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Postage stamps are lessons in history, politics, science, or geography packed onto a small piece of gummed paper. They’re also beautiful works of art. In Stamped we’re going coastal, with postal.
From a helicopter, Sir Edmund Hillary peered down at Pram Point, a protrusion of land on Antarctica’s Ross Island. After several grueling days spent surveying New Zealand’s Antarctic territory (known as the Ross Dependency), Hillary knew he’d found a place to establish Scott Base. Within a few days, he and his men were busy leveling the ground and laying bases for huts. But before the first hut was built, they opened a post office from a tent.
It was January 1957, and Hillary, who had rocketed to fame a few years earlier as one of the first two men to summit Mount Everest, was leading New Zealand’s arm of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Hillary’s role was modest: he was to establish a base and drop food and fuel along the route for British explorer Vivian Fuchs, who went on to successfully complete the first overland crossing of Antarctica via the South Pole. The expedition supported a series of global scientific research projects, but the public’s enthusiasm was for the adventure and, apparently, the stamps.
New Zealand Post had issued a new collection of stamps to be used by members of the expedition, including one that crammed New Zealand and the Ross Dependency—twice New Zealand’s size—into one frame. Opening a post office and issuing stamps was a political move expeditioners had been using since the early 1900s. Along with sticking a flag in the ground and declaring annexation, it asserted a country’s claim to land. The Scott Base post office served to remind the world that this slice of ice belonged to New Zealand.
Hillary had been appointed postmaster, but he didn’t spend much time with the mail—he was too busy organizing the mission and flying around to drop off supplies for Fuchs. Meanwhile, the demand to send mail was so high that assistant postmaster Arthur Helm moved the post office from the tent into a more spacious aircraft crate until its permanent home in one of the huts was built. Helm postmarked pre-stamped souvenir envelopes purchased by Kiwis along with mail from expeditioners before loading it onto vessels to be shipped to New Zealand and onward.
After spending winter at the base, Hillary began his journey south, dropping supplies along the route. He finished setting up the final depot, and despite telegrams telling him to stay put, decided on another plan. “I continued as though the exchange of messages had never occurred,” he wrote in his autobiography, Nothing Venture, Nothing Win. “It was becoming clear to me that a supporting role was not my particular strength.”
Hillary and four others made a dash for the South Pole in tractors, battling wind-eroded snow ridges. With barely any fuel left, they reached the pole ahead of Fuchs in the first-ever journey by motor vehicle. Though Hillary wasn’t the first person to reach the pole, he was the first to do so by land in over 40 years, further cementing his status as a hero at home.
After the conclusion of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, Scott Base remained a New Zealand Antarctic research facility, and continues to operate today. In 1987, the post office shuttered, taking the stamps with it. That didn’t last long though: people demanded Ross Dependency stamps, and another set was issued in 1994.
Plagued with asbestos and leaks, the hut that housed the post office has fallen on hard times, but a group of determined Antarctic lovers (including Hillary’s son, Peter Hillary) are trying to save it. Earlier this year, they drove tractors from Auckland to Aoraki/Mount Cook—the same distance as Hillary’s trip to the pole—fundraising for the restoration effort along the way. Their “give a fiver to the driver” campaign, inspired by Hillary’s picture on the bill, helped get them close to their NZ $1-million goal.