Tuesday, April 15, 2008


by Dennis Quinlan

I guess it would be impossible today... taking any motorcycle to the Antarctic, let alone an old one with oil leaks. But, it has been done! Not once, but twice with Velocettes, in 1961 and '68 (there have been other motorcycles on the continent, notably Benko Pulko in '77 and David McGonigal, both on round-the-world oddyseys). The Velos were brought by two Australians; Bill Kellas in '61 and Frank Scaysbrook in '68, who were both on one-year postings at the Australian research base at Mawson, in Wilkes Land, Australian Antarctic Territory (see photo of Frank with his MAC 350cc, Adelie penguin in his lap, and a curious Husky, at Mawson base, 1968).

In January 1961, the Danish polar vessel 'Thala Dan' sailed from Appleton dock in Melbourne, bound for Mawson base, carrying 30 expeditioners, plus more than a year's supplies. Deck cargo included an RAAF Dakota (DC3) A65-81, stripped of its wings and propellers, sitting on a special cradle on the main hatch cover. In the hold below was a 350cc Velo MAC which had been ridden the previous year from Perth to Melbourne by George Cresswell. 'Thala Dan' moored in Horse Shoe Harbor at Mawson on Jan. 24th, after an uneventful voyage. Unloading the 800 tons of cargo was completed by Feb. 9th, after which the crew were able to relax and take the Velo for a run around the camp in perfect summer weather. Riding was difficult over rock-strewn ridges around the harbor, and the permanent ice slope behind Mawson was fairly steep and slippery.

In late March the sea began to freeze over, and within a few weeks the ice depth was 10 inches or more, strong enough to take the weight of vehicles. The coast on either side of Mawson, as far as one could see, was ice cliffs ranging from 50 to 500 feet high, along with glaciers, ice caves, and snow drifts overhanging the cliff tops, carved by the wind to every possible shape. In preference to dog teams or heavy vehicles, the Velocette was used for coastal tours, often towing skiers or a dog sled. It was totally reliable and easy to start even in extremely cold conditions. The only modifications were dry lube on the control cables, lighter oils, a warmer spark plug, and a briquette bag tied across the crash bars to protect their boots (Mukluks), which weren't waterproof, from slush thrown up by the front wheel. Only a spare spark plug and a few basic tools were carried and on occasion, extra fuel.

One of the advantages of the Velo was its relatively light weight and low center of gravity, when picking it up after a long slide on its side (after suddenly encountering bare polished ice at hight speed). The MAC was dropped many times and never sustained any damage and none of the riders were injured. Top speed was 80-85mph indicated, but would have actually less, due to wheel spin.

Bill Kellas (see color photos of his swingarm MAC, and Bill riding through the snow) claimed the sea ice was the greatest surface to ride over; it's strongest when first frozen, and even relatively thin ice supported by water is incredibly strong, if the thickness is uniform. As Winter progressed, the ice became thicker, in depth, but with the return of the Spring sun, the ice began to soften and rot from below. While the surface still looked secure, underneath it becomes like a soft sponge. The Velos were used, weather permitting, until the middle of June, when riding became uncomfortable in the low temperatures, and the wind chill factor made frostbite a daily occurence.

Clothing was mainly ex-Army, Korean War issue, and not designed for bike riding, and there were no helmets. The Velo was parked covered outdoors over the Winter, until the sun reappeared. In Spring, with daylight and temperatures increasing, riding resumed as before, but caution was required as the sea ice began to soften.

In early December of '61, the worst blizzard of the year struck, with wind speeds exceeding the range of the anemometers (which failed, or were destroyed), and visibility reduced to a few feet in blasting snow and ice crystals. This blizzard continued unabated for two days, and on the third day was still gusting at over 100 knots. The Dakota and a Beaver aircraft were at the airfield at Rumdoodle in the Masson Range when the blizzard struck. When the wind and drift subsided sufficiently to venture outdoors, the Beaver (which was behind a wind fence) was totally destroyed, and the Dakota had broken its tie-downs and had disappeared. A few days later, when the weather had cleared, Graham Currie, riding the Velocette on the sea ice west of Mawson, noticed something red, high up on the glacier top. Closer inspection confirmed that it was the dayglow red tail of the Dakota.

The plane had been blown by the blizzard about 15 miles down slope at sufficient speed, with brakes engaged, to wear the tires and wheel rims flush with the skis. It came to rest after the undercarriage dropped into a crevasse on the cliff top about 400' above the sea ice. It had then turned nose to wind and was wrecked. Because of the crevassing around the wreck site, it was unapproachable for salvage, except by cautious foot. The recovered gear (doppler radar, radios, survey cameras, and some parts) were lowered down the cliffs to the sea ice, which had become very soft and dangerous due to warming weather. They were recovered by a dog team and the Velo, towing a dog sled. The salvage was completed in two days, and on the final run, a 3 foot tall standing wave of rotten ice was visible chasing the fleeing Velo and sled!

The total mileage covered by the Velo was around 3000 miles, with individual trips up and down the coast ranging from one to 50 miles each. The bike was ridden hard to cover distances quickly, parked while areas were explored and photographed, restarted and ridden home without ever a problem. It was simply taken for granted that it would always get the crew home again, and their faith in the bike was never misplaced. At the completion of the year tour, the Velocette passed into the hands of our relief party. Its history afterwards isn't known (perhaps it's still there? - see photo of Mawson base from the late 1990's).

Frank Scaysbrook brought his MAC in 1968 to Mawson for 14 months during his stint with the Weather Bureau. He dismantled the machine in Australi and crated it for the sea voyage to the base, reassembling it in March. when the Velo was ready to go, the workshop doors opened to reveal 10 feet of snow which had to be dug through.... winter was on its way. The Velo was parked outside at all times, yet its starting habits were impeccable. Running on 80/87 octane aviation fuel and Long Life oil, three or four swings were enough to get the engine firing. The MAC was returned to Australia, and in still in Sydney with Frank's brother Dick.

Story and photos adapted from Doug Farr and Bill Kellas' article in MotorCycling, edited by Dennis Quinlan, and published in FTDU #331, Autumn 2005.

1 comment:

Steff said...

Hi Dennis,

Thanks for sharing this bit of Antarctic history.

You are quite right, it would be impossible today to pull off such stunts, let alone taking an Adelie penguin on your lap :-) That would get you a $10,000 fine and the next flight North.

I wouldn't mind having a bike here at the South Pole right now :-)