|Interviewer: Andrea Stretton
Recorded: March 4, 1993
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
The earlier work of Mawson and other explorers was closely related to the general idea that resources in Antarctica were going to be important for the world. All the history of Antarctica has been tied up with the commercial ideas of whaling or the possibility of minerals, and that leads onto the whole idea of national claims in Antarctica, where the different nations that made claims did so because they thought that at some time in the future, something might crop up in Antarctica that would be commercially important, such as minerals and so on. So the whole idea of territorial claims is related to resources. I believe that the claims era is finished. It's part of the old colonial philosophy of various empires reaching out and grabbing territory. Now there are seven nations that have claims in Antarctica. There are twenty-four nations in the Antarctica Treaty. The other seventeen don't recognise those claims and when we point out that amongst the ones who don't recognise them are all the big powers - the United States, Russian, China, India, Japan, you know, it makes you suddenly realise the claims, really, are not worth the paper their written on. Everyone is just hanging on to claims until there is a decision as to what is to replace them. The nations are searching for a mechanism by which Antarctica can be governed and controlled in some international fashion. There are two major schools of thought. One, to which I subscribe, is that there should be a consortium arrangement by the treaty nations, who should set up some secretariat and some administrative machinery for governing everything that goes on in Antarctica. The other viewpoint is that it all should be handed over to the United Nations, and this I just don't believe would work. It's difficult enough with twenty-four nations. In my time, it was difficult enough with eleven to get some sort of consensus. The treaty has the great value in that every nation that is a full member of the treaty must be carrying out work in Antarctica. That means it really understands the whole Antarctic problem because it is down there operating. Now if you turned it over to the United Nations, you get 150 nations instead of twenty-four, and most of them know nothing whatever about Antarctica and have very little way of ever finding out and many of them have appalling conservation records. And I think the whole United Nations Secretariat system, as you see in preventing wars, is not very effective, so that I believe the United Nations possibility is just undesirable. I think we should continue to work towards getting some treaty machinery and anyone can join the treaty, anyone who can set up a station in Antarctica and operate down there.
Wouldn't that, in the end, lessen Australia's territorial claim, which is partly what you ...
Oh, you would throw it out the window. You wouldn't have anymore claims. Get rid of all the claims and have an international body regulate it.
But isn't that partly what you were doing all those decades, you and others creating territory for Australia?
Yes. That's finished. That's bygone. It's part of an era which has disappeared, just as the British Empire has disappeared, you know. It's gone.
How does that make you feel though, when that was your aim?
Oh it doesn't worry me because my big interest was surveying and exploring and mapping and doing scientific work. That exploring's been done, so we've got that chalked up as a record. The scientific work will go on. That's wonderful to have been in and it's wonderful to see it expanding and developing and continuing. So I'm very happy.
What is the future for the Antarctic, as a place?
Oh, I believe the future is that ultimately, maybe a very long time ahead, that ultimately, its resources will be valuable, despite what objections there maybe from the conservationists. That will be the bottom line.
And what in all those years was your favourite moment down in the Antarctic?
I think the rare moments are of very great beauty, and those rare moments of discovery when I landed on quite unknown shores and raised the Australian flag and said, 'Here we are for the first time'.
How long since you've been there now?
A long while. I was there last in 1966. And I've never been back.
Do you miss it?
Not really. I had twenty years and my curiosity was sated. I've seen it all.
Is there anything you would do differently in the Antarctic if you went back there, if you could relive what you've lived?
I don't think so. I'm quite happy about he way we did it. I think it was very effective, very efficient very professional.
And what did you learn from it? There must have been things, experiences you had that taught you a good deal?
