Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 22, 2019

Through Ice and Fire (2019), by Sarah Laverick

As regular readers know, I am not in the habit of writing about books I haven’t finished reading – but an exception must be made for Through Ice and Fire, the adventures, science and people behind Australia’s famous icebreaker, Aurora Australis because it is the perfect book for Father’s Day — on Sunday September 1st this year, less than a fortnight away at the time of writing.   The book is due for release on Tuesday August 27th, which doesn’t give you much time but if you pre-order it from the kind of bookseller who offers personalised service and you don’t mind paying express postage rates, you should get it in time.  If you’re buying from your local Indie bookshop, best to ring and reserve a copy, just in case this little post of mine triggers a horde of buyers who get there before you.

(BTW let’s not be sexist: Through Ice and Fire would be a good choice for Mother’s Day too.  My mother—whose romantic streak extended to climbing mountains and going on safari but not to red roses or pink slippers—would have liked it too.)

This is the blurb:

The wild and desolate expanses of Antarctica have been the setting for many famous exploits and misadventures: a place where every decision has life-or-death consequences.

Legendary explorers such as Shackleton, Mawson and Scott continue to inspire to this day, and their faithful ships, the Endurance, Aurora and Terra Nova are vivid characters in their fateful voyages of discovery.

The first and only Australian-built Antarctic flagship, Aurora Australis, and her crews have likewise secured a place in Antarctic history.

This is the 30-year story of Aurora Australis and of her diverse charges – crew, technicians, scientists, explorers, writers and artists.

It’s the tale of a problem-plagued construction, two devastating fires, a crippling besetment in ice and a blizzard-induced grounding in Antarctica. It tells of brave rescue missions of other ships and their grateful crews, and of the heroic administering of medical help while battling life-threatening temperatures and hurricane-force winds.

This is a tale of engineering brilliance, team tenacity and human resilience. It brings polar research to life and unveils stunning scientific discoveries. It transforms the Aurora Australis into a compelling character in Australia’s chapter of Antarctic history and makes heroes of the men and women who have guided her through the most inhospitable seascapes on earth.

I climbed the gangway of the Aurora Australis once.  As Laverick says, these days you can’t get near it because of *sigh* security.  But one weekend in 1998 when we were in Hobart the ship was in dock and a friendly crew member pulled aside the gangway rope and let me scamper up for a photo opportunity.

But even if you don’t have a personal memory of this striking ship, this ‘bio’ makes fascinating reading.  The early chapters about the problems encountered by the Australian shipbuilders culminate in an extraordinary sequence of events: the Finnish designers of the ship were declared bankrupt, leaving the final stability calculations behind locked doors on the other side of the world, and when that problem was resolved the Newcastle earthquake struck:

Down on E deck, Bruce, bustling between meetings, hurried through the restaurant toward the aft end of the ship.  But as he reached the back of the mess the ship suddenly — inconceivably — began to roll.  Losing balance, Bruce grabbed a nearby pole and clung to it in alarm.

He assumed the only thing that seemed plausible: that the Aurora had somehow come off its blocks on the floating dock.  ‘God, what damage would be done?’ Bruce thought, horrified.  The lights went out.  He felt the Aurora steady, then become stationary once again.  He groped his way through the now pitch-black passageway to the aft stairwell and made his way up and out of the accommodation area.  Blinking in the bright light of the helideck he saw people emerging in shock from all areas of the ship, trying to make sense of the situation.

One thing was immediately clear: the Aurora was still on her blocks.  Bruce strode to the rail and scanned the dockyard, seeing powerlines lying on the ground nearby.  He looked across the water to Newcastle and gave a startled shout.  Clouds of dust and smoke were rising from the city.

‘I think we’ve had an earthquake!’ someone behind him exclaimed incredulously. (p.44)

The book goes on to recount the ecstatic welcome for the Aurora in Hobart (including a reproduction from The Mercury)  and the initial trial voyages, first up the east coast of Tassie (guaranteed to offer some wild weather) and then her maiden voyage (delayed by a malfunction in her reserve autopilot).  Descriptions of the ‘Furious Fifties’ give some idea of the vicious winds that rage around the globe unchecked by any land at that latitude.

