Chapter 1: The problem and preparations

The Home of the Blizzard by Sir Douglas Mawson (1915)

Chapter 1: The problem and preparations

Notwithstanding the fact that it has been repeatedly stated in the public press that the Australasian Antarctic expedition had no intention of making the South Geographical Pole its objective, it is evident that our aims were not properly realized by a large section of the British public, considering that many references have appeared in print attributing that purpose to the undertaking. With three other Antarctic expeditions already in the field, it appeared to many, therefore, that the venture was entirely superfluous.

The Expedition had a problem sketched in unmistakable feature, and the following pages will shortly set forth its historical origin and rationale.

The Antarctic problem1 assumed its modern aspect after Captain Cook’s circumnavigation of the globe in high southern latitudes, accomplished between 1772 and 1775. Fact replaced the fiction and surmise of former times, and maps appeared showing a large blank area at the southern extremity of the earth, where speculative cartographers had affirmed the existence of habitable land extending far towards the Equator. Cook’s voyage made it clear that if there were any considerable mass of Antarctic land, it must indubitably lie within the Antarctic Circle, and be subjected to such stringent climatic conditions as to render it an unlikely habitation for man.

Cook’s reports of seals on the island of South Georgia initiated in the Antarctic seas south of America a commercial enterprise, which is still carried on, and has incidentally thrown much light upon the geography of the South Polar regions. Indeed, almost the whole of such information, prior to the year 1839, was the outcome of sealing and whaling projects.

About the year 1840, a wave of scientific enthusiasm resulted in the dispatch of three national expeditions by France, the United States, and Great Britain; part at least of whose programmes was Antarctic exploration. Russia had previously sent out an expedition which had made notable discoveries.

The contributions to knowledge gained at this period were considerable. Those carried back to civilization by the British expedition under Ross, are so well known that they need not be described. The French under Dumont D’Urville and the Americans under Wilkes visited the region to the southward of Australia – the arena of our own efforts – and frequent references will be made to their work throughout this story.

What has been termed the period of averted interest now intervened, before the modern movement set in with overpowering insistence. It was not till 1897 that it had commenced in earnest. Since then many adventurers have gone forth; most of the prominent civilized nations taking their share in exploration. By their joint efforts some, at least, of the mystery of Antarctica has been dispelled.

It is now a commonplace, largely in the world of geographical concerns, that the earth has still another continent, unique in character, whose ultimate bounds are merely pieced together from a fragmentary outline. The Continent itself appears to have been sighted for the first time in the year 1820, but no human being actually set foot on it until 1895. The Belgian expedition under de Gerlache was the first to experience the Antarctic winter, spending the year 1898 drifting helplessly, frozen in the pack–ice, to the southward of America. In the following year a British expedition under Borchgrevinck, wintering at Cape Adare, passed a year upon the Antarctic mainland.

The main efforts of recent years have been centred upon the two more accessible areas, namely, that in the American Quadrant2 which is prolonged as a tongue of land outside the Antarctic Circle, being consequently less beset by ice; secondly, the vicinity of the Ross Sea in the Australian Quadrant. It is because these two favoured domains have for special reasons attracted the stream of exploration that the major portion of Antarctica is unknown. Nevertheless, one is in a position to sketch broad features which will probably not be radically altered by any future expeditions.

Certain it is that a continent approaching the combined areas of Australia and Europe lies more or less buried beneath the South Polar snows; though any statement of the precise area is insufficient for a proper appreciation of the magnitude, unless its elevated plateau–like character be also taken into consideration. It appears to be highest over a wide central crown rising to more than ten thousand feet. Of the remainder, there is little doubt that the major portion stands as high as six thousand feet. The average elevation must far exceed that of any other continent, for, with peaks nineteen thousand feet above sea–level, its mountainous topography is remarkable. Along the coast of Victoria Land, in the Australian Quadrant, are some of the most majestic vistas of alpine scenery that the world affords. Rock exposures are rare, ice appearing everywhere except in the most favoured places.

