Treasures podcast ep 8: Life in the freezer
The icy expanses of Antarctica were an unforgiving frontier for early explorers. Among them was Sir Douglas Mawson, who faced frostbite, exposure and exhaustion in his journeys across the frozen continent. He passed some of his time writing love letters to his wife back home. But how did he stumble on a meteorite in all that ice and snow?
Charles Wooley: Hello, I'm Charles Wooley.
Kim McKay: And I'm Kim McKay, director and CEO of the Australian Museum. We are the nation's first museum and we house the treasures of our nation and the region. We're going to discover some of those today in the newly restored Westpac Long Gallery.
Charles Wooley: So join us in exploring the iconic, astounding and curious objects that have helped shape Australia and the world as we uncover the hidden stories of 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum.
Kim, I've been to the Antarctic, have you?
Kim McKay: I have Charlie, I have very fortunately visited Commonwealth Bay, the home of Mawson's huts. The windiest place on Earth they say.
Charles Wooley: I've never seen the hut. I've been to one of our Antarctic bases and had a great time. It's a fabulous place, isn't it. To walk away by yourself on the snow until you can't see any people or anything and be alone in the loneliest place in the world gives you the feeling that Mawson must've had.
Kim McKay: I liken it to being on another planet, as close an understanding to that as you could get. Antarctica is magical, but it really gives you that sense of a different world.
Charles Wooley: And as we know from looking at the display of Mawson and his equipment, we know that in fact it was almost more dangerous than another planet. I think Mars will be easier to colonise than Mawson and his friends surviving on the ice.
Kim McKay: Well certainly in the early 1900s during this incredible age of exploration in Antarctica, Mawson's equipment, compared to that which we might go to Mars with today, would have been on the same level in terms of technology. So the challenges that our early explorers in that golden age of exploration faced in Antarctica were certainly probably similar to the challenges that we face in space exploration.
Charles Wooley: I'm looking at Mawson's sledge and it's a fairly…I suppose it's robust, it's plenty of steel and rope and welds holding it together. But it's pretty basic, isn't it.
Kim McKay: It is.
Charles Wooley: It's not a moon-mobile is it.
Kim McKay: No, but it was effective. These sledges of course carried their entire supplies and had to move over a lot of crevasses in the ice and had to be sturdy, and they worked. So in fact Mawson had over 30 of these, I think something like 36 on that original expedition. And he was a very good fundraiser. He was one of the first explorers to understand sponsorship, just like Sir Ernest Shackleton had.
Charles Wooley: What's the name of this gallery?
Kim McKay: The 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum in the Westpac Long Gallery.
Charles Wooley: In the Westpac Long Gallery. You learned a lesson from Mawson.
Kim McKay: I did take a leaf out of Mawson's book, I can tell you. And the interesting thing about this is Mawson would go to each of the state governments and say, 'Give me £10,000 towards my expedition, and in return when I come back I'll give you a sledge or I'll give you an ice pick or other equipment so that you can keep it in your museums,' and that's exactly how the Australian Museum came to hold some of the Mawson collection.
Charles Wooley: I know the sledge worked well, but when it didn't work well, when it went down a crevasse it was a different story, wasn't it.
Kim McKay: It was indeed, and of course the famous story about Sir Douglas Mawson where he was out trekking with Ninnis and Mertz and then of course Ninnis fell down a crevasse and perished. And then the claim that Mertz was in fact victim to Sir Douglas Mawson's survival.
Charles Wooley: Well, needs must out there on the ice, there's nothing else to eat, eat your colleague.
Kim McKay: Well, there is that story, but of course in more recent times the explorer and expeditioner Tim Jarvis who actually is the Australian Museum's adventurer in residence…
Charles Wooley: He's our own Tim Jarvis, yes.
Kim McKay: Our own Tim Jarvis, from South Australia too now. So Tim set out to prove that Mawson didn't eat Mertz, and he indeed managed to demonstrate that in his expedition in a television documentary.
Charles Wooley: I think it's interesting Mawson goes back to the rather stuffy and sedate society of the city of Adelaide and people must look at him at cocktail parties and say, 'That's Mawson, he might have eaten Mertz my dear chap.'
