Australian Biography

Phillip Law - full interview transcript

Tape of 9

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My pilot, Doug Leckie, flew me in to look at Horseshoe Harbour before this hurricane hit us. I had quite an exciting experience there because the fast ice outside Mawson Harbour was polished blue, glassy ice and when we landed on skis in the little Auster aircraft, there was an iceberg about a mile ahead, about half a mile ahead, which we didn't take any notice off, but we found that after landing, there was no friction between the skis and this glassy ice. So we just went rattling on with no diminution in speed and this ice berg started to loom up closer and closer and closer and we realised if we didn't do something or other, we'd smash into it. So Leckie turned it into what he called ground loops, that is, he spun the aircraft, and we went towards this ice berg in a series of spinning circles. And of course the friction is greater with the skis side on than it is with them end on. So this slowed us down and we finished about fifty yards off the face of this berg.

It sounds terrifying.

Anyway, let's go back to the Kista Dan and its approach to Horseshoe Harbour. We broke our way through because the hurricane had produced cracks and channels in the ice and we had quite good progress. And when we got to the entrance to Horseshoe Harbour, the captain sent a motorboat ahead to take some soundings. And we found that there was just enough water over the top of this reef that joined the two arms at the mouth of the horseshoe and we were able to go in over that safely, and inside the water was very deep. It was 150 feet or something. And the ship was able to back and charge around a bit and smash up an area of the fast ice, which enabled it to then moor and send cables out to the rock on each side of the horseshoe, to hold the ship in place. Then we started unloading onto weasels, which would run up to the edge of the ship on the fast ice and take the stuff ashore. So to cut a long story short, we built Mawson Station to the point where we had half the huts up, enough for the men to live in and we left them then to finish the rest of the job after we left. So when we left I still had a bit of charter time and I persuaded the captain to move in an easterly direction to have a look at the Amery Ice Shelf and a big bay beside it called Prydze Bay, with the hope that we would then move on to a place called the Vestfold Hills, that had been sighted first by the Norwegians in the 1930s and later photographed by Operation High Jump of the Americans. But when we got to Prydze Bay, the captain said he didn't want to go in, and I said, 'Look I've got charter time and I want to go in'. He said, 'It's not safe', and I said, 'This ice's no worse than anything we've been through and I don't see any reason why we shouldn't'. He said, 'The insurance won't cover us because it doesn't cover exploring'. So I sent a cable to the owners saying, 'The insurance in my view does cover it. I've looked at the insurance terms and I want you to instruct the captain to do what he's told or I'll declare the ship off-charter and stop paying for it', so the captain was very upset. The next day he got a cable from the owners telling him he had to do what I wanted, so he pushed into the south into Prydze Bay and I was able to encourage him to keep going until we reached a point just off the Vesthold Hills, which enabled us to make the first Australian landing in that area. And it was tremendously important because it was as a result of that landing, and my photographs of that area from the aircraft, that we decided that was an ideal place to set up a station. And several years later for the IGY we put Davis Station ... we put Davis Station into that place. And so I finished our work there. We got some good survey work done, some good aerial photographs. We did everything we wanted to do and I said to the captain, 'Right we can go home', so the captain turned the ship, the ship's bows, heading north and we started to steam out of Prydze Bay. We'd only gone a couple of hours when the wind rose. It continued to rise that night into a huge hurricane. The wind strength at the extreme must have been about 140 knots, which is something I'd never experienced in my life, and the ship was light because it had unloaded all its cargo. Normally when that happens the captain fills up empty fuel and water tanks in the bows with sea water to hold the ship down. But captains don't like doing that because when you put water into an oil tank it means when you get back home you've got to spend money cleaning it all out again, because there's sludge, so they try to avoid it. So he had avoided it when he left Mawson, and then when the hurricane began to hit and he then went to try and do this, it wouldn't work because the pipes had frozen up. So he was unable to redistribute the weight and with the bows high out of the water, the hurricane was such that he couldn't hold the ship bows on into the wind and she just got blown round sideways. And with the ship sideways on to this immense wind, we were just held over about thirty degrees and rolling from there, which meant that at best you're vertical and at worst you were down about seventy to eighty degrees lying on your side. It was highly dangerous because the ship was unstable. In my diary I had noted on the way to Macquarie Island that I felt the ship had a very slow period of roll which means it's unstable. A stable ship rolls very rapidly. And so I was worried that the ship, if it was pushed over too far it would just go right round. Just be submerged. And when you think that, lying on your bunk, when the ship rolls as much as that, you're not lying on the bunk, you're lying on the wall. And at some of the terrifying moments, I'd be looking out the porthole and just looking down at the green depths and my cabin was on the highest part of the ship. And for me to be looking out the porthole just down to green water just shows you how far over we were. Well this terror arose because of the fear of capsizing. The ship would go over to seventy degrees, and then it would shudder and stay there for about ten or fifteen seconds. Your heart's thumping and you'd think, oh we're gone this time, she's going round. And then she'd recover. And the next blast of wind would hit and over she'd go again and the same thing would happen, and that went on hour after hour. And we also had the danger of ice because we were in a pack ice zone, surrounded by ice, ice floes and growlers, which are lumps of ice, anything up to the size of a house, and huge icebergs, with the ship drifting sideways through all this. The only control we had was the ship could go forwards or it could go backwards, but it couldn't steer any other way. So it was a nice ... [INTERRUPTION - SLATE]

