Exploring the unknown

August 31, 2018

Exploring the unknown

Syd Kirkby is an 85-year-old retired surveyor and explorer, who has explored and mapped more of Antarctica than anyone else. Regarded as one of Australia’s 50 greatest explorers, and recognised on the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, Syd offers us a glimpse into the deep, white south. 

Syd Kirkby
Syd Kirkby

“With every step; you’re stepping off the edge of the known world, and you can’t help but be aware of the fact that in all time, no other living creature has ever seen it, no feet have been there – it’s as though this didn’t exist until you saw it.”

Growing up in Western Australia, Syd Kirkby always planned to study law. But in his final year of school, changed his mind after recalling a conversation he had many years ago with an old family friend, whose son was a surveyor and filled four-year-old Syd’s head with stories of exploring South Australia in the 1800s. 

Syd undertook a cadetship in surveying, and sought mentors in the highest of places, including astronomer and navigator, Alf Townsend, who suggested Syd take his place on the expedition of the Great Sandy Desert in 1954. 

“It was wonderful, there were still tribal people living in the way they always had been, they knew of white people but hadn’t seen them, we couldn’t speak a word of each other’s language but we got along with them beautifully,” says Syd.

Then at age 21, before Syd had sat for his final exams, he threw his hat into the ring for an expedition to Antarctica with the late, great Phillip Law. The only issue was they were looking for a graduate surveyor no younger than 28.

“Phil took a huge punt with someone unqualified and under the age, because you needed a fairly high level of maturity and mental toughness to deal with Antarctic conditions,” says Syd.

The other hurdle Syd was to overcome was being cleared medically, as he beared the physical disabilities from polio when he was five years old.

“I went through my life until my 20s being rejected, I was rejected for Duntroon and Flinders and I was keen at one stage to take up a military, naval or air force career but they wouldn’t touch me because of polio,” he says.

Because Syd went through the old cadetship system, an esteemed surveyor general of Western Australia was his master, and was keen for Syd to win the position on the Antarctic expedition.

“He would never admit it but he helped me work the angles, so he declared that I was leading a project in a remote area in WA and wouldn’t be able to get down to Perth to see the Commonwealth medical officer and he would help to arrange for someone suitable in Geraldton to examine me and see if I was medically fit,” he says.

“I was examined in Geraldton by a lovely old fella whose medical opinions were much clarified with the help of whisky. He happened to be a great fight fan and he reckoned anyone who could go a bit in the ring had to be alright (Syd was a successful amateur fighter at the time).

“In fairness to him, by this stage of the game I was super fit, super strong.”

Nelly Island
Syd’s first landing on Nelly Island, aged 22

Syd was cleared and joined the ANARE (Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions) party at the ripe age of 22. He has since been to Antarctica about 20 times; having wintered three times and completed a number of summer stints through the 1960s, and in the ‘90s and 2000s he had an association with various expeditions as an observer.

“Over the years I managed to aggregate pretty extensive involvement with the exploration and mapping of Antarctica – I’m fairly widely accepted as having explored and mapped more of Antarctica than anyone living or dead,” Syd says proudly.

“All my work has been in east Antarctica, the windy part of Antarctica. Think of this…,” he says, leaning in closer, “three men living in a little 2m x 1.5m x 1.5m high fabric tent for four months on end; eating concentrated food, pemmican and biscuits, with your comrades literally shoulder to shoulder to you every minute. 

“You’re in your little fabric tent and the wind is blowing – and you have seen this wind pick up a fully laden DC3 aircraft, weighing 32,500 pounds, about the same weight as eight full-sized Landcruisers, and blow it 10 miles – and all that’s between you and it is a wall of fabric.”

arctic snow

Talking about his time in Antarctica reignites Syd. His eyes beam like that of a young man in his 20s, as he recounts experiences with killer whales; and equally as fast they fill with immense pride and sorrow as he remembers his comrades.

“You have this awareness that in all of heaven and earth there is no help, no salvation, no comfort for you, but your own efforts and your comrades; so you have very close comradeship and deep admiration for your comrades,” he says.

“Everyone knows the lowest natural temperature recorded on earth, recorded at the Russian station, was -89.4º; nobody has any conception of what that feels like, apart from the tiny handful of people who have experienced it.

“Temperatures are so low that you have two sinus cavities in your bones here and here (gesturing above his eyebrows), they get irritated with cold and you get more than normal fluid in them. When it’s seriously cold, sometimes that fluid will freeze inside and it’s utterly unspeakable agony, I’ve seen men who I know to be the bravest creatures around, screaming and begging to be killed in the agony of it. When you come through the other side of it, you know things about yourself and your comrades and it’s an unspeakable privilege to have the opportunities to be engaged in that.”

Syd, who moved to the Sunshine Coast in 1991, is regarded as one of Australia’s 50 greatest explorers and was this year recognised on the Queen’s birthday honours list. Despite the acknowledgment, he remains as humble as ever.

“I don’t think anyone ever does anything like I’ve done for the purposes of this, the rewards are at the time (the exploration of the unknown),” he says, encouraging other young men and women to seek the same adventure.

“Frontiers are not real things, they’re merely a state of mind – get going, anything is possible.” 

arctic travel

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