I think everybody who goes to Antarctica comes back enriched, not only in terms of experiences but in developing a greater sense of one's own individuality, developing better internal balance, a better idea of oneself in relation to the world at large and nature in particular, a greater appreciation of one's physical and mental resources and one's emotional resources. I think it was a very enriching experience. [INTERRUPTION - SLATE]
Antarctica has always been regarded as the apex of the adventure pyramid and this is a justifiable assessment. I think adventure in Antarctica is tremendous. It outweighs adventure in any other environment in the world, and this is why people go down there, and why people are still going down there. I was lucky enough to have a number of adventures and even luckier to get out of it alive. I'll just give you one example, which was in the air. And incidentally, most of my hairiest of adventures have been in the air or at sea, rather than on land or on foot. This one occurred when we were exploring Oates Land for the first time. The ship pushed in, couldn't reach the shore, we were stuck sixty miles off shore. But we found a pond, an open lake of water, about a mile across, and so I decided that I could fly my little Auster plane on floats sixty miles in and then go along the shore taking handheld photographs of this unknown coast and its mountain and fly back to the ship. So we duly did that and my pilot was Doug Leckie, who was a very famous and wonderful pilot. And normally when you leave a ship like that you note iceberg positions or something, to act as a landmark when coming home again because we didn't have a radio compass. And on this occasion, simply because the ship was there in a great pool a mile wide, there was no other pool for hundreds of miles in the pack ice, we didn't bother. We just set off and we flew sixty miles down the coast, which was one leg of the triangle, and then sixty miles along and sixty miles back, and when we got back, we couldn't find the ship. We had radios and we said, 'Where are you? What's happened, captain? We can't find the pool'. He said, 'I'm sorry but the pack ice has all closed in and there's no pool'. And so we searched three times - three or four stratagems - without success to try and find the ship and we realised that if we couldn't find the ship from the air, and if we managed to crash land, which was not very probable, because on floats you can't land on ice floes all jumbled up and broken, so our chance for a successful crash landing was nil practically, but if we had managed to survive, the ship would never have found us because they wouldn't know whether to go north, south, east or west. And if we couldn't see them from the air, they'd never see us from sea level. So we had to do something pretty desperate and the only thing I could think of: I radioed the ship and asked the captain to get every pair of binoculars on the ship and hand them out to individual men and to assemble the men up on the top above the bridge on that flat place called Monkey Island and to divide the sky into sectors and to give each man a sector to scan and in this way, after about five minutes, one of the blokes picked us up as a spot in the sky and then they were able to talk us back to the ship by radio. But when we got back, there was no pool to land in. The captain was able to put the engines full-steam ahead and that made the propellers churn violently and push the brash ice behind the ship back. It produced a pool about forty yards long at the stern of the ship. And this wonderful pilot of mine flew the plane in and landed in about forty yards. Luckily on a float plane the drag is immense once the floats hit the water so it's like putting on very severe brakes and we finished up with the nose of the aircraft up against the stern of the ship with about three or four minutes of petrol left. [INTERRUPTION - SLATE]
So tell me a bit about your life now Phil, how you fill up your days?
Well, all my life I've really had no overriding ambition in a directed sense, but I've always felt that it's terribly important to feel that at the end of the year, that you've done something. You must have some output, some accomplishment. So it doesn't matter what it is. When you ... for example, I've set myself to learn a musical instrument, or to do a certain amount of reading or to try and push my career, but apart from this early desire to be a surgeon, I never knew what I wanted to be. And even when I first went to university and thought I'd be a chemist and had to switch to being a physicist, and then having become a bit disturbed with the idea of a backroom boy existence to suddenly find the Antarctic thing opens out. And then when I found that the exploration had finished and they're not giving me the needs that I require to do good scientific work in Antarctica, I could see that's becoming a bit of a flat plateau, and I'm looking for something else creative and suddenly the Law luck works and out comes the VIC, the Victorian Institute of Colleges project, and I managed to get into that. And every time I've been lucky in being on the wave just as it's breaking to go to the shore and I get hurled forward, really regardless of my own momentum. So this idea of not wasting any year, and liking to see something at the end of it all, is still with me in my retirement, and that's why I try to write a book or do something, even if to play better tennis. [Laughs] So that at the end of the year I can say, 'I've wasted a lot of time but the year's not entirely down the drain'.
And you live alone now?