So a hurricane of this dimension, you've got breaking waves being hurled at you and in those waves there's all this ice, so the ship is being thumped by great masses of ice striking it. Now the pack ice is reasonably all right because the ship can take that, but a growler is old, rock-hard ice and very big, anything up to the size of a small house. And you can't see a growler on the radar because very little of it sticks up and the bit that does stick up is obscured by the clutter of breaking waves and pack ice and everything around the ship. Ice bergs you can see and the captain spent a lot of his time crabbing around them. As he'd drift down on one ice berg he'd go forward to get round it and then he'd back back to get around another one. And in this crab fashion he was able to avoid the icebergs. But the danger of growlers was ever-present and we were struck a couple of times by very big blocks of ice and it's quite frightening to have a big hunk hit you. Lifted up on a twenty or thirty foot wave and hurled into the side of the ship. And there's this immense explosion, and bits of shattered ice fly everywhere and there's a great dint in the ship - the plates of which up at the forepart are about an inch thick, so its very solid steel that's being bashed in this way. And the danger of capsizing, as I mentioned. So the captain spent a terrible time on the bridge. This whole thing went on for about twenty-six hours. And towards the end we drifted into a remarkable area of sea ice, which was a result of all the pack ice being pulverised by the storm into smaller pieces, anything from a metre across down to the very tiny bits. And all this acts like a concrete mix it looks like in a way, so that floating on top of the sea there'd be between one or two metres thick of this brash pulverised ice mixed in. So that this had the effect of flattening out, so you no longer got breaking waves but you had these huge swells, so that looking from the deck of the ship when daylight came, you had this astonishing landscape, as though there's hills and valleys but they're changing. They're all up and down. One moment the ship is up on top of a hill looking out over landscape of the valleys, white valleys, and the next moment it's at the bottom of the valley looking up at these white hills. And so this whole crazy landscape moving like this and the danger had subsided because then the fear of capsizing had disappeared. And the fear of growlers had disappeared. But then we began to worry us as to whether we could get out of this. When the hurricane finished and we were able to start sailing, we found we had about 100 miles of pack ice to the north of us that we still had to get through. And a few days later we were trapped in very heavy pack ice, unable to move and we had another hurricane. But being in the pack ice, stationary, we were not in danger as we had been in the earlier one. But the problem then was, would we be trapped there for the winter because this was in March and too late to be down there. And I remember everyone got very despondent and the morale went down very low and I had the cook come to me and ask if he should do a stock take of all the food on the ship. I said, 'No. Don't you dare until I tell you. If the boys learn that I'm taking a stock take of the food on the ship then the morale will become even worse because they'll know then that I think they're going to be trapped'. Anyway this hurricane was a Godsend in a way because it had broken up the pack ice and after the second hurricane we were able to get out and proceed. But my embarrassment was very great because I'd forced the captain into this position. And then I realised that if the ship had sunk I could be blamed for all this, not that I was worried in that case, because I'd be dead. The other interesting thing is my reaction to the danger. Everyone on that ship thought we were going to die. Not one of us at the height of the storm thought we'd survive. So much so, that although there was wonderful photography, there wasn't a single photograph taken by anyone, including myself and I am an avid photographer, simply because there didn't seem to be any point in wasting your time taking photographs, you weren't going to get out of it anyway. So we have no record of this fascinating business of the ups and downs of these valleys and things, which we could have photographed.

