Antarctic Kiwi connection reinforced

19:02, Jan 28 2013
John Key visits an Antarctica New Zealand Field team in the Dry Vallley
John Key visits an Antarctica New Zealand Field team in the Dry Vallley

It's 56 years since New Zealand set up Scott Base in Antarctica. DEIDRE MUSSEN spent five days there learning why we should care about our presence on the frozen continent.


A gentle fizz tempts the tastebuds as a modern version of Ernest Shackleton's whisky flows over ancient glacial ice.

"I can hear it," exclaims Prime Minister John Key's wife, Bronagh, as she presses the glass to her ear.

This historic tipple with staff and visitors last Sunday, marking 56 years of New Zealand's Scott Base, symbolises our country's Antarctic connections.

It is a special blend of science, history and Kiwi links with this icy continent.


The glacial ice, nicknamed "Christ's tears" for its age, fell as snow thousands of years ago on the polar plateau.

Compacted into ice, it slowly flowed down over millennia to Victoria Glacier's terminal face in the McMurdo Dry Valleys.

Several large chunks were chipped off for the Scott Base whisky club's shout while Key was there meeting Kiwi scientists last Saturday

The birthday whisky evokes polar history - the original liquor it is based on was found buried in ice under Shackleton's hut more than a century after the explorer's failed 1907-09 South Pole expedition.

Recreating it has proved an ingenious venture for New Zealand's Antarctic Heritage Trust, which is undertaking a five- year hut restoration project at Cape Royds, part of its work to protect the legacy of the heroic era of polar exploration from 1895 to 1917.

One of three Mackinlay whisky crates excavated by trust conservators from under the hut's floorboards was brought to New Zealand and thawed.

Three bottles of the "Rare Old Highland Malt Whisky" were sent to Scottish distillery Whyte & Mackay, owner of the Mackinlay brand, for analysis and replication in 2011. The initiative has proved a windfall for the trust, which is set to earn up to $1.5 million because the distillery has pledged to give [PndStlg]5 (about $9) from each sale of a replica bottle.

Key returned the original tissue-wrapped bottles to Antarctica last Saturday during his three-day visit, and they will be put back in Shackleton's hut by March.

"I think we're all tempted to crack it open and have a little drink ourselves," Key joked as he carefully passed one to the trust's former chairman, Rob Fenwick.

Unfortunately, that wasn't going to happen.

Only a couple of people have been allowed to taste the original, which was bottled in 1898. They include Whyte & Mackay's master brewer, who extracted tiny samples by needle and syringe via their cork stoppers.

Last Sunday's tasting of the replica whisky, which packs a delicious punch at 47.3 per cent alcohol, was symbolically held in the Trans-Antarctic Expedition hut.

It was New Zealand's first building in Antarctica, marking a new era in our polar presence.

The hut was one of six built to support the 1955-58 Commonwealth expedition, which aimed to traverse the polar cap for the first time.

Scott Base was officially opened on January 20, 1957, and the Trans- Antarctic Expedition structure became the main hut for the fledgling outpost.

Sir Edmund Hillary led the expedition's New Zealand team.

They set off from the hut in Massey-Ferguson farm tractors to lay food depots halfway to the South Pole for the British crossing party.

However, Hillary famously ignored pleas to halt by expedition leader British explorer Dr Vivian Fuchs and the Ross Sea Committee, reaching the South Pole in January 1958.

They were the first explorers to travel overland to the Pole since Captain Robert Falcon Scott's doomed 1912 expedition, and the first in motor vehicles.

Fuchs' team ultimately completed the Antarctic crossing that March.

Antarctica New Zealand's acting operations and infrastructure manager, Graeme Ayres, was a boy when his father, Kiwi mountaineer Harry Ayres, joined Hillary on the polar expedition.

"The place got into our blood as descendants as a result of our fathers, being exposed to all of that sense of adventure," he has been quoted saying. He recalls caring for husky puppies which became sled dogs for the expedition.

Stepping into the hut is like entering a time warp.

The building is packed with memorabilia from the late 1950s, and hanging in pride of place are fading photographs of a much- younger Queen and Prince Philip, serving as a reminder of how far we have come.

These days, Scott Base has a more Kiwi vibe. Large photos of stunning New Zealand locations, rather than reminders of past British links, decorate the walls.

Last Sunday, Key and Ngai Tahu head Sir Mark Solomon unveiled a pou whenua (carved post) at the 56th birthday celebrations to reinforce the New Zealand connection.

At the ceremony, Solomon joked that the totara pou did not mean the southernmost iwi planned to lodge a claim for Antarctica.

"I thought I better reassure the prime minister of that," he said.

Many Kiwi scientists do not stay at Scott Base. Despite the extreme conditions, they work in the field, sleeping in portable huts or tents. An example is the team Key visited in the Dry Valleys, where scientists are studying tiny organisms surviving on the extreme edge of life in the driest place on Earth and the closest terrestrial environment to Mars.

This is one of many projects Kiwi scientists are undertaking in Antarctica.

Last August, Key opened the New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute, a public-private partnership.

Its aim is to co-ordinate New Zealand's scientific research in Antarctica to assess how global warming will affect our maritime country.

"Antarctica is the engine-room of global sea currents and that directly affects climate for New Zealand," institute director Professor Gary Wilson says.

Although much Antarctic research investigates climate change, protecting the past has also proved important.

The Antarctic Heritage Trust's restoration of Discovery Hut, used by Scott from 1901 to 1904, begins this year. The wooden hut is only 300m from McMurdo Station. That project is expected to be completed in five years. And by then, our understanding of climate change and its effect on New Zealand will have progressed, thanks to our scientists' work in Antarctica.

That may help to make sense of the changes our country and the world face, including Canterbury's droughts and fires, Auckland's cyclones or West Coast's floods.

Let's all raise our Kiwi glasses to that.

The Press