Mates find refuge on the Antarctic ice

Former staff members based on Australian Antarctic stations Alan Johnstone (left), Peter Menta and Colin King are hoping to connect with other former staff to hold a winter solstice get-together, similar to those conducted during their 12-month placements on the icy continent.140611RG17 Picture: ROB GUNSTONE

Former staff members based on Australian Antarctic stations Alan Johnstone (left), Peter Menta and Colin King are hoping to connect with other former staff to hold a winter solstice get-together, similar to those conducted during their 12-month placements on the icy continent.140611RG17 Picture: ROB GUNSTONE

MOST men in Antarctica were running away from something when Alan Johnstone first set foot on the ice. 

In the 1970s Australia’s three Antarctic stations were something of a refuge for divorcees and solitary adventurers. 

As a former radio operator Mr Johnstone made his first trip to the frozen continent in 1974 fed up with life inside a navy submarine. 

“There’s a camaraderie you have with all the boys, it didn’t matter what island or what station you went to,” Mr Johnstone said. 

“Most of the guys have either been divorced, are looking to get divorced or escaping marriage. 

“One of my mates from Bendigo, he’d been married three or four times and he got served papers as he was going up the gangway.

“For me it was about getting away from society.” 

Col King, also a former radio operator and Peter Mentha — a plumber are sitting around a Warrnambool table poring over black-and-white photos. 

The irony is that after seeking the solitude at the bottom of the Earth, the former station men are now searching each other out. 

“You came to know the people better than your family or neighbours,” Mr Mentha said. 

All three were on different stations, Mawson, Davis and on Macquarie Island. 

“It was a melting pot of things,” Mr Mentha said. 

Scientists who had spent their lives in classrooms and tradespeople were thrown in next to each other. 

Above all it was a masculine affair. They brewed their own beer, drank frequently between jobs and passed time with games of darts and pool.

The remote outposts manned by the stocky bearded men had less to do with science and more to do with Cold War anxieties. 

“The whole reason we’re all down there is purely and utterly political. If we don’t man our stations there are unscrupulous countries who will take over. Davis wasn’t manned, the Russians told us they were going to take it over,” Mr Johnstone said. 

Loneliness takes a toll. 

Men would disappear into their rooms for days, taking their instant meals alone. 

As radio operators Mr King and Mr Johnstone also had to show discretion at times,  such as when relaying hard news about marriage breakdowns. 

In the times before proper safety laws, risks were regularly taken. 

Mr Johnstone once went through the ice on a snowmobile — something unlikely to happen now. 

“I scrambled and as I was scrambling the ice was breaking. I was a bit nervous,” he explained. 

The real risk is being picked up by fast-moving ocean currents and being swept beneath the ice to your death. 

If there’s any appeal about living in Antarctica it’s the simplistic society. 

“The great thing about it is your life is pretty relaxed. Everything is free and easy and you didn’t have the hassles of modern life.”

RELATED: Winter solstice is prime party time

Smartphone
Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide
Desktop