As a child, Peter Rymill recalls bedtime stories told by his father of polar adventures, husky sledging teams and icy landscapes.
His late father, John Riddoch Rymill, was the Australian leader of the British Graham Land Expedition (BGLE) to Antarctica that took place between 1934 and 1937.
He had learned how to survive in polar conditions from East Greenlanders on an earlier trip to the Arctic.
“One of my earliest memories, about 80 years ago, [while] sitting on my father’s knee was about a little boy called Chirupee,” Mr Rymill said.
“They were fascinating; and Chirupee used to get into the same sort of adventures and trouble that I did.”
At age 82, Mr Rymill has just completed Polar Pioneer, a self-published biography of his late father, John Riddoch Rymill, drawing on diaries, journals, images and interviews.
Country town to ends of the Earth
John Riddoch Rymill was born in 1905 at Penola, in south-eastern South Australia.
The youngest son of Mary and Robert, he was just one when his father was killed in a motoring accident – a fate that would also claim his life at just 63.
In researching the history of his father’s expedition to Antarctica, Mr Rymill said the die was cast when his father was just a young boy.
“He was slightly dyslexic and his mother thought he was less intelligent than his elder brother, so I think he had something to prove to himself,” said Mr Rymill of his father.
“At the same time when he was at school, the Antarctic heroes of Shackleton, Mawson and Scott were doing their things and I think that provided some inspiration to go further afield.”
Mr Rymill said his father’s background of Australian farm life and a natural affinity with animals and practical skills stood him apart from his contemporaries.
“He grew up in a small country town – Penola – but far from being a challenge to his ambitions, this was one of the big advantages he had over the English,” he recalls.
“He grew up with horses and dogs – especially working dogs like kelpies and kangaroo hounds – he could shoot and hunt and it was a practical training that English lads wouldn’t have had.”
Learning from East Greenlander
By age 18, Rymill was determined to become a polar explorer and set off to England to equip himself with the skills and qualifications needed to do just that.
He learnt to survey and navigate at the Royal Geographical Society in London, to ski and mountaineer in Switzerland and to sail in Essex.
Rymill studied nutrition and cooking in Cambridge, book-keeping and anthropology in London and learnt to fly at Hendon (Middlesex).
Rymill commenced his international and anthropological expeditions in 1928 with a trip to the Canadian Rockies to study the First Nations people, before embarking on voyages to Greenland.
“My father’s big breakthrough was really what he learned from the people of East Greenland because, of course, they’d been living in these polar conditions as part of everyday life for eons and knew exactly how to do it,” Mr Rymill explained.
“He acquired great wisdom from them.”
Rymill’s ultimate goal was to explore the east coast of Antarctica’s Graham Land (thought to be an archipelago), the last major geographical feature on the Earth’s surface at the time still to defy human discovery.
With a 15-strong “amateur” crew, and after raising $2.7 million in today’s money, Rymill led the expedition, sailing down the west coast before disembarking the old Brittany three-mastered schooner Penola (named after his home town in rural South Australia) and sledging over mountainous icy terrain.
In February 1935, the Northern Base was erected on Winter Island, and sledging journeys and scientific studies commenced.
A year later in February 1936 the expedition moved its base to Barry Island (in the Debenham Islands in Marguerite Bay) and established the Southern Base where they would live for the next year.
Significant sledging explorations, surveying and pioneering scientific work was undertaken in the year following.
After one such trip Rymill wrote in his diary: “As we sledged along, I was impressed by the thought that here was all this strange grandeur round us, and we – people of the 20th century … were the first to see it since the world began”.
In entirety, the BGLE had explored and surveyed nearly 2,000 kilometres of previously unexplored coast and conducted numerous scientific studies.
They established that Graham Land was a continuation of the Antarctic Peninsula and not an archipelago as previously believed.
They also named the King George VI Sound.
“On their long trips they would do a running survey for maybe 50 miles and then they would pause for a day to get good sun or star sights to know exactly where they were and then off they’d go again and fill in the gap off to the next one,” Mr Rymill said.
“When they came back they had these field surveys that they then collated into a proper map.
“They really had the thrill of being the first to map that part of the world.”
From kelpies to huskies
Telling the stories of the expedition traversing the Arctic landscape, Mr Rymill said he enjoyed capturing the role of the husky dogs that were integral to the expedition.
“There were about 12 huskies to a sledge, each could pull 100 pounds, but to look after dogs, keep them fit and drive them is almost akin to the role of a professional racehorse trainer today.
“You had to nurture them, appreciate them … and they [the crew] were very good at that.”
Mr Rymill said his father acquired dog handling and training knowledge “in the Penola scrub, with a team of kangaroo hounds and kelpie working dogs”.
“He was a very good dog man, and appreciated greatly the role that they played in that your life depends on those 12 dogs in front of you pulling you not only into the wilderness but safely back again.”
Upon return, after three years and two winters, the crew returned to England with their work, and John Rymill, then 32, was awarded the American Geographical Society’s Livingstone Centenary Gold Medal.
Furthermore, Rymill was the first to be awarded the British Polar Medal with both the Arctic and Antarctic bars.
He also received the Founder’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society.
John Rymill returned to the family farm in Penola and decades later his life was cut short in a car crash in country South Australia.
Uncovering the personalities
Mr Rymill said his book was an intimate insight into not only the expedition, but the explorers themselves.
“My book started out as a travel guide to the Antarctic Peninsula, but I soon realised that in order to explain his expedition I had to explain him – so it turned into a biography.
“I was very fortunate that a number of the expeditioners had kept excellent diaries or journals – and these had been placed under embargo in the Scott Polar Research Institute until the last explorer died and that happened only relatively recently.
“I was lucky to be the first to have access to them, so my book is very much presented in the voices of the participants of that expedition.”
He hopes the book may inspire a new generation of Australian adventurers.