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

Chapter 5: First days in Adélie Land

The overcrowded whale–boat disgorged its cargo at 10 pm on the ice–quay at Cape Denison. The only shelter was a cluster of four tents and the Benzine Hut, so the first consideration was the erection of a commodious living–hut.

While the majority retired to rest to be ready for a fresh burst of work on the morrow, a few of us discussed the preliminary details, and struck the first blows in the laying of the foundations.

A site for the living–hut was finally approved. This was a nearly flat piece of rocky ground of just sufficient size, partially sheltered on the southern side by a large upstanding rock. Other points to recommend it were, proximity to the boat harbour and to a good sledging surface; the ice of the glacier extending to the ‘front door’ on the western side. Several large rocks had to be shifted, and difficulty was anticipated in the firm setting of the stumps. The latter were blocks of wood, three feet in length, embedded in the ground, forming the foundation of the structure. Unfortunately, no such thing as earth or gravel existed in which to sink these posts, and the rock being of the variety known as gneiss, was more than ordinarily tough.

Since two parties had combined, there were two huts available, and these were to be erected so that the smaller adjoined and was in the lee of the larger. The latter was to be the living–room; the former serving as a vestibule, a workshop and an engine–room for the wireless plant. Slight modifications were made in the construction of both huts, but these did not affect the framework. After the completion of the living–hut, regular scientific observations were to commence, and the smaller hut was then to be built as opportunity offered.

Nothing has so far been said about the type of hut adopted by our Antarctic stations. As the subject is important, and we had expended much thought thereon before coming to a final decision, a few remarks will not be out of place.

Strength to resist hurricanes, simplicity of construction, portability and resistance to external cold were fundamental. My first idea was to have the huts in the form of pyramids on a square base, to ensure stability in heavy winds and with a large floor–area to reduce the amount of timber used. The final type was designed at the expense of floor–space, which would have been of little use because of the low roof in the parts thus eliminated. In this form, the pyramid extended to within five feet of the ground on the three windward sides so as to include an outside veranda. That veranda, like the motor–launch, was a wonderful convenience, and another of the many things of which we made full use. It lent stability to the structure, assisted to keep the hut warm, served as a store–house, physical laboratory and a dog shelter.

Round the outside of the three veranda walls boxes of stores were stacked, so as to continue the roof–slope to the ground. Thus, the wind striking the hut met no vertical face, but was partly deflected; the other force–component tending to pin the building to the ground.

All three huts were essentially of the same construction. The largest, on account of its breadth, had four special supporting posts, symmetrically placed near the centre, stretching from the ground to the roof framework. The only subdivisions inside were a small vestibule, a photographic darkroom and my own room. This rough idea I had handed over to Hodgeman, leaving him to complete the details and to draw up the plans. The frame timbers he employed were stronger than usual in a building of the size, and were all securely bolted together. The walls and roof, both inside and outside, were of tongued and grooved pine–boards, made extra wind–proof by two courses of tarred paper. As rain was not expected, this roofing was sufficient. There were four windows in the roof, one on each side of the pyramid. We should thereby get light even though almost buried in snow.

A ground plan of the hut at Adélie Land

Plan of the hut, Adélie Land

The largest hut was presented by the timber merchants of Sydney, and proved its astonishing strength during the winter hurricanes. The smallest was purchased in Adelaide, the third was built and presented by Messrs Anthony of Melbourne.

On the morning of January 20 all were at work betimes. As we were securely isolated from a trades hall, our hours of labour ranged from 7 am till 11 pm

Dynamite was to be used for blasting out the holes for the reception of the stumps, and so the steel rock–drills were unpacked and boring commenced. This was easier than it appeared, because the rock was much traversed by cracks. By the end of the day a good deal of damage had been done to the rock, at the expense of a few sore fingers and wrists caused by the sledge–hammers missing the drills. The work was tedious, for water introduced into the holes had a habit of freezing. The metal drills, too, tended to be brittle in the cold and required to be tempered softer than usual. Hannam operated the forge, and picks and drills were sent along for pointing; an outcrop of gneiss serving as an anvil.

