Kenneth W. Hankinson

1984 Laureate, Exploration
United Kingdom, Born 1952

Project Goal

Explore Brabant Island and research the effects of prolonged exposure to cold

Location: Antarctica

Survey of Unknown Territory

Brabant Island, an 80-kilometre finger of land to the west of the Antarctic Peninsula, has apparently been visited only three times since it was first discovered in 1898. Two of history’s leading polar explorers, Cooke and Amundsen, landed there in 1898 as part of Adrien de Gerlache’s expedition. The subsequent investigations were made by geologists in helicopters.

Plans for a Historic Trip

Flight Lieutenant Kenneth W. Hankinson, an instructor at the Royal Air Force College, was deputy leader of an expedition that planned to make the first complete survey of this unknown territory, involving some 2,500 man days of travel across the island on skis. Crevasses, avalanches and bad weather presented a continual danger. Snow and ice cover all but one per cent of the island.

The team also planned climbs of all the significant peaks on mountainous Brabant Island, whose topmost areas rise to 2,460 metres, with many ridges surmounted by ice mushrooms. The expedition would become the first party to spend the winter in tents in the Antarctic. In addition, they had an insulated hut 2.5 metres by 2.5 metres, but this was used only for storage of scientific equipment.

The scientific aims of the expedition included a detailed study of the feeding habits of crab-eating seals, in order to verify the theory that many were dying because of the disappearance of swarms of krill (microscopic shrimp harvested by some fishing vessels in Antarctic waters).

Supporting the Expedition

The Rolex Awards Selection Committee was impressed by the enthusiasm of the team members, particularly given that their normal occupations were so different from their proposed undertaking. The project also presented an interesting combination of scientific curiosity, the thirst for adventure and the desire to test the physical limits of the human body.

Hankinson contributed all his Rolex Award money to the Brabant Island Joint Services Expedition. The cash "made the difference between a minimalist expedition and one that was equipped to face most problems", he recalls. "However, the most important aspect was making contact for future projects. It is undoubtedly easier to attract sponsorship if you can indicate a previous, successful enterprise."

Embarking into History

The team had left Britain for Chile by air in December 1983 and then took a Royal Navy ship to Palmer Base on Anvers Island. They were able to land half the men and some of the supplies directly on Brabant Island by helicopter. The rest of the men and supplies travelled in two inflatable boats (the rafts were too heavy to be transported by helicopter) in a hazardous, 200-kilometre, two-week trip to Brabant Island, believed to be the longest open-boat journey ever undertaken in Antarctica.

At the landing site of the de Gerlache expedition, the services team placed two plaques, one donated by the Norsk Polar Institute and the other by the Explorers’ Club. De Gerlache’s 22-year-old grandson, a Belgian soldier, joined the armed forces team. The group made its planned canoe journey around Brabant Island and through the Le Maire channel. The expedition leader, Commander Chris Furse of the Royal Navy, fell into a six-metre crevasse but escaped unhurt. Another member of the team, Clive Waghorn, was not so lucky and had to be evacuated to the Falkland Islands after breaking a thigh in a similar fall. Some 300 samples of plant and animal life were collected for academic research.

"Not all the objectives were attained," Hankinson reports. "Difficult weather conditions, problems in recruiting suitable staff and an early withdrawal caused by a major accident restricted research. As a result, there were still parts of the botany and geomorphology programmes left outstanding. On the other hand, we exceeded expectations in physiology and geology. Just learning to live and work in that environment is enough. Stamina and a stable temperament are as important as physical fitness," he says.

Lasting Legacy

Hankinson took part in several other expeditions after his time on Brabant Island. After leaving the air force, he completed legal studies and now lectures in law. He wants to continue his exploration, however. He is currently working on plans for a "trans-globe micro-light expedition" and is researching the feasibility of establishing polar research funded from non-government resources.

"The most important achievement of the project was the production of future leaders. Team members from the Brabant Island expedition have gone on to organise scientific research in the Antarctic, Greenland, Canada and Zimbabwe. Those remaining in the armed forces have undertaken U.N. missions in Rwanda, Bosnia, Kuwait and Somalia. We consider the training of such men the best justification for adventurous expeditions," Hankinson says.

Other 1984 Laureates