Regarding plant and animal life upon the land there is little to say. The vegetable kingdom is represented by plants of low organization such as mosses, lichens, diatoms and algae. The animal world, so far as true land–forms are concerned, is limited to types like the protozoa (lowest in the organic scale), rotifera and minute insect–like mites which lurk hidden away amongst the tufts of moss or on the under side of loose stones. Bacteria, most fundamental of all, at the basis, so to speak, of animal and vegetable life, have a manifold distribution.

It is a very different matter when we turn to the life of the neighbouring seas, for that vies in abundance with the warmer waters of lower latitudes. There are innumerable seals, many sea–birds and millions of penguins. As all these breed on Antarctic shores, the coastal margin of the continent is not so desolate.

In view of the fact that life, including land–mammals, is abundant in the North Polar regions, it may be asked why analogous forms are not better represented in corresponding southern latitudes. Without going too deeply into the question, it may be briefly stated, firstly, that a more widespread glaciation than at present prevails invested the great southern continent and its environing seas, within recent geological times, effectually exterminating any pre–existing land life. Secondly, since that period the continent has been isolated by a wide belt of ocean from other lands, from which restocking might have taken place after the manner of the North Polar regions. Finally, climatic conditions in the Antarctic are, latitude for latitude, much more severe than in the Arctic.

With regard to climate in general, Antarctica has the lowest mean temperature and the highest wind–velocity of any land existing. This naturally follows from the fact that it is a lofty expanse of ice–clad land circumscribing the Pole, and that the Antarctic summer occurs when the earth is farther from the sun than is the case during the Arctic summer.

There are those who would impatiently ask, ‘What is the use of it all?’ The answer is brief.

Map detailing Antarctic land discoveries preceding the year 1910

Antarctic land discoveries preceding the year 1910

The polar regions, like any other part of the globe, may be said to be paved with facts, the essence of which it is necessary to acquire before knowledge of this special zone can be brought to even a provisional exactitude. On the face of it, polar research may seem to be specific and discriminating, but it must be remembered that an advance in any one of the departments into which, for convenience, science is artificially divided, conduces to the advantage of all. Science is a homogeneous whole. If we ignore the facts contained in one part of the world, surely we are hampering scientific advance. It is obvious to every one that, given only a fraction of the pieces, it is a much more difficult task to put together a jig–saw puzzle and obtain an idea of the finished pattern than were all the pieces at hand. The pieces of the jig–saw puzzle are the data of science.

Though it is not sufficiently recognized, the advance of science is attended by a corresponding increase in the creature comforts of man. Again, from an economic aspect, the frozen south may not attract immediate attention. But who can say what a train of enterprise the future may bring?

Captain James Cook, on his return to London after the circumnavigation of Antarctica, held that the far–southern lands had no future. Yet, a few years later, great profits were being returned to Great Britain and the United States from sealing–stations established as a result of Cook’s own observations. At the present day, several whaling companies have flourishing industries in the Antarctic waters within the American Quadrant.

Even now much can be said in regard to the possibilities offered by the Antarctic regions for economic development, but, year by year, the outlook will widen, since man is constantly resorting to subtler and more ingenious artifice in applying Nature’s resources. It will be remembered that Charles Darwin, when in Australia, predicted a very limited commercial future for New South Wales. But the mastery of man overcame the difficulties which Darwin’s too penetrating mind foresaw.

What will be the role of the south in the progress of civilization and in the development of the arts and sciences, is not now obvious. As sure as there is here a vast mass of land with potentialities, strictly limited at present, so surely will it be cemented some day within the universal plinth of things.

An unknown coast–line lay before the door of Australia. Following on the general advance of exploration, and as a sequel to several important discoveries, the time arrived when a complete elucidation of the Antarctic problem was more than ever desirable. In the Australian Quadrant, the broad geographical features of the Ross Sea area were well known, but of the remainder and greater portion of the tract only vague and imperfect reports could be supplied.

