Obituary: John Bechervaise

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IN HIS prime he was big in stature, deep in voice and blessed with presence - you knew when "Beche" entered the room. He was outward- looking, engaging, a measured risk-taker, a good writer, artist, photographer and rich in that intangible and rare quality - leadership. John Bechervaise lived a memorable life in Australia's mountaineering and Antarctic community.

Born in 1910 and educated in Melbourne, Bechervaise joined the staff of Geelong College in 1935, charged with establishing a boys' outdoor programme. Following his marriage to Lorna Fearn Wanna, he travelled with her around Europe and, during the Second World War years, studied art at the Courtauld Institute in London.

On his return to Geelong College after the war, Bechervaise's interest in schoolboy exploring led him to establish a guild system modelled on that of the British Schools Exploring Society. His leadership of the Geelong College Exploration Society's ascent of the then unclaimed Federation Peak in Tasmania's South West made him well known in mountaineering circles. Walkabout magazine - Australia's first geographical magazine, founded in 1949 - reported that in mid-January 1949 J. Bechervaise, F. and W. Elliot and A. Rogers of Geelong College reached the summit, where they built a cairn. The party returned to Hobart on 2 February. This was the last of many college expeditions organised by Bechervaise.

Bathing in the success of Federation Peak and earlier schools' expeditions, Bechervaise took a fast lane at the beginning of the Fifties to Australia's emerging National Antarctic Research Expeditions (Anare) managed by an expert committee including Sir Douglas Mawson and directed by Phillip Law. These were exciting and testing years, with Bechervaise and his Geelong recruits being solid support to Law.

Bechervaise established himself as a competent field leader at Heard Island (1953) and at the Mawson station on the Antarctic mainland (1955 and 1959). He was strong-willed and a meticulous planner on paper - almost to the point of distraction for others.

At Heard Island, he led an unsuccessful attempt to scale Big Ben, Heard's towering volcanic peak but, during the year, completed a significant survey programme, with Bechervaise beginning the first of a series of publications on Antarctic bird life.

From Mawson he co-ordinated and led several extended field trips of up to 600km inland using equipment primitive by today's standards, and covering an area of ice sheet that had been only poorly photographed from the air. He played a key role in exploring MacRobertson Land and the remote Prince Charles Mountains region. He worked hard and "did it tough" time and time again, working unsupported for long periods in extreme conditions. For this he was awarded the Polar Medal.

However, Bechervaise's communications, artistic and literary skills were his greatest contributions to the Antarctic programme. He spoke and wrote of Australia's efforts there. Of his several books, Antarctica - The Last Horizon (1961) was valued by many young Australians and printed several times over, but Blizzard and Fire (1963) reveals more of Bechervaise the person. This account of his year at Mawson as Station Leader in 1959 is a rich literary appreciation of Antarctica and few works compare, at this time of Antarctica's colonisation or since.

His final book was Arctic and Antarctic: the will and the way of John Riddoch Rymill (1995), about the great polar explorer who in the 1930s traversed Greenland and led the British Graham Land Expedition in the Antarctic Peninsula. It was a protracted work which, because of advancing illness, took Bechervaise years to complete. Its eventual publication was testimony to his sticking power and determination to tell the story of another great Australian.

Up to the 1970s, Bechervaise played an active role in the Anare Club, which cared for the families of past and present expeditioners. This was additional to his long-time commitment to Walkabout magazine and to the Geelong College and community.

It was said that "Beche" never travelled - he explored. This best describes his retirement, as he explored America and Europe in his van. Art, photography and the classics, his lifelong interests, made exploration even more meaningful to him.

Besides his Antarctic writings, the stout indestructible "A"-frame Beche tent developed by him on the slopes of Big Ben in 1953, and still used by Australian expeditions to move freely in Antarctica and shelter from blizzards, is a wonderful symbol of this man's endurance and love of nature.

Peter Keage

John Mayston Bechervaise, polar explorer: born Melbourne, Australia 11 May 1910; married Lorna Fearn Wanna (one son, three daughters); died 13 July 1998.