04 April, 2013

Good in any emergency!

The Barwon River is not generally associated with great voyages of exploration. It is after all, only a relatively short river, flowing through a predominantly inhabited landscape in a temperate climate; not exactly the kind of place you'd expect to find an Antarctic explorer, right?
Well, perhaps not recently, but in January, 1907 the future Antarctic explorer Bertram Armytage undertook a journey which saw him scull a kayak from Geelong to Barwon Heads as part of a 10 day journey around Port Philip Bay.
Armytage was a local boy, born in 1869 into the prosperous Armytage family at Wooloomanata Station near Anakie. His father Frederick William Armytage was the sixth son of George Armytage, the progenitor of one of Victoria's most successful nineteenth century dynasties.
As a young teenager, Bertram spent three years being educated at Geelong Grammar School, before transferring to Melbourne Grammar in 1885.  In what was probably his first year at the school - by then situated in Maud Street, Geelong - he would no doubt have come in contact with that champion of the Barwon and rowing enthusiast James Lister Cuthbertson about whom I have blogged previously. Perhaps it was he who first encouraged the young Armytage to develop his considerable skill with the oar as he went on to row for Jesus College, Cambridge where he "won his oars", by which I gather it was meant that he rowed in the head crew for his college.

Bertram Armytage in 1894 from the Como Collection,
National Trust of Victoria. Como in Toorak was another
Armytage property
Upon his return to Australia he spent time at Wooloomanata and then at another family property in Queensland before joining the military and serving in the Boer War as an Imperial Officer.
After the war he seems to have lived the life of a socialite in Melbourne and London, satisfying his need for action and adventure by participating in what today would be seen as endurance sports. It was in preparation for one such deer-stalking trip in the New Zealand Alps that he decided to undertake a circumnavigation of Port Philip Bay - by kayak.
The craft he had purpose-designed for the task was an early kayak based on the model of the Inuit people of the Arctic who used timber and sealskin to construct their craft. Here perhaps the similarities ended as Armytage's custom-designed kayak had curved ends described as being like an Italian Gondola and was weighted with lead, giving it self-righting properties. It had a thin timber skin and he adapted the hollow areas normally used for buoyancy, to carry equipment then, in a nod to his rowing days, he rigged a sliding seat and sculls to the craft which produced significantly greater speed than the usual paddle used with a kayak.
So, on the morning of 15th January 1907, sufficiently stocked with supplies of bananas and chocolate which he had learnt from his deer-stalking exploits were the best energy foods available, he took to the water at Point Cook and headed towards Geelong. By lunchtime he had made it as far as Little River where he stopped for a lunch of bananas before ploughing on to Point Wilson where he spent the night.

Corio Bay with the You Yangs in the distance
The next day saw him enter the inner harbour of Corio Bay at which point he decided to alter his plan to follow the line the bay, deciding instead to have his kayak transported to the banks of the Barwon from whence on the following day, he sculled his way to Barwon Heads, arriving in the early evening. He had timed his run to co-incide with high tide to ease his passage through the very shallow Lake Connewarre - I can relate to that problem! - and was apparently treated to the sight of large flocks of water birds blissfully unaware of the impending approach of the hunting season.
Lake Connewarre
No fool, he then spent a day or two running some tests on the resilience of his craft before attempting the highly risky passage across The Rip.
Having satisfied himself that with the right weather conditions and a certain amount of luck, the crossing was possible, on 21st January he set out once again, taking the very sensible precaution of leaving his luggage with "Messrs Stephens" who then guided him across The Rip in their fishing boat. Just why Armytage chose to alter his route to include the Barwon and a Rip crossing from Barwon Heads is not stated. This route was shorter than staying inside the bay and rowing around the end of the Bellarine Peninsula, but I am guessing that for the sake of an extra 20-30km, it would have been far safer to cross The Rip insde the Heads, however the safe option did not usually appeal to Armytage.
Newspaper reports describing the trip confirm that Armytage chose the more dangerous route, presumably due to the open water which also had to be crossed outside the bay. In the end, the attempt was a success and crossing The Rip itself proved less troublesome than negotiating the seas breaking over reefs off Barwon Heads.
Looking towards The Rip from Barwon Heads Bluff and the stretch of
water traversed by Armytage. The opening between Point Nepean (right) and
Point Lonsdale (left) is approximately 3.5km wide
By 4pm he had reached Sorrento, his intended destination for the day. After spending the following day there, he once again took to the water, facing difficult conditions as he made his way around the coastline. He encountered rough seas off Mt Martha, being forced to bail water out of his kayak and the stretch from Frankston to Mordialloc saw him facing a headwind and more rough water.
Finally however, on 25th January, he completed the final stage of his journey which appears to have taken him from Mordialloc, past St Kilda and then - through a thunderstorm - up the Yarra to Edward's Boathouse at Princes Bridge. Why he did not return to Point Cook which is mentioned as his starting point is not clear. Is it possible that he in fact departed the previous day from Edward's Boathouse, overnighting at Point Cook before The Argus (2nd March, 1907) takes up the tale?
Part of Armytage's intention in undertaking his journey around the bay was to improve his fitness for an upcoming deer-hunting trek in New Zealand which was to take place later in the year. On his way to New Zealand however, he got wind of an upcoming Antarctic expedition to be led by Sir Ernest Shackleton. Armytage quickly determined that he would join the party and with an introductory letter in hand, made himself known to Shackleton.

Bertram Armytage in the Antarctic
After some close questioning, Armytage was invited to join the party and given the role of assisting the geologists (including one by the name of Douglas Mawson) and of caring for the several Manchurian ponies  which were to be used by the explorers in their attempt to reach the South Pole.  The Nimrod Expedition as it was known, departed from New Zealand on 1st January, 1908. A base camp was set up at Cape Royds and "Shackleton's Hut" which still stands today, was erected. Whilst Armytage did undertake some treks during the expedition (leading at least one to the north), he was not amongst those who made the attempt to reach the South Pole. The group was unsuccessful in its attempt, however Shackleton and his companions did reach a point further south than any other explorer at that time.
 In an inverview given after the party's return, Shackleton himself described Armytage as "loyal, serious and good in any emergency".
Shackleton's Hut, Cape Royds, taken from Wikipedia
The geographic South Pole was finally reached on 14th December, 1911 by a party lead by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen. Armytage however, did not live to learn of the party's achievement.
After returning from the failed Nimrod Expedition and being feted in both London and Melbourne, he applied for a position with the War Office in London but was unsuccessful. Upon returning to Melbourne, it is believed that his thwarted ambitions may have lead to his suicide on 12th March, 1910. At the time of his death, his wife (related by marriage to the well-known Chirnside family) and young daughter were in London.
In 1920 his mother established the "Bertram Armytage Prize" with a grant of £500 in his memory. The prize is awarded annually in the field of medical science at Melbourne University.

NB: details of Armytage's journey around the bay were taken from an article published in The Argus, 2nd March, 1907.

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