Belgium may be a small country in the centre of Europe, but it played an important role in the exploration and discovery of Antarctica. Belgium was one of the early signatories to the Antarctic Treaty and after a long absence, now has an summer station in Dronning Maud land. To this day several Belgian’s are active explorers in the Polar Region’s.
A historic timeline of Belgium’s involvement in Antarctica.
The Belgica expedition lead by Adrien de Gerlache overwintered in the Antarctic pack ice.
First Belgian expedition on the Antarctic continent under the leadership of Gaston de Gerlache; establishment of King Baudoin Station.
Second Belgian expedition to King Baudoin Station.
Third Belgian Antarctic expedition commanded by Guido Derom; discovery of the Queen Fabiola mountains.
First Belgian-Dutch Antarctic expedition; foundation of an Belgian-Dutch Antarctic Committee; establishment of a new King Baudoin Station.
Second Belgian-Dutch Antarctic expedition.
Third Belgian-Dutch Antarctic expedition under the leadership of geologist Tony Van Autenboer; definitive closure of the King Baudoin Station.
Three summer expeditions in collaboration with South Africa.
Dixie Dansercoer and Alain Hubert cross the Antarctic continent in hundred days.
Dixie Dansercoer, Julie Brown, Rudy Van Snick, Willy Troch, Robert Huygh and Fernand Casier climb Mount Vinson.
The Wall expedition with Alain Hubert climbs the Holtanna.
The Belgica expedition – the members
Adrien de Gerlache (1866-1934): Belgian – leader
Henryk Arctowski (1871-1958): Pole – geologist, oceanographer and meteorologist
Emile Danco (1869-1898): Belgian – geophysical observations
Emile-G. Racovitza (1868-1947): Romanian – zoologist and botanist
Roald Amundsen (1872-1928): Norwegian – sublieutenant
Georges Lecointe (1869-1929): Belgian – geophysical observations + second in command on the Belgica
Frederick A. Cook (1865-1940): American – doctor and photographer
Antoine Dobrowolski (1872-1954): Pole – assistant-meteorologist
Jules Melaerts (1876-?): Belgian – third lieutenant
Henri Somers (1863-?): Belgian – chief mechanic
Max Van Rysselberghe (1878-?): Belgian – mechanic
Louis Michotte (1868-1926): Belgian – cook
Adam Tollefsen (1866-?): Norwegian – sailor
Ludvig-Hjalmar Johansen (1872-?): Norwegian – sailor
Engelbret Knudsen (1876-1900): Norwegian – sailor
Gustave-Gaston Dufour (1876-1940): Belgian – sailor
Jean Van Mirlo (1877-1964): Belgian – sailor
Carl-Auguste Wiencke (1877-1898): Norwegian – sailor
Johan Koren (1877-1919): Norwegian – sailor and assistant-zoologist
King Boudoin Station
Belgium’s Antarctic station till 1961.
Sixty years after the Belgica left the port of Antwerp for his historical journey to Antarctica, a new Belgian Antarctic expedition was prepared. Reason for this was the International Geophysical Year. Between 1 July 1957 and 31 December 1958 twelve countries set up geophysical observation programs in Antarctica. In this period there was a great sun activity. Also Belgium participated in the project. Gaston de Gerlache, son of Adrien, commanded the second Belgian Antarctica expedition in history.
On 12 November the icebreaker Polarhav and the sealer Polarsirkel left the port of Antwerp. Aboard were three tractors, a plane and a helicopter. On 26 December 1957 both ships arrived in Queen Maud Land. During the next two weeks the members of the expedition built on 70°25’33” South the first Belgian scientific station: King Baudoin Station. After that the most important work started: scientific observations. Jacques Loodts observed the aurora australis, Henri Vandevelde studied the ionospherical layers in the atmosphere, Luc Cabes was interested in earth magnetism and Edgard Picciotto studied snow and ice.
