Mechanic - Dave McCormack
At age 13 or so, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I wanted to be an archaeologist, mainly an Egyptologist. I was attracted to the idea of digging up old treasures. But then I realised it would take many, many years at university and I felt I didn't have the time; I wanted practical experience. But what stayed with me was the interest in digging up old stuff.
What town or city are you from?
I was born in Kempsey, NSW and moved to Newcastle at age seven.
What were your educational/technical qualifications when you first worked in Antarctica?
Fitter and machinist, and diesel mechanic.
What was your work experience before undertaking your position in Antarctica?
I worked for five years at the state dockyard, where I got into ship engines towards the end. Then I became a diesel fuel injection technician - the cleaner end of the diesel game, not crawling all over trucks getting dirty.
Why did you want to go to Antarctica?
I wanted to go from the time I was in primary school when I first learned about it. My teacher in social studies talked about Scott and Mawson. In Newcastle in 1958 we had very few books and no photographs to give a realistic idea of Antarctica. I remember the teacher telling us that icebergs were bigger than the AMP building (at that time the biggest building in Newcastle). We just couldn't believe it! And then he'd say, but that's only the top of the iceberg, there's much more that you can't see below the surface of the sea. Antarctica's always held something for me since then.
What is your Antarctic experience?
I've done six winters, one at Casey and five at Mawson, and lots of summers. All those 'winters' were about 15 months long, which gives you a full seasonal cycle in Antarctica. I've also worked recently for the Russians, helping them with their equipment. They were drilling ice cores at many locations trying to find the best site for an airstrip for wheeled aircraft. And this summer I'm going down with the French to Dome C, 1250 km inland and one of the highest parts of the Antarctic continent. The French are building a station there with the Italians.
What did you do in Antarctica?
I was a diesel mechanic for the first two years, and a plant inspector for the following four, which meant that I was in charge of the mechanical program at the station. The main task was running the power house, and I was also in charge of all the mechanical plant and equipment (such as tractors and skidoos) and the fuels and lubricants.
What skills did you need to do that work?
Well, you've got to be a jack of all trades. You need to be able to ascertain what's wrong with the equipment or vehicle and be able to repair it. That's what you really need down there, people that can improvise, make an alternative, especially in the field so you can actually get home. There are no garages down there! When I was back in Australia I'd go chasing experience - in hydraulics, shipping, welding, marine engines, painting ... I kept up with the latest in auto electronics and petrol injection with tech courses. The other thing you need is that you must really want to be there.
What did you like most about living and working in Antarctica?
When I was a kid I had a book called 'The Sailor Dog' about a dog that went to sea, and he had a little bunk against the wall and a little porthole. I loved that book and almost wore it out reading and rereading it. And then when I got to Mawson I found I had a little bunk on the wall and a porthole through which I could look at the beautiful harbour there. Mawson was a great place, the real Antarctica. With its mountains, good sea ice to travel on, abundant wildlife, great places to see and the old station, that huddle of huts nestled on the shores of Horseshoe Harbour was the most homely place I’ve ever lived in. There were good down-to-earth blokes to work with, good work in a great place. It was a hell of an adventure. Everything after that was an anticlimax. Nothing here is anything like that. I’ve never found better.
What was the scariest thing that happened to you?
When I was at Mawson in 1974, a piece of the coast broke off, a massive great iceberg a quarter of a mile long. I went over to look at it with some of my mates. But then the back of it fell away and, WHOOF!! - the berg started rolling towards us. It made an unbelievable noise - back at the station it blew all the delicate instruments off their scales. We started running, I don't know why because we all thought we were dead for sure. As it rolled the berg washed up a massive blue-green wave, a wall of water as high as the plateau. There was so much sea ice, it was four to five feet thick, that it smothered the wave. But the wave continued under the ice. We got to an island just in time and as we jumped up the wave washed ashore and rammed the berg into the island. Fragments of the berg were still there in 1983!!