What kind of things go through your mind when you're feeling in such danger?

My feeling was one of extreme anger. I was furious. I said, 'Here I am a successful expeditioner. I've achieved my objective. I've put a station in Antarctica. We've got a ship full of records, and surveys and aerial photographs and wonderful data, going home, crowned with success and here we are going to be bloody well killed', you know. It's most infuriating. And it's so infuriating that you don't feel frightened in that sense.

How do you keep on making decisions when you're in that state?

Oh that's easy enough. As a matter of fact it's forced on you. Every decision you make is a matter of survival so you have to keep going. Well, back to Melbourne, to a welcome: the crowd on the wharf, relatives and people, the minister and so on.

What did the captain say to you?

He didn't ever say anything about this earlier problem. But we had continuing problems with captains. This one in particular was the worst. He became steadily worse on successive voyages. Finally I had to ask the owners not to send him anymore.

What was his name?

Because he ... he'd become so antagonistic to anything I wanted done. And so timid. And so frightened of possible consequences, that even the simplest things he would read danger into them and refuse to do them on account of the safety of the ship. Remember that the captain has the ultimate say the minute he says, 'It's the safety of the ship, which is at issue'. And as leader of the expedition I can't overrule him. Up to that point I can say, 'I want you to do this. You must do this. That's what I want'. But if he says, 'Look it's too dangerous and I am here to protect this ship and its crew and its passengers', then that's the last point. Now over the years we had numerous captains and there were two that I would except from this statement, two wonderful men, but almost invariably the others would become more and more cautious as they came down in later years. And my deputy, who went onto these voyages after I resigned, I said to him once, 'You know most of the captains became less useful as their experience increased because as they learnt more and more about Antarctica and the dangers, they became more and more cautious'. And I said, 'Most of them'. He looked at me with a glint in his eye and said, 'Not most of them Phillip', he said, 'All of them', because he had the same experience as me. And of course, Mawson had that experience with his two captains on the BANZARE trip. The captains wouldn't go in where he wanted them because they were frightened of what would happen. So this is a continuing problem with every expedition leader. Expedition leaders are concerned with pushing to the limit and exploring and finding out things, the curiosity driving him. The captain of the ship invariably has no curiosity. I remember saying to one captain, 'Look, I want to go round that headland'. He said, 'No. I don't want to go'. I said, 'Look if you go around that headland you'll be the first captain in the world to ever to see that'. He said, 'I don't care'. I said, 'Look if we go around there history will show a map of Antarctica with a little dotted line and the name of your ship on it and the name of you as captain as being the first ship in history ever to have gone there'. He said, 'I don't care, I want to go home'. So this is the problem you have.

How difficult did they think you were?

Well they always thought I was difficult by wanting things done. I remember spending hours in the crow's nest. When things get difficult the captain goes to the crow's nest and navigates the ship from there. When I think he's getting a bit edgy I'd go up and sit beside him and say, 'Oh, not as bad as I thought it was.' You know, it's going all right. Let's just look over there'. You know, make him realise that if he wants to say no, he's really got a problem on his hands, and kid him along. I kidded one bloke all night to cross a very shallow bank rather than going a couple of hundred miles around. [INTERRUPTION]

So what was it that drove you on to do all of that Antarctic work?

Well intense curiosity. And this is what drives a scientist and what drives an expeditioner. You just want to see what's round the other side of something. To see something no one else has ever seen, to map, to produce new knowledge, to create, in a sense.

Is there a sense of that the Antarctic could provide that for you that somewhere else couldn't?

Very much so. Particularly in my day, where I had this experience that very few people had had and which no one can ever have again of just standing up on a mountain peak and looking down the other side and saying, 'Mine are the first eyes in the history of creation to have ever seen this'. Now you can't even say that on the Moon or Mars. It's all been photographed.

What was so special, was it just you and nature I suppose?


How much ... how patriotic did you feel?

Well we were all extremely patriotic. This business of raising flags, it's a bit hard to express this today where those sorts of feelings are sneered at a bit. But in our time we still had this sort of Empire spirit, this business of doing things for Australia, in the name of the Queen and the Commonwealth, putting a flag up in the name of the Queen and the Commonwealth and Australia, and helping to cement the Australian claim to Antarctica, which now I no longer believe in. It's fascinating looking back on the sincerity of our patriotic feelings and doing this exploring for patriotic purposes.

