Antarctica and New Zealand

Page 3 – Triumph and tragedy

There is a New Zealand connection to a number of triumphs and tragedies that have occurred in Antarctica - such as Hillary's dash to the Pole in 1958 and the Erebus disaster in 1979. In some cases, this country was involved because of its geographical proximity to the continent; in others, New Zealanders were at the centre of events.

New Zealanders learn of Robert Falcon Scott's death

By early April 1912 New Zealanders were aware that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beaten Britain's Captain Robert Scott to the South Pole. But there was continued interest in Scott's own bid for the Pole. The British Antarctic Expedition's vessel Terra Nova was expected in March or April 1913. So when it arrived in Oamaru on 10 February 1913, ahead of schedule, there was speculation that disaster had befallen the expedition. A copyright agreement that prevented expedition members from being immediately forthcoming with news only increased the speculation. Within 24 hours New Zealanders learnt the truth - Scott and his polar party had made it to the Pole, only to perish on the return journey. When the Terra Nova arrived in Lyttelton on 12 February, it found a town in mourning. Read more about how NZers learnt of Scott's death...

New Zealand involvement in Endurance expedition rescues

Led by British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-17) - the Endurance expedition - aimed to complete the first overland crossing of Antarctica. But it failed entirely in this aim and is instead remembered as an incredible survival story. The expedition's two parties sailed to opposite sides of the Antarctic continent, with separate tasks, but both eventually found themselves trapped in inhospitable surroundings with insufficient supplies. The navigation skills of a New Zealander, Frank Worsley, played a crucial role in the rescue of the main party, while other New Zealanders, and the government, contributed to the rescue of the support party. Read more about the Endurance expedition and NZ's involvement in the rescue of its parties

First long-distance flights to Antarctica take off from New Zealand

The first long-distance flights to Antarctica from the outside world left from New Zealand on 20 December 1955. They were undertaken by a United States Navy air squadron, as part of Operation Deep Freeze I. In advance of the flights, members of the squadron were based at the Royal New Zealand Air Force's Wigram and Taieri aerodromes. The RNZAF and search and rescue personnel were on standby during the flights, ready to provide support should any aircraft strike difficulty. Read more about the preparations in New Zealand for the first long-distance flights and their arrival in Antarctica

Sir Edmund Hillary leads New Zealand party to the South Pole

On 4 January 1958, Sir Edmund Hillary and his New Zealand party reached the South Pole. They were the first to reach it overland since Scott in 1912, and the first to do so in motor vehicles. The party set out for the Pole after laying food and fuel depots for the British crossing party of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition (TAE). It was an arduous journey - long hours were spent battling across sastrugi (wind-eroded snow ridges) and through soft snow while avoiding dangerous crevasses. But what is often remembered is Hillary's determination to proceed with the journey without the express permission of the TAE, and against the instructions of the committee coordinating New Zealand's contribution. Read more about Hillary and his NZ party's 'dash to the pole'

Air New Zealand Flight TE901 crashes on Mt Erebus, Antarctica

On 28 November 1979, 237 passengers and 20 crew were killed when Air New Zealand Flight TE901 crashed into the side of Mt Erebus, Antarctica. The dead included 200 New Zealanders - among them Peter Mulgrew, a member of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1957-58, who provided commentary during the flight. The tragedy was followed by a demanding recovery operation and a fierce debate over who or what was to blame. Read more on our Erebus disaster topic

Helicopter crash in Antarctica kills two New Zealanders

On 13 October 1992, New Zealanders Garth Varcoe and Terry Newport were killed in a helicopter crash 40 km from Scott Base. They were returning to McMurdo Station in a US Navy helicopter after rebuilding the hut at Cape Bird, a summer research station. The weather deteriorated during their journey and the helicopter struck an icy slope above a 10 m ice cliff. Varcoe, Newport and Ben Micou, a US Navy helicopter mechanic, were thrown from the helicopter and killed as it slid towards the rocks below. The US Navy pilot and co-pilot survived but lay waiting for help, with rescue efforts hampered by poor visibility. Read more about NZers killed while working in Antarctica

How to cite this page

'Triumph and tragedy', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 27-Jul-2022