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Taking it to the edge: South Australia's polar pioneers: Mawson

With Shackleton

Ernest Shackleton led an expedition to the Antarctic in 1907: he pioneered a route up from the Ross Ice-shelf to the polar plateau and reached within 97 kilometres of the South Pole; he wisely made the decision to turn back as his supplies were running out. Douglas Mawson was a member of this expedition and with several others he made the first ascent of Mt Erebus, the active volcano that towered above the camp on Ross Island. This remarkable climb was heightened in its intensity as Erebus erupted above them, shooting steam and other gasses thousands of feet into the air. The summit was reached, photographs and measurements taken and specimens collected.

Later with Edgeworth David and Alistair McKay, Mawson attained the region of the South Magnetic Pole. It was a gruelling journey of man-hauled sledges over a completely unknown region: 2028 kilometres over the sea ice, up the Drygalski Ice Barrier and the Larson Glacier to the polar plateau at over 7000 feet. At the time of the expedition the party believed that they had reached within 15 miles of the Magnetic Pole - close enough to claim that they had reached the area of oscillation. Later examination of their calculations would show that they had not.

Australasian Antarctic Expedition

Back in Australia Mawson began planning an expedition of his own - to be a truly scientific expedition and to operate from a different part of Antarctica. His plan was for a three base expedition covering an area from Cape Adare in the east to the Gaussberg in the west 2000 miles of coast. In addition to the planned scientific work, the commercial resources of the continent would be investigated ranging from guano deposits to whales to minerals.

The Australasian Antarctic Expedition sailed from Hobart on 2 December 1911, deeply in debt and with the ship Aurora deeply overloaded. A small base was established on Macquarie Island 850 miles south of Tasmania - this was part of Mawson's radio relay from the Antarctic to Australia, one of the innovations he introduced to Antarctic exploration. By early January 1912 Aurora was cruising west along the Antarctic ice looking for a suitable landing place for the main base. Finally a site was chosen at what would be named Cape Denison in Commonwealth Bay. Landing of equipment began and continued for 10 days: they were yet to learn that they had landed at the windiest place on earth - the home of the blizzard. The Aurora continued west carrying the Western Base party, led by Frank Wild, an Antarctic veteran. His base was established on the Shackleton Ice Shelf.

At Cape Denison a hut was built, and meteorological and magnetic observations were begun by Cecil Madigan, another South Australian and by Eric Webb of New Zealand. Blizzard conditions prevented them from doing much of the planned work. Even simple daily tasks of instrument reading became hazardous. In September the first wireless messages from Antarctica were transmitted and received at the Macquarie Island base. Return messages failed to be heard above the gales and static. The plans for the summer sledging programme included a southern party which would attempt to reach the South Magnetic Pole; the near eastern party to explore the adjacent coast; the eastern coastal party; and the far eastern party led by Mawson himself with Xavier Mertz and Belgrave Ninnis and a western party.

'The explanation appeared to be that Ninnis had walked by the side of his sledge, whereas I had crossed it sitting on the sledge. The whole weight of a man's body bearing on his foot is a formidable load and no doubt was sufficient to smash the arch of the roof.'
Mawson, Douglas, Sir, Home of the Blizzard London: Heinemann; 1915 page 240

The events of the far eastern party overshadowed the results of the other parties. This is the party from which Mawson was the lone survivor. Briefly, 311 miles from the base on 14 December 1912, Ninnis and the sledge loaded with their tent, practically all of their food and the better of the two dog teams disappeared down a crevasse when the snow lid collapsed. For 4 hours they called and sounded the depths below: no response came. They calculated that by eating the dogs they could just manage to reach the base. The first night of the return was a wild dash away from the disaster. No depots had been laid on the outward route, so they were free to choose their route.  They improvised eating utensils; the first and weakest of the dogs was killed and became food for the men and the other dogs. Provided they could maintain good daily distances (though they travelled at night when the surface was harder) they would make it. To be held up by a blizzard would be disastrous.


'…, I shall spend today remodelling the gear to make an attempt [to reach the Hut]. I shall do my utmost to the last for Paquita's & supporters' & members of expedition's sakes, and at least get word through how matters stand.'
Mawson's Antarctic diaries edited by Fred Jacka & Eleanor Jacka Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1988 page 158

By the beginning of January 1913 Xavier Mertz was failing fast; he died on the 8th - Mawson was now alone, and still a hundred miles from the base and safety. He reduced his outfit as best he could, cutting his sledge in half with a saw attachment on his pocket knife. Strong winds that first day made it impossible to travel - he used the time to ready himself, by eating well, by preparing the dog meat.  As he travelled steadily on, the soles of his feet became detached. Stoically he salved them with lanolin and bound them with bandages. His skin was beginning to slough - he stripped and basked in the brilliant sunshine confident it would have some restorative effect.

