Icebergs & Emperors - Inside Mawson’s Hut

Sorting through some old files on what was my first day working at Aurora Expeditions, I came across a picture that stopped me in my tracks. It was a glossy black and white portrait of a bearded young man looking directly at the camera. He was wearing a woollen jumper and smoking a curvy wooden pipe through thin, cracked lips. But it was the look in his eyes that put the hook in me. Shining out from his dark weathered face, his eyes expressed a serene happiness, but above all, a look of utter contentment that had me wanting to know more.

I asked around the office and no one knew who he was, but we guessed that the photo was a reproduction of one of Frank Hurley’s prints and surmised that the stranger must have been an expeditioner on one of the numerous Antarctic trips the famous Australian photographer was part of. I stuck the photo on the wall above my desk and every so often would contemplate it and using the old adage ‘the eyes are the windows to the soul’, would try unsuccessfully to understand what he was thinking. Still, the questions remained. Who was this man? What had he been through? Just what was it that had caused his face to form such a picture of contentment?

Six months later I found out who he was. I was standing in the library of Aurora’s new ship Marina Svetaeva, thumbing through a few books on Antarctic explorers, when I came across him. The previous day, Svetaeva had left Hobart on her maiden voyage to Antarctica and we were now well out into the Southern Ocean proper. I sat down with the book to study the photo, excited to finally put a name to the face. He was among a group of about 12 expeditioners standing on the deck of the ship Aurora. Yes, there he was, his familiar face staring back at me with that same contented look. His name was Robert Bage and around him stood Douglas Mawson, Frank Hurley and other members of the 1911-1914 Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE).

It just so happened I was at sea with plenty of time on my hands, on a ship full of Antarctic books and heading to the very place where Bage lived for nigh on two years. I was in the perfect position to find out more about him and satisfy my growing curiosity. And find out more I did. The twenty-three year old Bage had the lofty title of Astronomer, Assistant Magnetician and Recorder of Tides. He was leader of the Magnetic Pole sledging party, where he endured everything from snow blindness to near starvation. On a personal note, he was famous for his beloved Calabash pipe (the same one in the picture I had of him in the office) and Hurley describes him as an ‘ardent motorcyclist’.

Bage was also mentioned on a few occasions during the lectures given by our on board historian, Syd Kirkby. Gradually I was beginning to build a picture of what this man was like and being only a day’s sail from Commonwealth Bay, I was ready to find out more.

We awoke the morning during our approach to the continent full of anticipation. The ship was alive with energy – so many of us had dreamt of this moment for years and today was the day we would finally set foot on Antarctica. And what better place to do it than Commonwealth Bay, where so much history had been made before us. A large pod of Orcas surfaced from the still waters near the ship and shortly after, the immense ice cap came into view through the mist. From the bow and the bridge our expeditioners watched the roofline of Mawson's Huts emerge among the rocky outcrops and so too the memorial cross dedicated to Mawson's fallen comrades, Ninnis and Mertz. Bage had arrived here in similarly calm conditions and the irony was not lost on me that this rare event had caused Mawson to choose Commonwealth Bay as his base at what turned out to be the windiest spot on Earth. Thankfully, the legendary katabatic winds were not blowing and the decision was made to jump into the Zodiacs and head for shore.

The landscape that greeted us was astounding. The ice cliffs stretched out east to west as far as the eye could see, with the main hut situated in a break in the ice between a series of rocky ridges and valleys. Due south and directly behind the hut was the gentle slope of the ice cap, heading down from the mist like a monstrous frozen wave. Amid the vast magnificence were basking Weddell seals and a plethora of Adelie penguins, some sliding right up to us on their bellies for a closer look.

We walked up to the main Hut in absolute awe, astonished at how this simple wooden structure could still be standing after ninety years of extreme weather. What I wasn’t prepared for was the beauty of the building itself. In stark contrast to the azure-blue sky overhead and the brilliant white of the snow below, the blonde wood of the hut positively glowed. Upon closer inspection we noticed the nails protruding an inch or so above the wood, which was itself shaved into intricate grooves. The one thing that dominated the lives of the men who had lived here – wind, had caused both of these peculiar characteristics.

We spent hours in the vicinity of the huts, taking it all in at a relaxed pace. I spent some time crouching down around the boulders next to the hut where all sorts of artefacts from the AAE were scattered. I found lots of interesting things including a couple of pairs of reindeer-skin boots, test tubes, belt buckles and the remains of a box with the word ‘Cocoa’ stenciled on it. What Mawson referred to as the “rubbish” outside was absolute gold to me. It really helped bring to life what we were seeing and I wondered if any of what I was admiring had belonged to Robert Bage.

Just 30 metres from the main hut, the Transit Hut was where Bage had spent much of his time working. I ambled over to the tiny little structure and nailed to its frame I could see the external timbers that had been salvaged from packing crates. Bage spent many hours in the hut taking star sights to determine Cape Denison’s exact longitude. I pictured him, taking readings by theodolite among the howling winds and thought he’d probably enjoy a hot cocoa or two after a hard days work.

It was time my explorations ventured further a field, so I climbed up the slope of the ice cap behind the hut and gradually ascended into the mist. I sat down alone on the ice and it was a humbling experience. My senses strained in the surroundings – it was completely silent and all I could see about me were my footprints and a white wall of snow and fog. I was sitting at the starting point for the exploratory sledging journeys undertaken by Mawson and his men. Even so close to the hut, I began to understand what it must have been like for them in the vast emptiness. Although it had a brutal starkness about it, the sheer size and immensity of the ice cap led you to quiet contemplation and without consciously being aware of it, your mind clears and you begin to ponder your own place in the scheme of things. It was an extraordinary feeling that challenged the very notion of normality. Never before had nature made me feel so insignificant - Antarctica had put me in my place and I loved it!