But this is not just a book about a ship, it’s the human story of the crew and the scientists of ANARE.  So we learn how they put on weight from the 24-hour siren song of the open kitchenette containing a veritable buffet of biscuits […] breads, spreads, fruits, cereals, tea, coffee and hot chocolate.  We read about the frustrations of research equipment behaving in unexpected ways, the small disasters that narrowly avoid causing horrific injuries, and how misjudging fickle weather or the distance of an elephant seal added to the ever-present danger, even before arriving in Antarctica.  Then there is the excitement of putting the Aurora through her ice-breaking capabilities in different kinds of ice.  It’s riveting reading, especially since you know that Antarctica being the hostile environment that it is, things won’t always end well.

Dog lovers will remember the emotional repatriation of Australia’s huskies under the Madrid Protocol during the 1992/1993 season.  (You can see photos of these gorgeous dogs here).  These dogs had faithfully served Australia’s modern Antarctic program since 1954 and they were treated with great care and affection on their journey to Australia.

Four rows of timber crate kennels lined the Aurora’s helideck, each complete with ‘street’ signs designating them with names such as ‘Aurora Alley’ and ‘Barkville’; and a mother along with her three lively pups were safely housed in the wet laboratory, which was temporarily transformed into a nursery kennel.  The voyage was nicked MONGREL. (p.81)

The blurb telle me that Sarah Laverick sailed on the Aurora Australis four times as a Deputy Voyage Leader and Scientist and spent over 260 days at sea over five voyages in Antarctic waters.  Through Ice and Fire is her first book but she writes as if she were born to it.  Lucky people in Hobart can hear her talk about this book on September 6th at Fullers Bookshop.

There are full-colour photos as well as B&W images and reproductions throughout the book, a map of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, a plan of the ship, a glossary of terms and acronyms, a section on sources, a calendar of all the voyages and a comprehensive index.

PS A new era will begin in 2020 when Australia’s new icebreaker RSV Nuyina is launched.  Nuyina means ‘southern lights’ in palawa kani, the language of Tasmanian Aborigines.  See here. 

PPS For those reading the book, and puzzled by the description on p 122 of the lifeboats as windowless, claustrophobia-inducing craft, a search revealed that lifeboats for use in polar regions are nothing like the ones on cruise ships!   (The image is from

Author; Sarah Laverick
Title: Through Ice and Fire, the adventures, science and people behind Australia’s famous icebreaker, Aurora Australis
Publisher: Macmillan Australia, 2019, 344 pages
ISBN: 9781760554798
Review copy courtesy of Macmillan Australia

Available from Fishpond: Through Ice & Fire and good bookshops everywhere



  1. I’ve seen the Aurora Australis in port at Hobart a couple of times. A book I’ll enjoy reading.


    • Oh yes, I know you will:)


    • Fantastic story by Sarah. I came upon it through Richard Fidler’s interview with Sarah. It really mesmerised me. I have listened and relistened to this..


      • Yes, that’s how I heard about it too. I love it when that program is about books!


  2. This book is being launched here at Fullers book store the first week of September I believe. I will probably go if I’m free that evening. I only took a photo of it a couple of days ago while walking around the wharf area in Hobart. I have always loved this ship. Sounds like a book I’d love to own. I’d better get rid of a couple of books on my shelf to make room!


    • I would so love to be there!


      • Hop on a plane and come on down 🤠🐧. So close yet so far, lol.


        • Watch out for some kind of celebrations on the 18th, that’s the ships 30-year anniversary:)


  3. The one Antarctica novel I’ve read is Nikki Gemmell’s Shiver. I assume it includes the Aurora Australis, as the author visited Antarctica on it in 1995.


    • Don’t tell me you liked that one, I wish I’d never wasted my time on it.


      • I don’t remember now, maybe not. But I think I’ll make 2020 the year to catch up all the Gemmell’s I’ve not reviewed.


        • LOL that will be an interesting contrast with David Ireland!


  4. Haha I’ll be in Sydney that week.


  5. […] a woman in science: Through Ice and Fire (the story of the Antarctic icebreaker Aurora Australis) by Deputy Voyage Leader and scientist […]


  6. […] Through Ice and Fire, by Sarah Laverick […]


  7. […] Through Ice and Fire, by Sarah Laverick […]


  8. […] Through Ice and Fire, by Sarah Laverick […]


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