Before submitting our plans in outline, it will be as well to review the stage at which discovery had arrived when our Expedition came upon the scene.

The coast–line of the eastern extremity of the Australian Quadrant, including the outline of the Ross Sea and the coast west–northwest of Cape Adare as far as Cape North, was charted by Ross and has been amplified by seven later expeditions. In the region west of Cape North, recent explorers had done little up till 1911. Scott in the Discovery had disproved the existence of some of Wilkes’s land; Shackleton in the Nimrod had viewed some forty miles of high land beyond Cape North; lastly, on the eve of our departure, Scott’s Terra Nova had met two patches of new land – Oates Land – still farther west, making it evident that the continent ranged at least two hundred and eighty miles in a west–northwest direction from Cape Adare.

Just outside the western limit of the Australian Quadrant lies Gaussberg, discovered by a German expedition under Drygalski in 1902. Between the most westerly point sighted by the Terra Nova and Gaussberg, there is a circuit of two thousand miles, bordering the Antarctic Circle, which no vessel had navigated previous to 1840.

This was the arena of our activities and, therefore, a synopsis of the voyages of early mariners will be enlightening.

Balleny, a whaling–master, with the schooner Eliza Scott of one hundred and fifty–four tons, and a cutter, the Sabrina of fifty–four tons, was the first to meet with success in these waters. Proceeding southward from New Zealand in 1839, he located the Balleny Islands, a group containing active volcanoes, lying about two hundred miles off the nearest part of the mainland and to the northwest of Cape Adare. Leaving these islands, Balleny sailed westward keeping a look–out for new land. During a gale the vessels became separated and the Sabrina was lost with all hands. Balleny in the Eliza Scott arrived safely in England and reported doubtful land in 122° E longitude, approximately. Dr HR Mill says: ‘Although the name of the cutter Sabrina has been given to an appearance of land at this point, we cannot look upon its discovery as proved by the vague reference made by the explorers’.

On January 1, 1840, Dumont D’Urville sailed southward from Hobart in command of two corvettes, the Astrolabe and the Zelee. Without much obstruction from floating ice, he came within sight of the Antarctic coast, thenceforth known as Adélie Land. The expedition did not set foot on the mainland, but on an adjacent island. They remained in the vicinity of the coast for a few days, when a gale sprang up which was hazardously weathered on the windward side of the pack–ice. The ships then cruised along the face of flat–topped ice–cliffs, of the type known as barrier–ice or shelf–ice, which were taken to be connected with land and named Côte Clarie. As will be seen later, Côte Clarie does not exist.

Dr HR Mill sums up the work done by the French expedition during its eleven days’ sojourn in the vicinity of the Antarctic coast:

‘D’Urville’s discoveries of land were of but little account. He twice traced out considerable stretches of a solid barrier of ice, and at one point saw and landed upon rocks in front of it; but he could only give the vaguest account of what lay behind the barrier.’

Wilkes of the American expedition proceeded south from Sydney at the close of 1839. His vessels were the Vincennes, a sloop of war of seven hundred and eighty tons, the Peacock, another sloop of six hundred and fifty tons, the Porpoise, a gun–brig of two hundred and thirty tons and a tender, the Flying Fish of ninety–six tons. The scientists of the expedition were precluded from joining in this part of the programme, and were left behind in Sydney. Wilkes himself was loud in his denunciation both of the ships and of the stores, though they had been specially assembled by the naval department. The ships were in Antarctic waters for a period of forty–two days, most of the time separated by gales, during which the crews showed great skill in navigating their ill–fitted crafts and suffered great hardships.

Land was reported almost daily, but, unfortunately, subsequent exploration has shown that most of the landfalls do not exist. Several soundings made by Wilkes were indicative of the approach to land, but he must have frequently mistaken for it distant ice–masses frozen in the pack. Experience has proved what deceptive light–effects may be observed amid the ice and how easily a mirage may simulate reality.

