Australasian Antarctic Expedition 1911-1914

In 1910 Douglas Mawson had approached Robert Falcon Scott to ask for passage to Antarctica as part of his British Antarctic Expedition, in order to carry out scientific and survey work on the coast west of Cape Adare. With a full itinerary Scott was unable to accommodate Mawson’s plans, but asked him to join his South Pole sledging party instead. After some thought, Mawson declined and set about organising his own expedition to Antarctica.

Unexplored Antarctic Coastline

The Australasian Antarctic Expedition aimed to explore and chart the unexplored Antarctic coastline directly south of Australia: two thousand miles spanning the most westerly extent of Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition at Cape Adare to the most easterly extent of the German Gauss Expedition of 1901-03 at Gaussberg in Kaiser Willhelm II Land. Three bases would be established, with one at Macquarie Island and two on the continental mainland, and at each base major scientific investigation would take place in geology, cartography, meteorology, aurora, geomagnetism and biology. Aurora would also carry out an extensive programme of marine science.

Arrival in 1911

Supported by the Australian Association for the Advancement of Science, and with funding from the Commonwealth, State and British Governments as well as the Royal Geographical Society, the expedition left Hobart on 2 December 1911 aboard their ship Aurora. After several severe storms Aurora reached Macquarie Island on 11 December 1911, discovering a group of recently marooned men on the island. After arranging for their pick-up by the soon-to-arrive relief ship Turoa, Aurora unloaded stores and a base and wireless station was constructed for the party of five due to winter over. As well as a programme of scientific investigation, this base would serve as a radio relay station for the other two bases. On 24 December Aurora left Macquarie Island.

1912 Commonwealth Bay

On 7 January 1912 Aurora entered Commonwealth Bay. The following day, a party went ashore at Cape Denison, becoming the first men to set foot on this part of the Antarctic Continent. As the site for their main base, stores were unloaded and construction of the main base begun. By 19 January 1912 all stores had been unloaded and, with their hut mostly constructed, Aurora left the eighteen-man party and continued west to the Shackleton Ice Shelf in Queen Mary Land. Here, the eight-man Western Party set up base 1500 miles from Cape Denison.

One of the Windiest Places on Earth

By 30 January 1912 the hut at Cape Denison was complete, but by February winds were reaching dangerous speeds. Over March and April wind speeds were often above 100 miles per hour, at times reaching 200 miles per hour, and it is now known that Cape Denison is one of the windiest places on Earth. An important task at Cape Denison was the setting up of two radio masts. Begun in April 1912, these were not completed until September and by October they had collapsed due to the weather conditions. In the short time they were operational, messages were sent to Aurora and Macquarie Island but none were received. Two-way radio contact was not to be established successfully until February 1913.

Sledging Season

With severe weather conditions, the men spent the winter preparing for the sledging season, risking only short surveys and sledging trips on calm days. By November the weather had improved enough to plan longer trips, and Mawson made plans for five sledging expeditions. Leaving on 10 November 1912 in awful weather conditions, each party contended with harsh conditions and low supplies. The Southern Party made it to within fifty miles of the Magnetic South Pole before being forced to turn back. The Western Party started out using the air tractor. Breaking down soon after they began, the party made their furthest camp 158 miles from base, discovering the first meteorite in Antarctica. With the Near Party providing support, the Eastern Party reached their furthest east point at 270 miles from Cape Denison.

Mawson’s Far Eastern Party

Mawson’s Far Eastern Party experienced the most dramatic journey. On 14 December Belgrave Ninnis fell down a crevasse with his sledge, which carried the tent and most of the supplies, and the strongest dogs. Unable to see or hear him, or even reach the injured dog, the remaining two were forced to return to the sledge they had previously abandoned, salvaging supplies and equipment. With little to feed the dogs the first dog died the next day and was eaten. On 1 January 1913 Mertz developed stomach pains and by the next day had lost most of his strength. After a day of rest on 5 January, Mawson pulled Mertz on the sledge, but by 7 January Mertz had become delirious and soon died. Later it was realised that by eating the dogs livers the men were suffering from Vitamin A poisoning.

Aladdin’s Cave

Continuing alone and with his health deteriorating, Mawson got rid of everything unessential except for his geological samples and records, cutting his sledge in half for the final journey. At one point he fell down a crevasse, hanging fourteen feet however he managed to drag himself out. On 29 January Mawson discovered a snow cairn left by a search party for him and with a note telling him Aladdin’s Cave, where they had set out from, lay only twenty three miles away. On 1 February Mawson arrived there, only to get stuck for a week by bad weather. Finally risking the last part of the journey, he reached Cape Denison just in time to see Aurora leaving. Six men had remained behind to search for him, sea ice conditions prevented Aurora from returning. The seven men were left to spend another winter at Cape Denison.

The Western Party

For the Western Party on the Shackleton ice shelf, conditions were severe although not as bad as at Cape Denison. Winds of up to 100 miles per hour nearly buried the hut, and their radio mast was destroyed in the first blizzard they experienced. After the winter the party managed to lay depots as early as August and sledging parties mapped and explored the nearby coastline, as well as discovering extensive penguin rookeries. The party was picked up by Aurora on 23 February 1913. 

Scientific Legacy

The Australasian Antarctic Expedition is considered as one of the greatest scientific polar expeditions. Almost 4000 miles of land had been explored, and detailed observations had been taken in magnetism, geology, biology and meteorology. So much scientific data had been gathered that even with the help of other scientists, the twenty-two volume report was not completely published until 1947.

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