Chapter 3: From Macquarie Island to Adélie Land
The morning following our farewell to Ainsworth and party at the north end of the island found us steaming down the west coast, southward bound.
Our supply of fresh water was scanty, and the only resource was to touch at Caroline Cove. As a matter of fact, there were several suitable localities on the east coast, but the strong easterly weather then prevailing made a landing impossible.
On the ship nearing the south end, the wind subsided. She then crept into the lee of the cliffs, a boat was dropped and soundings disclosed a deep passage at the mouth of Caroline Cove and ample water within. There was, however, limited space for manoeuvring the vessel if a change should occur in the direction of the wind. The risk was taken; the Aurora felt her way in, and, to provide against accident, was anchored by Captain Davis with her bow toward the entrance. Wild then ran out a kedge anchor to secure the stern.
During the cruise down the coast the missing stock of our only anchor had been replaced by Gillies and Hannam. Two oregon ‘dead men’, bolted together on the shank, made a clumsy but efficient makeshift.
Two large barrels were taken ashore, repeatedly filled and towed off to the ship. It was difficult at first to find good water, for the main stream flowing down from the head of the bay was contaminated by the penguins which made it their highway to a rookery. After a search, an almost dry gully was found to yield water when a pit was dug in its bed. This spot was some eighty yards from the beach and to reach it one traversed an area of tussocks between which sea elephants wallowed in soft mire.
A cordon of men was made and buckets were interchanged, the full ones descending and the empty ones ascending. The barrels on the beach were thus speedily filled and taken off by a boat’s crew. At 11 pm darkness came, and it was decided to complete the work on the following day.
As we rowed to the ship, the water was serenely placid. From the dark environing hills came the weird cries of strange birds. There was a hint of wildness, soon to be forgotten in the chorus of a ‘Varsity song and the hearty shouts of the rowers.
About 2 am the officer on watch came down to report to Captain Davis a slight change in the direction of the breeze. At 3 am I was again awakened by hearing Captain Davis hasten on deck, and by a gentle bumping of the ship, undoubtedly against rock. It appeared that the officer on watch had left the bridge for a few minutes, while the wind freshened and was blowing at the time nearly broadside–on from the north. This caused the ship to sag to leeward, stretching the bow and stern cables, until she came in contact with the kelp–covered, steep, rocky bank on the south side. The narrow limits of the anchorage were responsible for this dangerous situation.
All hands were immediately called on deck and set to work hauling on the stern cable. In a few minutes the propeller and rudder were out of danger. The engines were then started slowly ahead, and, as we came up to the bower anchor, the cable was taken in. The wind was blowing across the narrow entrance to the Cove, so that it was advisable to get quickly under way. The kedge anchor was abandoned, and we steamed straight out to sea with the bower hanging below the bows. The wind increased, and there was no other course open but to continue the southward voyage.
The day so inauspiciously begun turned out beautifully sunny. There was additional verve in our Christmas celebration, as Macquarie Island and the Bishop and Clerk, in turn, sank below the northern horizon.
During the stay at the island little attention had been given to scientific matters. All our energies had been concentrated on speedily landing the party which was to carry out such special work, so as to allow us to get away south as soon as possible. Enough had been seen to indicate the wide scientific possibilities of the place.
For some days we were favoured by exceptional weather; a moderate breeze from the northeast and a long, lazy swell combining to make our progress rapid.
The sum of the experiences of earlier expeditions had shown that the prevailing winds south of 60° S latitude were mainly southeasterly, causing a continuous streaming of the pack from east to west. Our obvious expedient on encountering the ice was to steam in the same direction as this drift. It had been decided before setting out that we would confine ourselves to the region west of the meridian of 158° E longitude. So it was intended to reach the pack, approximately in that meridian, and, should we be repulsed, to work steadily to the west in expectation of breaking through to the land.
Regarding the ice conditions over the whole segment of the unknown tract upon which our attack was directed, very little was known. Critically examined, the reports of the American squadron under the command of Wilkes were highly discouraging. D’Urville appeared to have reached his landfall without much hindrance by ice, but that was a fortunate circumstance in view of the difficulties Wilkes had met. At the western limit of the area we were to explore, the Germans in the Gauss had been irrevocably trapped in the ice as early as the month of February. At the eastern limit, only the year before, the Terra Nova of Scott’s expedition, making a sally into unexplored waters, had sighted new land almost on the 158th meridian, but even though it was then the end of summer, and the sea was almost free from the previous season’s ice, they were not able to reach the land on account of the dense pack.
In the early southern summer, at the time of our arrival, the ice conditions were expected to be at their worst. This followed from the fact that not only would local floes be encountered, but also a vast expanse of pack fed by the disintegrating floes of the Ross Sea, since, between Cape Adare and the Balleny Islands, the ice drifting to the northwest under the influence of the southeast winds is arrested in an extensive sheet. On the other hand, were we to wait for the later season, no time would remain for the accomplishment of the programme which had been arranged. So we were forced to accept things as we found them, being also prepared to make the most of any chance opportunity.
