Chapter 4: New lands

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

Chapter 4: New lands

Leaving the land party under my charge at Commonwealth Bay on the evening of January 19, the Aurora set her course to round a headland visible on the northwestern horizon. At midnight the ship came abreast of this point and continued steaming west, keeping within a distance of five miles of the coast. A break in the icy monotony came with a short tract of islets fronting a background of dark rocky coastline similar to that at Cape Denison but more extensive.

Some six miles east of D’Urville’s Cape Discovery, a dangerous reef was sighted extending at right angles across the course. The ship steamed along it and her soundings demonstrated a submerged ridge continuing some twelve miles out to sea. Captain Davis’s narrative proceeds:

‘Having cleared this obstacle we followed the coastline to the west from point to point. Twelve miles away we could see the snow–covered slopes rising from the seaward cliffs to an elevation of one thousand five hundred feet. Several small islands were visible close to a shore fringed by numerous large bergs.

‘At 10 pm on January 20, our progress to the west was stopped by a fleet of bergs off the mainland and an extensive field of berg–laden pack–ice, trending to the north and northeast. Adélie Land could be traced continuing to the west. Where it disappeared from view there was the appearance of a barrier–formation, suggestive of shelf–ice, running in a northerly direction. Skirting the pack–ice on a north and northwest course, we observed the same appearance from the crow’s–nest on January 21 and 22.’

The stretch of open, navigable, coastal water to the north of Adélie Land, barred by the Mertz Glacier on the east and delimited on the west by more or less compact ice, has been named the D’Urville Sea. We found subsequently that its freedom from obstruction by ice is due to the persistent gales which set off the land in that locality. To the north, pack–ice in variable amount is encountered before reaching the wide open ocean.

The existence of such a ‘barrier–formation’,1 as indicated above, probably resting on a line of reef similar to the one near Cape Discovery, would account for the presence of this ice–field in practically the same position as it was seen by D’Urville in 1840.

Quoting further: ‘We were unable to see any trace of the high land reported by the United States Squadron (1840) as lying to the west and south beyond the compact ice.

‘At 1.30 am on the 23rd the pack–ice was seen to trend to the southwest. After steaming west for twenty–five miles, we stood south in longitude 182° 30’ E, shortly afterwards passing over the charted position of Côte Clarie. The water here was clear of pack–ice, but studded with bergs of immense size. The great barrier which the French ships followed in 1840 had vanished. A collection of huge bergs was the sole remnant to mark its former position.

‘At 10 am, having passed to the south of the charted position of D’Urville’s Côte Clarie, we altered course to S 10° E true. Good observations placed us at noon in latitude 65° 2’ S and 132° 26’ E. A sounding on sand and small stones was taken in one hundred and sixty fathoms. We sailed over the charted position of land east of Wilkes’s Cape Carr in clear weather.

‘At 5.30 pm land was sighted to the southward – snowy highlands similar to those of Adélie Land but greater in elevation.

‘After sounding in one hundred and fifty–six fathoms on mud, the ship stood directly towards the land until 9 pm The distance to the nearest point was estimated at twenty miles; heavy floe–ice extending from our position, latitude 65° 45’ S and longitude 132° 40’ E, right up to the shore. Another sounding realized two hundred and thirty fathoms, on sand and small stones. Some open water was seen to the southeast, but an attempt to force a passage in that direction was frustrated.

‘At 3 am on the 24th we were about twelve miles from the nearest point of the coast, and further progress became impossible. The southern slopes were seamed with numerous crevasses, but at a distance the precise nature of the shores could not be accurately determined.’

To this country, which had never before been seen, was given the name of Wilkes’s Land; as it is only just to commemorate the American Exploring Expedition on the Continent which its leader believed he had discovered in these seas and which he would have found had Fortune favoured him with a fair return for his heroic endeavours.

‘We steered round on a northwesterly course, and at noon on January 24 were slightly to the north of our position at 5.30 am on the 23rd. A sounding reached one hundred and seventy fathoms and a muddy bottom. Environing us were enormous bergs of every kind, one hundred and eighty to two hundred feet in height. During the afternoon a westerly course was maintained in clear water until 4 pm, when the course was altered to S 30° W, in the hope of winning through to the land visible on the southern horizon.’