He made ground slowly but steadily forward. Disaster struck again when he fell down a crevasse and twisted at the end of his sledge rope. He resisted the temptation to slip out of his harness then & there to plummet into the depths - slowly agonisingly with frost bitten hands he dragged himself up and out of the crevasse. His daily mileage increased despite being tent-bound twice.  His hair was falling out in chunks now, he had 2 pounds of food left, but a large rocky outcrop which was only 20 miles from the base was now in sight. The next day he found a bag of food and a note left by a search party, which had departed that same morning. It gave directions and distances to further food bags. Three days later he reached a cave dug into the ice above their base hut. Here he was blizzard-bound for a week. This was the beginning of a long period of recuperation. When he reached the base he learned the ship had left only a few hours before to collect the men from the Western Base. It was recalled, but was unable to put a boat ashore.  Mawson and the small party left behind to search for him would remain at Cape Denison for another year.

Undaunted, Mawson later returned to Antarctica. The achievements of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition were overshadowed by the outbreak of World War I: however an historian of Antarctic exploration rated the expedition as the 'greatest and most consummate...that ever sailed for Antarctica.'  It pioneered the use of wireless (including wireless time signals to establish longitude) and as well as land-based scientific studies, oceanographical studies were undertaken aboard Aurora on her voyages to and from the Antarctic. It would take until 1947 to publish all of the scientific reports of the expedition

BANZARE and beyond

Mawson was appointed Professor of Geology and Mineralogy at the University of Adelaide in 1921.  Besides his university work Mawson now had influence with the Australian government, and with this he began to agitate for Australia to claim the Antarctic quadrant to its south, in part to protect its fauna from unregulated harvesting in part to be ready to lay claim to any mineral finds. He was instrumental in establishing Macquarie Island as a wildlife sanctuary.

By 1927 the Australian government was ready to consider a claim on Antarctic territory - the Australian National Research Council established an Antarctic Committee which included Mawson. In 1929 the British Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE) was formed with Mawson as commander and JK Davis, his former captain, as master of Discovery, Scott's own ship and lent by the British government. Landings to claim territory for Australia were planned, but made difficult by pack-ice preventing access to the continental land.

The Norwegians were also actively engaged in the area whaling but also making territorial claims.  The Australian government sent BANZARE south again for a second summer. Important oceanographical work was done again, and this time Discovery was able to land a party at Commonwealth Bay - Mawson claimed possession of King George V Land, between 142° and 160°E. Coastal charting was done; the expedition's plane enabled valuable sightings of land including Banzare Land, but pack conditions prevented close examination of this and other coastal stretches. Other proclamations of territoriality were made. In 1933 the Australian Antarctic Acceptance Act was enacted, becoming law in 1936. This established the Australian Antarctic Territory from 45°E around to 160°E with a narrow slice of French territory excepted. Another outcome of BANZARE's oceanographical programme was the demonstration of an undersea land-platform which clearly indicated that Antarctica was a continent rather than composed of a series of islands.

Following World War II, Mawson was instrumental in the establishment of the Australian National Antarctic research Expedition (ANARE). Mawson retired from the Executive Planning Committee of ANARE in 1958. He suffered a stroke 12 October 1958 and died 2 days later. A state funeral was held at St Jude's Church at Brighton and he was buried in its graveyard.

Mawson Base in the Antarctic is named in his honour.

Reading list:

Mawson, Douglas, The home of the blizzard: the story of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, 1911-1914 Kent Town, S. Aust.: Wakefield Press, 1996

Mawson, Douglas, Sir, Mawson's Antarctic diaries edited by Fred Jacka & Eleanor Jacka Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1988

Ayres, Philip J Mawson: a life Carlton South, Vic.  Miegunyah Press: Melbourne University Press, 1999

Law, P. G. Anare: Australia's Antarctic outposts Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1957


Home of the Blizzard: The Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) 1911-1914

Antarctic aeroplane: a sensational accident
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Antarctic Expedition: Welcome home to Mr. Mawson
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Back from Antarctic ice : Return of the Mawson expediti
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BANZARE members at work
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Biologists dredging through the ice
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Getting to know the Antarctic: Discovery's trip
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Madigan leaning on the wind
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Mawson a great polar explorer
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Mawson, great explorer, dies at 76
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Mawson's far eastern party speeds east
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Mawson's return: the second BANZARE voyage
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The near eastern survey party of the Australasian Antar
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