In planning the Expedition, the probability of meeting unusually heavy pack had been borne in mind, and the three units into which the land parties and equipment were divided had been disposed so as to facilitate the landing of a base with dispatch, and, maybe, under difficult circumstances. Further, in case the ship were frozen in, ‘wireless’ could be installed and the news immediately communicated through Macquarie Island to Australia.
At noon on December 27 whales were spouting all round us, and appeared to be travelling from west to east. Albatrosses of several species constantly hovered about, and swallow–like Wilson petrels – those nervous rangers of the high seas – would sail along the troughs and flit over the crests of the waves, to vanish into sombre distance.
Already we were steaming through untravelled waters, and new discoveries might be expected at any moment. A keen interest spread throughout the ship. On several occasions, fantastic clouds on the horizon gave hope of land, only to be abandoned on further advance. On December 28 and 29 large masses of floating kelp were seen, and, like the flotsam met with by Columbus, still further raised our hopes.
The possibility of undiscovered islands existing in the Southern Ocean, south of Australia and outside the ice–bound region, kept us vigilant. So few ships had ever navigated the waters south of latitude 55°, that some one and a quarter million square miles lay open to exploration. As an instance of such a discovery in the seas south of New Zealand may be mentioned Scott Island, first observed by the Morning, one of the relief ships of the British Expedition of 1902.
The weather remained favourable for sounding and other oceanographical work, but as it was uncertain how long these conditions would last, and in view of the anxiety arising from overloaded decks and the probability of gales which are chronic in these latitudes, it was resolved to land one of the bases as soon as possible, and thus rid the ship of superfluous cargo. The interesting but time–absorbing study of the ocean–depths was therefore postponed for a while.
With regard to the Antarctic land to be expected ahead, many of Wilkes’s landfalls, where they had been investigated by later expeditions, had been disproved. It seemed as if he had regarded the northern margin of the solid floe and shelf–ice as land; perhaps also mistaking bergs, frozen in the floe and distorted by mirage, for ice–covered land. Nevertheless, his soundings, and the light thrown upon the subject by the Scott and Shackleton expeditions, left no doubt in my mind that land would be found within a reasonable distance south of the position assigned by Wilkes. Some authorities had held that any land existing in this region would be found to be of the nature of isolated islands. Those familiar with the adjacent land, however, were all in favour of it being continental – a continuation of the Victoria Land plateau. The land lay to the south beyond doubt; the problem was to reach it through the belt of ice–bound sea. Still, navigable pack–ice might be ahead, obviating the need of driving too far to the west.
‘Ice on the starboard bow!’ At 4 pm on December 29 the cry was raised, and shortly after we passed alongside a small caverned berg whose bluish–green tints called forth general admiration. In the distance others could be seen. One larger than the average stood almost in our path. It was of the flat–topped, sheer–walled type, so characteristic of the Antarctic regions; three–quarters of a mile long and half a mile wide, rising eighty feet above the sea.
It has been stated that tabular bergs are typical of the Antarctic as opposed to the Arctic. This diversity is explained by a difference in the glacial conditions. In the north, glaciation is not so marked and, as a rule, coastal areas are free from ice, except for valley–glaciers which transport ice from the high interior down to sea–level. There, the summer temperature is so warm that the lower parts of the glaciers become much decayed, and, reaching the sea, break up readily into numerous irregular, pinnacled bergs of clear ice. In the south, the tabular forms result from the fact that the average annual temperature is colder than that prevailing at the northern axis of the earth. They are so formed because, even at sea–level, no appreciable amount of thawing takes place in midsummer. The inland ice pushes out to sea in enormous masses, and remains floating long before it ‘calves’ to form bergs. Even though its surface has been thrown into ridges as it was creeping over the uneven land, all are reduced to a dead level or slightly undulating plain, in the free–floating condition, and are still further effaced by dense drifts and repeated falls of snow descending upon them. The upper portion of a table–topped berg consists, therefore, of consolidated snow; neither temperature nor pressure having been sufficient to metamorphose it into clear ice. Such a berg in old age becomes worn into an irregular shape by the action of waves and weather, and often completely capsizes, exposing its corroded basement.
A light fog obscured the surrounding sea and distant bergs glided by like spectres. A monstrous block on the starboard side had not been long adrift, for it showed but slight signs of weathering.
