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Antarctica’s unsung hero: Sir Rob Fenwick

Rob Fenwick in 2015. Photo/Mike White

The late Sir Rob Fenwick (1951-2020) has had more impact on Antarctica than possibly any other New Zealander. In this 2015 piece, Mike White talked to him about what’s been achieved, and his concerns for the frozen continent’s future.

There have been a couple of close calls lately for Rob Fenwick. A couple of times when things looked a bit forlorn, a bit final.

One was in October 2013 on his way to Antarctica. No New Zealander needs reminding of the dangers of flying there, given how 1979’s Mt Erebus tragedy still resonates – Fenwick himself knew three of the victims. But as Antarctica New Zealand’s chairman, Fenwick had made the flight so often he scarcely gave a thought to something going wrong.

However, just after the point of no return – when the RNZAF 757 he was on didn’t have enough fuel to turn round and go back to Christchurch – an unexpected fog bank crept across the runway near Scott Base.

Committed to continuing, the pilot attempted to land, but pulled away, unable to see the runway, despite descending to a few hundred feet. For the next two hours, the plane circled, burning up fuel, everyone hoping the fog would clear. It didn’t.

So at 4.20pm, the pilot tried once more, breaking aviation rules by descending even lower, but still couldn’t see anything so again aborted the landing at the last minute. As they banked away, the second captain glimpsed what he thought was a runway light, and the pilot decided to make a third attempt to land. As they circled above the airfield, Fenwick realised things weren’t good. “But when you’re in a situation like that, you just have to have total confidence that the guy in the cockpit knows what he’s doing.”

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On board with him was Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully, and the pilot quietly apprised them of how serious things were. If they didn’t make it this time, they had enough fuel for only one more approach, and that might have to be a crash landing in the whiteout.

“The rest of the flight didn’t quite have the benefit of his candour,” remembers Fenwick.

At 4.45pm, the plane began its descent from 2500 feet. At 110 feet, the pilot suddenly saw the runway of Pegasus Field and safely landed on the ice, in what Fenwick describes as a “sensational job”.

A year later, Fenwick tired of a dry cough and went to see his doctor. An x-ray showed a tumour in his lung. “And because it was sitting on top of my aorta it was diagnosed as inoperable, because it would be too difficult to remove. And I can tell you, that made me pretty gloomy.”

But the doctors got together, took another look, did more scans, and changed their minds.

So just before Christmas, a surgeon removed the top half of Fenwick’s left lung, along with the tumour measuring 15cm across. This was followed by three months of chemotherapy, which ended in late April.

“It’s not at all pleasant, but I think I’ve been pretty fortunate,” acknowledges the 64-year-old, with the acceptance of a man reprieved.

He’s had plenty of aches, times when he felt his head was exploding, and sleep became troublesome, but didn’t lose his hair or suffer chronic nausea.

The next 18 months will be critical, as specialists track whether the cancer’s returned. “So you kind of live in a bit of no-man’s land until then. But I persuade myself I haven’t got cancer any more – and will remain that way until proven otherwise.”

Rob Fenwick (right) in Antarctica, with Dr John Hay, chairman  of the Science Board, which funds research, science and technology. Photo/Richard Gordon
As soon as Fenwick realised that he was seriously sick, he scaled back his numerous business commitments and community roles. The founder of Living Earth, an organic composting business, Fenwick’s public positions have included board roles at TVNZ, Landcare Research, the government’s Waste Advisory Board, and as a special adviser to the Department of Conservation. He’s chaired St John, the Fred Hollows Foundation, Save the Kiwi Trust, and Mai FM, and been a board member of the Sir Peter Blake Trust, the World Wildlife Fund, Predator Free New Zealand, the NEXT Foundation and Ngati Whatua Orakei. In addition, his family owns 370ha of bush on Waiheke Island that he’s allowed public access through.

But it’s his association with Antarctica that’s taken much of his time and leadership skill in the past 20 years.

Growing up, Fenwick was fascinated by Antarctica, engrossed by the stories of heroism and disaster found in books around his family’s home – Scott’s journals, accounts of Shackleton’s voyages, Ponting’s miraculous monochrome photographs. So when one of Fenwick’s business mentors, Sir John Ingram, suggested he might be interested in joining the Antarctic Heritage Trust’s board, Fenwick happily accepted.

The trust’s aim was to preserve the historic buildings erected by explorers in the Ross Sea region, the Antarctic area New Zealand is responsible for. Primary among these were the huts of Scott and Shackleton, left intact by the explorers, time capsules crammed with relics and rations from a century ago.

Having kindled the idea of restoring the huts, the trust had come to realise the task was mammoth. It was something that confronted Fenwick when he first visited Antarctica, accompanied by a television crew wanting to see the huts.