Map detailing the ships’ tracks in the vicinity of Totten’s Land and North’s Land

Ships’ tracks in the vicinity of Totten’s Land and North’s Land

At 8 pm the sky was very clear to the southward, and the land could be traced to a great distance until it faded in the southwest. But the ship had come up with the solid floe–ice once more, and had to give way and steam along its edge. This floating breakwater held us off and frustrated all attempts to reach the goal which we sought.

‘The next four days was a period of violent gales and heavy seas which drove the ship some distance to the north. Nothing was visible through swirling clouds of snow. The Aurora behaved admirably, as she invariably does in heavy weather. The main pack was encountered on January 29, but foggy weather prevailed. It was not until noon on January 31 that the atmosphere was sufficiently clear to obtain good observations. The ship was by this time in the midst of heavy floe in the vicinity of longitude 119° E, and again the course had swung round to south. We had soon passed to the south of Balleny’s Sabrina Land without any indication of its existence. Considering the doubtful character of the statements justifying its appearance on the chart, it is not surprising that we did not verify them.

‘At 11 am the floes were found too heavy for further advance. The ship was made fast to a big one and a large quantity of ice was taken on board to replenish the fresh–water supply. A tank of two hundred gallons’ capacity, heated within by a steam coil from the engine–room, stood on the poop deck. Into this ice was continuously fed, flowing away as it melted into the main tanks in the bottom of the ship.

‘At noon the weather was clear, but nothing could be discerned in the south except a faint blue line on the horizon. It may have been a ‘lead’ of water, an effect of mirage, or even land–ice – in any case we could not approach it.’

The position as indicated by the noon observations placed the ship within seven miles of a portion of Totten’s High Land in Wilkes’s charts. As high land would have been visible at a great distance, it is clear that Totten’s High Land either does not exist or is situated a considerable distance from its charted location. A sounding was made in three hundred and forty fathoms.

Map detailing the ships’ tracks in the vicinity of Knox Land and Budd Land

Ships’ tracks in the vicinity of Knox Land and Budd Land

Towards evening the Aurora turned back to open water and cruised along the pack–ice. A sounding next day showed nine hundred and twenty–seven fathoms.

It was about this time that a marked improvement was noted in the compass. Ever since the first approach to Adélie Land it had been found unreliable, for, on account of the proximity to the magnetic pole, the directive force of the needle was so slight that very large local variations were experienced.

The longitude of Wilkes’s Knox Land was now approaching. With the exception of Adélie Land, the account by Wilkes concerning Knox Land is more convincing than any other of his statements relating to new Antarctic land. If they had not already disembarked, we had hoped to land the western party in that neighbourhood. It was, therefore, most disappointing when impenetrable ice blocked the way, before Wilkes’s ‘farthest south’ in that locality had been reached. Three determined efforts were made to find a weak spot, but each time the Aurora was forced to retreat, and the third time was extricated only with great difficulty. In latitude 65° 5’ S longitude 107° 20’ E, a sounding of three hundred fathoms was made on a rocky bottom. This sounding pointed to the probability of land within sixty miles.

Repulsed from his attack on the pack, Captain Davis set out westward towards the charted position of Termination Land, and in following the trend of the ice was forced a long way to the north.

At 7.40 am, February 8, in foggy weather, the ice–cliff of floating shelf–ice was met. This was disposed so as to point in a northwesterly direction and it was late in the day before the ship doubled its northern end. Here the sounding wire ran out for eight hundred and fifty fathoms without reaching bottom. Following the wall towards the south–southeast, it was interesting at 5.30 pm to find a sounding of one hundred and ten fathoms in latitude 64° 45’. A line of large grounded bergs and massive floe–ice was observed ahead trailing away from the ice–wall towards the northwest.

On plotting the observations, it became apparent that the shelf–ice was in the form of a prolonged tongue some seven miles in breadth. As it occupied the position of the ‘Termination Land’ which has appeared on some charts, (after Wilkes) it was named Termination Ice–Tongue.

