Radio operator - Allen Rooke

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

All I wanted to do was join the Navy.

What town or city are you from?

Grafton, NSW.

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

Intermediate Certificate (I left in third year as my parents couldn't afford to keep me at school). I had been a radio operator in the RAN for nine years.

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

Radio operator RAN, fibreglasser, fire extinguisher serviceman, self-employed truck driver.

Why did you want to go to Antarctica?

Adventure. Many years ago as a young boy I received a book of 'Adventure Stories' for Christmas which included stories on Scott, Mawson and Sir Edmund Hillary/Sherpa Tenzings' climb of Mt Everest. I guess it all started there, dreaming boys' dreams of adventure, exciting places etc. Then joining the Navy gave me a taste of that adventure and it stayed with me. Then in 1978 I saw a very small advertisement 'Wanted, Radio Operator for Antarctic Expedition'. So I applied and got the job.

What is your Antarctic experience?

Six winters, 11 summers.

What did you do in Antarctica?

Radio operator.

What skills did you need to do that work?

My time as a radio operator in the RAN prepared me for work in Antarctica. When I first worked in Antarctica, I needed to be able to read Morse code, type, use all manner of high frequency radio equipment, understand how radio frequencies worked and be prepared and willing to learn. The skills I now need to work in Antarctica are varied. I need to have a very comprehensive knowledge of computers, modern radio equipment, the latest digital transmitters and receivers, the techniques in using these radios, including understanding operating procedures for aircraft (helicopters), ships and field parties, and portable satellite equipment. Last but not least is the ability to get on with people and to be able to communicate with other members of the expedition. This is an important part of a radio operator's job as we are the link between expeditioners and their families and loved ones back in Australia.

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

Working and travelling in a completely different place, meeting very different people, learning new skills and growing up.

What was the scariest thing that happened to you?

Receiving a radio call early one evening during my first winter that someone was missing at a field camp during a fierce blizzard. His companions couldn't find him during the night and I was on the radio all during the night monitoring the situation. This was my first winter and to have an actual 'Mayday' situation dropped on my shoulders was really scary. Even worse was the next morning when the weather improved, and he was found in a very bad way. The trip back to the base was too much and he took a turn for the worse. On arrival I was required to assist in the revival attempts (being part of the medical team) for the next nine hours. My adrenalin levels must have been extremely high because even with no sleep for 24 hours I was still able to function properly. It's scary even now to think that I had to perform such things as mouth to mouth and heart massage on someone for real!

On a lighter note, my first run with the dogs as the dog handler in charge was pretty scary. The dogs knew it, the 'old hands' knew it, and I knew it … So the dogs played up and got into a tangle and a fight. It took some time to get it sorted out but eventually we had a very pleasant afternoon's run. On the trip to Kloa and back in 1992, whilst returning to Law Islands, the sled fell through the sea ice. Frosty (my running companion) and myself wound up in the 'drink' up to our waists with the sled and the dogs all turning around to look. Well, then someone got tangled up and a fight broke out amongst the dogs. Wet, tired and exhausted we had to again sort the dogs out, get the sled out of the water and then continue on to the camp before we could dry out and warm up.

What was the greatest challenge for you?

Accepting the role as Senior Radio Officer in 1985 and being dog handler at Mawson in 1992 and given responsibility to see the dogs resettled in America. Being the dog handler (along with David Pottage) was a huge responsibility. Not only did we have our normal jobs to do but we volunteered to look after 30 working dogs. This involved organising the feeding, exercising and health of all the dogs. We also were responsible for the maintenance of the sleds, dog harnesses and the cleanliness of the actual dog lines. Making sure the dogs had clean snow to live on and also making sure their chains were secure and kept above snow at all times. Other duties involved the organisation of dog teams (which dogs liked to run with each other), and a fair system to allow those people who wished to take the dogs for a run to be able to do so on a fair and regular basis.

When Dave and I were given the job of taking the dogs to America we were obviously pleased, but this again posed some problems. We had to look after them on the ship from Antarctica to Hobart. Then they had to be flown to Melbourne, Sydney and then across the Pacific to Los Angeles. The pilots were very good and on the trans-Pacific flight the captain organised the cargo hold temperature to be lowered to 5°C for the comfort of the dogs. After our arrival in the USA we were met by a couple of guys with a truck and trailer, all the dogs were loaded in kennels and we drove non-stop for 52 hours to Ely, Minnesota. There, we delivered the dogs to Outward Bound and Wintergreen (two outdoor adventure facilities) and took up positions with them to act as outdoor instructors and dog handlers to help settle the Antarctic dogs into their new home. I eventually stayed for the entire season in this role, introducing the Antarctic dogs to more than 200 people.

What did you miss most about Australia?

My mum, my friends, sailing and the beach.

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

How hot it is.

Do you want to go again?

Most definitely.

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

I believe Antarctica should remain as a designated wilderness area forever.

[Allen's trip from Mawson to Massachusetts with the huskies is documented in the film The Last Husky - The Final Journey of Antarctica’s Sledge Dogs, Aurora Films 1993]

This page was last modified on July 1, 2014.