“And I was appalled. I remember being recorded, and my shock at these extraordinary buildings and the collection of artefacts that were just decaying in front of us.”

With little thought of diplomacy, Fenwick blurted out it was a travesty that New Zealand officials lauded the unspoilt Antarctic experience while these precious huts were disintegrating.

His comments ruffled feathers but also brought attention to the situation. “And of course what it did was, everyone said, ‘If you think you know the problem, you’d better find the solution.’”

Fenwick was made the trust’s chairman and drew up a plan to raise $9 million for the huts’ restoration. While he considered it ambitious, others saw it as fanciful or absurd, arguing the huts should be left to decay, given they were neither architectural wonders nor intended to be permanent.

But Fenwick realised that on no other continent were man’s first buildings still standing – and beyond their plain wooden walls, they contained a trove of remarkable stories.

It was these stories, these incredible tales of fortitude and failure, that were Fenwick’s greatest ally as he sought international funding.

Ironically, Britain, the country with two of the central characters, Scott and Shackleton, initially declined to help. Eventually, it took a visit by Princess Anne, and condemnation of British inaction by Sir Edmund Hillary, to shame the UK government into helping fund the work. “No one had ever considered them to be of any importance – so it needed us to evoke a mindset change pretty quickly.”

Now, both Scott’s huts and Shackleton’s hut on Ross Island have been fully preserved, with work continuing on two others. The trust’s executive director, Nigel Watson, says without Fenwick’s mana, connections and boardroom ability, the project would have failed. “It’s that simple. He’s got that ability to connect across people in different situations and different backgrounds – everything from British royalty to the carpenters working on the huts.”

Watson says Fenwick’s impact on our operations in Antarctica is unrivalled. “Rob’s transformed the way New Zealand has perceived and valued what it does in Antarctica. And he’s had to rattle the cage to do that, but he’s done it in such a gentlemanly way that people tend to want to get in behind him.”

In recognition of his work, the New Zealand Geographic Board named the Fenwick Ice Piedmont in Antarctica in his honour.

Fenwick says preserving the huts has been tremendous and his greatest joy is seeing visitors step into them for the first time – “allowing them to go into these buildings and just be swept up in the nostalgia of it all. And I’m still knocked out by it.”

Scott’s Hut at Cape Evans. Photo/Jane Ussher
With his job saving the huts largely done, Fenwick stepped back from the trust. However, it wasn’t long before someone else came calling, this time Prime Minister Helen Clark, asking him to join Antarctica New Zealand, the body operating our Antarctic programme. Within six months, Fenwick was appointed chairman and began a reassessment of what New Zealand was doing in Antarctica.

One of the results was an increased scientific focus on climate change and its effect on the Antarctic. While this might seem remote and rarefied for most New Zealanders, Fenwick insists it will have enormous impacts on all our lives.

“Antarctica will determine the fate of the planet. It contains 80 per cent of the world’s fresh water, 90 per cent of the world’s ice, and what happens there as the world warms will determine what happens to us all.”

Fenwick stresses New Zealand stands to be particularly hard hit if global warming leads to runaway melting of Antarctic ice. Not only would it dramatically increase sea levels, threatening coastal communities, but it could seriously alter our weather, much of which originates in Antarctica, potentially devastating our agricultural economy. Moreover, if the oceans warm and the marine ecosystem is disrupted, it could affect our entire fishing industry.

The only certainty was that climate change’s impacts would accelerate, something that scares Fenwick. “It’s a fear of what we don’t know, really, so that’s why research is so important.”

What most New Zealanders don’t realise is that the slice of Antarctica New Zealand claims, the Ross Dependency, is probably the most vital region for studying climate change.

“It’s important because it contains the Ross Ice Shelf, the biggest slab of ice on the planet, a single piece of ice bigger than France and 800m thick, floating on the ocean – and we don’t know what’s happening to it.”

Fears are that the shelf is melting from underneath, and New Zealand scientists will this summer drill through the ice to determine if that’s begun.

“Next year, we’re going to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the amazing voyage of Sir James Clark Ross into the Antarctic Circle and his discovery of the Ross Sea, and landfall on Ross Island, and discovery of the Ross Ice Shelf. And what an irony it would be if, on that anniversary, we also discovered the ice shelf was disappearing.”

Such is the interest in the Ross Sea region that America, Italy, Germany and South Korea all have research stations along its edge, with China also planning a base.

