Centenary of Mawson’s 1911 Antarctic Expedition – Part 1 The Hobart Departure

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Steam yacht ‘Aurora’ leaving Hobart Image:Source unknown

Saturday, December 2, arrived and then began final leave-taking. “God speed” messages were received from far and wide, and intercessory services were held in the cathedrals of Sydney and Hobart… All the staff were united for the space of an hour at luncheon. Then proceeding to the vessel, I had to push my way through the vast crowd assembled at the wharf to give us a parting cheer. At 4 p.m. sharp, the telegraph was rung for the engines, and, with a final expression of good wishes from the Governor and Lady Barron, we glided out into the channel.”- Sir Douglas Mawson “The Home of the Blizzard”

Working on asledge harness on the 'Aurora'. Image: Courtesy State Library of NSW

Working on a sledge harness on the ‘Aurora’. Image: Courtesy State Library of NSW

It’s 100 years today since Dr Douglas Mawson, Australia’s most famous Antarctic explorer and scientist, left Hobart, Tasmania, aboard the steam yacht Aurora bound for Antarctica on the 1911-1914 Australian Antarctic Expedition (AAE).

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H8144, sledge used on the Mawson expedition. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

For years one of my most favourite Museum objects has sat quietly in the our basement store, only seen by a small number of privileged visitors on Basement Tours – one of Mawson’s principal sledges from this expedition even stencilled with his name “Mawson – Adelaide”. (We have three in all!).

Can you imagine what this sledge would have seen if it could speak to us? On 2 December 1911 it was one of the 20 Norwegian-made sledges lashed to the ship’s chart-house, an extension of the bridge, and on the poop deck of the ship crowded with supplies. Mawson had ordered the sledges earlier in the year from L. Hagen & Co. of Christiania (Oslo) a sporting goods manufacturer of skis, ice-skates and rifles, who also supplied various British and Norwegian Antarctic expeditions. It was made of hickory and American ash. A further 17 sledges were made in Sydney but that’s another story for the next post.

This expedition was undertaken during the pioneering years of Australia’s involvement in Antarctica when Mawson’s team undertook mapping and magnetic observations, collected geological specimens and undertook weather notes. Teams of three men with three sledges would go out for weeks fanning out for a distance of up to 300 km from the hut at Cape Denison.

Each of the sledging parties had similar equipment loaded onto the three sledges. The equipment list for these makes fascinating reading today: a Willesden-drill tent; three one-man reindeer-fur sleeping bags; cooking equipment including mugs, spoons, scales, matches and fuel; a repair outfit with spare copper wire, needles and thread to repair the harnesses, tents and clothes; a medical kit with bandages, ophthalmic drugs for treating snow blindness, scissors, forceps, scalpel and surgical needles; photographic equipment with a quarter-plate camera; and surveying equipment including a 3-inch transit theodolite, logarithmic tables, note books, maps, dividers, set squares, prismatic compass and clinometer. Other equipment taken included: binoculars, a hypsometer (for determining altitude), thermometers and specimen labels; “sporting” equipment including a 22-gauge rifle, ammunition, knife, sharpening stone and fishing line; a waterproof clothes bag, reindeer skin boots (finnesko) stuffed with moisture-absorbent sennaegrass (a dry grass from Lappland) and spare clothing; a pick, spades, skis and boots, crampons, harnesses for men and tow ropes. To set up depots they carried a depot flag and bamboo pole, stays, and damp-proof tins to deposit records at depots. A total of six one-gallon (4.55 litre) tins of kerosene fuel, nine weeks’ supply of food for the men, and dried seal meat, blubber and pemmican for the dogs, were also packed. The total weight of the three laden sledges was 1,723 pounds (781 kg).

But the scientific importance of Mawson’s 1911-1914 AAE expedition has been overshadowed by an amazing trek undertaken by Mawson himself. On 10 November 1913 Mawson, accompanied by Dr Xavier Mertz and Lieutenant B. (Belgrave) E.S. Ninnis, left the base at Cape Denison, taking three sledges and sixteen dogs. After thirty-four days of hard travelling they reached a point 315 miles (507 km) inland from the base before heading back. Tragically Ninnis died when he and his sledge, which was carrying most of the food, fell into a deep crevasse. On the long journey back the two men ate the dogs and Mertz died from cold and exhaustion. Mawson struggled on alone, persistently taking his meteorological readings and cutting his sledge in half to reduce its weight. He arrived back at the hut only hours after his ship had left to return to Australia. Mawson remained in Antarctica with the wintering party and returned home in 1914.

Mawson's cut down sledge used on his epic journey. Image:Courtesy National Library of Australia

Mawson’s cut down sledge used on his epic journey. Image:Courtesy National Library of Australia

The AAE expedition is now remembered more for this trek, in which Mawson made a remarkable and unsurpassed solo sledging journey of about 100 miles (161 km), than for its scientific achievements.

If you’d like to see Mawson’s sledge it’s now on display at the Powerhouse Museum’s Discovery Centre at Castle Hill.

Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator