Field leader - Rod Ledingham

At age 13 or so, what did you want to do when you grew up?

I can't remember being 13. Apart from wanting to have fun, I didn't want to do anything in particular. I wanted to go skiing a lot I think, and when I was about 14 I started climbing, and that made me keen for the wild bits.

What town or city are you from?

I was brought up in Inverness in the north of Scotland, a wonderful spot, eight miles from where the Loch Ness monster was last seen (just before I left Inverness).

What were your educational/technical qualifications when you first worked in Antarctica?

An Honours degree in geography (mostly glacial geomorphology) from Aberdeen University. I had also done some geology and surveying.

What was your work experience before undertaking your position in Antarctica?

I'd worked in my holidays as a grouse beater for the Queen Mother and other toffs. (That's a callous, nasty sport where 'beaters' line up on the moor and drive the grouse [like fast pigeons] towards the hidden toffs and their guns). I also worked on deer estates where they hunted wild deer. I had also done a lot of climbing by the age of 22 when I applied, and had climbed two thirds of all the higher hills in Scotland (there are about 270 altogether, and they're called Monroes if they are over 1000 metres), as well as having been on climbing expeditions in Switzerland, Wales and Iceland.

Why did you want to go to Antarctica?

According to my mother, I'd always fancied going to the Antarctic. Being a climber and walker, I'd read a lot of books about Antarctica and the early explorers. It struck me as remote, something difficult to attain, and a unique opportunity. I applied first when I was 18, but was told to clear off until I had a degree and so four years later, when I had a degree, I applied again and got a job. Those were the days when you didn't need qualifications as such, just the right attitude, and they trained you.

What is your Antarctic experience?

Two winters in 1966-69 at Adelaide Island and at Fossil Bluff on the Antarctic Peninsula with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) as a Met man [Meteorological Observer] and dog driver, and Base Commander in the second year. Two years on Macquarie Island as the Station Leader in 1977 and 1980. Summers with ANARE at Commonwealth Bay, Bunger Hills, Prince Charles Mountains, Heard Island, Scullin Monolith and Stilwell Hills as the Field Leader and at Larsemann Hills as a Field Assistant. About eight trips as Voyage Leader with ANARE. Eleven trips on tourist ships as a lecturer and guide, and the Expedition Leader on three of those. That's about 30 trips altogether.

What did you do in Antarctica?

At first with BAS I was offered a job as a Met man, and after an eight week course I was a Met man. I then had a week of lectures in Cambridge, and left on the ship for Antarctica! The positions I have held with ANARE have mainly been leadership positions. Since 1981 I have worked with the Antarctic Division back in Australia, supplying field equipment and clothing for field programs, and designing gear and clothing. For example, I helped design the Apple fibreglass huts (of which we now have about 50 in the Antarctic, and other countries have a further 60). I also supervised the field and survival training of Australian expeditioners so I have probably been involved in the training of more than 3000 expeditioners since 1981.

What skills did you need to do that work?

You pick up Antarctic skills as you go along. Commonsense is the main one, the desire to get out of the office, an interest in all of the things you see - the weather, scenery, the animals, the scientific programs. You learn leadership skills by observing, by understanding the country and what the scientists and others want to achieve, and you need a certain amount of knowledge and a sense of humour is very important. Not trying to direct things that don’t need directing. And flexibility, to be able to change the plan instantly, not have fixed ideas, and meet the challenges.

What did you like most about living and working in Antarctica?

Being away from any other influences. I prefer the remote places where you have to live on your own wits, where you don’t have anyone but yourself to fall back on.

What was the scariest thing that happened to you?

At the end of my first year, we were out in a remote field area aboard the last plane to fly out. We had an accident on takeoff and I remember the nasty feeling when I looked out of the window and saw the tail wheel and ski lying alongside. 'Oh merde!' That meant we were 500 kilometres from home with no other aircraft available. Luckily we had the dog team with us, and we had the option of taking the dogs 500 kilometres through unmapped mountains, or 200 kilometres southwest to a small field hut and stay there the rest of the year until a new plane was brought down. We opted to do that because there were two new fellows in the hut. In fact in the end I didn’t mind at all. It meant that I got to stay at a beautiful place in a very pretty part of the Antarctic Peninsula.

We had just enough food to last until December 21 (we got stuck on February 11) and just enough coal to keep warm in the afternoons, but not enough at night. There were five of us in a four bunk hut about four by seven metres, so it was cosy. There was some anxiety if something should go wrong medically, and there were certain tensions with one member of the group, but it was a nice place to stay. We had two small tractors and the dog team, so we spent lots of time out in the field, taking the dogs out to the mountains and eating the food at the depots.

What was the greatest challenge for you?

Putting up with the attitude of some people you get from time to time on the stations who think of it as being just a job and are not interested at all in Antarctica.

And that second winter in Antarctica after the aircraft crash - that was a great challenge, and a great time. They sent three dog teams in September to rescue us but they only got 200 kilometres when the sea ice broke - they were lucky to get back alive. And then the aircraft they sent in December never came - well it got lost for nine days!

What did you miss most about Australia?

The first time south I missed fresh meat and milk (apart from seal and penguin). I couldn’t eat anything out of a can for years afterwards. I didn’t have to miss my family, because I often had them with me. My wife and I have done two winters, two summers and several round trips together, she as the doctor and I as the Voyage or Field Leader. More recently we have taken our daughter Kate (now 12) on four tourist trips to the Antarctic.

What was the most striking thing you noticed when you returned from Antarctica?

  • The colour green.
  • The first time I returned, in 1969, I was most impressed by the miniskirt. In fact I crashed my car in Glasgow watching one.
  • Coming into Australia from Antarctica, if the wind's right, you can smell the gum trees even before you see land.

Do you want to go again?

Yes, I’d like to go most summers until I get too old and buggered to do it any more.

What do you think should happen to Antarctica in the future?

Politics should have no place in the Antarctic. We should all drop our regional claims and delete them from the map. After all, no-one's ever going to say, 'OK Australia you can have that huge chunk of Antarctica'! We should also reduce the size of our bases and put them where we need them for our scientific programs (not the other way around), and expand our ability to work outside the present bases.

This page was last modified on July 2, 2014.