My journey to my current vocation as an ‘explorer scientist’, is (like most I presume) a long and winding one; perhaps Wilkins too wandered a similar path; I shall have to refamiliarise myself with his story… Anyways, my task herein is to briefly explain how I got to where I am today, what role Wilkins played in my journey and how I can now inspire others to lead, perhaps similar, ‘useful’ lives.
White Limbo was the book that hooked me; the account of the first Australian ascent of Mount Everest in 1984, via a bold new route up the North Face, part of which was named ‘White Limbo’ (after, for those who are around my age, an Australian Crawl song of the same name). I chose the book as an academic prize in Grade 11. At Expo ’88 in Brisbane, I had the chance to meet Tim McCartney-Snape, of that expedition (as well as English polar explorer Robert Swan), and Tim signed in my book: ‘Go for it, but take care…’
That could have set my path for the future, but it wasn’t to be, just yet. I had grown up on a diet of Second World War aviation literature like The Dam Busters and Reach for the Sky (about Douglas Bader), and I desperately wanted to serve my country as an Air Force pilot. So, upon leaving school, I was fortunate to receive a scholarship to the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) where I commenced academic studies and initial training as a GDUNCAT1 (General Duties Flying Officer, Uncategorised, Level 1).
I loved my time at ADFA and with a small number of like-minded friends, I eventually spent my weekends rock climbing, and my summers mountaineering in NZ; I hadn’t lost that adventurous inclination. After ADFA I commenced #164B Pilot’s Course at RAAF Pearce, WA, flying the Pilatus PC-9; but, unfortunately, being an Air Force pilot was not for me. I had difficulty descending to a height whilst maintaining a turn, responding to ATC in one ear, responding to my instructor in the other, and working through a checklist; high-level multi-tasking under stress was not my forte. It may also have been the fact that when I perhaps should have been studying my PC-9 Flight Manual, I was instead dreaming of icy polar wastes and writing to famous polar explorers such as Sir Ranulph Fiennes, asking: how do I become a polar explorer? Although I logged around 50 hrs on the PC-9, obviously neither my head nor my heart were in RAAF Pilot’s Course…
Somewhat bewildered for a time, after a childhood dream dashed, I spent a few months in Canberra before re-pursuing my RAAF aviation career on the 92 Navigators course at East Sale. I was a ‘natural’ navigator and enjoyed the mental arithmetic involved in dead-reckoning, the astro navigation (this was just pre-GPS) and the procedural/mechanistic process of navigation. Many things, perhaps some disillusionment with the RAAF and a class consisting primarily of RAN colleagues, drove me to transfer to the RAN, and rather than graduating to navigate F1-11s, I ended-up at Naval Air Station (NAS) Nowra for a conversion via the Bell-206 to the Seahawk helicopter.
There again, my journey took a turn. A delay in the training pipeline meant that I could largely cool my heels at NAS Nowra (not something I’m typically comfortable doing) or nominate for training as a RAN METOC (Meteorology & Oceanography) Officer, with a year’s training with the Bureau of Meteorology in Melbourne. With the Seahawk training pipeline clogged, and an Honours degree in Oceanography behind me, this seemed a very sensible route; the fact that my then girlfriend (now wife) was completing her studies in Melbourne at the time was also, perhaps, a contributing factor.
And so, I hit pause on my aviation career, albeit briefly, and spent the next two years studying meteorology in Melbourne before serving as a meteorologist both at NAS Nowra and at Fleet Base East, in Sydney. Although my professional responsibilities precluded me from joining the first successful Australian expedition to climb Dhaulagiri (the world’s seventh highest mountain), I did have the opportunity to indulge in my first (almost) polar journey; a trip to/from sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island as the meteorologist on the Aurora Australis; my very first taste of polar scientific adventuring.
As my varied military career had progressed, inspired by White Limbo, I had also been planning an ascent of Mount Everest via the north side, with the Army Alpine Association. And so in 2001, after having resumed my military flying career and participating in expeditions to Island Peak and Shishapangma, I was very fortunate to serve as the RAN climber on the 2001 Army Mount Everest Expedition; an expedition that I had shepherded along (with a lot of help) since I joined the military in 1989.
Again, my involvement on this expedition was to change my life, but not for summitting the mountain; although the expedition was ultimately successful, I was turned back at around 8300 metres in the face of a beckoning storm. No, the reason was that whilst acclimatising for Everest in the Annapurna Sanctuary, Nepal, a heinous ice avalanche swept from the face of Hiunchuli, killing two Israeli trekkers and three of our party, including an eight year old girl KC, with whom Id struck-up a friendship.
I retrieved KC’s body from that avalanche site and returned her, with her mother, to the Australian Embassy in Kathmandu; it was this event that changed my life’s course again.
I returned from Everest, spent a year soul-searching whilst travelling with my wife, and then joined the army to complete a degree in civil engineering. I served time as an army engineer before I was fortunate enough to gain a Menzies Foundation scholarship that took me to the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI), University of Cambridge, where I commenced my PhD, assessing the strength of snow, using a cone penetrometer.
This period was particularly fulfilling; I enjoyed the research, my family was growing, and I was fortunate to spend field campaigns in Svalbard, Greenland and Antarctica. It was during this time that I, perhaps like many of you, came across Wilkins, via the terrific book by Simon Nasht: The Last Explorer: Hubert Wilkins, Australia’s Unknown Hero. Why hadn’t I previously heard of this inspirational man, whose life (in some ways) my own journey echoed?
To see a fellow Australian, an aviator, soldier, scientist and polar explorer, who had achieved so much, so internationally, before our modern age of ‘globalisation’, was inspirational, and immediately I had a mentor with whom I could identify, some 100 or so years later.
My journey post-SPRI has remained of interest: I served as scientist on the 2011 Catlin Arctic Survey, an oceanographic man-hauling traverse from the North Pole region towards Greenland, and I orchestrated the first winter crossing of Antarctica with my original polar hero Sir Ranulph Fiennes. I continue to plan adventurous scientific expeditions to the Himalaya, the Arctic, Antarctica and beyond, but all navigators need a bearing, and Wilkins remains as a guiding light, as my own ‘explorer scientist’ career matures.
I still enjoy cold icy wastes, yet perhaps like Wilkins, it is the camaraderie of a ‘tight team’ and the satisfaction of science ‘well done’, under arduous conditions that brings me greatest satisfaction in such environments. I still enjoy these places ‘just because’ but as I state across my social media platforms, I am: ‘Once dedicated to the pursuit of remote area science and engineering; increasingly dedicated to empowering people…’ I now try to remain true to this goal, and I wrote at some length on such recently: .
My hope in sharing my journey with you today is that you will join me in celebrating the legacy that is Sir Hubert Wilkins and assist me in gathering a fine collection of scientific articles that together we can share; not only to get a better handle perhaps on what made Wilkins ‘tick’, but also to inspire those who will follow us; to those explorer and ‘citizen scientists’ to come, who can draw from Wilkins the inspiration to travel their own journey of discovery, as I have attempted to do.
I look forward to sharing more time and stories together with you all, as we continue our shared support of the Sir Hubert Wilkins Foundation.