The fog thickened over a grey swell that shimmered with an oily lustre. At 7 pm pack–ice came suddenly to view, and towards it we steered, vainly peering through the mists ahead in search of a passage. The ice was closely packed, the pieces being small and well worn. On the outskirts was a light brash which steadily gave place to a heavier variety, composed of larger and more angular fragments. A swishing murmur like the wind in the tree–tops came from the great expanse. It was alabaster–white and through the small, separate chips was diffused a pale lilac colouration. The larger chunks, by their motion and exposure to wind and current, had a circle of clear water; the deep sea–blue hovering round their water–worn niches. Here and there appeared the ochreous–yellow colour of adhering films of diatoms.
As we could not see what lay beyond, and the pack was becoming heavier, the ship was swung round and headed out.
Steering to the west through open water and patches of trailing brash, we were encouraged to find the pack trending towards the south. By pushing through bars of jammed floes and dodging numerous bergs, twenty miles were gained due southwards before the conditions had changed. The fog cleared, and right ahead massive bergs rose out of an ice–strewn sea. We neared one which was a mile in length and one hundred feet in height. The heaving ocean, dashing against its mighty, glistening walls, rushed with a hollow boom into caverns of ethereal blue; gothic portals to a cathedral of resplendent purity.
The smaller bergs and fragments of floe crowded closer together, and the two men at the wheel had little time for reverie. Orders came in quick succession – ‘Starboard! Steady!’ and in a flash – ‘Hard–a–port!’ Then repeated all over again, while the rudder–chains scraped and rattled in their channels.
Gradually the swell subsided, smoothed by the weight of ice. The tranquillity of the water heightened the superb effects of this glacial world. Majestic tabular bergs whose crevices exhaled a vaporous azure; lofty spires, radiant turrets and splendid castles; honeycombed masses illumined by pale green light within whose fairy labyrinths the water washed and gurgled. Seals and penguins on magic gondolas were the silent denizens of this dreamy Venice. In the soft glamour of the midsummer midnight sun, we were possessed by a rapturous wonder – the rare thrill of unreality.
The ice closed in, and shock after shock made the ship vibrate as she struck the smaller pieces full and fair, followed by a crunching and grinding as they scraped past the sides. The dense pack had come, and hardly a square foot of space showed amongst the blocks; smaller ones packing in between the larger, until the sea was covered with a continuous armour of ice. The ominous sound arising from thousands of faces rubbing together as they gently oscillated in the swell was impressive. It spoke of a force all–powerful, in whose grip puny ships might be locked for years and the less fortunate receive their last embrace.
The pack grew heavier and the bergs more numerous, embattled in a formidable array. If an ideal picture, from our point of view it was impenetrable. No ‘water sky’ showed as a distant beacon; over all was reflected the pitiless, white glare of the ice. The Aurora retreated to the open sea, and headed to the west in search of a break in the ice–front. The wind blew from the southeast, and, with sails set to assist the engines, rapid progress was made.
The southern prospect was disappointing, for the heavy pack was ranged in a continuous bar. The over–arching sky invariably shone with that yellowish–white effulgence known as ‘ice blink’, indicative of continuous ice, in contrast with the dark water sky, a sign of open water, or a mottled sky proceeding from an ice–strewn but navigable sea.
Though progress can be made in dense pack, provided it is not too heavy, advance is necessarily very slow – a few miles a day, and that at the expense of much coal. Without a well–defined ‘water sky’ it would have been foolish to have entered. Further, everything pointed to heavier ice–conditions in the south, and, indeed, in several places we reconnoitred, and such was proved to be the case. Large bergs were numerous, which, on account of being almost unaffected by surface currents because of their ponderous bulk and stupendous draught, helped to compact the shallow surface–ice under the free influence of currents and winds. In our westerly course we were sometimes able to edge a little to the south, but were always reduced to our old position within a few hours. Long projecting ‘tongues’ were met at intervals and, when narrow or open, we pushed through them.
Whales were frequently seen, both rorquals and killers. On the pack, sea–leopards and crab–eater seals sometimes appeared. At one time as many as a hundred would be counted from the bridge and at other moments not a single one could be sighted. They were not alarmed, unless the ship happened to bump against ice–masses within a short distance of them. A small sea–leopard, shot from the fo’c’sle by a well–directed bullet from Wild, was taken on board as a specimen; the meat serving as a great treat for the dogs.
On January 2, when driving through a tongue of pack, a halt was made to ‘ice ship’. A number of men scrambled over the side on to a large piece of floe and handed up the ice. It was soon discovered, however, that the swell was too great, for masses of ice ten tons or more in weight swayed about under the stern, endangering the propeller and rudder – the vulnerable parts of the vessel. So we moved on, having secured enough fresh–water ice to supply a pleasant change after the somewhat discoloured tank–water then being served out. The ice still remained compact and forbidding, but each day we hoped to discover a weak spot through which we might probe to the land itself.
