lifetime of Adventure Award, the spirited 86 year old has arguably surveyed more of the Australian Antarctic Territory than anyone. His f irst expedition to the icy continent was in 1956 – much of it traversing the landscape by dog sledge using a theodolite to survey the uncharted territory. But there’s no boasting by Syd about his extraordinary achievements, or the number of Antarctic geographical features that bear his name – including Mount Kirkby, Kirkby Glacier, Kirkby Head and Kirkby Shoal. Instead, the down-to-earth explorer considers himself privileged to have seen so many of Antarctica’s profoundly beautiful, never-before-seen landscapes and to have fostered enduring friendships along the way.
“When I f irst became involved, 85 per cent of a continent twice the size of Australia was unexplored,” he says. “Unexplored meant something in Antarctica that it has never meant anywhere else in the world… unexplored meant that in all time, no human being had ever seen it. So, when you’re a 22-year-old kid and you saddle up your dogs and head out, after you get a relatively little way away from the station, with every step you topple off the edge of the known world,” he says, his face filled with whimsy and wonder. “And if you’re lucky, as we were, you could discover vast and wondrous things.”
As a child who suffered from polio, Syd was an unlikely explorer. But a natural sense of awe and curiosity for the world, as well as early encounters with Frank Goyder, a son of well-known South Australian surveyor George Goyder, inspired his career. As a four-year-old, Syd ran away from his family home, which abutted the Swan River, in Western Australia. He took his boat down to the river and spent most of the day sailing alone. “When I got hungry enough to come back
home in the middle of the afternoon, my parents and all the neighbours were out searching for the wee bairn,” Syd says, with a laugh. Frank Goyder, who was a neighbour and friend, had been left at the house in case Syd returned.
“Frank, a million years old he was, was an old South Australian surveyor and a leftover from the exploratory age in SA,” Syd recalls. “In that strange sort of sympathy that old people and little kids often have, we sat on the coping of a well in the backyard and he told me stories about being an explorer in Australia and I thought then that this is the best thing you can do; this is the best possible life.”
Syd’s career began with a surveying trek in the Great Sandy Desert, in north-western WA, in 1954, when he was 20 and still a student. “Through sheer blind good luck my astronomy mentor, who was the obvious choice to have been astronomer and navigator for the party, wasn’t able to go, and he suggested they take me,” Syd says.
Two years later, Syd threw his hat into the ring for his f irst Antarctic expedition, despite being seven years under the minimum age for such an endeavour. He was successful and became an Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions surveyor based out of Mawson Station in 1956 – a time when such expeditions were heavy work that involved months at a time of dog-sledging and rock-climbing with heavy packs.
“It was a wonderful privilege,” Syd says. “It was hard; you ran a marathon or more every day in 10–15kg of clothing, but Antarctic expeditions were sources of the most profound wonder and beauty and engagement with your comrades.”
During his f irst season, Syd explored Antarctica’s Prince Charles Mountains with two colleagues. That year, the trio discovered the largest glacier on the planet, Lambert Glacier, which is from 40km to 100km wide and about 1.5km deep. “We had no idea at the time it was going to turn out to be the biggest glacier in the world. To us, it just represented an utterly insurmountable barrier, which to this day has never been crossed except by air,” Syd says. “When you look on the biggest glacier in the world, or when you look out for hundreds of miles and see mountains from here to there, or you see 2-mile-high mountains rising straight up out of the frozen sea, or when you’re in a blizzard and you cannot see your hand at the end of your arm because there’s so much blown snow in the air, it is awesome.
“Because the air is so clean and so clear you might be looking a couple of hundred miles ahead at the mountains and glaciers and you can’t help but be aware of the fact that, in all time, no other human eyes have ever seen it. You would be
“…you ran a marathon or more every day in 10–15kg of clothing, but Antarctic expeditions were sources of the most profound wonder and beauty…”
lucky if, in a long lifetime, you’d had a tiny bit of that but to have it ladled on with a spade really is a wondrous feeling.”
During his Antarctic expeditions, Syd experienced 24-hour sunlight, temperatures as low as –740C, and winds so strong that he once saw a 16-tonne, fully laden twin-engine aircraft (about the weight of eight full-sized four-wheel-drives), picked up, torn from its tie-downs and blown 15km away. While sledging, he and his two colleagues would venture hundreds of kilometres from the station into unknown landscapes, where they’d risk falling into deep crevasses. They shared a tiny fabric tent that measured 1.5m wide by 2 long by 1.5 high and were restricted to very limited rations of only 32 ounces (900g) of food a day. They slept fully clothed and booted, and each day the body moisture that had accumulated in their sleeping bags overnight would freeze.
“You couldn’t help but recognise that under sledging conditions in those times, there is no help or hope or salvation for you on earth except you and your scruffy dogs and your two human comrades,” Syd says. That realisation makes for seriously strong bonds. “When you’ve seen a wind pick up the weight of eight LandCruisers and blow them into the distance, and you cower, listening to a wind that you can’t yell over, and you’re in a little rag tent hundreds of miles away from anywhere, and you know that if the rag tent gets torn to pieces you will die – it’s not negotiable – of course you’re afraid,” he adds. “In a sense, what you have to become in Antarctic circumstances, and the things you have to do, aren’t optional, and once a thing isn’t optional it becomes quite easy really because the alternative is to die.”
Despite the challenges, Syd considers himself lucky to have experienced Antarctica’s grandeur when it was so little known.
“While Antarctica itself is eternal, the old circumstances have gone and will never return; no-one will ever experience them again,” he says. “I was just so fortunate to have spent that time in those endeavours with those people. What a privilege. And fancy getting paid to do it. I keep waking up in the morning and thinking, ‘Will today be the day they send me the bill for all this?’”
At home today on theSunshine Coast, Queensland,Syd is surrounded by memorabilia from his time spent in Antarctica.
Well rugged up with only his eyebrows exposed to the freezing Antarctic air, Syd works with a Caterpillar D4 tractor in a crevasse during the 1960s.
At work in his ‘Antarctic office’ in 1960, Syd was wearing lightweight gear because it was an unusually mild, low-wind February day.
Dogs are now banned in Antarctica, but for Syd, seen here in 1980 with a dog-sledge team, they were a method of transport that took him across vast tracts of the icy continent.