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Tuatara: Volume 15, Issue 3, December 1967

The Birth of VUWAE

page 100

The Birth of VUWAE

“Exploration is the Physical Expression of the Intellectual Passion”
—Apsley Cherry-Garrard.

On December 30, 1957 I drove a tractor across the sea ice from Scott Base to meet H.M.N.Z.S. ‘Endeavour’, preparing to tie up about 9 miles from the base. I was naturally keen to begin unloading the ship and to meet the members of the incoming party. After being introduced to the new party I noticed a couple of rangy youths to whom I had not been introduced, and who were obviously not members of either the wintering party or the ship's crew. ‘Who are these two young - - - -?’ I said. ‘Them—oh they're university students’, says Lyn Martin the incoming leader, and then seeing the look in my eyes hastily followed up with—‘now—don't blame me’.

There they were, the first two of them, uninvited, unheralded and unwanted. With a limited base staff, unlimited American visitors, Hillary ‘hell-bent for the pole’ and four other parties in the field, unloading and changeover problems and the possibility of Bunny Fuchs and party having to winter over at Scott Base, neither I nor anyone else was enthusiastic about supernumaries without any place in the long prepared plans.

Somehow, and I have no clear recollection of how they achieved it, these two students ‘infiltrated’ a couple of non-geological parties intending to study the lakes of the so-called dry valleys. As a result of their work during the next few weeks the dry valleys became Dry Valleys, and during the next few years probably the most intensively studied parts of the Antarctic Continent.

Webb and McKelvey the original students are 10 years older now, and approaching the peak years of their professional life, no longer students, though they can't convince me of that. The success of their work and the subsequent VUWAE expeditions have been based on two things—their personal attributes and the persistent character of R. H. Clark, Professor of Geology. If an unfavourable impression had been left by Webb and McKelvey during that hectic summer of 1957-8 subsequent Victoria University expeditions would have been hard to launch. As it was, their demeanour was exemplary. No scientific studies are of any use until published, and as prompt publication of research is insisted page 101 upon by Professor Clark the first VUWAE Dry Valleys papers 1 were among the earliest substantial contributions to the records of New Zealand's research effort in Antarctica. The first favourable impression, dependent upon the attitude of Webb and McKelvey, backed by prompt publication, the fruit of departmental (i.e. professorial) policy, was a combination not to be denied. VUWAE became established.

Since 1957, ten other expeditions have gone and come. Some didn't earn unqualified approval from me for I thought their aims fragmented, but the later expeditions have had to investigate the ever-increasing number of problems that has arisen from the early surveys. Simple logic tells us that if the number of man-months of work has a limit, as it must in the New Zealand Antarctic Programme, the number of fields of enquiry can only be increased at the cost of a loss in intensity in each field. At other times it seemed that too many staff were spending too short a time down there, but this is probably a product of this fragmentation. However, I feel, if possible, that University Expeditions should consist of senior students left to their own devices once the problem has been outlined by staff in consultation with the students. The ability to sustain a scientifically productive season in the Ross Dependency unaided is a tremendous test of self-reliance as well as of research capacity. Admittedly some will drown through being thown into the deep-end, but the list of those who have emerged with great credi’ from VUWAE expeditions is impressive.

And what of the future? Every young man's first expedition is an adventure so there should be no slackening in the attraction of Antarctica. Scientifically, the problems are even more interesting now that enough data has been gathered, enough ideas formulated, to allow the synthesis which is the art of science, and the testing of the model which is the science of science. We are no longer ‘stamp collecting’ in Antarctica, and there must be an exciting future there.

But for the present, to the pioneers Webb and McKelvey, to the succeeding teams, and to the general, Professor Clark, I offer my congratulations on a remarkably long-sustained endeavour in exploration and research.

1 See appended list, P.114.