Syd Kirkby:

Our planet’s most in­hos­pitable con­ti­nent is dot­ted with land­marks bear­ing Syd Kirkby’s name.

Australian Geographic - - Contents - STORY BY JOANNA HART­MANN

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.

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