Lady June Hillary opens up in first interview since Sir Ed's death

Lady June Hillary
Lady June Hillary

In a rare interview, Lady June Hillary has revealed she believes the bodies of the Mt Erebus crash victims should've been left in Antarctica.

"I think that they should’ve all just been left down there really. They’d have been happy. Peter would have been anyway."

Peter Mulgrew, Lady June's first husband, was a renowned Antarctic explorer who had taken Sir Edmund Hillary's spot on the doomed flight in November 1979.

"Ed was due to go down and couldn’t because he was travelling a lot in those days," she says.

"He asked Peter to fill in for him and he did, and that was it really. Peter was thrilled to go."

The sightseeing flight crashed into the lower slopes of Mt Erebus, killing all 257 people on board.

In the aftermath of the disaster, the ad hoc arrangement between the Sir Ed and Mr Mulgrew caused some confusion.

"I had to work on proving that Peter was on the plane to be quite honest. It was pretty, you know, 'Oh it’s ok, I’m going instead of Ed' sort of thing, and so he wasn’t a passenger and he wasn’t staff," says Lady June.

She says she was well aware of the pull of Antarctica for the radio mechanic before they were even married.

"He said to me, believe it or not, when he actually proposed to me, he said 'There's just one thing, that if I get a chance to go to the Antarctic, I have to go'. And I thought fat chance of that ever happening. And in four years he was down there."

Mr Mulgrew was part of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition (TAE) as Sir Edmund Hillary's radio operator, and Lady June has lasting memories of their departure on the HMNZS Endeavour 60 years ago.

"It is a long time ago but I remember it very well," she says.

"The Endeavour was not a very big boat and we could see all the guys on the boat in a row. They didn't actually look all that happy either and we were a bit miserable. And the band was playing 'Now Is The Hour'.

"The boat pulled out and the band played and we waved, and all of a sudden it came back again, it just simply came up against the jetty again. It was the most peculiar feeling. And it was almost hilarious really because it was as if they weren't going to go, they didn't want to go or something," she recalls.

Lady June says that while she didn't like being left for a couple of years, she wasn't concerned about the dangers the explorers were facing.

"I had huge faith that they knew what they were doing.

"I just had absolute implicit faith, and I was very young of course. Because it always happened to somebody else anyway, didn't it."

Antarctica was one of Mr Mulgrew's great loves, and in 1956 he was as eager to reach the South Pole as Sir Ed.

They sailed through the Ross Sea to McMurdo Sound, where they built the TAE hut at what is now Scott Base.

It was New Zealand's first permanent foothold on the southernmost continent and their home for the long, dark winter months.

Sire Ed's team was to scout a route for Sir Vivian Fuchs - the British explorer leading a team crossing the entire continent.

In October 1957, on three Ferguson tractors, the Kiwis set out to lay supplies for the British explorers who would later use their path.

They battled through freezing and harsh conditions.

"I know that Peter found the seat of the Fergy extremely uncomfortable," says Lady June.

"I think the discomfort must have been incredible really but they didn’t complain about it, it was all part of the deal. They knew what they were going to do and they just did it."

There were some close calls for the team.

"I know that at one stage Peter was on the top of his tractor repairing something, right out in the wilderness, and he was blown off the top of his tractor and broke some ribs. The small plane that was down there came and got him and took him back to Scott Base, then he went back out again. There was no way he was going to give that up, halfway there."

Amid criticism he was trying to steal Sir Vivian's thunder, Sir Ed decided to push on for the pole - and arrived two weeks ahead of the British team.

Much has been made of this, but Lady June says the men weren't competing.

"It certainly wasn't a race. There was never a question about that, but the idea of them sitting in a spot for two weeks, away from the pole, very, very short of fuel was an impossible thought. Why would they?"

Sir Ed and his team were the first to reach the South Pole overland since the great explorers, and the first to do so with vehicles.

During the trip, Mr Mulgrew and Sir Ed formed a deep and lasting friendship.

"I think they had a very good time together. I think Peter actually made Ed laugh, which was probably quite an achievement," laughs Lady June.

Sir Ed was devastated to lose his good friend in the Erebus disaster.

"He was in America at the time," recalls Lady June. "He rang me that night and he was absolutely horrified."

"I don’t ever think of it in any other way than just an awful tragedy," she says.

The crash didn't change her view of Antarctica, and she's travelled there three times herself.

"I’m blown away by it. And every time I see film of it, it reminds me of how massive it is and how things are changing."

Over the decades, Lady June has developed a deep love for the continent and she hopes it will be protected for future generations.

"I just want the best for it. It’s so awe-inspiring and so huge and dangerous - frightfully dangerous. I just hope that it survives, that’s all."

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