On the evening of January 2 we saw a high, pinnacled berg, a few miles within the edge of the pack, closely resembling a rocky peak; the transparent ice of which it was composed appeared, in the dull light, of a much darker hue than the surrounding bergs. Another adjacent block exhibited a large black patch on its northern face, the exact nature of which could not be ascertained at a distance. Examples of rock debris embedded in bergs had already been observed, and it was presumed that this was a similar case. These were all hopeful signs, for the earthy matter must, of course, have been picked up by the ice during its repose upon some adjacent land.
At this same spot, large flocks of silver–grey petrels were seen resting on the ice and skimming the water in search of food. As soon as we had entered the ice–zone, most of our old companions, such as the albatross, had deserted, while a new suite of Antarctic birds had taken their place. These included the beautiful snow petrel, the Antarctic petrel, and the small, lissome Wilson petrel – a link with the bird–life of more temperate seas.
On the evening of January 3 the wind was blowing fresh from the southeast and falling snow obscured the horizon. The pack took a decided turn to the north, which fact was particularly disappointing in view of the distance we had already traversed to the west. We were now approaching the longitude of D’Urville’s landfall, and still the pack showed no signs of slackening. I was beginning to feel very anxious, and had decided not to pass that longitude without resorting to desperate measures.
The change in our fortunes occurred at five o’clock next morning, when the Chief Officer, Toucher, came down from the bridge to report that the atmosphere was clearing and that there appeared to be land–ice near by. Sure enough, on the port side, within a quarter of a mile, rose a massive barrier of ice extending far into the mist and separated from the ship by a little loose pack–ice. The problem to be solved was, whether it was the seaward face of an ice–covered continent, the ice–capping of a low island or only a flat–topped iceberg of immense proportions.
By 7 am a corner was reached where the ice–wall trended southward, limned on the horizon in a series of bays and headlands. An El Dorado had opened before us, for the winds coming from the east of south had cleared the pack away from the lee of the ice–wall, so that in the distance a comparatively clear sea was visible, closed by a bar of ice, a few miles in extent. Into this we steered, hugging the ice–wall, and were soon in the open, speeding along in glorious sunshine, bringing new sights into view every moment.
The wall, along the northern face, was low – from thirty to seventy feet in height – but the face along which we were now progressing gradually rose in altitude to the south. It was obviously a shelf–ice formation (or a glacier–tongue projection of it), exactly similar in build, for instance, to the Great Ross Barrier so well described by Ross, Scott, and others. At the northwest corner, at half a dozen places within a few miles of each other, the wall was puckered up and surmounted by semi–conical eminences, half as high as the face itself. These peculiar elevations were unlike anything previously recorded and remained unexplained for a while, until closer inspection showed them to be the result of impact with other ice–masses – a curious but conceivable cause.
On pieces of broken floe Weddell seals were noted. They were the first seen on the voyage and a sure indication of land, for their habitat ranges over the coastal waters of Antarctic lands.
A large, low, dome–topped elevation, about one mile in diameter, was passed on the starboard side, at a distance of two miles from the long ice–cliff. This corresponded in shape with what Ross frequently referred to as an ‘ice island’, uncertain whether it was a berg or ice–covered land. A sounding close by gave two hundred and eight fathoms, showing that we were on the continental shelf, and increasing the probability that the ‘ice island’ was aground.
Birds innumerable appeared on every hand: snow petrels, silver petrels, Cape pigeons and Antarctic petrels. They fluttered in hundreds about our bows. Cape pigeons are well known in lower latitudes, and it was interesting to find them so far south. As they have chessboard–like markings on the back when seen in flight, there is no mistaking them.
The ice–wall or glacier–tongue now took a turn to the southeast. At this point it had risen to a great height, about two hundred feet sheer. A fresh wind was blowing in our teeth from the south–southeast, and beyond this point would be driving us on to the cliffs. We put the ship about, therefore, and made for the lee side of the ‘ice island’.
In isolated coveys on the inclined top of the ‘island’ were several flocks, each containing hundreds of Antarctic petrels. At intervals they would rise into the air in clouds, shortly afterwards to settle down again on the snow.
Captain Davis moved the ship carefully against the lee wall of the ‘island’, with a view of replenishing our water supply, but it was unscalable, and we were forced to withdraw. Crouched on a small projection near the water’s edge was a seal, trying to evade the eyes of a dozen large grampuses which were playing about near our stern. These monsters appeared to be about twenty–five feet in length. They are the most formidable predacious mammals of the Antarctic seas, and annually account for large numbers of seals, penguins, and other cetaceans. The sea–leopard is its competitor, though not nearly so ferocious as the grampus, of whom it lives in terror.
The midnight hours were spent off the ‘ice island’ while we wafted for a decrease in the wind. Bars of cirrus clouds covered the whole sky – the presage of a coming storm. The wind arose, and distant objects were blotted out by driving snow. An attempt was made to keep the ship in shelter by steaming into the wind, but as ‘ice island’ and glacier–tongue were lost in clouds of snow, we were fortunate to make the lee of the latter, about fourteen miles to the north. There we steamed up and down until the afternoon of January 5, when the weather improved. A sounding was taken and the course was once more set for the south.