So how did you feel putting the flag on the first Australian base?

Tremendously proud to be able to raise the Australian flag and say, 'In the name of Queen Elizabeth and the Commonwealth of Australia, we raise this flag as an example of Australian ownership to this Australian Antarctic Territory'. And then we'd build a cairn and put a bottle under a stone with a message in it saying, 'On such and such a day we raised the Australian flag and the people concerned were such and such'. And every time we explored a new place we'd put a cairn up on an unknown coast, knowing this fierce competition we had in those days between us and the Russians. [INTERRUPTION - SLATE]

Apart from curiosity, which is one of the most powerful driving forces in explorers, there is this other element of being the first into something. Now most people experience the thrill of going to some remote place where they know very few people have been and they come home and they've got this feeling of 'I've been there and I've seen this and I'm one of the only few hundred who have every done that'. Just imagine to do what I had the pleasure of doing on several occasions and that is to go up to some high eminency, to climb up or be dropped there by helicopter or something, and then you go forward and look out over the other side into the distance and you say to yourself, 'Mine are the first eyes in the creation of the world that have ever seen this view'. This is an immense thrill and there is this feeling that perhaps you'll be able to do something like that, it's another driving force from the adventure, to take risks and to get to places. And nowadays it's not possible to do that anymore. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, when all this was happening. Now you can't do it anywhere on earth. The whole of the earth has been photographed and seen and that goes for the Moon and for Mars. So where do you go to get this experience again?

Does it change the way you see human beings when you have any experience like that?

No, it just makes you feel very happy inside yourself I guess. [Laughs]

Not lonely at all?

No. No. It's the opposite feeling of personal privilege, uniqueness. It's the summit of an explorer's experience really, to be able to do something like this.

Is the Antarctic a place though where you feel people take a lesser role than they do in other parts of the world?

I think it's right to say that you feel very humble because you realise the insignificance of human beings in relation to the great forces of nature. And that's why I take issue with many environmentalists. They have no idea of the magnitude of Antarctica and they talk about things that have to be protected in Antarctica that are quite unimportant. A lot of so-called 'Conservation Antarctica' is nonsense because man at his worst can make almost no impact on this immense continent. And to talk about becoming a wilderness area is nonsense. Ninety-five per cent of it will always be wilderness. The impact that individual people, or tourists or expeditions can have is minuscule. It doesn't matter. You might affect a tiny area and it'll be completely recovered within a few months, if not a few years, and it will have no impact on the other 99.9 per cent of the country.

But isn't the Antarctic our last wilderness?

It will always be our last wilderness. It will always be a wilderness. It's nothing you can do about it. It's unapproachable, inaccessible, threatening, dangerous. You can just probe in at odd spots. If you look at the map of my voyages, you'll see it's scalloped. We've gone in there, we've come out to sea, we've gone in there, we've come out to sea, we've gone in there. That's because the places in between are unapproachable by ship. They aren't approachable largely by air, except helicopters.

Do you think though that human beings are good at introducing things that destroy environment, that in time, after you, it might ...

It seems in certain places. We've got to be a bit careful about introducing seeds and plants and things, not that I think many would ever exist down there. When you think the only things that really grow in Antarctica are lichens and mosses. Really there's very little we can do to harm Antarctica. The oil threat is the worst, but even that has been proved to be far less than anyone has envisaged because we're not conscious of nature's immense ability to protect itself and to remedy things that happen. And by sheer immensity, when you talk about oil spills, people talk as though an oil spill in Bass Strait will poison everything in Darwin. That's the sort of argument that is being applied to Antarctica. I'd agree that if you have any oil spill in Bass Strait it will affect Bass Strait. In Antarctica it will affect thirty or forty miles of coast, perhaps a bit more, but not the total 12,000 miles of coast or something around Antarctica.

Isn't the balance down there very fragile there for wildlife and sea creatures and so on?

If you look at a tiny place, yes. If you look at the immensity of Antarctica, it's one of the most robust, untouchable places in the world, in the inability of human being to have any real effect on it.

What about in the future, with technology, more technology, could it be possible that it would be overflowing with tourist and airstrips and all the problems that come from that?