Whatever the cause of Wilkes’s errors, the truth remains that Ross sailed over land indicated in a rough chart which had been forwarded to him by Wilkes, just before the British expedition set out. More recently, Captain Scott in the Discovery erased many of the landfalls of Wilkes, and now we have still further reduced their number. The Challenger approached within fifteen miles of the western extremity of Wilkes’s Termination Land, but saw no sign of it. The Gauss in the same waters charted Kaiser Wilhelm II Land well to the south of Termination Land, and the eastward continuation of the former could not have been visible from Wilkes’s ship. After the voyage of the Discovery, the landfalls, the existence of which had not been disproved, might well have been regarded as requiring confirmation before their validity could be recognised.

The only spot where rocks were reported in situ was in Adélie Land, where the French had anticipated the Americans by seven days. Farther west, earth and stones had been collected by Wilkes from material embedded in floating masses of ice off the coast of his Knox Land. These facts lend credence to Wilkes’s claims of land in that vicinity. His expedition did not once set foot on Antarctic shores, and, possibly on account of the absence of the scientific staff, his descriptions tend to be inexact and obscure. The soundings made by Wilkes were sufficient to show that he was probably in some places at no great distance from the coast, and, considering that his work was carried out in the days of sailing–ships, in unsuitable craft, under the most adverse weather conditions, with crews scurvy–stricken and discontented, it is wonderful how much was achieved. We may amply testify that he did more than open the field for future expeditions.

After we had taken into account the valuable soundings of the Challenger (1872), the above comprised our knowledge concerning some two thousand miles of prospective coast lying to the southward of Australia, at a time when the plans of the Australasian expedition were being formulated.

The original plans for the expedition were somewhat modified upon my return from Europe. Briefly stated, it was decided that a party of five men should be stationed at Macquarie Island, a subantarctic possession of the Commonwealth. They were to be provided with a hut, stores and a complete wireless plant, and were to prosecute general scientific investigations, co–operating with the Antarctic bases in meteorological and other work. After disembarking the party at Macquarie Island, the Aurora was to proceed south on a meridian of 158° E longitude, to the westward of which the Antarctic programme was to be conducted.

Twelve men, provisioned and equipped for a year’s campaign and provided with wireless apparatus, were to be landed in Antarctica on the first possible opportunity at what would constitute a main base. Thereafter, proceeding westward, it was hoped that a second and a third party, consisting of six and eight men respectively, would be successively established on the continent at considerable distances apart. Of course we were well aware of the difficulties of landing even one party, but, as division of our forces would under normal conditions secure more scientific data, it was deemed advisable to be prepared for exceptionally favourable circumstances.

Macquarie Island, a busy station in the days of the early sealers, had become almost neglected. Little accurate information was to be had regarding it, and no reliable map existed. A few isolated facts had been gathered of its geology, and the anomalous fauna and flora sui generis had been but partially described. Its position, eight hundred and fifty miles south–southeast of Hobart, gave promise of valuable meteorological data relative to the atmospheric circulation of the Southern Hemisphere and of vital interest to the shipping of Australia and New Zealand.

As to the Antarctic sphere of work, it has been seen that very little was known of the vast region which was our goal. It is sufficient to say that almost every observation would be fresh material added to the sum of human knowledge.

In addition to the work to be conducted from the land bases, it was intended that oceanographic investigations should be carried on by the Aurora as far as funds would allow. With this object in view, provision was made for the necessary apparatus which would enable the ship’s party to make extensive investigations of the ocean and its floor over the broad belt between Australia and the Antarctic Continent. This was an important branch of study, for science is just as much interested in the greatest depths of the ocean as with the corresponding elevations of the land. Indeed, at the present day, the former is perhaps the greater field.

The scope of our intentions was regarded by some as over–ambitious, but knowing

How far high failure overleaps the bound
Of low successes,

and seeing nothing impossible in these arrangements, we continued to adhere to them as closely as possible, with what fortune remains to be told.