The sky remained overcast, the atmosphere foggy, and a south–southeast wind was blowing as we came abreast of the ‘ice island’, which, by the way, was discovered to have drifted several miles to the north, thus proving itself to be a free–floating berg. The glacier–tongue on the port side took a sharp turn to the east–southeast, disappearing on the horizon. As there was no pack in sight and the water was merely littered with fragments of ice, it appeared most likely that the turn in the glacier–tongue was part of a great sweeping curve ultimately joining with the southward land. On our south–southeast course we soon lost sight of the ice–cliffs in a gathering fog.
On the afternoon of January 6 the wind abated and the fog began to clear. At 5 pm a line of ice confronted us and, an hour later, the Aurora was in calm water under another mighty ice face trending across our course. This wall was precisely similar to the one seen on the previous evening, and might well have been a continuation of it. It is scarcely credible that when the Aurora came south the following year, the glacier–tongue first discovered had entirely disappeared. It was apparently nothing more than a huge iceberg measuring forty miles in length. Specially valuable, as clearing up any doubt that may have remained, was its re–discovery the following year some fifty miles to the northwest. Close to the face of the new ice–wall, which proved to be a true glacier–tongue, a mud bottom was found at a depth of three hundred and ninety–five fathoms.
While we were steaming in calm water to the southwest, the massive front, serrated by shallow bays and capes, passed in magnificent review. Its height attained a maximum of one hundred and fifty feet. In places the sea had eaten out enormous blue grottoes. At one spot, several of these had broken into each other to form a huge domed cavern, the roof of which hung one hundred feet above the sea. The noble portico was flanked by giant pillars.
The glacier–tongue bore all the characters of shelf–ice, by which is meant a floating extension of the land–ice.1 A table–topped berg in the act of formation was seen, separated from the parent body of shelf–ice by a deep fissure several yards in width.
At 11 pm the Aurora entered a bay, ten miles wide, bounded on the east by the shelf–ice wall and on the west by a steep snow–covered promontory rising approximately two thousand feet in height, as yet seen dimly in hazy outline through the mist. No rock was visible, but the contour of the ridge was clearly that of ice–capped land.
There was much jubilation among the watchers on deck at the prospect. Every available field–glass and telescope was brought to bear upon it. It was almost certainly the Antarctic continent, though, at that time, its extension to the east, west and south remained to be proved. The shelf–ice was seen to be securely attached to it and, near its point of junction with the undulating land–ice, we beheld the mountains of this mysterious land haloed in ghostly mist.
While passing the extremity of the western promontory, we observed an exposure of rock, jutting out of the ice near sea–level, in the face of a scar left by an avalanche. Later, when passing within half a cable’s length of several berg–like masses of ice lying off the coast, rock was again visible in black relief against the water’s edge, forming a pedestal for the ice. The ship was kept farther offshore, after this warning, for though she was designed to buffet with the ice, we had no desire to test her resistance to rock.
The bottom was very irregular, and as an extra precaution, soundings were taken every few minutes. Through a light fog all that could be seen landwards was a steep, sloping, icy surface descending from the interior, and terminating abruptly in a seaward cliff fifty to two hundred feet in height.
The ice–sheet terminating in this wall presented a more broken surface than the floating shelf–ice. It was riven and distorted by gaping crevasses; an indication of the rough bed over which it had travelled.
Towards midnight another bay was entered and many rocky islets appeared on its western side. The engines were stopped for a few hours, and the voyage was resumed in clearer weather on the following morning.
All day we threaded our way between islands and bergs. Seals and penguins swam around, the latter squawking and diving in a most amusing manner.
Cautiously we glided by an iceberg, at least one hundred and fifty feet high, rising with a faceted, perpendicular face chased with soft, snowy traceries and ornamented with stalactites. Splits and rents broke into the margin, and from each streamed the evanescent, azure vapour. Each puncture and tiny grotto was filled with it, and a sloping cap of shimmering snow spread over the summit. The profile–view was an exact replica of a battleship, grounded astern. The bold contour of the bow was perfect, and the massive flank had been torn and shattered by shell–fire in a desperate naval battle. This berg had heeled over considerably, and the original water–line ran as a definite rim, thirty feet above the green water. From this rim shelved down a smooth and polished base, marked with fine vertical striae.
Soundings varied from twenty to two hundred fathoms, and, accordingly, the navigation was particularly anxious work.
Extending along about fifteen miles of coast, where the inland ice came down steeply to the sea, was a marginal belt of sea, about two or three miles in width, thickly strewn with rocky islets. Of these some were flat and others peaked, but all were thickly populated by penguins, petrels and seals. The rocks appeared all to be gneisses and schists.