Kim McKay: But Mawson had so many elements to his personality. Remember he was deeply in love with his wife and wrote those remarkable love letters to her.
Charles Wooley: Yes, lovely stuff.
Kim McKay: So I think Mawson's achievements, and of course he graces our currency as well, demonstrate the remarkable achievements that he had, because on those expeditions he established that coastline, explored the coastline of Antarctica, over 3,000 km, and claimed it of course for Australia's custodianship, and he asserted that. So he was an extraordinary man.
Charles Wooley: When he returned to Adelaide of course he had a lot of students at the university and he turned many of them, like the famous Reg Sprigg, into some of South Australia's leading environmentalists.
Kim McKay: Oh I think he inspired an entire generation. So some of the specimens they brought back from Antarctica on those voyages were just extraordinary, you know, for study. As part of the collection we have, we've even got a meteorite found in Adélie Land, which is just remarkable to be able to study.
Charles Wooley: How the hell in all that ice and snow do you find a meteorite?
Kim McKay: With difficulty, Charlie.
Charles Wooley: I'm assuming maybe it was exposed in one of those parts of the Antarctic that I've seen where the ice and the snow disappears during the summer, where the penguins actually nest.
Kim McKay: That's right. So in Adélie Land it was the first meteorite ever discovered in Antarctica and it weighed a kilogram and it was found by Francis Bickerton in the 1912 Mawson expedition. Bickerton was the leader of a sledge team mapping areas west of the party's main base, while Mawson was leading a separate eastern team. Mawson of course was a geologist himself, and examining the accessible rock formation of Wilkes Land which was a key feature of the expedition. So, obviously this had emerged, and of course in this part of the world there are katabatic winds, those extraordinary winds that's just slide down the edge of the mountains.
Charles Wooley: At speeds of…?
Kim McKay: Well over 100 km an hour. Just extraordinary winds.
Charles Wooley: I've experienced one of those, they just knock you over.
Kim McKay: And that's how the meteorites are then exposed on the surface.
Charles Wooley: When Mawson gets back to the ship, the ship is gone. He's had a hell of a time, he's lost two members of the party, he gets back and the bloody boat has sailed.
Kim McKay: He can see it on the horizon.
Charles Wooley: 'Hey, wait for me!'
Kim McKay: It must have been very distressing, but of course some other compatriots had waited there, who had agreed to winter over, and so they managed to survive. When you go into Mawson's huts you realise that they were very well set up. You know, there was a photographic studio in there for Hurley, there was all sorts of equipment stored in the huts. There was an office even, a desk where Mawson would sit and write. It was quite an extraordinarily sophisticated setup, but I wouldn't want to winter over there.
Charles Wooley: No. And how philosophical do you have to be to say, oh well, we will just have to wait another year old chap.
Kim McKay: Not much else you can do, and this is why Antarctica is Antarctica of course today.
Charles Wooley: They had plenty to eat though, didn't they.
Kim McKay: They did. They had made sure that they were well equipped when they actually set off on the expedition itself, but of course many men became ill by eating the liver of the dogs that was contaminated.
Charles Wooley: That's right, some kind of vitamin poisoning, wasn't it.
Kim McKay: That's right, yes.
Charles Wooley: And of course the penguins didn't agree with their stomachs either.
Kim McKay: No, that's right, so it was vitamin A toxicity from the liver of the sledge dogs and of course the penguins, especially the king penguins that they were eating because they were quite meaty, also contributed to poisoning.
Charles Wooley: But a bit of seal was all right.
Kim McKay: Seal was fine.
Charles Wooley: From 18 million treasures in the Australian Museum we've selected just 200 for you to consider. But even exploring this distillation is going to take us on a long and exciting adventure. I hope you will join Australian Museum director Kim McKay and myself as we continue our extraordinary odyssey through the collections of the Australian Museum. And of course you can see it for yourself in the Westpac Long Gallery at the Australian Museum in Sydney. I'm Charles Wooley.
Kim McKay: And I'm Kim McKay.
Charles Wooley: We'll see you next time.
Behind every object is a story – join Charles Wooley and Kim McKay as they reveal some of the Treasures at the Australian Museum.