Braving the blizzard: Australian Antarctic Division Collection

Braving the blizzard: Australian Antarctic Division Collection
3 April 2012

In 1998 the National Library of Australia acquired a significant historical collection originally compiled by the Australian Antarctic Division, which administers the Australian Antarctic Territory and the Territory of Heard Island and McDonald Islands. The collection, housed in the Map Section, comprises many photoreproductions of the Australian Antarctic Territory produced by the efforts of ANARE from 1954 until the 1970s. Ron Smith, a map volunteer, recently completed the huge task of describing the 64,452 aerial photographs. As well as the main run of aerial photographs, the collection includes a large component of miscellaneous material in 53 boxes. Ron has now finished sorting, labelling and summarising the contents of each box in a new finding aid: Guide to the Australian Antarctic Division Collection, miscellaneous research notes, photographs and survey material. This document also contains some information gathered by Ron from one of the surveyors working in Antarctica in 1962, whose surveying computational notebooks are in the collection. The surveyor, now living in retirement in Queensland, was able to explain some of the abbreviations used in the material.

Map volunteer Ron Smith retrieving a box from the Australian Antarctic Division Collection, miscellaneous research notes, photographs and survey material.

Map volunteer Ron Smith retrieving a box from the Australian Antarctic Division Collection, miscellaneous research notes, photographs and survey material.

The material in the miscellaneous collection dates from 1910-1986. It includes ground photographs of Australian Antarctic stations, landscapes and survey trips as well as reports and personal diaries.

Ron sorting through papers and ground photographs from the collection

Ron sorting through papers and ground photographs from the collection

One of the diaries is by M.N. Rubeli. He was a surveyor at Australia’s Mawson Station in Antarctica in 1968-1969. His diary reveals the tough conditions under which he and his colleagues worked, especially on the excursions they made by tractor and dog sled. A typical entry reads “Blizzard all day. No movement possible.” Much time was spent repairing the tractors and other equipment which broke down frequently in the harsh environment. Crevasses were a danger. On 27 November 1968 Rubeli wrote “Moved off at 0130 hitting large slots [crevasses] approximately 2 miles past the last route marker. Dogs were used to choose new route to Weasel Gap (5 miles), tractors then followed getting slotted [caught in crevasses] twice… Stopped at 0200 hours 28th, travelled only 6 miles in 12 hours.” There were other risks. Earlier on the same trip a diesel mechanic was severely scalded on the face when a heated food tin exploded. Snow blindness and other injuries also affected the team. Rubeli did manage to enjoy some lighter moments such as a celebratory dinner back at Mawson, which included duck, chicken and beer, and lasted until 2 am, or another meal of  “delicious petrol polluted chops for tea.” N.M. Rubeli’s work was recognised by the naming of Rubeli Bluff which is located in Larsemann Hills in MacRobertson Land, Antarctica.

Aerial photograph of N.E. corner of Rubeli Bluff. From the Australian Antarctic Territory Aerial Photograph Collection

Aerial photograph of N.E. corner of Rubeli Bluff. From the Australian Antarctic Territory Aerial Photograph Collection

Another interesting item  in the collection is the Annual dog report Mawson 1973. Dogs were an important means of transport in Antarctica and facilitated much of the exploration and surveying expeditions. An excerpt from the 1973 Annual dog report reveals the particularly harsh weather conditions that year.

“ We went close to losing a few dogs and it was a little bit of luck we did not.... During a blizz the dogs curl up with backs to the wind often on their chains and leads and become buried in the drifting snow. They must be checked during a blow and made to get up and walk around ... On a few occasions storms were so bad it was not possible to venture from the camp as a human life was more value than that of a dog.”

Two of the dogs tied to a box photograph by Xavier Mertz 1913, part of the Sir Douglas Mawson collection of Antarctic photographs also held by the National Library of Australia.

Two of the dogs tied to a box photograph by Xavier Mertz 1913, part of the Sir Douglas Mawson collection of Antarctic photographs also held by the National Library of Australia.

Researchers in many different fields will surely find this historical collection very interesting and useful.