Later that night we lay off a possible landing–place for one of our bases, but, on more closely inspecting it in the morning, we decided to proceed farther west into a wide sweeping bay which opened ahead. About fifty miles ahead, on the far side of Commonwealth Bay, as we named it, was a cape which roughly represented in position Cape Découverte, the most easterly extension of Adélie Land seen by D’Urville in 1840. Though Commonwealth Bay and the land already seen had never before been sighted, all was placed under the territorial name of Adélie Land.
The land was so overwhelmed with ice that, even at sea–level, the rock was all but entirely hidden. Here was an ice age in all earnestness; a picture of Northern Europe during the Great Ice Age some fifty thousand years ago. It was evident that the glaciation of Adélie Land was much more severe than that in higher Antarctic latitudes, as exampled on the borders of the Ross Sea; the arena of Scott’s, Shackleton’s and other expeditions. The temperature could not be colder, so we were led to surmise that the snowfall must be excessive. The full truth was to be ascertained by bitter experience, after spending a year on the spot.
I had hoped to find the Antarctic continent in these latitudes bounded by a rocky and attractive coast like that in the vicinity of Cape Adare; the nearest well–explored region. It had proved otherwise, only too well endorsing the scanty information supplied by D’Urville and Wilkes of the coastline seen by them. A glance at the austere plateau and the ice–fettered coast was evidence of a rigid, inhospitable climate. It was apparent, too, that only a short summer could be expected in these latitudes, thus placing limitations upon our operations.
If three bases were to be landed it was important that they should be spread at sufficiently wide intervals. If one were placed in Adélie Land, the ship would probably have to break through the pack in establishing each of the other two bases. Judging by our previous experience there was no certain prospect of this being effected. The successful landing of three bases in suitable positions, sufficiently far apart for advantageous co–operation in geographical, meteorological and other observations, had now become problematical. In addition, one of the parties was not as strong as I would have liked, considering what would be undoubtedly its strenuous future.
For some days the various phases of the situation had occupied my mind, and I now determined to risk two bases, combining the smallest of the three parties with the Main Base. Alterations in the personnel of the third party were also made, by which the Main Base would be increased in strength for scientific work, and the other party under the leadership of Wild would be composed of men of specially good sledging calibre, besides being representative of the leading branches of our scientific programme.
We had a splendid lot of men, and I had no difficulty in choosing for Wild seven companions who could be relied upon to give a good account of themselves. It was only by assuring myself of their high efficiency that I could expect to rest from undue anxiety throughout the year of our separation. The composition of the two parties was as follows:
Main Base: R Bage, FH Bickerton, JH Close, PE Correll, WH Hannam, AJ Hodgeman, JG Hunter, JF Hurley, CF Laseron, CT Madigan, AL McLean, X Mertz, HD Murphy, BES Ninnis, FL Stillwell, EN Webb, LH Whetter and myself.
Western Party: G Dovers, CT Harrisson, CA Hoadley, SE Jones, AL Kennedy, MH Moyes, AD Watson, and F Wild (leader).
I was now anxious to find a suitable location for our Main Base; two reasons making it an urgent matter. The first was, that as we advanced to the west we were leaving the South Magnetic Pole, and I was anxious to have our magnetographs running as near the latter as possible. Secondly, we would be daily increasing our distance from Macquarie Island, making wireless communication more uncertain.
At noon on January 8, while I was weighing the pros and cons with Captain Davis, Wild came in to say that there was a rocky exposure about fifteen miles off on the port side, and suggested altering our course to obtain a better view of it.
Just after 4 pm, when the ship was about one mile from the nearest rocks, the whale–boat was lowered and manned. We rowed in with the object of making a closer investigation. From the ship’s deck, even when within a mile, the outcrop had appeared to project directly from under the inland ice–sheet. Now, however, we were surprised to find ourselves amongst an archipelago of islets. These were named the Mackellar Islets, in remembrance of one who had proved a staunch friend of the Expedition.
Weddell seals and Adélie penguins in thousands rested upon the rocks; the latter chiefly congregated upon a long, low, bare islet situated in the centre. This was the largest of the group, measuring about half a mile in length; others were not above twenty yards in diameter. As we came inshore, the main body of the archipelago was found to be separated by a mile and a half from the mainland. A point which struck us at the time was that the islets situated on the southern side of the group were capped by unique masses of ice; resembling iced cakes. Later we were able to see them in process of formation. In the violent southerly hurricanes prevalent in Adélie Land, the spray breaks right over them. Part of it is deposited and frozen, and by increments the icing of these monstrous ‘cakes’ is built up. The amount contributed in winter makes up for loss by thawing in midsummer. As the islets to windward shelter those in their lee, the latter are destitute of these natural canopies.