Realising there was never going to be enough New Zealand government funding for critical research, Fenwick helped create the New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute, launched with a $5 million donation from philanthropist Sir Julian Robertson. The institute sees New Zealand scientists work with experts from around the world to try to answer some of the planet’s biggest questions. It’s already gained global attention and funding, including from National Geographic, which is paying $US750,000 to cover its work, in print and on television. 

The international collaboration that Fenwick has encouraged reflects how nations have traditionally approached Antarctica. In 1959, the Antarctic Treaty ruled no country could own territory and it was to be used only for peaceful purposes. In 1991, the Madrid Protocol banned mining for 50 years.

However, such remarkable global co-operation is likely to be tested as resources run out elsewhere, nations seek to exert influence, and new technology makes mining in Antarctica easier. “We’d be fooling ourselves if we didn’t accept that pressure on mineral and energy resources will increase inexorably,” says Fenwick.

And the inability of nations, including New Zealand, to protect the seas around Antarctica from fishing has not only disappointed him, but points to national interests overriding the greater good.

“But I’m an optimist. The treaty has been an incredibly successful experiment in diplomacy and hasn’t been breached in 50 years. And it’s resisted the demand for tourism as it’s become much more accessible through air transport. Tourism wouldn’t be good for Antarctica. That’s always easier to say for someone who goes there often, but increasing traffic will destroy what’s precious about it.”

When he got sick, Fenwick decided to stand down as Antarctica New Zealand’s chairman and will end his term later this year. But he’s confident New Zealand’s scientific work is firmly established, and that our influence in Antarctica will continue. “We’re an important player. We’re seen as reliable, stable and big contributors.”

In addition, New Zealand is the launching pad for Antarctic operations by other countries, with America, Italy and now South Korea using Christchurch as a base.

But as he steps back from leading our Antarctic work, Fenwick’s wishes for the future go beyond the economic, diplomatic and strategic. “I’d just hope New Zealanders appreciate more and more how important Antarctica is going to be in their day-to-day lives.”

Lou Sanson has worked closely with Fenwick, in his roles as Antarctica New Zealand’s chief executive and the Conservation Department’s director-

general, and says Fenwick’s vision for what New Zealand can achieve is inspirational and influential. But despite always looking to the future, Sanson says Fenwick has never lost sight of what was around him or a sense of amazement at the world.

“The ability to go and watch a sunset, the ability to enjoy a blizzard, the ability to get excited when a minke whale came up the channel – he was like a schoolkid.”

Bunk beds and the wardroom table inside Scott’s Hut at Cape Evans. Photo/Jane Ussher
Anybody captivated by Antarctica usually has a favourite character, someone adventurous and admirable from the heroic age of exploration. Fenwick readily cites Shackleton, “a remarkable leader of men”.

But perhaps the real hero for Fenwick is a little-known New Zealander, Frank Worsley, captain of Shackleton’s ships and the man who miraculously navigated the Endurance crew to safety, then crossed South Georgia’s mountains with Shackleton to get help.

Worsley’s own life story is incredible, filled with bravery and brilliance, and Fenwick so admires him that in 2005 he and friends chartered a yacht and recreated an expedition to the Arctic Circle Worsley had done 80 years before. The other thing about Worsley is that few New Zealanders know of him and his achievements. And in that sense he’s much like Fenwick, someone who’s done remarkable things with little public acknowledgment.

Fenwick’s good friend, former Waitakere mayor Bob Harvey, says he’s been unstinting in working for good, and understated in everything he’s accomplished. “I think in the past four decades, this country wouldn’t be as good as it is without Rob Fenwick.”

Fenwick doubts he’ll now pass a medical that would let him return to Antarctica, but isn’t grieving at this prospect. “When you think about what I’ve been able to do and the joy I’ve had of visiting that place, it’s time for others to be given the same chance.”

Anyway, there are 20 years of memories: seeing Princess Anne’s profound response in Scott and Shackleton’s huts; the sense of insignificance he felt when he first visited the Dry Valleys; getting wind turbines established at Scott Base in the world’s harshest climate; and accompanying the families of Erebus crash victims to Antarctica.

“That was an incredibly moving experience – to observe the buried anguish and the loss they’d been living with all these years.”

There’s little doubt that if everyone could visit Antarctica and see what an unspoilt world looked like, we wouldn’t have to worry about its future. But that’s never going to happen, and Fenwick says you don’t need to visit Uganda’s gorillas to know they should be protected.

“It comes back to the stories you tell – stories and pictures are everything. Evoking a response from the hearts and minds of people will be the only thing that saves the world.”

That said, he’s incredibly grateful for the roles he’s been able to play in one of the world’s most special places. “It just reminds you how opportunity strikes but once – and you’ve got to keep saying yes, until you have to say no.”

This article was first published in the July 2015 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to our fortnightly email for more great stories.