Celebrating Mawson’s Centenary Australasian Antarctic Expedition

By Howard Whelan

Skeins of spindrift dance over a smattering of huts nearly lost in a landscape of rocky outcrops and dark ice. From the deck of our ice-strengthened ship my fellow expeditioners and I strain to find the pale timbers of Mawson’s Hut through our telephoto lenses, anxious for our first glimpse of one of Antarctica’s most hallowed sites.

It’s not easy, for in February 1995 Cape Denison is home not only to the historical remains of Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) 1911-14, but also an Australian government field hut and Gadget Hut, a 3.6 x 2.4- metre freezer box that adventurers Don and Margie McIntyre hope will protect them for a year at Commonwealth Bay.

A band of sunlight sweeps down from the polar plateau brightening the scene. Up ahead, the strange, cupcake ice-tops of Mackellar Islets mark the entrance to Boat Harbour, a serene patch of blue. Penguins appear as dots against white patches of snow, reminding me of Mawson’s description of their early days ashore:

On those rare summer days the sun blazed down on the blue ice; skua gulls nestled in groups on the snow; sly penguins waddled along to inspect the building operations; seals basked in torpid slumber on the shore; out on the sapphire bay the milk-white bergs floated in the swell.

Already Mawson relished good weather. Within hours of landing, they had the first taste of what was to come:

The wind strengthened every minute, and showers of fine snow were soon whistling down the glacier. No time was lost in landing the cargo, and, with a rising blizzard at our backs, we drove out to meet the 'Aurora'. On reaching the ship a small gale was blowing and our boats were taken in tow.

Our own epiphany comes quickly. As we approach close enough to see the huts unaided, a slight riffle stirs the sea surface. Our bosun hurries to drop anchor as snow dervishes float down the polar plateau. Within minutes the wind speed increases from 10 knots to an uncomfortable 30, then to a shrill 50 and above. My companions and I race to the bridge and stand awestruck before the maelstrom. I radio Don and Margie McIntyre to say we’ve been snookered by the wind and will try to land again in a few days.

We turn west, following the course set by the AAE’s Captain John King Davis and Frank Wild as they left Mawson’s main base behind to find a site for the western base. On our left is a furious katabatic storm, on our right, whales blow in mirror-smooth waters.

Antarctica has power like no other continent. It generates weather, drives ocean currents and stirs up tales of adventure as much today as it did 100 years ago, when a 29-year-old geologist named Douglas Mawson departed Hobart on board Aurora, to lead what would become one of the most tragic, yet successful scientific expeditions to touch down in Antarctica.

The AAE was mostly scientists, many just out of university. While Amundsen and Scott battled it out for the geographic trophy – the South Pole – Mawson and his men began an enormous program of research.

This was Australia’s first large-scale scientific inquiry since federation. But Mawson and his team were driven by the desire to explore well, mapping some 6437 kilometres of Territory to lay the groundwork for Australia’s claim to more than 40 per cent of Antarctica.

From the main base at Cape Denison, Commonwealth Bay, AAE members experienced the brutal challenge of Antarctic science. Taking magnetic readings required three hours of exposure to minus-40 degree temperatures. Checking the meteorological screen was often a life-threatening struggle in gale-force blizzards. Dredging for samples in Boat Harbour was a tricky business in a 50-knot offshore blow. Yet enough data was collected by the expedition to publish 22 volumes of scientific papers, including reports about geography, cartography, oceanography defining the continental shelf of East Antarctica and the first geological studies of Macquarie Island, Adélie Land and Queen Mary Land.

Mawson’s biologists gathered thousands of specimens, including penguins, seals and a wide sampling of marine life from diatoms to ice-fish, crustaceans to krill. While sledging west of the base, Francis Bickerton, Alfred Hodgeman and Dr Leslie Whetter made the first discovery of a meteorite in Antarctica. For the first time, continuous meteorological records from three different bases helped explain the weather patterns affecting Australia and New Zealand.

During the spring and summer of 1912-13, sledges were loaded, huskies harnessed and five parties and one supporting party set out from the main base to examine the surrounding coastline and polar ice cap. Over three months Mawson and his men explored some 6437 kilometres of territory, including a push 485 km inland toward the South Magnetic Pole.