Bage had spent much time up on the ice cap learning about himself. At one stage, leading his small group back from the vicinity of the Magnetic Pole, Bage was 100km from the nearest supply depot and had only 6 lumps of sugar and 9 raisins left for food between the three of them. As our historian Syd had mentioned in one of his lectures, when it gets to the stage that you are counting raisins you know you are in serious trouble!

Walking back down to the hut in the solemn silence, I began to think of Mawson stumbling down this very slope toward the hut after his horrific ordeal. Following the death of Ninnis, he had trekked 480km back to Commonwealth Bay, the last 160km alone after Mertz died of starvation. Bage and a few others spied a figure walking toward the hut and they raced up the ice cap as fast as they could. Long since left for dead, they could not believe that one of there comrades was still alive. Upon reaching Mawson, they were horrified to find that they could not identify who he was and had to ask, “Which one are you?” If ever there was a moment Bage came to understand the unrelenting power of Antarctica over man, then surely this would have been it.

A week later, after a series of unforgettable adventures along the Antarctic coastline, we found ourselves back at Commonwealth Bay preparing for a very special experience. During our first landing, a team of heritage carpenters had been left at Mawson’s Hut to complete some restoration work and it was our job to attempt to pick them up again on our return. If the weather played its part, we would also have the chance to be led inside the hut itself by the carpenters – a rare treat that had us bursting with excitement.

Yet we had been in Antarctica long enough to know that the weather was not always going to let us do what we wanted. We had a very hard time containing our fervour as 40-knot winds drove down the ice cap behind the Huts. Up on the bridge we watched the plumes of spindrift rising around us and consoled each other as the prospect of landing faded after hour upon hour of patiently waiting for the wind to drop. We spoke of our naivety believing that it was possible to land on both attempts at the world’s windiest place, about how it didn’t matter that we wouldn’t see inside the hut, as we were lucky enough to had seen it the first time. But this was just a front. Deep down we all wanted more than anything to see inside the hut and obtain that final connection with the men of the AAE.

Just as we had lost all hope, by some miracle of nature, the wind suddenly died and we found ourselves in the Zodiacs at 7:30pm speeding toward the Huts. It was incredible to watch the absolute reverence that everyone treated this experience with. We had been told that morning that less than 200 people had ever set foot inside the main hut and it was as if everything we had seen on the trip so far and everything that we had learned had been in preparation for this one moment.

It truly was a remarkable experience. Like worshippers in a shrine, we bowed our heads to enter the tiny front entrance and came up into the small workshop and on into the main building. The torches of the carpenters reflected the glittering ice crystals that had formed on the ceiling and walls and as our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we could make out different objects and shapes in the room. It was the size of the room that first gets your attention and I immediately thought of a quote I had read a few days earlier from the AAE’s biologist, Charles Laseron. “If the desire had come to swing the proverbial cat, it would have been hard on the cat.” For eighteen men it was a very small space indeed.

We could see the bunks lining the walls, poked our heads into Hurley’s tiny dark room and around a corner to look at Mawson’s private cabin. Whispering to each other in the silence as we discovered new treasures, it was the little things that grabbed my attention. Lying on a desk I saw a copy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’, a book I had read only a year before on my own travels. Each of the bunks was initialled, and when looking out for Bage’s I came across the ‘XM’ of Xavier Mertz’s bunk. Ironically it was one of the few still cased in ice, mirroring the fate of Mertz himself. Even now, almost a century later, you could feel the cosiness that the AAE expeditioners referred to constantly in their diaries and I thought how fantastic it would have been to come back into this warm room after a long sledge journey or even just a quick trip outside.

It was after midnight by the time I returned to the ship. I was on the last Zodiac and with the sun still shining low in the sky, Commonwealth Bay turned every shade of pink and purple you could imagine. Not wanting to break the magical silence, no one spoke to each other and I could sense everyone was deep in thought, trying to digest what they had just seen. Looking around at the faces opposite, something suddenly hit me. I could see in their eyes that same happiness, that same contentment that I had seen in Bage’s eyes the very first time I came across his photo. I have no doubt had I looked in a mirror at that moment, I would have had the same serene and joyous look on my face.

As we cruised back through the blazing sky I thought long and hard about what we had experienced at this historic place. Yes, the hut was amazing; but it was the whole package that comes with it that blows your mind. You are at one of the most remote places on Earth. There are no roads leading to the hut, no planes flying overhead, nor people selling tickets to enter. The hut is in that spellbinding location, as it always has been, sitting there proudly defying the odds on this little toehold of a big continent. When visiting the hut you are not observing history from afar, it grabs you by the scruff of the neck and confronts you head-on. Witnessing the same excesses of nature as those who built the hut, you walk around without the need to prompt yourself to imagine the ins and outs of life for the men of the AAE – a picture just seems to form in your mind automatically.

Perhaps Sir Douglas Mawson, in a letter to his fiancée Paquita, best describes what I was seeing in Bage’s eyes: “What an exultation is ours – the feeling is magical – young men whom you would scarce expect would be affected…literally dance from sheer exultation – the quickening of the pulse, the awakening of the mind, the tension of every fibre – and this is joy.”

Until I had been to Antarctica, I always thought living through so much adversity must have left the early explorers as bitter men. Robert Bage lived for two years at Commonwealth Bay and went through much hardship, deprivation and pain during his time there. Yet his eyes betray the dominant emotions that shaped his experiences in Antarctica. Bage, as I after him, would have felt privileged to have had nature touch his soul. He would have felt totally alive.

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