Among other things it was found difficult to fire the charges, for, when frozen, dynamite is not readily exploded. This was overcome by carrying the sticks inside one’s pocket until the last moment. In the absence of earth or clay, we had no tamping material until some one suggested guano from the penguin rookeries, which proved a great success.

Next day the stumps were in place; most of them being fixed by wedges and other devices. Cement was tried, but it is doubtful if any good came of it, for the low temperature did not encourage it to set well. By the evening, the bottom plates were laid on and bolted to the tops of the stumps, and everything was ready for the superstructure.

On January 22, while some were busy with the floor–joists and wall–frames, others carried boulders from the neighbouring moraine, filling in the whole space between the stumps. These were eventually embedded in a mass of boulders, as much as three feet deep in places. By the time both huts were erected, nearly fifty tons of stones had been used in the foundations – a circumstance we did not regret at a later date.

Hodgeman was appointed clerk of works on the construction, and was kept unusually busy selecting timber, patrolling among the workmen, and searching for his foot–rule which had an unaccountable trick of vanishing in thin air.

Hannam had various occupations, but one was to attend to the needs of the inner man, until the completion of the hut. There is no doubt that he was regarded at this time as the most important and popular member of the party, for our appetites were abnormally good. About an hour before meals he was to be seen rummaging amongst the cases of provisions, selecting tins of various brands and hues from the great confusion. However remote their source or diverse their colour, experience taught us that only one preparation would emerge from the tent–kitchen. It was a multifarious stew. Its good quality was undoubted, for a few minutes after the ‘dinner–bell rang’ there was not a particle left. The ‘dinner–bell’ was a lusty shout from the master cook, which was re–echoed by the brawny mob who rushed madly to the Benzine Hut. Plates and mugs were seized and portions measured out, while the diners distributed themselves on odd boxes lying about on the ice. Many who were accustomed to restaurants built tables of kerosene cases and dined al fresco. After the limited stew, the company fared on cocoa, biscuits – ‘hard tack’ – and jam, all ad libitum.

On those rare summer days, the sun blazed down on the blue ice; skua gulls nestled in groups on the snow; sly penguins waddled along to inspect the building operations; seals basked in torpid slumber on the shore; out on the sapphire bay the milk–white bergs floated in the swell. We can all paint our own picture of the good times round the Benzine Hut. We worked hard, ate heartily and enjoyed life.

By the evening of January 24 the floor and outside walls were finished, and the roof–frame was in position. Work on the roof was the coldest job of all, for now there was rarely an hour free from a cold breeze, at times reaching the velocity of a gale. This came directly down from the plateau, and to sit with exposed fingers handling hammer and nails was not an enviable job. To add to our troubles, the boards were all badly warped from being continually wet with sea–water on the voyage. However, by judicious ‘gadgetting’, as the phrase went, they were got into place.

Diagram detailing longitudinal and transverse sections across the hut, Adélie Land

Sections across the hut, Adélie Land

The windward roof was up on January 25, and several of us camped in sleeping–bags under its shelter. Already Hannam had unpacked the large range and put the parts together in the kitchen. Henceforth the cooking operations were simplified, for previously a sledging–cooker had been used.

Mention of the stove recalls a very cold episode. It happened that while our goods were being lifted from the boats to the landing–stage, a case had fallen into the harbour. When the parts of the stove were being assembled, several important items were found to be missing, and it was thought that they might compose the contents of the unknown case lying in the kelp at the bottom of the bay.

Laseron and I went on board the whale–boat one day at low water, and located the box with a pole, but though we used several devices with hooks, we were unable to get hold of it. At last I went in, and, standing on tip–toe, could just reach it and keep my head above water. It took some time to extricate from the kelp, following which I established a new record for myself in dressing. The case turned out to be full of jam, and we had to make a new search for the missing parts. I do not think I looked very exhilarated after that bath, but strange to say, a few days later Correll tried an early morning swim which was the last voluntary dip attempted by any one.

