Syd’s life of adventure

Australian Geographic Lifetime award for Antarctic explorer Syd Kirkby


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Royal honour: Syd was presented with the Australian Geographic Society's Lifetime of Adventure award in October in front of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

Royal honour: Syd was presented with the Australian Geographic Society's Lifetime of Adventure award in October in front of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

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Syd was one of the first people to venture to Antarctica.

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Syd Kirkby has seen things others can only dream about.

He was one of the first people to venture to Antarctica and was tasked to map the vast continent.

After almost a quarter of a century exploring the Antarctic, the adventurer has now been bestowed with the Australian Geographic Society’s Lifetime of Adventure award.

Syd was flattered to receive the award.

“Whilst it was put into my hands, it’s equally awarded to my comrades, the people who were with me. It’s in their hands too.”

Syd dreamed of becoming an adventurer after reading exciting tales in books as a boy.

He contracted polio at a young age, and by age five was told he would never walk again. But thanks to a strict exercise regime, he proved medical professionals wrong and by age 20 he was chosen for a surveying trek in the Great Sandy Desert.

Two years later, in 1956, Syd began his polar career as a leader and surveyor at Mawson Station in East Antarctica.

You’d climb a mountain and look out knowing your feet were the first ones there and your eyes were the first ones to see the view. - Syd Kirkby

“I’m amazed it was considered to be employment.”

From his first expedition until his last in 1980, Syd mapped the region by dog sled and theodolite. His crew was the first to view the world’s largest glacier, Lambert Glacier, and explore the Prince Charles Mountains.

“Every step was off the edge of the known world. No one had ever seen it.

“You’d climb a mountain and look out knowing your feet were the first ones there and your eyes were the first ones to see the view. It was a remarkable feeling.”

NEW HEIGHTS: Syd Kirkby surveying atop Rumdoodle Peak, Antarctica, on an exhibition in 1956.

NEW HEIGHTS: Syd Kirkby surveying atop Rumdoodle Peak, Antarctica, on an exhibition in 1956.

Syd’s many standout moments include seeing a 100km wide river of ice, watching fierce winds pick up a 16-tonne aeroplane and blow it 15 miles, and having major landmarks named after him.

But what has stuck with him the most?

“In terms of sheer wonder, the birth of each of my three daughters.”

Now 85 and living on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, Syd isn’t able to adventure as much as he would like – his post-polio has come home to roost. His last great escapade was to the Kimberley a few years ago.

He still regularly speaks about his adventures and has a keen interest in the current scientific program in the Antarctic.

It saddens Syd to think about the devastating changes occurring in the polar regions.

“There’s absolutely no doubt we’re in a period of climate change.

“The way we use resources is just over the top. We should use Earth’s resources modestly, just because it is the right thing to do.”

Remarkable achievement

The Australian Geographic Society Awards are Australia’s longest running awards for adventure and conservation.

The Lifetime Achievement Awards for adventure and conservation are the society's highest honours, recognising those Australians who not only have a lifelong commitment to their chosen field, but who have given back to the nation and inspired countless others.

Last year’s winner was Jon Muir, who made the first unsupported ascent of Mount Everest in 1988 and trekked to the North Pole in 2000.

Other past winners include Dick Smith, deep ocean explorer Ron Allum and the first Australian to reach the South Pole, the late Jon Stephenson.

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