It can never overflow with tourists. Tourists will only go somewhere where they can reach easily, where it's interesting. There are only two places really that tourists want to go. And are able to go and will probably will ever go. And one is the Antarctic Peninsula, which has to be carefully looked after because it is a bit in danger of too many people, but that's a little area. It's not Antarctica itself. As a matter of fact it's one of the rare little areas of Antarctica that's probably very different from all the rest, because it's further north, and it's easier to get to it and it actually has different sorts of flora, for that reason. That's one place they want to go. The other place is the Ross Sea area where McMurdo Station is. Most of the rest is not worth looking at from a tourist point of view. And ninety per cent of the rest, they couldn't get to anyway. So this idea of being flooded with tourists just won't happen. It can't happen. And the bits that are endangered, okay, protect them. You can draw up any rules you want to apply to the peninsular area and a few places around the Ross Sea or Mawson's Hut. But don't imagine that that applies all over Antarctica. It would be stupid to bother about the rest of Antarctica. I think that we're wasting, in the world, we're wasting immense amounts of money every year with committees, with paper work and expenditure, on conserving Antarctica when we should be really putting all that into conserving Australia and the populated parts of the world. You're just wasting your time doing it down there.

Why do you think Greenpeace and the Wilderness Society and so on do spend ... are concerned about the Antarctic then?

Because they're not concerned about the major issue which is world population. They want to do things that are spectacular. They want to do things that have an impact. Antarctica is more in focus in the world than any other place and you can get more kudos and more publicity and more support from doing something in Antarctica. And that's why they're all there. [INTERRUPTION]


I'll be very popular if this goes to air.

I know ... what about creatures like the blue whale, which you've had some experience with?

It's all right. Same as in Australia, if you have an endangered species, you look after it. That doesn't mean that everything's endangered. When you talk about seals and penguins. The environmentalists complained when the French wanted to build an airport because they might threaten the thousand Adelie penguins. But there are over twenty to thirty million Adelie penguins in Antarctica. If you have to ship a thousand to one place or the other or move them, it's immaterial. [INTERRUPTION]

But you actually saw yourself the diminishing of blue whales over a period of time.

That's because they didn't get on to protect them early enough. The treaty nations have put into operation a whole lot of measures to protect Antarctic environment, and they did most of it before any Greenpeace or environmentalist got stuck into it at all. I think the great danger of people like Greenpeace is they endanger the treaty structure itself. I think the conservation of the Antarctic Treaty system is much more important than any other single conservation measure in Antarctica, and Greenpeace did more to destroy the Antarctic Treaty than any other group.

How's that?

Just by causing all sorts of problems that disrupted the Antarctic Treaty people. This whole business of the anti-mining crusade almost tore the treaty apart. And yet it's quite meaningless. There's going to be no mining in the Antarctic for fifty to 100 years. No possibility whatever, except for oil which is rather different. I'm talking about mineral mining. And looked at in that regard, if you sign a bit of paper preventing mining now, if in fact eighty years, 100 years from now, it turns out we are short of molybdenum or something we need back in society for our metallurgy, no bit of paper you sign now is going to stop people from getting things society needs. Frankly I don't see why we shouldn't mine in Antarctica. It's not as though you are going to have a proliferation of mines. You'd be damn lucky if you ever find five mines in Antarctica.

How can you be sure of this though? I mean, do you ever wonder if you're out of touch because you haven't been ... you're a different generation?

We've been crawling all over Antarctica now for over forty years, and we've not found a single ore body. When the mineral boom was on in Australia twenty years ago, they were finding ore bodies in Northern Australia at a rate of one every three weeks. It wasn't a question of finding an ore body, it was finding an ore body that was viable and profitable. In Antarctica they haven't found a single ore body as yet. One of the problems is that most of the rock outcrops are the tops of mountains and you don't often find important mines on the tops of mountains. We can't prospect through the ice and it's doubtful that we'll ever find a way of doing it, so you're restricted to this very small area of rock, which is outcropping. And if you do find mines then it has to be economical to go down and mine them and that won't happen 'til we're so short everywhere else in the world that makes it a viable proposition. And then you have to have a port to export the stuff, or an airfield to fly it out. Everything's against the exploitation of mining resources in Antarctica, to be quite realistic.

[end of tape]

Proceed to Tape 8