What was the greatest challenge for you?
I wanted to get to Kloa Rookery [an emperor penguin rookery 250 miles down the coast from Mawson] with the dogs. Only a handful of people have ever made it over the last 40 years. It's a 500 mile round trip and there are many hurdles. You've got to have the right bunch of people, four at least, and they must be physically fit, and still want to go at the end of the year. It's bloody hard work, a slog, running 500 miles pushing that sled. But the thrill of running down the coast with the dogs, even on a bad day, can't be matched. The biggest problem is how the sea ice has set during the year, and you can't see that from the station. In 1983 we travelled 180 miles, almost there, when we got to the Hoseason Glacier and discovered the glacier had rafted out to sea, making it impassable. That was the closest I got. In 1978, after months of preparation, it snowed the day before we were about to leave, heavy unseasonable snow. We only got 25 miles - the dogs just couldn't pull, they were up to their bellies in snow. We had to return and then it snowed again. So we missed the narrow window of opportunity that year. And in 1986 the others pulled out. It was the greatest disappointment for me.
What did you miss most about Australia?
Nothing really. I missed my family a little bit. But when I go, I'm 100% committed to being there, to do justice to the job and the people and the year. And it's over in a flash, like all the best things.
What was the most striking thing you noticed when you returned from Antarctica?
Every time, when I am still miles out to sea, I stand on the deck, with a northerly blowing, to catch the first whiff of eucalyptus, to breathe in that smell of the bush, and the land that you've been without.
Do you want to go again?
I'm looking forward to going with the French this year. It's back to basics with them, operating from a little place on the plateau and running a tractor train inland and being self sufficient. We've stopped all that now. I wouldn’t winter again. When you look at the freedom we had then, running the dogs - you can't bring those days back.
What do you think should happen to Antarctica in the future?
I've been thinking about this for a long time. I guess you're not going to stop tourism, nobody owns the place but you could really educate people about Antarctica if you did it the right way. It's a shame that traversing stopped after the Lambert Glacier traverse. Traversing gets you away into the real Antarctica and away from station life. When we'd come back from dog trips we'd be totally recharged and enthusiastic, and generate it in other people.
That exhilaration is missing now. You need more programs that involve physically doing things and getting you away from the luxurious indoors of our stations. And on a personal note, I still have dreams that hark back to my interest in archaeology. When I started with ANARE, I still had my boy dreams of Antarctica, and I thought that the foyer of the Antarctic Division would be full of historic equipment and symbols of the adventure of the place. But all they had was a couple of stuffed penguins. 'Where are all your old vehicles?', I'd ask. That's the mystique. So every year I'd bring back stuff from the stations and stock it away in the store waiting for the day it could be restored and displayed.
My chance came in 1997, the Jubilee year of ANARE. I restored some of the vehicles and equipment from our first years that we retrieved from the ice - the Norwegian Sledge and the Barge Caravan and the Polaris Sno-Traveler and the 1962 Vostok Weasel.
And I started talking to the guys from the old days, when ANARE got started. ANARE was built on exploration and traversing and I heard about the Dovers' Weasel* and I believe it is my destiny to retrieve it. That Weasel symbolises the spirit of ANARE, it's the cornerstone of what inspired us all. And it's still there, in perfect time capsule condition, and we're so close now to finding it. We must have this symbol for display, like the Norwegians have the Fram and the British have their old Sno-Travelers, to fire up our young people again.
* This weasel was the only one to survive of three taken to Mawson in 1954, in the first year an Australian party wintered at a permanent Antarctic station. Bob Dovers, the Station Leader, drove the vehicle inland and was first to sight the peaks of the Northern Prince Charles Mountains (NPCM). In 1955 John Bechervaise drove the same vehicle but pushed further south right to the foot of the NPCM. The vehicle broke down and had to be abandoned on the homeward journey. It remains buried on the high Antarctic plateau to this day.