Maleny Queensland - Heart of the Sunshine Coast Hinterland

AN INTERVIEW WITH SYD KIRKBY - MBE

Syd as a Young ExplorerSyd's first sighting of Prince Charles RangeHow many would guess that one of Australia's most famous explorers was resident here on the Range?
That is the case, because living in Flaxton is a man who is recognised as the person who has explored more of Antarctica than any other Australian. He is Syd Kirkby MBE, who moved to the area some 3 years ago and now calls it home!
Born in Perth in 1934, he was educated at Hale School and progressed to the University of W.A. where he achieved a Batchelor of Applied Science in Surveying, however, let us go back a few years prior to that. Syd first recognised an interest in exploring when only 4 years old! He spent many hours chatting with a neighbour who had been the Surveyor General of South Australia and an explorer in his own right; Syd's father had also been a roamer and wanderer by nature which added to his interest. It was not to be a straightforward transit to become what his childhood dreams had dictated! At the age of 5 years, Syd was struck down with Polio and became a cripple, needing irons to support his wasted limbs! His father gave up work and dedicated himself to engineering his son's recovery; this is a story in itself but suffice to say that he organised a regime that involved a multiplicity of exercises, including boxing, sailing, swimming, prospecting and outback trekking. Fortunately this resulted in Syd recovering to an incredible degree and learning to compensate for any remaining deficiencies.
This is Syd Kirkby's own story.
Syd Reflects on the Past

Q - WHEN DID YOU FIRST HAVE AN OPPORTUNITY TO BECOME INVOLVED IN EXPLORING?
In 1954, whilst I was still a student, the Commonwealth and Western Australian Governments were organising an expedition into the Great Sandy Dessert; Phil Law (of Antarctica fame) was looking to take my then Astronomy Coach as navigator but he could not make it and suggested that "Young Kirkby" might be the man. I knew that Phil Law had not realised how young I was (he had a minimum age set at 28 and I was barely 20!), so knowing he was a good boxer I engaged him in a long discussion on his boxing expertise - suffice to say I got the job as Surveyor and Navigator and so it began!
Q - DESCRIBE SOME OF YOUR MOST SIGNIFICANT EXPLOITS!
There have been many but to select a few:
There was the discovery of a range of mountains South West of Mawson, whilst on an aerial survey. We were at the extreme limit of our fuel range when we saw a vast mountain range about 100 miles away. We could not take accurate fixes but we proclaimed the discovery of the Princess Anne Range and all the appropriate people were informed including the UK! Several times efforts were made to get a precise geographical location but we could never find them again. Several years later it was realised that the first sighting had been due to "Anomalistic Refraction", a condition that prevails in the Antarctic area; in reality from our altitude of 14,000 feet we were seeing a mountain range that was more than 500 miles away. Needless to say I have been reminded on many occasions of my "discovery" of the Princess Anne Range!!

On the "Southern Journey" of 1956 I was part of the team to undertake the first penetration of the Prince Charles Mountain Range. This was a demanding 4 months of sledging that included a traverse of the Lambert Glacier - an ice river that is between 40-100 klm wide and 1.5 klm deep! The glacier drains from Vostock to Queen Maude Land, an area of equivalent size to Western Australia. This was an exploit that demanded the most of both the men and the dogs who were involved in it!

In the 1960 "Wintering", I prevailed upon Phil Law to allow us to undertake a major pre-winter journey; after much resistance Phil gave it the OK! With 2 companions and 2 dog teams I led the group. We sailed from Mawson for 400 miles to Enderby Land, to an area never before penetrated! We managed to get a "toe hold" on the shoreline and were left to it by the ship. In order to get up to the plateau we had to endure 2 exhausting weeks of "back packing" all our supplies up to level ground; this even included carrying the dogs! We had freak warm weather and spent the whole time in saturated clothing - Antarctic expeditions are equipped to cater for cold, not wet and we slept in extremely cold water most nights! Once on our way, we reached an altitude of 6,000 feet within 3 days and with the temperature then plummeting to -25 Celsius we had a very uncomfortable 3 months sledging and exploring this un-penetrated region!

Up until 1964 virtually all my efforts were in regions that we were "first footing" - this is an incredible feeling but I never felt that I had mastered these virgin areas, you only learn to live with them!