To secure a suitable vessel was a matter of fundamental importance. There was no question of having a ship built to our design, for the requisite expenditure might well have exceeded the whole cost of our Expedition. Accordingly the best obtainable vessel was purchased, and modified to fulfil our requirements. Such craft are not to be had in southern waters; they are only to be found engaged in Arctic whaling and sealing.

The primary consideration in the design of a vessel built to navigate amid the ice is that the hull be very staunch, capable of driving into the pack and of resisting lateral pressure, if the ice should close in around it.

So a thick–walled timber vessel, with adequate stiffening in the framework, would meet the case. The construction being of wood imparts a certain elasticity, which is of great advantage in easing the shock of impacts with floating ice. As has been tragically illustrated in a recent disaster, the ordinary steel ship would be ripped on its first contact with the ice. Another device, to obviate the shock and to assist in forging a way through the floe–ice, is to have the bow cut away below the water–line. Thus, instead of presenting to the ice a vertical face, which would immediately arrest the ship and possibly cause considerable damage on account of the sudden stress of the blow, a sloping, overhanging bow is adopted. This arrangement enables the bow to rise over the impediment, with a gradual slackening of speed. The immense weight put upon the ice crushes it and the ship settles down, moving ahead and gathering speed to meet the next obstacle.

Plan and section of SY Aurora ship

Plan and section of SY Aurora

Of importance second only to a strong hull is the possession of sails in addition to engines. The latter are a sine qua non in polar navigation, whilst sails allow of economy in the consumption of coal, and always remain as a last resort should the coal–supply be exhausted or the propeller damaged.

The Aurora, of the Newfoundland sealing fleet, was ultimately purchased and underwent necessary alterations. She was built in Dundee in 1876, but though by no means young was still in good condition and capable of buffeting with the pack for many a year. Also, she was not without a history, for in the earlier days she was amongst those vessels which hurried to the relief of the unfortunate Greely expedition.

The hull was made of stout oak planks, sheathed with greenheart and lined with fir. The bow, fashioned on cutaway lines, was a mass of solid wood, armoured with steel plates. The heavy side–frames were braced and stiffened by two tiers of horizontal oak beams, upon which were built the ‘tween decks and the main deck. Three bulkheads isolated the fore–peak, the main hold, the engine–room and the after living–quarters respectively.

A hull of such strength would resist a heavy strain, and, should it be subjected to lateral pressure, would in all probability rise out of harm’s way. However, to be quite certain of this and to ensure safety in the most extreme case it is necessary that the hull be modelled after the design adopted by Nansen in the Fram.

The principal dimensions were, length one hundred and sixty–five feet, breadth thirty feet, and depth eighteen feet.

The registered tonnage was three hundred and eighty–six, but the actual carrying capacity we found to be about six hundred tons.

The engines, situated aft, were compound, supplied with steam from a single boiler. The normal power registered was ninety–eight horse–power, working a four–bladed propeller, driving it at the rate of sixty or seventy revolutions per minute (six to ten knots per hour).

Steam was also laid on to a winch, aft, for handling cargo in the main hold, and to a forward steam–windlass. The latter was mainly used for raising the anchor and manipulating the deep–sea dredging–cable.

The ship was square on the foremast and schooner–rigged on the main and mizzen masts.

Between the engine–room bulkhead and the chain and sail locker was a spacious hold. Six large steel tanks built into the bottom of the hold served for the storage of fresh water and at any time when empty could be filled with seawater, offering a ready means of securing emergency ballast.

On the deck, just forward of the main hatch, was a deckhouse, comprising cook’s galley, steward’s pantry and two laboratories. Still farther forward was a small lamp–room for the storage of kerosene, lamps and other necessaries. A lofty fo’c’sle–head gave much accommodation for carpenters’, shipwrights’ and other stores. Below it, a capacious fo’c’sle served as quarters for a crew of sixteen men.

