The icing on an Antarctic Christmas

5 January 2010

Fifty years ago John McCraw and Graeme Claridge tucked into a Christmas meal of pemmican, with a side helping of pemmican. And for dessert - a tiny slice of fruit cake that the pair had saved special.

They were in Antarctica's Dry Valleys, reputed to be the coldest, driest place on the planet. And they were the first in the world to study the continent's soil.

McCraw, the emeritus professor and former Dean of Science at Waikato University, says there was a little bit of one-upmanship involved.

"I was a field man, a pedologist, who is someone who studies soil in the field, not the lab. I'd been doing a lot of mountain surveys in Central Otago for the Soil Bureau, a branch of DSIR. The boss, Norman Taylor, was always looking to push New Zealand and soil science."

The year before a party of geologists were in Antarctica, and sent back a tin of "soil".

"As they called it. We analysed it but you don't get much out of a small tin of soil. And Taylor said, 'look, before these people start publishing too much we'd better have a look and see if there is soil in Antarctica'."

Further, Taylor was off to a big international conference the following year. "He wanted a soil map, even a small one, that he could wind out in front of the Americans and say, 'you haven't got anything like this, have you?' They were boasting about the huge amount of resources and money and all the scientists they had and here's this little tin pot country, stealing the march."

On October 22, 1959, McCraw and soil scientist Graeme Claridge were put in a Constellation aircraft and eight hours later arrived at Scott Base.

The two "messed around" for a week or two on the island, and visited Shackleton and Scott's huts.

"Shackleton's was damn cold. There was ice in the walls. So we got old Shackleton's range going, burning some of the box wood outside which one wouldn't do now, it's considered very historic. Anyway, we managed to thaw out a couple of tins of beer sitting on the top of the range."

The pair had to train for their expedition trip into the Taylor Valley, one of the Dry Valleys where they would spend more than a month.

They were taken over the frozen McMurdo Sound in Massey Ferguson tractors, the same as the ones Hillary used to travel to the South Pole.

"They're all right on a farm, but for travelling in the polar regions they're not so flash. We sat on a sledge behind the driver, the snow came off the tracks, showers of ice and snow and it covered us, to the point we almost froze to death, and had to run along beside the thing to keep warm."

Using Kiwi innovation, they solved the problem. "We went over to the dump at Scott Base and found a big packing case. We cut a window in it, made a door, and laid that in the sledge and got into it with our sleeping bags. We had a radio and could listen to the American base, so we were taken across McMurdo in pretty fair comfort."

This box, which they had to carry up to their campsite, was upended ("it looked like a little dunny, actually") and became their new cookhouse.

"It was luxury. We put in a little shelf for the primus, and some hooks. Until then we cooked inside our tents which were only big enough for people to lie in. The trick is to have a kitchen box with all your utensils and the stove between you, and reach out of your sleeping bag to get the fire going and the pemmican on. This means your bedroom becomes your kitchen and it gets messy and things get spilt and oh god."

Pemmican was the main food. Used by Captain Scott and other explorers, it is preserved, ground meat and fat.

"I guess it had all sorts of vitamins that were probably good for you. It came in big kerosene tins, frozen solid. You had to break it out with an ice axe and throw it into a pot with some snow melted on the primus." It had an astringent taste and nobody liked eating it.

"You'd kill the taste with anything you had around. We used to throw in sultanas, biscuits all into the pot. And depending on how much water you put in, you would either have a soup job or a knife and fork job.”

Washing, of course, was out of the question. "We didn't have a bath until we got back to Scott Base," McCraw says.

And there wasn't much company. "Penguins come to visit, they got up to some antics. Loved to slide on their tummies on the snow, they'd go like mad, and then they'd run out of snow, hit the gravel and go end over end."

But they did get some human visitors just before Christmas. An American scientist came down, with four students. "We offered them a slice of our special fruit cake, and they couldn't get over it. It was a real treat."

The Americans had a different way of working, he says.

"We carried in everything, they used helicopters. And when they left they left most of it behind. Antarctica was rapidly becoming a dump. But we profited from this because we found some of these dumps. We got a useful bit of canvas at one, and later on found a whole box of Caramello bars. We damn near made ourselves ill."

Christmas Day was just another working day. "There was nothing else to do. Sometimes we'd work a 24-hour day, cook up some pemmican and keep on walking and boiling up the primus. This let us get to the head of the valley and get a lot of work done."

They collected scores of samples for later analysis and drew a map of the soils they found.

And they were able to say that, yes, there is soil in Antarctica. The top layer meets all the necessary criteria, only lacking organic material.

"Sure, in certain places there were little bits of moss and lichens and algae in swampy bits, but not enough to affect the soil.

"There were no animals, only birds, and the only insects were these little springtails that would sometimes jump out at you when you picked up a rock."

In January 1960 they returned in an icebreaker.

"Claridge got quite keen on the place, and went back and back, he did 18 trips. He got the Polar Medal for his work. I didn't want to go back, I'd seen enough.

"Antarctica was good to me, we were starting from scratch so everything was new. I turned out a number of substantial papers on the soil and was awarded a Doctor of Science degree in 1968.

"And Norman Taylor was able to go to his conference with our map and show those Americans."