A blizzard sprang up, and, after it had been safely weathered in the lee of some grounded bergs, the Aurora moved off on the afternoon of February 11. The horizon was obscured by mist, as she pursued a tortuous track amongst bergs and scattered lumps of heavy floe. Gradually the sea became more open, and by noon on February 12 the water had deepened to two hundred and thirty–five fathoms. Good progress was made to the south; the vessel dodging icebergs and detached floes.

The discovery of a comparatively open sea southward of the main pack was a matter of some moment. As later voyages and the observations of the Western Party showed, this tract of sea is a permanent feature of the neighbourhood. I have called it the Davis Sea, after the captain of the Aurora, in appreciation of the fact that he placed it on the chart.

At noon, on February 13, in latitude 65° 54 1/2’ S longitude 94° 25’ E, the western face of a long, floating ice–tongue loomed into view. There were five hundred fathoms of water off its extremity, and the cliffs rose vertically to one hundred feet. Soon afterwards land was clearly defined low in the south extending to east and west. This was thenceforth known as Queen Mary Land.

The sphere of operations of the German expedition of 1902 was near at hand, for its vessel, the Gauss, had wintered, frozen in the pack, one hundred and twenty–five miles to the west. It appeared probable that Queen Mary Land would be found to be continuous2 with Kaiser Wilhelm II Land, which the Germans had reached by a sledging journey from their ship across the intervening sea–ice.

The Aurora followed the western side of the ice–tongue for about twenty miles in a southerly direction, at which point there was a white expanse of floe extending right up to the land. Wild and Kennedy, walking several miles towards the land, estimated that it was about twenty–five miles distant. As the surface over which they travelled was traversed by cracks and liable to drift away to sea, all projects of landing there had to be abandoned; furthermore, it was discovered that the ice–tongue, alongside of which the ship lay, was a huge iceberg. A landing on it had been contemplated, but was now out of question.

The main difficulty which arose at this juncture was the failing coal–supply. It was high time to return to Hobart, and, if a western base was to be formed at all, Wild’s party would have to be landed without further delay. After a consultation, Davis and Wild decided that under the circumstances an attempt should be made to gain a footing on the adjacent shelf–ice, if nothing better presented itself.

The night was passed anchored to the floe, on the edge of which were numerous Emperor penguins and Weddell seals. A fresh southeasterly wind blew on February 14, and the ship was kept in the shelter of the iceberg. During the day enormous pieces were observed to be continually breaking away from the berg and drifting to leeward.

Captain Davis continues: ‘At midnight there was a strong swell from the northeast and the temperature went down to 18°F. At 4 am, February 15, we reached the northern end of the berg and stood first of all to the east, and then later to the southeast.

‘At 8.45 am, shelf–ice was observed from aloft, trending approximately north and south in a long wall. At noon we came up with the floe–ice again, in about the same latitude as on the western side of the long iceberg. Land could be seen to the southward. At 1 pm the ship stopped at the junction of the floe and the shelf–ice.’

Wild, Harrison and Hoadley went to examine the shelf–ice with a view to its suitability for a wintering station. The cliff was eighty to one hundred feet in height, so that the ice in total thickness must have attained at least as much as six hundred feet. Assisted by snow–ramps slanting down on to the floe, the ascent with ice–axes and alpine rope was fairly easy.

Two hundred yards from the brink, the shelf–ice was thrown into pressure–undulations and fissured by crevasses, but beyond that was apparently sound and unbroken. About seventeen miles to the south the rising slopes of ice–mantled land were visible, fading away to the far east and west.

The ice–shelf was proved later on to extend for two hundred miles from east to west, ostensibly fusing with the Termination Ice–Tongue, whose extremity is one hundred and eighty miles to the north. The whole has been called the Shackleton Ice–Shelf.

Wild and his party unanimously agreed to seize upon this last opportunity, and to winter on the floating ice.

The work of discharging stores was at once commenced. To raise the packages from the floe to the top of the ice–shelf, a ‘flying–fox’ was rigged.

‘A kedge–anchor was buried in the sea–ice, and from this a two–and–a–half–inch wire–hawser was led upwards over a pair of sheer–legs on top of the cliff to another anchor buried some distance back. The whole was set taut by a tackle. The stores were then slung to a travelling pulley on the wire, and hauled on to the glacier by means of a rope led through a second pulley on the sheer–legs. The ship’s company broke stores out of the hold and sledged them three hundred yards to the foot of an aerial, where they were hooked on to the travelling–block by which the shore party, under Wild, raised them to their destination.’