Syd Describes the Antarctic Sky

Q - DO YOU HAVE ANY SPECIAL MEMORIES OF ANTARCTICA?
Everything about Antarctica is a fond memory. I recollect:

Quiet moments when blizzard bound in a tent - talking with comrades!
Boisterous parties with my Russian contemporaries!
Peter Crohn - Geologist, a wonderful man who was as tough as goats knees; he was enduring, committed, taciturn and silent but it was a pleasure to sit on top of a mountain with him!
In 1980 we were in a sheltered and ice free area close to a pod of sae whales. These are squid eating whales and had chosen this clear area for breeding and fishing. I had someone anchor my feet and leaned over the ice edge as these majestic creatures dived under the ice to feed; we were both curious of each other and the ultimate was when they came and made physical contact- imagine 25-30 feet of whale softly rubbing its entire back along your hand!

Q - IN YOUR ANTARCTIC EXPERIENCE - WHAT IMPRESSED YOU MOST?
Again there were many things but I especially recollect:
Seeing 5 suns - all at the same time!
The "Green Flash" - this is a refractive effect that occurs when the sun is just below the horizon - for a few brief seconds the Northern sky turns to a deep emerald green!
All the aurora activity - this is truly the drapery of the sky on display with the many colours and shades dancing and shimmering!
"Diamond Dust" - looking, with the sun on your back, at the myriads of microscopic ice particles that are reflecting the sun back off their many faceted faces!
The Adele Penguins - so curious, alert and comical!

Q - IN ALL OF YOUR LIFE WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR MOST SIGNIFICANT ACHIEVEMENT?
That is a simple question to answer - my 3 daughters!

Q - WHAT WAS THE MOST DIFFICULT SITUATION YOU EVER FOUND YOURSELF IN?
Enderby Land and the Southern Journey of 1956. This was the most difficult and dangerous - whilst aware at the time, it is only later that one reflects and sees it from a different perspective. I actually lost weight from 13 stone to 8 stone during that 3 month period. We were working on the premise that 5,500 calories per day was sufficient to sustain "Polar Exploration Activities" it has since been discovered that the need is more like 10-12,000 calories per day!

Q - WHEN DID YOU LAST VISIT ANTARCTICA?
In January 2002 in a far more comfortable manner - on a cruise ship. My last working exploit was in 1981, as Leader of the Winter Expedition!

Q - WILL YOU GO BACK AGAIN?
Definitely - I am actually off there again in February and March 2003 but once more as a tourist
!
Syd Describes the Vastness of Antarctica

Q - WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE FUTURE OF ANTARCTICA?

I hope I am wrong but I have a very pessimistic outlook, in fact I have very little hope for Antarctica! History tells us that when mankind exploits an area he leaves a mess. The impact of tourism is serious - in the past summer alone some 16,000 people visited the region. Fortunately the majority do not land but that is changing. There have been some bizarre undertakings - last summer 9 wealthy people paid $US50,000 each to be flown to 15 miles from the pole and then ran a marathon at 10,000 feet altitude; medical teams had been set up every 2 kilometres as support! I believe it will only get worse as people endeavour to do "something more daunting"! The number of visitors and ships must be having impact on the environment and fauna - it can do nothing but get out of hand! I really get very angry at the stupidity of it all and it is not just tourists, science is having an intrusive effect. I recollect making an aerial observation of a penguin rookery, off Mawson, in 1965. It looked odd so I compared it with a photograph taken in 1956 - the penguins had moved out of their preferred breeding area because they did not want to be fenced in and forced through gates to be automatically weighed and their details captured from implanted "chips". Could be that we may one day realise that these Antarctic creatures are not as stupid as mankind believes! The net result for the penguins meantime is that they have moved away from their "best possible" breeding area and surely that must influence the progress of these beautiful creatures who did not ask to be disturbed! Another scientific intrusion I recall was the capture of Ross Seals (an endangered species) to study why they were in decline. Of those captured for blood tests, weighing and chip implants there was an 80% mortality rate - do we really believe we have the right to do such as this?

These are the words and thoughts of a man who has achieved much. From a childhood that would have left many content to be able to walk again he has chosen to tackle full on the might of the Antarctic Peninsular. His efforts have and will continue to be a source of admiration and for those efforts he has received many awards. He was awarded the Queen's Polar Medal in 1957, the MBE in 1965, the Australian Geographic Gold Medal in 1997 and many others but probably the survey by the Australian Newspaper that named him as one of the "Top Ten Australian Achievers of the Century" says it all. Syd Kirkby is now quite content to live in Flaxton, which he describes as a "beautiful place that is still so close to everything". He currently views himself as "deeply retired" and spends his time speaking to various groups and having some input into the lifestyle of Australian youth; as part of that process he contributes to the "School of the Air" as a general science teacher and he still manages to see different aspects of life as he travels around.

Syd has many poignant and touching tales to tell and if you would like the opportunity to learn of some of his exploits then join him on 3rd August 2002 when, together with Dr Grahame Budd, he presents his "Wild White World" at the Maleny Community Centre.