Aft, the chart–room, captain’s cabin and photographic dark–room formed a block leading up to the bridge, situated immediately in front of the funnel. Farther aft, behind the engine–room and below the poop deck, was the ward–room(,) a central space sixteen feet by eight feet, filled by the dining–table and surrounded by cabins with bunks for twenty persons.

From the time the Aurora arrived in London to her departure from Australia, she was a scene of busy activity, as alterations and replacements were necessary to fit her for future work.

In the meantime, stores and gear were being assembled. Purchases were made and valuable donations received both in Europe and Australia. Many and varied were the requirements, and some idea of their great multiplicity will be gained by referring to the appendices dealing with stores, clothing and instruments.

Finally, reference may be made in this chapter to the staff. In no department can a leader spend time more profitably than in the selection of the men who are to accomplish the work. Even when the expedition has a scientific basis, academic distinction becomes secondary in the choice of men. Fiala, as a result of his Arctic experience, truly says, ‘Many a man who is a jolly good fellow in congenial surroundings will become impatient, selfish and mean when obliged to sacrifice his comfort, curb his desires and work hard in what seems a losing fight. The first consideration in the choice of men for a polar campaign should be the moral quality. Next should come mental and physical powers.’

For polar work the great desideratum is tempered youth. Although one man at the age of fifty may be as strong physically as another at the age of twenty, it is certain that the exceptional man of fifty was also an exceptional man at twenty. On the average, after about thirty years of age, the elasticity of the body to rise to the strain of emergency diminishes, and, when forty years is reached, a man, medically speaking, reaches his acme. After that, degeneration of the fabric of the body slowly and maybe imperceptibly sets in. As the difficulties of exploration in cold regions approximate to the limit of human endurance and often enough exceed it, it is obvious that the above generalisations must receive due weight.

But though age and with it the whole question of physical fitness must ever receive primary regard, yet these alone in no wise fit a man for such an undertaking. The qualifications of mental ability, acquaintance with the work and sound moral quality have to be essentially borne in mind. The man of fifty might then be placed on a higher plane than his younger companion.

With regard to alcohol and tobacco, it may be maintained on theoretical grounds that a man is better without them, but, on the other hand, his behaviour in respect to such habits is often an index to his self–control.

Perfection is attained when every man individually works with the determination to sacrifice all personal predispositions to the welfare of the whole.

Ours proved to be a very happy selection. The majority of the men chosen as members of the land parties were young graduates of the Commonwealth and New Zealand Universities, and almost all were representative of Australasia. Among the exceptions was Mr. Frank Wild, who was appointed leader of one of the Antarctic parties. Wild had distinguished himself in the south on two previous occasions, and now is in the unique position of being, as it were, the oldest resident of Antarctica. Our sojourn together at Cape Royds with Shackleton had acquainted me with Wild’s high merits as an explorer and leader.

Lieutenant BES Ninnis of the Royal Fusiliers, Dr X Mertz, an expert ski–runner and mountaineer, and Mr FH Bickerton in charge of the air–tractor sledge, were appointed in London. Reference has already been made to Captain Davis: to him were left all arrangements regarding the ship’s complement.

A ‘Who’s who’ of the staff appears as an appendix.

  1. Dr HR Mill has compiled a complete account of Antarctic exploration in his ‘Siege of the South Pole’. Refer also to the Historical Appendix for an abridged statement.
  2. For convenience, the Antarctic regions may be referred to in four main divisions, corresponding with the quadrants of the hemisphere. Of the several suggestions thrown out by previous writers, the one adopted here is that based on the meridian of Greenwich, referring the quadrants to an adjacent continent or ocean. Thus the American Quadrant lies between 0° and 90° W, the African Quadrant between 0° and 90° E, and the Australian Quadrant between 90° and 180° E. The fourth division is called the Pacific Quadrant, since ocean alone lies to the north of it.

This version of Home of the Blizzard has been edited and published by the Australian Antarctic Division.