1 Mar 20 - Resident stories

Antarctic adventure

It was 1959 when Don Webster first set foot in Antarctica as a pioneering young science technician. Fascinated by the mysterious icy continent, he went on to spend two years living and working at Scott Base, New Zealand’s Antarctic research centre. Most recently, the Summerset on Summerhill resident has written a book about his experiences in one of the most unique places on Earth.

Don was 21 when he, along with a small group of workmates from the Dominion Physical Laboratory in Wellington, was given an opportunity too good to pass up – a stint in Antarctica. Once on the ice, his job was to study patterns in the upper atmosphere and to build and monitor a radar system to track the Southern Lights. He was prepared for the cold and plenty of adventure, but in a place as unfamiliar as Antarctica, there were always surprises.

“We arrived by boat and I had been seasick the whole way,” he says. “I remember the water was calmer as we got closer to the ice and my first impression of Antarctica was the colour. You’d think it would be completely white, but the sea and the ice are very blue, and it’s really striking.”

Thanks to specialised clothing, Don says he never felt cold while working at Scott Base. But the weather and light patterns near the South Pole were extreme.

“There’s no doubt it was cold! It got up to a ‘high’ of about 0˚C in the summer. The coldest we got was about -48˚C.

“It wasn’t just the cold; it was the light. In winter it’s dark 24 hours a day; in summer it’s light 24 hours a day. You do get used to it, and you find your days become structured by mealtimes. The problem in winter was you would be asleep and you would wake up and see it was 11.30. But because of the lack of light you had no idea whether it was 11.30 at night or 11.30 the next morning and you’d slept in!”

“Strong blizzards could shake the huts for days at a time, and even the huge diesel generators powering Scott Base couldn’t completely stop the chill.”

“There was a big temperature gradient inside the huts. Up high, they were very hot; down low, they were very cold. We all had experiences of leaving our boots on the floor and in the morning they were frozen to the floor with ice!”

When his one-year stint in Antarctica came to a close, Don quickly signed up for another 12 months. Although the excitement had worn off the second time around, returning to the ice was the ideal way to save for a house deposit.

“In those days you had nothing to spend money on down there, so you had a whole year’s salary when you came back. You could never normally save that amount of money.”

Understandably, two years of icy blizzards proved quite enough for Don, who went on to marry and have two children. His career moved on to electronics and computer science, but his fascination with Antarctica never quite left him.

These days, he’s revisited the memories with his new book, Scott Base Antarctica: The Early Years. Collecting the material was a process, but uncovering a wealth of old photos and reconnecting with other scientists from the time has been a pleasure for Don.

“Talking with others who were there that first year was great as they remembered things that I didn’t and vice versa. But we soon realised we couldn’t rely solely on our memories, so I set out to get as many photos as I could.”

“It’s slowly been getting warmer down there. We used to be able to go along the sea ice and overland to get to the nearby American station, McMurdo, from Scott Base, because the solid ice never broke out. These days they have had to put roads in to get to McMurdo as the ice now breaks out every summer. There are areas of the continent that are breaking off and drifting north.”

Don, who has lived at Summerset on Summerhill in Palmerston North for 13 years, says the humble huddle of huts that formed the Scott Base he lived in is now a large and thriving research centre. As the next generation of scientists work to uncover more secrets of the South Pole, Don is thrilled that he got the chance to be a part of the Antarctic story.

Interested in reading a copy of Scott Base Antarctica: The Early Years?
Contact Don: donweb@xtra.co.nz