Yet for much of the general public the single memory of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition is not the science achieved or new lands discovered, but the tragedy of Mawson’s Far-Eastern Party. Mawson, Belgrave Ninnis and Xavier Mertz were more than 480 kilometres from Cape Denison when Ninnis was swallowed by a crevasse, along with the strongest dogs, all the dog food, most of the man food and the tent. Thus began one of the greatest epics of Antarctic survival, as Mertz and Mawson struggled back toward base. Over the next three weeks, both Mertz and Mawson suffered from Vitamin A poisoning after eating dogs’ livers, but Mertz died as a result. Only Mawson made it and the overwhelming tragedy and the strength of his spirit became the expedition’s headline story.

In time, Mawson joined the pantheon of Antarctic heroes alongside Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton. Books, documentaries and TV miniseries have dissected their lives. While thousands of people have made pilgrimages to the huts of Scott and Shackleton on Ross Island to ponder biscuit and Bovril tins and commune with ghosts of expeditions past, significantly fewer have visited Mawson’s Hut. Scott’s and Shackleton’s huts have relatively easy access from air-supported Scott Base (NZ) and McMurdo Station (USA), but anyone hoping to pay homage to Mawson faces a Southern Ocean voyage, a maze of pack ice, and weather that earned Commonwealth Bay, on Earth’s windiest coast, the nickname – Home of the Blizzard.

Like many a youngster, I was fascinated by the accounts of early explorers and mountaineers. While my schoolmates memorised statistics of sporting teams, I devoured Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna, Ernest Shackleton’s South, and anything by Bill Tilman or Eric Shipton. I came to Mawson’s Home of the Blizzard later, after I’d been on a few of my own expeditions, but before I first experienced Antarctica.

As founding editor of Australian Geographic, I was excited to include in our inaugural issue, released December 1985, Project Blizzard, Mawson’s Icy Legacy, a 25-page article by Jonathan Chester. Jonathan’s words and rich photography breathed life into Mawson’s epic, set it in an historical context and chronicled the efforts of those dedicated to the conservation of the AAE’s huts.

Eight years later I stepped ashore in Antarctica as a Zodiac driver and photography lecturer with Aurora Expeditions. We enjoyed animals curious but unafraid of us, admired stunning ranges of untrodden peaks and cruised amongst icebergs of fairytale shape and hue. As we sailed north, I wondered if I would ever see such beauty again and took solace in Mawson’s words:

Powerless, one was in the spell of an all-enfolding wonder. The vast, solitary snow-land, cold-white under the sparkling star-gems; lustrous in the rays of the southern lights; furrowed beneath the sweep of the wind. We had come to probe its mystery, we had hoped to reduce it to terms of science, but there was always the “indefinable” which held aloof, yet riveted our souls.

This summer, make your own Mawson pilgrimage with Aurora Expeditions as it celebrates the 100-year anniversary of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition with three, 26-day voyages on board the ice-strengthened vessel. Prices start from US$15,100 per person.

Voyage 1 (2-27 December 2011) departs Hobart, Tasmania. Voyage 2 (28 December 2011 – 22 January 2012) departs Bluff, New Zealand. Voyage 3 (23 January – 17 February ) departs Hobart and returns to Hobart.

All voyages attempt landings on subantarctic Macquarie Island, where Mawson set up a base to relay the first radio messages from Antarctica. Its now home to some three million endemic royal penguins, hundreds of thousands king penguins and dozens of nesting albatross. New Zealand’s Auckland and Campbell islands are a birdwatchers paradise, with rare yellow-eyed penguins, red-crowned parakeets and the endemic flightless teal.

Historians on board enliven the ocean passages with entertaining talks and naturalists explain the natural forces at play and introduce the wildlife at sea and along the pack ice edge.

All voyages are scheduled to sail west beyond Dumont d’Urville, perhaps reaching the Dibble Ice Tongue. Best of all, the itineraries are flexible enough to allow several attempts to land at Commonwealth Bay, giving you the best chance possible to step back into the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration.

These trips are the essence of adventure. For more information and to order a free brochure call Aurora Expeditions on +61 2 9252 1033 or 1800 637 688 (freecall within Australia) or visit http://www.auroraexpeditions.com.au

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Quotes from The Home of the Blizzard: The Story of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, 1911-1914. Sir Douglas Mawson, Wakefield Press, Kent Town, SA, 1996.

This article was published in the June edition of the Royal Australian History Society magazine History.