Yes. I've always been pretty self-sufficient and since my ... I had a very hard time for five years when my wife had a stroke and I had to nurse her and the difficulty there was planning and programming my day. It was a tremendously filled. Every second of every day was used for some purpose. Life's much easier of course. It's not totally lonely because I fill it up with all sorts of things, but there's a huge vacuum, of course, that will never be filled with Nell's absence. And you just live with that. But then I charge on ahead with these other things. This project itself is most exciting and will carry me through to the point of knowing that's a big contribution to this year. Last week I had a book accepted for publication. I have another one, which I'm hawking around the publishers and hopefully will be produced soon. Kath Ralston has written my biography. That's to be published this year. What I want to do as a future project is to publish quite a remarkable diary that Nell wrote of her Antarctic voyage and to illustrate it with reproductions of her Antarctic paintings. So that's a ... something for me to do next year and the year after. So there's always something. My main problem is whether or not I'll have enough years left to do all the things I want to do.
And for a very forward looking person, do you often look back on your life of achievement?
Only in the sense that I've always been interested in having an historical record of all this. That's why I've kept photographs and things. Until I got into the Antarctic work, I had no idea about it at all. But once I got into the Antarctic, having read all the historical books, I made a point of making sure I had elaborate diaries, elaborate photographic records, and occasions for getting things down in print or on the book shelves or into TV or onto film so that there will be a record of the Antarctic work and hopefully of Victorian Institute of College's work. Although that is still for the future because even Kath Ralston hasn't coped with that yet. So I hope someone will write up all the educational work because that's been another huge part of my life. And still there is no adequate record of that.
What would you like most for posterity to see in your own life, in terms of achievement?
Well, I think analysing myself, I've got reasonable intelligence but not in the top rank. I've compared myself with great minds of various sorts and I feel quite inadequate. I'm very hard working. I'm very conscientious. I'm a perfectionist. I'm willing to spend seventeen hours a day on something I'm interested in. And I do think I'm a very good organiser, manager and administrator just by being very conscientious. I get on well with people. I think I'm good with interpersonal relations. And I like to be thought of as someone who's been a meticulous, careful organiser with no great flashes of brilliance but I'm pretty quick on the up-take. I have a carefully tuned antenna which picks up important, little things around the place that contribute to the objective, and in many ways, that's better than brilliance because you can absorb other people's ideas and twist them to your own purpose. And so ... and I enjoy life immensely. I've got very broad interests. I'm an avid reader. I enjoy film. I've been the president of the Melbourne Film Society for many years. I play musical instruments. I've always wanted to do a lot of practice on the piano when I've retired but I've never had the time. I don't even have enough time to practice my clarinet as much as I like. And I play a lot of tennis and I have many friends. I like wine. I have lots of social engagements. Many dinners in restaurants. It's a very full life really. [INTERRUPTION]
How would you rate your Antarctic achievements then compared to those early explorers, like Mawson?
I'd like someone to do the rating. I'd love some modern writer to pick up the problem of writing up modern explorers and relating them to the men of the past. I've done more I think than Scott, Shackleton, Amundsen or Mawson, all these people put together, not because I've been more brilliant but because I've lasted longer. The environment of modern life is such that I've been able to get government support where they were just using private funds that they collected. Most of them were one-off expeditions or two-off. I had nineteen years. By sheer accumulation I amassed an immense amount of productivity. There are not many people in the world I think who've produced as much in Antarctic work as I and the ANARE have. I was blessed with wonderful colleagues. Tremendous Esprit de Corps, wonderful people working their guts out to produce these results. And very few people stay in it as long. Nineteen years is a long time to be running the vast expeditionary programme. The only person in the world to go as long would have been Admiral Byrd in America and Sir Vivian Fuchs in England. So that there's a lot of assessment to be done. I'd like people to asses the relationship between Mawson, Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton, Byrd, Fuchs and the Norwegians, who did a lot of work. The Japanese. The Russians. The Russian work is immense and is never mentioned and is never compared with anyone else's', but the Russians were our main competitors in the post IGY period because they had stations in Antarctica. They had ships operating all up and down our coast, and every time we went ashore somewhere we were afraid we'd see the cairn of a Russian, or else if we knew there wasn't one, we'd build a cairn and know that if they got there they'd see our cairn and so there's this international rivalry on a very happy, friendly basis, to see who can get there first and get a cairn up to stamp their imprint on that particular bit of territory. I still don't know, and haven't the facility to compare our work with the Russians. Their work's all in Russian and I can't read Russian. I've seen some of their maps showing the voyages of their ships. That's why I was very anxious to get out our exploration map so that they can perhaps see what we've done as well, and so that historians can look at Russian maps and look at ours and then fit them altogether and see who got their first, who saw what and so on. It's a fascinating exercise.