‘It was most important to accelerate the landing as much as possible, not only on account of the lateness of the season – the Gauss had been frozen in on February 22 at a spot only one hundred and seventy miles away – but because the floe was gradually breaking up and floating away. When the last load was hoisted, the water was lapping within ten yards of the ‘flying–fox’’.

A fresh west–northwest wind on February 17 caused some trouble. Captain Davis writes:

‘February 19. The floe to which we have been attached is covered by a foot of water. The ship has been bumping a good deal to–day. Notwithstanding the keen wind and driving snow, every one has worked well. Twelve tons of coal were the last item to go up the cliff.’

In all, thirty–six tons of stores were raised on to the shelf–ice, one hundred feet above sea–level, in four days.

‘February 20. The weather is very fine and quite a contrast to yesterday. We did not get the coal ashore a moment too soon, as this morning the ice marked by our sledge tracks went to sea in a northwesterly direction, and this afternoon it is drifting back as if under the influence of a tide or current. We sail at 7 am tomorrow.

‘I went on to the glacier with Wild during the afternoon. It is somewhat crevassed for about two hundred yards inland, and then a flat surface stretches away as far as the eye can see. I wished the party ‘God–speed’ this evening, as we sail early tomorrow.’

Early on February 21, the ship’s company gave their hearty farewell cheers, and the Aurora sailed north, leaving Wild and his seven companions on the floating ice.

The bright weather of the immediate coastal region was soon exchanged for the foggy gloom of the pack.

‘February 21, 11 pm We are now passing a line of grounded bergs and some heavy floe–ice. Fortunately it is calm, but in the darkness it is difficult to see an opening. The weather is getting thick, and I expect we shall have trouble in working through this line of bergs.

‘February 22. I cannot explain how we managed to clear some of the bergs between 11 pm last night and 3 am this morning. At first stopping and lying–to was tried, but it was soon evident that the big bergs were moving and would soon hem us in: probably in a position from which we should be unable to extricate ourselves this season.

‘So we pushed this way and that, endeavouring to retain freedom at any cost. For instance, about midnight I was ‘starboarding’ to clear what appeared to be the loom of a berg on the starboard bow, when, suddenly, out of the haze a wall seemed to stretch across our course. There was no room to turn, so ‘full speed astern’ was the only alternative. The engines responded immediately, or we must have crashed right into a huge berg. Until daylight it was ice ahead, to port and to starboard – ice everywhere all the time. The absence of wind saved us from disaster. It was a great relief when day broke, showing clearer water to the northward.’

On February 23, the Aurora left the shelter of Termination Ice–Tongue, and a course was set nearly true north. There was a fresh breeze from the northeast and a high sea. The ship was desperately short of ballast and the coal had to be carefully husbanded. All movable gear was placed in the bottom of the ship, while the ashes were saved, wetted and put below. The ballast–tanks were found to be leaking and Gillies had considerable trouble in making them watertight.

The distance from the Western Base in Queen Mary Land to Hobart was two thousand three hundred miles, through the turbulent seas of the fifties and forties. It was the end of a perilous voyage when the Aurora arrived in Hobart with nine tons of coal.

On March 12, the captain’s log records:

‘The Aurora has done splendidly, beating all attempts of the weather to turn her over. We had two heavy gales during the first week of March, but reached Hobart safely to–day, passing on our way up the Derwent the famous Polar ship, Fram, at anchor in Sandy Bay. Flags were dipped and a hearty cheer given for Captain Amundsen and his gallant comrades who had raised the siege of the South Pole.’

  1. An analysis of the data derived from the later voyages of the Aurora makes it practically certain that there is a permanent obstacle to the westerly drift of the pack–ice in longitude 137° E. There is, however, some uncertainty as to the cause of this blockage. An alternative explanation is advanced, namely, that within the area of comparatively shallow water, large bergs are entrapped, and these entangle the drifting pack–ice.

    At a distance, large bergs would be undistinguishable from shelf–ice, appearances of which were reported above.

  2. Such was eventually proved to be the case.

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