Smuggled to the Antarctic

Bruce Kay
Wednesday, 31 August 2022

Smuggled on board a Danish ship in 1961, Nelle Law was the first Australian woman to set foot on Australian Antarctic Territory. The first Australian man, Louis Bernacchi landed on continental Antarctica 66 years earlier in 1895.

Nelle 'Nel' travelled there with her husband Phillip 'Phil' Law who was the Director of the ANARE (Australia National Antarctic Research Expedition) program.

At this time Australia chartered Danish supply vessels to support our Antarctic stations. For the Danish captains it was normal practice to have their wives accompany them on voyages. This was not something that conservative Australian politicians endorsed.

Being somewhat less conservative, Phil smuggled his wife aboard the MV Magga Dan in Perth without the knowledge of Minister Casey who was there to see the ship depart. After her discovery Nel was permitted to remain aboard. This was to avoid negative publicity arising from her being removed from the ship.

Senator Gorton later replied to criticism of Nel accompanying Phil with;

I can see no reason in the world, when it causes no expense to the Commonwealth and no upset to anyone at all, why the wife of a man who for 13 years has done such a good job for Australia, should not have a chance to see Antarctica.

First landing

It was a beautifully calm morning on Wednesday 8 February 1961. The MV Magga Dan manoeuvred alongside the MV Thala Dan, already anchored at Mawson Station, and Nel Law stepped ashore in Antarctica as the first Australian women to do so. Assistant Director, D.F. Styles, commented in his report that everyone thought it was most appropriate that Nel be the first women to visit the Territory and land at Mawson.

Art in Antarctica

Nel, an accomplished artist painted many scenes of the Antarctic during the voyage. Painting in the Antarctic proved difficult with oil and water colours freezing solid. Despite this she produced some amazing paintings. She was able to do this by making notes and memorising colours then painting upon return to the warmth of the ship.

In an interview later Nel quoted the following:

I was really staggered to find so much colour down there. The sea ice is a real washing-knob blue, the sky is often quite green, and fringes of the icebergs and floes have turquoise colouring. Sunsets are fantastic crimsons, oranges, golds and greens

This quote comes from a wonderful article in the Australian Women's Weekly from 19 April 1961 titled Art in the Antarctic and reveals some of the other difficulties experienced during her visit. This included exhaustion from the sheer weight of the multiple layers of head to toe woollens, anti-freeze garments, down-lined parkas, wind proofs and heavy fleece lined boots.

The purest place on earth

Back home in Victoria, dinner parties at the Laws had surprise endings with seal steaks and livers being revealed as the ingredients. This detail was left out until after guests had eaten and praised the meal.

Nel encountered hay fever for the first time in her life after returning from what she described as the purest place on earth. Also remarking that any place is dirty after Antarctica.

Stamp and logo

In addition to painting Nel designed an early version of an ANARE logo which was also produced as a postage stamp design issued in 1954. The stamp depicted a map of the Antarctic and the Australian Antarctic Territory and images of Antarctic wildlife. The logo appeared on ANARE letterheads and stationary. It was considered too complex for an ANARE flag or badge and a simple sea leopard design was favoured by Phil Law.

Nella Dan

When a new supply vessel was built and chartered by Australia in 1961 it was named in honour of Nel. The MV Nella Dan went on to be the longest continuously serving Antarctic ship. It was the most famous of the Dan ANARE ships and set the standard for polar ships of its time.

After 26 years of Antarctic voyages the Nella Dan came to an unfortunate end in 1987. After dragging its anchor line in high winds, it was forced aground at Macquarie Island. Badly damaged, it was decided to scuttle the Nella Dan in deep water off Macquarie Island where it remains.

Return of women

It was more than 14 years later in 1976 when Australian women next returned to the Antarctic continent. Elizabeth Chipman, Jutta Hosel and Shelagh Robinson were part of the ANARE team that year. This coincided with International Women's Year.

Gender balance continues to be pursued, improved and promoted by the Australian Antarctic Program.

Nel and Phil Law's ashes were interred near Mawson Station, Antarctica in 2011.

Clips of MV Magga Dan, Nelle Law and ANARE Scientists