Heading south: Mawson and the Australasian Antarctic Expedition
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In December 1911, the Australasian Antarctic Expedition set sail from Hobart and into the history books.
It was just as well that geologist Douglas Mawson had turned down Captain Robert Scott’s offer to join the ill-fated British Antarctic Expedition to the South Pole in 1910. By the time Mawson’s own expedition on the Aurora was setting sail, Scott was in the final weeks of the 18-month expedition that resulted in the tragic loss of several lives, including his own.
Mawson had been a member of Ernest Shackleton’s British Antarctic Expedition in 1907–09. In 1908 Shackleton assigned Mawson, Professor Edgeworth David and Alistair Mackay the task of being the first people to reach the magnetic South Pole.
The pole’s estimated position had been charted in the 1840s using star sightings and compass readings, but in 1901, on Captain Scott’s first expedition, it was clear that the magnetic pole had moved considerably in 60 years, and by 1908 it was located in a remote inland region.
Mawson used a dip needle – a magnetic needle that can rotate vertically – to locate its exact position, the vertical needle indicating when the pole was reached. He discovered that the pole was rotating in a circle over 20 miles in diameter every 24 hours, and so the team completed their mission at the centre point of its daily rotation.
Technologies old and new
Some three years after the Shackleton expedition, the Australasian Antarctic Expedition’s goals were strictly scientific: to explore the geography, geology and biology of the Antarctic region due south of Australia. The Museum’s small collection of objects from that voyage are a reminder of the enormous challenges faced by these polar pioneers.
Mawson was enthusiastic about new technologies and saw great potential in exploring the region from the air. But this plan to ship a small aircraft to Antarctica came undone when the plane crashed during a test flight in Adelaide. Undaunted, he had the smashed wings removed and shipped the fuselage south to haul supplies as an ‘air tractor’ around the base he’d established at Cape Dennison. The wooden propeller from this, the first aircraft to be used in the Antarctic, sits in the Museum’s store in College Street.
Mawson could also see the benefits of radio in remote areas and set up the first radio link to the Antarctic continent via a relay station at Macquarie Island. However, radio was not so advanced to be useful for the long overland sledge journeys into the interior.
Two small instruments from the expedition were critical for navigating in this harsh, unforgiving and unexplored Antarctica environment. The first is a small, hand-hewn circle of wood with a nail through the middle. It appears at first sight to be a child’s toy and the label, ‘sun compass’, belies its value. The magnetic compass has limited value in polar regions because the magnetic North and South poles are over 1000 kilometres from the geographic poles (the axis of Earth’s rotation). Complicating things further, the magnetic poles are moving constantly.
Alternative means of navigation were needed by these early explorers and they used sightings from the stars and the sun in combination with an accurate clock and magnetic compass to plot their course. This modest home-made sun compass was effectively a portable sundial and a vital tool. Each sledge was equipped with one, securely tied on to prevent its loss.
The second crucial piece of information to be calculated on longer journeys was the distance travelled. Vital for estimating progress and planning food supplies for the return journey, a sledgemeter – a wheel fitted to the sledge and connected to small brass dials and gears – clocked up the miles travelled.
The importance placed on this piece of equipment is illustrated by Mawson’s efforts to repair a broken axle-bearing on his sledgemeter. It had broken during his legendary solo return trip of the tragic Far Eastern Sledging Party.
This expedition had seen the death of his companion Belgrave Ninnis, who was swallowed by a crevasse along with his sledge and dogs. Losing their tent and most food supplies in the accident, Mawson and Xavier Mertz turned back to the base camp, but Mertz succumbed to malnutrition and illness on the return trip. Mawson finally reached Cape Dennison alone – just hours after the Aurora had departed, resulting in an unplanned second winter at the base with the small party who had remained behind to await his return.
Putting this extra time to good use, the Australasian Antarctic Expedition finally explored more than 3000 kilometres of Antarctic coastline, collecting valuable scientific data and specimens about the region’s geology, biology, geomagnetism, oceanography and meteorology – and laying down Australia’s claim to part of this great southern wilderness.
Colin Macgregor, Manager, Materials Conservation, Australian Museum
First published in Explore 33(4).
See the ABC's Karen Barlow interview Colin Macgregor here.
Douglas Mawson, 1915. Home of the Blizzard: the story of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, 1911-1914. William Heinneman, London.
Beau Riffenburgh, 2004. Nimrod: Ernest Shackleton and the Extraordinary Story of the 1907-09 British Antarctic Expedition. Bloomsbury, New York.