Soundings were taken at frequent intervals with a hand lead–line, manipulated by Madigan. The water was on the whole shallow, varying from a few to twenty fathoms. The bottom was clothed by dense, luxuriant seaweed. This rank growth along the littoral was unexpected, for nothing of the kind exists on the Ross Sea coasts within five or six fathoms of the surface.
Advancing towards the mainland, we observed a small islet amongst the rocks, and towards it the boat was directed. We were soon inside a beautiful, miniature harbour completely land–locked. The sun shone gloriously in a blue sky as we stepped ashore on a charming ice–quay – the first to set foot on the Antarctic continent between Cape Adare and Gaussberg, a distance of one thousand eight hundred miles.
Wild and I proceeded to make a tour of exploration. The rocky area at Cape Denison, as it was named, was found to be about one mile in length and half a mile in extreme width. Behind it rose the inland ice, ascending in a regular slope and apparently free of crevasses – an outlet for our sledging parties in the event of the sea not firmly freezing over. To right and left of this oasis, as the visitor to Adélie Land must regard the welcome rock, the ice was heavily crevassed and fell sheer to the sea in cliffs, sixty to one hundred and fifty feet in height. Two small dark patches in the distance were the only evidences of rock to relieve the white monotony of the coast.
In landing cargo on Antarctic shores, advantage is generally taken of the floe–ice on to which the materials can be unloaded and at once sledged away to their destination. Here, on the other hand, there was open water, too shallow for the Aurora to be moored alongside the ice–foot. The only alternative was to anchor the ship at a distance and discharge the cargo by boats running to the ideal harbour we had discovered. Close to the boat harbour was suitable ground for the erection of a hut, so that the various impedimenta would have to be carried only a short distance. For supplies of fresh meat, in the emergency of being marooned for a number of years, there were many Weddell seals at hand, and on almost all the neighbouring ridges colonies of penguins were busy rearing their young.64
As a station for scientific investigations, it offered a wider field than the casual observer would have imagined. So it came about that the Main Base was finally settled at Cape Denison, Commonwealth Bay.
We arrived on board at 8 pm, taking a seal as food for the dogs. Without delay, the motor–launch was dropped into the water, and both it and the whale–boat loaded with frozen carcasses of mutton, cases of eggs and other perishable goods.
While some of us went ashore in the motor–launch, with the whale–boat in tow, the Aurora steamed round the Mackellar Islets seeking for a good anchorage under the icy barrier, immediately to the west of the boat harbour. The day had been perfect, vibrant with summer and life, but towards evening a chill breeze sprang up, and we in the motor–launch had to beat against it. By the time we had reached the head of the harbour, Hoadley had several fingers frost–bitten and all were feeling the cold, for we were wearing light garments in anticipation of fine weather. The wind strengthened every minute, and showers of fine snow were soon whistling down the glacier. No time was lost in landing the cargo, and, with a rising blizzard at our backs, we drove out to meet the Aurora. On reaching the ship a small gale was blowing and our boats were taken in tow.
The first thing to be considered was the mooring of the Aurora under the lee of the ice–wall, so as to give us an opportunity of getting the boats aboard. In the meantime they were passed astern, each manned by several hands to keep them bailed out; the rest of us having scrambled up the side. Bringing the ship to anchor in such a wind in uncharted, shoal water was difficult to do in a cool and methodical manner. The sounding machine was kept running with rather dramatic results; depths jumping from five to thirty fathoms in the ship’s length, and back again to the original figure in the same distance. A feeling of relief passed round when, after much manoeuvring, the anchor was successfully bedded five hundred yards from the face of the cliff.
Just at this time the motor–launch broke adrift. Away it swept before a wind of forty–five miles per hour. On account of the cold, and because the engine was drenched with sea–water, some difficulty was found in starting the motor. From the ship’s deck we could see Bickerton busily engaged with it. The rudder had been unshipped, and there was no chance of replacing it, for the boat was bobbing about on the waves in a most extraordinary manner. However, Whetter managed to make a jury–rudder which served the purpose, while Hunter, the other occupant, was kept laboriously active with the pump.
They had drifted half a mile, and were approaching the rocks of an islet on which the sea was breaking heavily. Just as every one was becoming very apprehensive, the launch began to forge ahead, and the men had soon escaped from their dangerous predicament. By the united efforts of all hands the boats were hoisted on board and everything was made as ‘snug’ as possible.
The wind steadily increased, and it seemed impossible for the anchor to hold. The strain on the cable straightened out a steel hook two inches in diameter. This caused some embarrassment, as the hook was part of the cable attachment under the fo’c’sle–head. It is remarkable, however, that after this was adjusted the ship did not lose her position up to the time of departure from Adélie Land.
Though we were so close under the shelter of a lofty wall, the waves around us were at least four feet in height and when the wind increased to sixty–five and seventy miles per hour, their crests were cut off and the surface was hidden by a sheet of racing spindrift.