Do you think Australia has acknowledge your contribution as much as it should?
Well I don't think so, for this reason, that everyone is still hooked on the magic of the heroic era. For all sorts of people, they insist on talking to me about what Mawson did. I know what Mawson did. I have never once been listed on any important list of Antarctic explorers. This doesn't hurt me much because I know that in the next fifty years I'll make the grade. But it's a measure of how people are not recognised in life. Now, I've got a surveyor, called Sid Kirkby, who went down on numerous expeditions, and I believe he has personally surveyed and explored more than other ... any other person living or dead. And there would be no one in Australia almost, outside the Antarctic Division, who's ever heard his name. There's a chap called Charlie Bentley, a glaciologist in America, who's covered more of Antarctica in traverses. He's been doing it from the IGY onwards and he's still doing it. And this is a remarkable achievement, but it's never mentioned. We're still hooked on this business of people who die and become famous. If Scott had not died, if Mawson had not fallen down the traverse, if Shackleton hadn't had his ship broken, they would not be famous people. Today, the really successful people don't make mistakes and because they don't make mistakes, no one ever hears about them.
Do you have a major regret about your life?
No I just think I'm so lucky. All the twists of fortune have favoured me. If I had to go through my life again, I couldn't possibly do it all again. For example, if I hadn't passed Pure Maths Two or Three, when I was at Clunes, I wouldn't not have got anywhere. If I hadn't got a First Class Honour in Physics Part Three I would not have been accepted for research in physics. And if I hadn't got this position as Director of the Antarctic Division, I don't know where I would have been. If I hadn't got the VIC thing, a whole programme, and that was dead lucky. Nell was ... Nell and I were in bed on a Saturday morning reading the newspaper. Nell looked down the professional page and said, 'Here's a job for you Phil. What do you think?' and I looked at it and if I had written the advertisement myself I it could not have been more in relation to my qualifications. I said, 'Yes, how would you feel if I'd apply for this?' She said, 'Oh yes, it sounds wonderful', so I applied and I got it. Just luck. And this lucky business of my professor in the corridor telling me about the expedition and getting me in as the senior scientific officer. It's remarkable.
And that luck that you apply to your own life, is that how you think the world works?
I don't know how the world works, but for me it's been all a matter of wonderful luck, all down the line. Even survival in Antarctica, with all the hazardous things that happened to me. Just getting through by the skin of my teeth time after time.
Do you think you've had more than the average person's desire to extend yourself, to push yourself?
Well I don't know ... I don't know what the average person is. I suppose, all people haven't got a desire to push on and do things. And, not am ... it's not ambition exactly, this desire to accomplish things, means your ability to perform a hell of a lot of drudgery. People used to envy me my position in the Antarctic Division and I used to say to them, 'Look, twenty per cent of it is cream. The other eighty per cent is bloody hard work and most of it is very boring administration. But you have to do it because that's what's needed to make such and such happen'. I don't like writing long submissions, and burning the midnight oil to write to Treasury or the Minister and having to fight for this or that. I've been fighting for an Antarctic ship as a museum ship for fifteen years and getting nowhere until recently. But it's exciting and it's hard work and it's drudgery. And you've got to force yourself to do it but in the end it's all worth it if you get there. Most of the time you do, if you work hard enough.
So what advice would you give someone setting out in the world in their own profession?