The enthusiasm of the builders rose to its highest pitch as the roof neared completion, and we came in sight of a firm and solid habitation, secure from the winds which harassed us daily. A dozen hammers worked at once, each concentrated upon a specific job. The ardour with which those engaged upon the ceiling inside the hut plied their nails resulted in several minor casualties to those sitting on the roof, deeply intent on the outer lining. A climax was reached when McLean, working on the steeply inclined roof, lost his footing and, in passing, seized hold of the wire–stay of the chimney as a last hope. Alas, that was the only stay, and as he proceeded over the end of the roof into a bank of snow, Ninnis, within the hut, convinced that nothing less than a cyclone had struck the building, gallantly held on to the lower hot section amidst a shower of soot.

Everybody was in the best of spirits, and things went ahead merrily. On January 30 the main building was almost completed, and all slept under its roof. Bunks had been constructed, forming a double tier around three sides of the room. For the first time since coming ashore we retired to sleep in blankets; fur sleeping–bags had been previously used. That night the sky which had been clear for a fortnight banked up with nimbus cloud, and Murphy, who was sleeping under a gap in the roof, woke up next morning to find over him a fine counterpane of snow. He received hearty congratulations all round.

Regular meteorological observations began on February 1. The various instruments had been unpacked as soon as the outer shell of the Hut was completed. The barometer and barograph were kept running inside. Outside there were two large screens for the reception of a number of the instruments. It was important to erect these as near the Hut as possible. The standard thermometer, thermograph and hygrograph were to occupy one of the screens, a convenient site for which was chosen about twenty yards to the east. Close by there was also a nephoscope for determining the motion of clouds. The immediate vicinity of the Hut, being a gully–like depression, was unsuitable for the wind and sunshine recorders. A more distant site, on a rocky ridge to the east, was chosen for these. There were set up a recording anemometer (wind–velocity meter), a sunshine–meter and the second screen containing the anemograph (wind–direction recorder).

Madigan was to take charge of the meteorological observations and he, assisted by Ninnis and Mertz, erected the two screens and mounted the instruments. Special care was taken to secure the screens against violent winds. Phosphor–bronze wire–stays, with a breaking strength of one ton, were used, attached to billets of wood driven into fissures in the rock. Strong as these wires were, several breakages had to be replaced during the year.

Webb was busy with the magnetic work. For this two huts were to be erected; the first for ‘absolute’ determinations, the second for housing the recording instruments – the magnetographs. Distant sites, away from the magnetic disturbances of the Hut, were chosen. Webb and Stillwell immediately set to work as soon as they could be spared from the main building. For the ‘absolute hut’ there were only scrap materials available; the ‘magnetograph house’, alone, had been brought complete. They had a chilly job, for as the days went by the weather steadily became worse. Yet in a little over a week there were only the finishing touches to make, and the first observations were started.

It was now necessary to institute a routine of nightwatchmen, cooks and messmen. The night–watchman’s duties included periodic meteorological observations, attention to the fire in the range, and other miscellaneous duties arising between the hours of 8 pm and 8 am The cook prepared the meals, and the messman of the day rendered any assistance necessary. A rotation was adopted, so arranged that those most actively engaged in scientific observations were least saddled with domestic duties. Thus each contributed his equivalent share of work.

Whilst others were occupied finishing off the interior of the hut, Whetter and Close sledged the cases of stores across from the landing–stage, classified them and stacked them against the veranda walls. An additional barricade was constructed of flour cases, in the form of a wall, which increased the breadth of the rocky break–wind on the southern side.

Murphy, who was in charge of all the stores, saw that a good stock of food was accessible in the veranda. Here he put up shelves and unpacked cases, so that samples of everything were at hand on the shortest notice. Liquids liable to freeze and burst their bottles were taken into the Hut.

