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


One of the oft–repeated questions for which I usually had a ready answer, at the conclusion of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Expedition (1907–09) was, ‘Would you like to go to the Antarctic again?’ In the first flush of the welcome home and for many months, during which the keen edge of pleasure under civilized conditions had not entirely worn away, I was inclined to reply with a somewhat emphatic negative. But, once more a man in the world of men, lulled in the easy repose of routine, and performing the ordinary duties of a workaday world, old emotions awakened. The grand sweet days returned in irresistible glamour, faraway ‘voices’ called:

…from the wilderness, the vast and Godlike spaces,
The stark and sullen solitudes that sentinel the Pole.

There always seemed to be something at the back of my mind, stored away for future contemplation, and it was an idea which largely matured during my first sojourn in the far south. At times, during the long hours of steady tramping across the trackless snow–fields, one’s thoughts flow in a clear and limpid stream, the mind is unruffled and composed and the passion of a great venture springing suddenly before the imagination is sobered by the calmness of pure reason. Perchance this is true of certain moments, but they are rare and fleeting. It may have been in one such phase that I suddenly found myself eager for more than a glimpse of the great span of Antarctic coast lying nearest to Australia.

Professor TWE David, Dr FA Mackay and I, when seeking the South Magnetic Pole during the summer of 1908–09, had penetrated farthest into that region on land. The limiting outposts had been defined by other expeditions; at Cape Adare on the east and at Gaussberg on the west. Between them lay my ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, of whose outline and glacial features the barest evidence had been furnished. There, bordering the Antarctic Circle, was a realm far from the well–sailed highways of many of the more recent Antarctic expeditions.

The idea of exploring this unknown coast took firm root in my mind while I was on a visit to Europe in February 1910. The prospects of an expedition operating to the west of Cape Adare were discussed with the late Captain RF Scott and I suggested that the activities of his expedition might be arranged to extend over the area in question. Finally he decided that his hands were already too full to make any definite proposition for a region so remote from his own objective.

Sir Ernest Shackleton was warmly enthusiastic when the scheme was laid before him, hoping for a time to identify himself with the undertaking. It was in some measure due to his initiative that I felt impelled eventually to undertake the organization and leadership of an expedition.

For many reasons, besides the fact that it was the country of my home and Alma Mater, I was desirous that the expedition should be maintained by Australia. It seemed to me that here was an opportunity to prove that the young men of a young country could rise to those traditions which have made the history of British Polar exploration one of triumphant endeavour as well as of tragic sacrifice. And so I was privileged to rally the ‘sons of the younger son’.

A provisional plan was drafted and put before the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science at their meeting held at Sydney in January 1911, with a request for approval and financial assistance. Both were unanimously granted, a sum of £1000 was voted and committees were formed to co–operate in the arrangement of a scientific programme and to approach the Government with a view to obtaining substantial help.

The three leading members of the committees were Professor Orme Masson (President), Professor TW Edgeworth David (President Elect) and Professor GC Henderson (President of the Geographical Section). All were zealous and active in furthering the projects of the expedition.

Meanwhile I had laid my scheme of work before certain prominent Australians and some large donations1 had been promised. The sympathy and warm–hearted generosity of these gentlemen was an incentive for me to push through my plans at once to a successful issue.

I therefore left immediately for London with a view to making arrangements there for a vessel suitable for polar exploration, to secure sledging dogs from Greenland and furs from Norway, and to order the construction of certain instruments and equipment. It was also my intention to gain if possible the support of Australians residing in London. The Council of the University of Adelaide, in a broad–minded scientific spirit, granted me the necessary leave of absence from my post as lecturer, to carry through what had now resolved itself into an extensive and prolonged enterprise.

During my absence, a Committee of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science approached the Commonwealth Government with an appeal for funds. Unfortunately it was the year (1911) of the Coronation of his Majesty King George V, and the leading members of the Cabinet were in England, so the final answer to the deputation was postponed. I was thus in a position of some difficulty, for many requirements had to be ordered without delay if the expedition were to get away from Australia before the end of the year.

At length, through the kindness of Lord Northcliffe, the columns of the Daily Mail were opened to us and Sir Ernest Shackleton made a strong appeal on our behalf. The Royal Geographical Society set the seal of its approval on the aims of the expedition and many donations were soon afterwards received.

At this rather critical period I was fortunate in securing the services of Captain John King Davis, who was in future to act as Master of the vessel and Second in Command of the expedition. He joined me in April 1911, and rendered valuable help in the preliminary arrangements. Under his direction the SY Aurora was purchased and refitted.

The few months spent in London were anxious and trying, but the memory of them is pleasantly relieved by the generosity and assistance which were meted out on every hand. Sir George Reid, High Commissioner for the Australian Commonwealth, I shall always remember as an ever–present friend. The preparations for the scientific programme received a strong impetus from well–known Antarctic explorers, notably Dr WS Bruce, Dr Jean Charcot, Captain Adrian de Gerlache, and the late Sir John Murray and Mr JY Buchanan of the Challenger Expedition. In the dispositions made for oceanographical work I was indebted for liberal support to HSH the Prince of Monaco.