Everything was securely lashed in readiness for going to sea, in case the cable should part. Final arrangements were then made to discharge the cargo quickly as soon as the wind moderated.
Two days had elapsed before the wind showed any signs of abatement. It was 8 pm on January 10 when the first boat ventured off with a small cargo, but it was not till the following morning that a serious start was made. In good weather, every trip between the ship and the boat harbour, a distance of a mile, meant that five or six tons had been landed. It was usual for the loaded launch to tow both whale–boats heavily laden and, in addition, a raft of hut timbers or wireless masts. Some of the sailors, while engaged in building rafts alongside the ship, were capsized into the water and after that the occupation was not a popular one.
Ashore, Wild had rigged a derrick, using for its construction two of the wireless royal masts. It was thus possible to cope with the heavier packages at the landing–place. Of the last–named the air–tractor sledge was by far the most troublesome. With plenty of manual labour, under Wild’s skilful direction, this heavy machine was hoisted from the motor–launch, and then carefully swung on to the solid ice–foot.
Captain Davis superintended the discharging operations on the ship, effected by the crew and some of the land party under the direction of the ship’s officers. Wild supervised conveyance ashore, and the landing, classification, and safe storage of the various boat–loads. Gillies and Bickerton took alternate shifts in driving the motor–launch. The launch proved invaluable, and we were very glad that it had been included in the equipment, for it did a remarkable amount of work in a minimum of time.
In view of the difficulty of embarking the boats, if another hurricane should arise, tents were erected ashore, so that a party could remain there with the boats moored in a sheltered harbour.
Everything went well until just before midnight on January 12, when the wind again swept down. Wild, four of the men and I were forced to remain ashore. We spent the time constructing a temporary hut of benzine cases, roofed with planks; the walls of which were made massive to resist the winds. This structure was henceforth known as the ‘Benzine Hut’.
The barometer dropped to 28.5 inches and the wind remained high. We were struck with the singular fact that, even in the height of some of these hurricanes, the sky remained serene and the sun shone brightly. It had been very different when the ship was amongst the pack a few miles to the north, for, there, cloudy and foggy conditions had been the rule. The wind coming to us from the south was dry; obviously an argument for the continental extension of the land in that direction.
At 2 am on January 15 a pre–arranged whistle was sounded from the Aurora, advising those of us ashore that the sea had moderated sufficiently to continue unloading. Wild sped away in the launch, but before he had reached the ship the wind renewed its activity. At last, after 2 pm on the same day it ceased, and we were able to carry on work until midnight, when the wind descended on us once more. This time, eighteen men remained ashore. After twelve hours there was another lull, and unloading was then continued with only a few intermissions from 1 pm on January 16 until the afternoon of January 19.
Never was landing so hampered by adverse conditions, and yet, thanks to the assiduous application of all, a great assortment of materials was safely embarked. Comprised among them were the following: twenty–three tons of coal briquettes, two complete living–huts, a magnetic observatory, the whole of the wireless equipment, including masts, and more than two thousand packages of general supplies containing sufficient food for two years, utensils, instruments, benzine, kerosene, lubricating oils an air–tractor and other sledges.
Then came the time for parting. There was a great field before Wild’s party to the west, and it was important that they should be able to make the most of the remainder of the season. My great regret was that I could not be with them. I knew that I had men of experience and ability in Davis and Wild, and felt that the work entrusted to them was in the best of hands. Through the medium of wireless telegraphy I hoped to keep in touch with the Macquarie Island party, the Western Base,2 and the ship itself, when in Australian waters.
It was my idea that Wild’s party should proceed west and attempt to effect a landing and establish a western wintering station at some place not less than four hundred miles west of Adélie Land. On the way, whenever opportunity presented itself, they were to cache provisions at intervals along the coast in places liable to be visited by sledging parties.
The location of such caches and of the Western Base, it was hoped, would be communicated to us at the Main Base, through the medium of wireless telegraphy from Hobart.
All members of the land parties and the ship’s officers met in the ward–room. There were mutual good wishes expressed all round, and then we celebrated previous Antarctic explorers, more especially D’Urville and Wilkes. The toast was drunk in excellent Madeira presented to us by Mr JT Buchanan, who had carried this sample round the world with him when a member of the celebrated Challenger expedition.
The motor–launch was hoisted and the anchor raised. Then at 8.45 pm on January 19 we clambered over the side into one of the whale–boats and pushed off for Cape Denison, shouting farewells back to the Aurora. Several hours later she had disappeared below the northwestern horizon, and we had set to work to carve out a home in Adélie Land.
- Subsequently this shelf–ice formation was found to be a floating glacier–tongue sixty miles in length, the seaward extension of a large glacier which we named the Mertz Glacier.
- They were supplied with masts and a receiving set sufficiently sensitive to pick up messages from a distance of five or six hundred miles.
This version of Home of the Blizzard has been edited and published by the Australian Antarctic Division.