Map detailing the vicinity of the main base, Adélie Land

The vicinity of the main base, Adélie Land

Already we had several times seized the opportunity of a calm hour to take out the whale–boat and assist Hunter to set traps and make a few hauls with the hand–dredge. Even in five fathoms, bright red and brown star–fish had been caught in the trap, as well as numerous specimens of a common Antarctic fish known as Notothenia. In ten fathoms and over the results were better, though in no case was the catch so abundant as one would expect from the amount of life in the water. The luxuriant kelp probably interfered with the proper working of the traps. Fish of the same species as the above were caught on a hand–line.

Hunter, our biologist, was very unfortunate in crushing some of his fingers while carrying a heavy case. This accident came at a time when he had just recovered from a severe strain of the knee–joint which he suffered during our activities in the Queen’s Wharf shed at Hobart. Several of us were just going out to the traps one afternoon when the casualty occurred. Hunter was very anxious to go, so we waited until McLean had sewn up a couple of his fingertips.

Weddell, and with them occasional crab–eater seals, were at this time always to be found in numbers sleeping on the ice–foot around the boat harbour. It appeared as if we would have plenty of meat throughout the year, so I waited until the building was completed before laying in a stock. The penguins, however, were diminishing in numbers fast and the young birds in the rookeries had grown very large and were beginning to migrate to warmer regions. Several parties, therefore, raided them and secured some hundreds for the winter.

Giant petrels and skua gulls swarmed in flocks round the seals’ and penguins’ carcases. These scavengers demolish an incredible amount of meat and blubber in a short time. It is a diabolical sight to witness a group of birds tearing out the viscera of a seal, dancing the while with wings outspread.

During the afternoon of February 11 Webb came in with the news that a sea elephant was making its way over the rocks near the shore. We rushed out in time to see it standing over Johnson, one of the dogs, who, true to his name, did not look abashed. Attracted by more formidable antagonists, the monster left Johnson and came towards us. He was a fair–sized male with a good skin, so we shot him before he had time to get back into the sea. His measurements were seventeen feet six inches in length and twelve feet in maximum circumference.

With the temperature well below freezing–point, skinning is cold work in the wind, and must be done before the animal has time to freeze stiff. A number of us set to work flaying. In order to move the mountain of flesh a Westing purchase and a ‘handy–billy’ (rope and block purchase) had to be rigged. It was several hours before everything was disposed of; the skin and skull for the biological collection and the meat and blubber for the dogs. Ninnis and Mertz, who were the wardens of the dogs, cut up about one ton of meat and blubber, and stored it as a winter reserve for their charges.

It may be mentioned that sea elephants are subantarctic in distribution, and only rarely have these animals been observed on the shores of the Antarctic continent. As far as I am aware, the only other occasion of such an occurrence was noted by Captain Scott in McMurdo Sound. Wilkes reported many of them on the pack–ice to the north of the Balleny Islands, so possibly they have a stronghold in that vicinity.

The dogs, ever since their arrival ashore, had been chained up on the rocks below the Hut. The continuous wind worried them a good deal, but they had a substantial offset to the cold in a plentiful supply of seal–meat. On the whole, they were in a much better condition then when they left the Aurora. Nineteen in all, they had an odd assemblage of names, which seemed to grow into them until nothing else was so suitable: Basilisk, Betli, Caruso, Castor, Franklin, Fusilier, Gadget, George, Ginger, Ginger Bitch, Grandmother, Haldane, Jappy, John Bull, Johnson, Mary, Pavlova, Scott and Shackleton. Grandmother would have been better known as Grandfather. He was said to have a grandmotherly appearance; that is why he received the former name. The head dog was Basilisk, and next to him came Shackleton.

Early in February, after having experienced nothing but a succession of gales for nearly a month, I was driven to conclude that the average local weather must be much more windy than in any other part of Antarctica. The conditions were not at all favourable for sledging, which I had hoped to commence as soon as the Hut was completed. Now that the time had arrived and the weather was still adverse, it seemed clear that our first duty was to see everything snug for the winter before making an attempt.

