Mawson station: a brief history

The flag raising and official naming of Mawson station by Phillip Law, 13 February 1954
The flag raising and official naming of Mawson station by Phillip Law, 13 February 1954
Unloading from Kista Dan onto the fast iceThe Thala Dan at Mawson in 1960
The coast and mountains of Mac Robertson Land were first sighted by Australia’s Douglas Mawson from the ship Discovery during the British, Australian, New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE) of 1929–31. Following a seaplane reconnaissance on 1 January 1930, Mawson named the new-found territory Mac Robertson Land after Macpherson Robertson, a keen supporter of Australia’s role in Antarctica. He also took possession for the British crown. The mountains around the region were named after honoured Australian explorers and researchers.

Around the same time whalers of the Norwegian whaling company of the magnate Lars Christensen were active in the area. They named a number of features close to Mawson, including the Framnes Mountains.

The Mac Robertson Land coastline was charted during the second cruise of the expedition in 1931. On 18 February in that year, Mawson landed at Cape Bruce – the first known landing in that part of East Antarctica.

The coast of Mac Robertson Land was again photographed from aircraft during the 1946–1947 American expedition ‘Operation Highjump’. In 1953 these photographs were used by Dr Phillip Law to select possible landing places on the coast to establish an over-wintering station on the Antarctic continent. Law identified Horseshoe Harbour as the first priority for a station sited on rock.

Law sought and obtained approval to mount a small expedition to sail to Antarctica in the summer of 1953–54 aboard the Danish ice-strengthened ship Kista Dan. The ship sailed from Australia via Heard Island, where it collected men and dogs from the 1954 wintering party.

On 13 February 1954, a party led by Law raised the Australian flag on the rocky shore of Horseshoe Harbour, naming the new station in honour of Australia’s greatest polar explorer, Sir Douglas Mawson. In the first year a party of 10 Australians spent winter in cramped but adequate accommodation under the leadership of Robert Dovers. By the end of 1954 they had erected the Living Quarters, the Works Hut, the Engine Shed, two Store Huts and a Carpenter’s Shop.

By 1966 the number of buildings had increased to more than 50. The station had become the base for exploration of the coast east to the Amery Ice Shelf and west into Enderby Land, for major traverses of the Antarctic hinterland, and for aerial reconnaissance of the interior, including the Lambert Glacier and the Prince Charles Mountains. A major development in the station’s early years was the construction in 1956 of the first aircraft hangar to be built in Antarctica. Antarctica’s premier cosmic ray observatory was carved out of the solid rocks on which the station is built.

Today’s Mawson station consists of an accumulation of buildings dating from its origins (many of which have been superseded) to the currently occupied AANBUS buildings erected in a major redevelopment during the 1980s and early 1990s. Mawson is now one of the longest continuously operating stations in Antarctica and the oldest south of the Antarctic Circle.