I think the advice I'd give to kids, for example for exams: time is extendable. There's always that extra minute you can find. You've got to use those extra minutes. If you're up against something terribly difficult you can cope with it by working twenty-four hours a day for three days until you collapse, but you can do it somehow, because the time is there that can be used if you force yourself to use it. And you must be economical, you mustn't waste it.
Do you think the era you grew up in, that philosophy was more used than it is now?
No, I think the pressure is on people to do precisely this are very much greater now. The competition is fiercer and the ones, who are in the competitive sphere, have to work tremendously hard. And they do. And they do exactly what I'm talking about. They use every spare minute and they concentrate and they work, and they go through the drudgery to get where they want to go. [INTERRUPTION]
How far can you push yourself, as a man who pushed yourself a lot?
One of the lessons young people should learn, you learn it ... I learnt it in physical things first, is that you don't know what your body can do until you force it through to the point of absolute exhaustion. I learnt on that winter trip up on skis on Kosciusko that my physical resources are far, far beyond what I ever thought I was capable of doing. And my sporting career has shown the same thing. To be boxing for three rounds and fight, to exhaust yourself, and at the end of three rounds have the referee come along and say, 'I'm sorry on equal points. I order you to an extra round'. And you've got nothing left. You've got to go out and force that extra bit from nowhere from out of your boots somewhere to cope. And you suddenly find it's always there. You never know how much is in you. And the same thing goes intellectually. Almost no-one ever uses his brains to the limit of what he's got. And if you really forced you can dredge out your intellectual faculties to a degree that's quite astonishing. Some things you write under extreme pressure you look back later and think, How ever did I write that? So that if you can get young people to learn that they've got these infinite resources built in, mental resources and physical resources, all it needs is the motivation, or the necessity, or the emergency that makes you drag it all out. And the successful ones are the ones who learn it early and then apply it and use those extra resources, where other people are not even knowing they've got them.
And along the way in life, how do you cope with disappointments that must happen to anybody?
I think that you just learn that a lot of what you do will go down the drain and you won't succeed. But if you have enough payoffs to keep you encouraged and you generally do if you work hard enough, you don't think about the disappointments, you say, 'Oh that's one I lost. Now where's the next one?' and you go and you fight that one. You might lose three in the row and you win the 4th one and that's good enough to keep you going. It's like going to the races - you win enough to keep you going. You don't lose them all.
Wasn't there a disappointment that nearly stopped you in your tracks?
The worst disappointment I ever had, was Christmas Eve a few years ago when a bloke rang me up and said, 'She's gone Phil' and told me they'd sunk the Nella Dan. And I was plunged into the most severe depression of my life that night. Actually I'd fought for three weeks to try to save that ship, and to have it so stupidly thrown away by stupid people for stupid reasons. I can cope with almost anything, but human stupidity, that really upsets me.
Why did they do that?
For all sorts of stupid reasons: an insurance company that wanted to get rid of it. Bureaucrats who applied a rule that had no application in Macquarie Island and they applied a rule of thumb, that they apply around the Australian coast about removing shipping that's a threat to other ships. They should have left the ship where she was on the rocks. She could have stayed there for a hundred years and been a monument, a heritage monument. Or I could have brought her back to Australia. But to drag her off the rocks and then go out to sea and have to pump water into her to make her sink in 6,000 feet of water, that was inexcusable.
That passion you felt for the ship, did you feel that for the landscape in the Antarctic?
Oh yes. I think anyone who's been to Antarctica becomes absolutely obsessed with the beauty and the isolation and the grandeur and the magnitude of it all. But I love Antarctica as much as anyone else. That's why people can't understand why sometimes I oppose some things that I think are stupid environmental procedures, like bringing rubbish back from Antarctica. Spending hundreds of thousands of our valuable dollars on a needless exercise.
Was it a spiritual experience in that landscape you felt?
I suppose that's how you'd describe it. I don't know what spiritual means exactly but it's certainly a highly emotional, long-lasting experience to have seen and lived through some period in Antarctica. To have seen the landscape, to have heard the blizzards, to have seen the Aurora, to have struggled against the harsh environment and faced the dangers. It's all tremendous.
[end of tape]