Hannam, assisted by Bickerton, Madigan and others, had laid heavy and firm foundations for the petrol–motor and generator. The floor of the smaller room was then built around these bed–plates, and last of all came the walls and roof. Murphy, Bage and Hodgeman were chiefly responsible for the last–named, which was practically completed by February 10. Minor additions and modifications were added after that date. Meanwhile, Hannam continued to unpack and mount the instruments forming the wireless plants. Along one wall and portion of another, in the outer hut, a bench was built for mechanical work and for scientific purposes. This was in future to be the work–room.

Our home had attained to a stage of complex perfection. To penetrate to the inside hut, the stranger reverently steps through a hole in the snow to the veranda, then by way of a vestibule with an inner and outer door he has invaded the privacy of the work–room, from which with fear and trembling he passes by a third door into the sanctum sanctorum. Later, when the snow–tunnel system came into vogue, the place became another Labyrinth of Minos.

The three doors were fitted with springs to keep them shut unless they were jammed open for ventilation, which was at once obtained by opening an aperture in the cooking–range flue. A current of air would then circulate through the open doors. The roof windows were immovable and sealed on the inside by a thick accumulation of ice. An officer of public health, unacquainted with the climate of Adélie Land, would be inclined to regard the absence of more adequate ventilation as a serious omission. It would enlighten him to know that much of our spare time, for a month after the completion of the building, was spent in plugging off draughts which found their way through most unexpected places, urged by a wind–pressure from without of many pounds to the square foot.

Excepting the small portion used as an entrance–porch, the verandas were left without any better flooring than well–trodden snow. In the boarded floor of the porch was a trap–door which led down into a shallow cellar extending under a portion of the work–room. The cellar was a refrigerating chamber for fresh meat and contained fifteen carcases of mutton, besides piles of seal–meat and penguins.

In preparation for our contemplated sledging, masts, spars and sails were fitted to some of the sledges, rations were prepared and alterations made to harness and clothing. Soon a sledge stood packed, ready to set out on the first fine day.

For several days in succession, about the middle of February, the otherwise continuous wind fell off to a calm for several hours in the evening. On those occasions Mertz gave us some fine exhibitions of skiing, of which art he was a consummate master. Skis had been provided for every one, in case we should have to traverse a country where the snow lay soft and deep. From the outset, there was little chance of that being the case in wind–scoured Adélie Land. Nevertheless, most of the men seized the few opportunities we had to become more practiced in their use. My final opinion, however, was that if we had all been experts like Mertz, we could have used them with advantage from time to time.

The end of February approached. We were fully prepared for sledging, and were looking forward to it with great expectation. The wind still continued, often rising to the force of a hurricane, and was mostly accompanied by snow.

One evening, when we were all at dinner, there was a sudden noise which drowned the rush of the blizzard. It was found that several sledges had been blown away from their position to the south of the Hut, striking the building as they passed. They were all rescued except one, which had already reached the sea and was travelling rapidly toward Australia.

Mertz, Bage and I had taken advantage of a lull to ascend the ice–slope to the south, and to erect a flag–pole at a distance of two miles. Besides being a beacon for sledging parties, it was used for ablation measurements. These were determinations of the annual wasting of the ice–surface, whether by evaporation, melting, or wind–abrasion.

Webb and Stillwell, assisted by others, had commenced to build the Magnetograph House. Dr Chree, of the British National Physical Laboratory, had arranged that the German Antarctic Expedition, several observatories in low latitudes and our own Expedition, should take special ‘quick runs’, synchronously, twice each month. A ‘quick run’ was a continuous, careful observation made over a period of two hours, on a more searching time–scale then usual. Until the Magnetograph House was established this could not be done efficiently, and so the construction of this hut was pushed on as quickly as possible.

Many other schemes required our attention, and there was not a spare moment for any one. Though we chafed at the delay in sledging, there was some consolation in the fact that the scientific programme was daily becoming more and more complete.

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