Apart from scientific research on the base itself, the scientists explored the region from time to time. The Antarctic inland was for a great part still terra incognita. In December a part of the expedition visited the Belgica Mountains. While Loodts and de Gerlache stayed in their camp, Antoine de Ligne and Charles Hulshagen made a flight with the plane on 5 December. But the plane hit a too steep sastrugi. The landing gear came off and the plane made an rough landing on the ice. The four men couldn’t do nothing else than walk the way back to King Baudoin Station (250 kilometres). Due to the great amount of crevasses, the men covered only twenty kilometres a day. In King Baudoin Station people got worried. Xavier de Maere sent SOS messages to the Norwegian, American and finally to the Russian base. Although situated at more than 2800 kilometres, the Russians let know they would sent a C47 to search for the missing Belgians. On 15 December the four men were found.
On 2 April 1958 the first Antarctic expedition of Gaston de Gerlache arrived in Ostend. One man stayed behind, Tony Van Autenboer. This geologist would stay on the ice until 1961. He welcomed his new colleagues and his new boss, Frank Bastin. Before his departure Bastin had founded the National Centre of Polar Research (NCPO). Van Autenboer spent most of the time in a tent in the mountains. The third Belgian expedition in King Baudoin Station (March 1960 – March 1961) was commanded by Guido Derom. He discovered a new range of mountains: the Queen Fabiola Mountains. Not all scientist stayed in Antarctica the whole year. Some of them had only the time to spent just the summer in King Baudoin Station. The were called the tourists and formed the summer expeditions IRIS I and IRIS II.
The National Centre of Polar Research (NCPO) couldn’t find enough money to continue the Belgian Antarctic Programme. On 31 January 1961 King Baudoin Station closed down.
The Post King Baudoin Station Period
After the closure of King Baudoin Station in 1961, the scientist kept asking the government to continue the Belgian Antarctic Programme. Finally the government gave in, especially by the influence of Gaston de Gerlache. There was however one condition: the scientist had to cooperate with another European country. In 1963 the Committee for the Management of the Belgian-Dutch Antarctica Expeditions was founded. President of the committee was Gaston de Gerlache.
On 21 January 1964 the first Belgian-Dutch expedition, under the leadership of Luc Cabes, arrived in King Baudoin Station, or what was left of it. At once they started with the construction of a new base, a few hundreds of metres further on. Also the scientific observations were continued after an interval of three years. They studied the weather, the geomagnetism, the ionosphere, the aurora australis, atmospherical electricity, radioactivity, fauna and flora. Also disciplines as physiology and geodesy topography were on the busy programme. During the next few years Hugo Decleir, Jean-Jacques Derwael and Tony Van Autenboer explored systematically the Sør Rondane Mountains.
Until 1967 the new King Baudoin Station was the centre of the Belgian Antarctic Programme. The second Belgian-Dutch expedition was lead by Winoc Bogaerts. Tony Van Autenboer was in charge of the last expedition. In 1967 King Baudoin Station closed definitively.
This was not the end of the Belgian presence on the last continent. There was some money left and during three summer expeditions (1968, 1969 and 1970) Belgian scientists worked together with South African colleagues in SANAE Base. This station was situated at about thousand kilometres west from the former King Baudoin Station. The team Van Autenboer-Decleir-Derwael studied the Jutulstraumen, a gigantic glacier with a length of fifty and a width of two kilometres. The Belgians made for the first time in Antarctica use of a radio-echo-sounding. With this apparatus they could measure the thickness of the ice in a reliable way.
The last Belgian-South African expedition (1970) ended disastrously. A plane (an Otter) made a test flight, but the pilot made a mistake during landing. The Otter crashed to the ice and burst into flames immediately. Fortunately, the scientists aboard could leave the plane in time. But the expensive material and the plane were irrevocably lost.
From 1970 on Belgium lost all interest in Antarctica, though in 1972-1973 Bernard de Gerlache took part in an American South Pole expedition. Only in 1985 the Belgian activities in the Antarctic were resumed. Scientists participated in expeditions organized by other countries such as Australia, France, Japan, Great Britain…