In July 1911 I was once more in Australia, a large proportion of my time being occupied with finance, the purchase and concentration of stores and equipment and the appointment of the staff. In this work I was aided by Professors Masson and David and by Miss Ethel Bage, who throughout this busy period acted in an honorary capacity as secretary in Melbourne.

Time was drawing on and the funds of the Expedition were wholly inadequate to the needs of the moment, until Mr TH Smeaton, MP, introduced a deputation to the Hon John Verran, Premier of South Australia. The deputation, organized to approach the State Government for a grant of £5000, was led by the Right Hon Sir Samuel Way, Bart, Chief Justice of South Australia and Chancellor of the Adelaide University, and supported by Mr Lavington Bonython, Mayor of Adelaide, T Ryan, MP, the Presidents of several scientific societies and members of the University staff. This sum was eventually forthcoming and it paved the way to greater things.

In Sydney, Professor David approached the State Government on behalf of the Expedition for financial support, and, through the Acting Premier, the Hon WA Holman, £7000 was generously promised. The State of Victoria through the Hon W Watt, Premier of Victoria, supplemented our funds to the extent of £6000.

Upheld by the prestige of a large meeting convened in the Melbourne Town Hall during the spring, the objects of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition were more widely published. On that memorable occasion the Governor–General, Lord Denman, acted as chairman, and among others who participated were the Hon. Andrew Fisher (Prime Minister of the Commonwealth), the Hon. Alfred Deakin (Leader of the Opposition), Professor Orme Masson (President AAAS and representative of Victoria), Senator Walker (representing New South Wales) and Professor GC Henderson (representing South Australia).

Soon after this meeting the Commonwealth Government voted £5000, following a grant of £2000 made by the British Government at the instance of Lord Denman, who from the outset had been a staunch friend of the expedition.

At the end of October 1911 all immediate financial anxiety had passed, and I was able to devote myself with confidence to the final preparations.

Captain Davis brought the Aurora from England to Australia, and on December 2, 1911, we left Hobart for the south. A base was established on Macquarie Island, after which the ship pushed through the ice and landed a party on an undiscovered portion of the Antarctic Continent. After a journey of fifteen hundred miles to the west of this base another party was landed and then the Aurora returned to Hobart to refit and to carry out oceanographical investigations, during the year 1912, in the waters south of Australia and New Zealand.

In December 1912 Captain Davis revisited the Antarctic to relieve the two parties who had wintered there. A calamity befell my own sledging party, Lieut BES Ninnis and Dr X Mertz both lost their lives and my arrival back at winter quarters was delayed for so long, that the Aurora was forced to leave five men for another year to prosecute a search for the missing party. The remainder of the men, ten in number, and the party fifteen hundred miles to the west were landed safely at Hobart in March 1912.

Thus the prearranged plans were upset by my non–return and the administration of the expedition in Australia was carried out by Professor David, whose special knowledge was invaluable at such a juncture.

Funds were once more required, and, during the summer of 1912, Captain Davis visited London and secured additional support, while the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science again successfully approached the Commonwealth Government (The Right Hon JH Cook, Prime Minister). In all, the sum of £8000 was raised to meet the demands of a second voyage of relief.

The party left on Macquarie Island, who had agreed to remain at the station for another year, ran short of food during their second winter. The New Zealand Government rendered the expedition a great service in dispatching stores to them by the Tutanekai without delay.

Finally, in the summer of 1913, the Aurora set out on her third cruise to the far south, picking up the parties at Macquarie Island and in the Antarctic, carried out observations for two months amid the ice and reached Adelaide late in February 1914.

Throughout a period of more than three years Professors David and Masson – the fathers of the expedition – worked indefatigably and unselfishly in its interests. Unbeknown to them I have taken the liberty to reproduce the only photographs at hand of these gentlemen, which action I hope they will view favourably. That of Professor David needs some explanation: It is a snapshot taken at Relief Inlet, South Victoria Land, at the moment when the Northern Party of Shackleton’s Expedition, February 1909, was rescued by the SY Nimrod.

In shipping arrangements Capt Davis was assisted throughout by Mr JJ Kinsey, Christchurch, Capt Barter, Sydney, and Mr F Hammond, Hobart.

Such an undertaking is the work of a multitude and it is only by sympathetic support from many sources that a measure of success can be expected. In this connection there are many names which I recall with warm gratitude. It is impossible to mention all to whom the expedition is indebted, but I trust that none of those who have taken a prominent part will fail to find an acknowledgment somewhere in these volumes.

I should specially mention the friendly help afforded by the Australasian Press, which has at all times given the expedition favourable and lengthy notices, insisting on its national and scientific character.

With regard to the conduct of the work itself, I was seconded by the whole–hearted co–operation of the members, my comrades, and what they have done can only be indicated in this narrative.

  1. Refer to Finance Appendix.

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