Echoes of the past amid the frost and silence

David Ellyard stands outside Mawson's Main Hut, surrounded by snow and ice.
David Ellyard stands outside Mawson's Main Hut. (Photo: Peter Schuller)
Detail of a timber panel with rusted nails raised from the surface.Ice crystals cover tins of food abandoned at the end of the AAE.David Ellyard beside the wooden bunks inside Mawson's Main Hut.Mawson's private cubicle showing his bunk, chair and a pile of magazines, all ice-covered, inside the Main Hut.

The following is an extract from the blog of David Ellyard, President of the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE) Club, during his visit to Mawson’s Huts to mark the centenary of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition. 

January 17, 2012

…We properly talk of Mawson's Huts, since there are two. The larger building, internally about seven metres square, was the living quarters and was always intended for this site. The smaller hut was supposed to be for another base, but that plan was abandoned early. So it too is here, built side-by-side with the living quarters, with a connecting door way and served the AAE as workshop. It stands on the seaward side of the main hut.

From the outside, there is a strong disparity between the state of the wooden walls of the two huts and of their roofs. The walls are original, constructed of vertical Baltic pine planks, now much scoured and scarred by a century of ferocious windblown snow, the Antarctic equivalent of sandblasting. In many places the heads of the nails now stand well clear of the timbers. In many places extra short planks are hammered over the walls. These once held in place pieces of cloth and other materials, added in an attempt to keep out the fine drifting snow.

The steeply-pitched roofs on the other hand look almost new, and so they are. Over recent years fresh Baltic pine planks have been placed over the original roofs, which were in much worse condition than the walls, especially on the south side, and freely leaked drift. This, plus the loss of the wooden coverings over skylights, allowed immense amounts of snow to penetrate the building, so that by the early 1970s, when the first efforts began to restore and conserve, the huts were almost totally choked with ice.

At first the juxtaposition between the old walls and the new roofs was jarring. But even a few years in the unforgiving Cape Denison environment has aged the roofs so now they blend more. The strategy adopted has the benefit that in some future time the new roofs could be removed to reveal the originals. So it is easily reversible.

When I paid my visit, the huts were deep in snow up to the roof on the south and east, but there was a scour on the western side where the entrance is. Even so, I am told it took several hours of digging, and the judicious use of a chainsaw, to clear sufficient snow from around the main doorway to allow entrance. Access to the hut is carefully controlled by its keepers, one of whom, the Western Australian Museum’s Ian Godfrey, was on hand to guide us through. No more than four people are allowed in the hut at any one time, and you get to stay only about 10 minutes.

You enter the huts through the workshop, stooping low through the doorway, since the floor level is substantially raised by accumulated snow. The workshop is smaller than the main hut and almost totally empty. The machinery and equipment which used to stand here in the AAE days was all removed at the end of the expedition (other than a sewing machine which was collected later) in the expectation that they could be sold off to repay some of the expedition's debts.

Through another doorway lies the main hut, and here there is a great deal to see, indeed too much to take in the short time we were allowed. The floor underfoot is still deep in ice so we had to move carefully. Here and there, as the ice slowly ablates, various objects are emerging. It will be some time before we know what they are.

The walls are lined with double bunks, those constituting the only private space the men enjoyed. They wrote their initials on the sides of the bunks so we know who slept where. Some bunks have two sets of initials, since the sleeping arrangements were different in the second winter. In one corner, a rusty iron stove marks the location of the kitchen. Behind it was Frank Hurley’s tiny darkroom, which we may not enter because of the state of the floor. But by leaning in around the doorpost I could see (and photograph) an inscription by Hurley on the wall; ‘Near enough is not good enough’.

In the opposite corner of the hut the adjoining bunks carry the words ‘Hyde Park Corner’ inscribed above them. This was reportedly the centre of the intellectual life of the hut through the winter, when the men, pipes fuming furiously, crowded together for lively discussion and argument. Two of the bunks in this corner were those of Ninnis and Mertz.

The first impression is of desolation and abandonment. Ice is everywhere, not only underfoot and in the piles of uncleared snow, but clustering as crystals of frost on every surface and object. Bottles, jars and tins, not thought worth gathering up when the hut was abandoned, stand on shelves, all dusted with frost or encrusted with crystals; a box of matches with an image of the Eiffel Tower, a bottle of sweet-and-sour gherkins, a tin of golden syrup. Powdery ice covers a pile of magazines, last open for reading a century ago.

In other Antarctic huts, such as those standing near the Ross Sea, there has been a deliberate effort to produce the illusion that the expeditioners have just left the hut, and may soon return. Everything is neat and ice-free; the shelves are crowded with all the necessaries. Anything that was missing has been replaced. There is no such sense here at Cape Denison, and no intention to create one. Its occupants are long gone and will not be returning, though we sense their presence through the fragmentary reminders of their time here.

The different approach is in some ways a matter of circumstance. The Ross Sea huts of Scott and Shackleton lie close to existing research bases and can be regularly visited for maintenance. Cape Denison is well off the beaten Antarctic track. There is no nearby Australian base; the nearest habitation, the French base of Dumont D’Urville, is an hour's helicopter flight away to the west. Access to this site for any archaeological or conservation purpose has always been difficult, the weather being only one impediment, and is now much worse thanks to [iceberg] B9B, which may well continue to fill Commonwealth Bay with fast ice to come.

But it is also a deliberate policy, and I must say I approve. Though I have not been to the Ross Sea huts (another ambition for another day) I cannot think that they will have the same memorable atmosphere as I felt here at the home of the AAE, standing amid the frost and the silence. Here it is obvious that time has passed, and that passing time has inevitably brought irreversible changes. We cannot go back, but we can, and we must, remember.

At the southern end of the hut we find the cubicle set aside for Mawson's private use. We can see where his bed was; a number of shelves survive, including one which carried a collection of chronometers, and another with some mildly saucy pictures. A chair still stands in one corner. All this is dusted with frost. The contents of a bottle on a shelf cannot be identified through the covering of ice. Frozen stalactites hang from another shelf, the consequence of the skylight overhead being not quite impervious to fine snow.

At the time it would not have been thought unusual for the leader of an expedition to have his own space, separate from the others of his party. They clearly enjoyed a close companionship and community represented by their cosy collection of bunks. Mawson of course was one of them but at the same time, inevitably, not one of them. Standing now inside his empty, icy cubicle, you can perhaps sense the loneliness of leadership.

DAVID ELLYARD

President ANARE