Cairns and cans, plaques and plates

Explorers, wherever they have travelled, have usually felt impelled to leave a mark of their visit. Antarctica is no different — there too they have left their cairns and cans, plaques and plates. The Antarctic Treaty parties have acknowledged the efforts of early explorers by formally recognising historic sites and monuments and passing measures to protect them. Australia has six listed historic sites and monuments.

Australia’s Antarctic connections go back beyond European settlement to the voyages of James Cook. They were later reinforced by numerous Antarctic expedition visits to Australian ports, culminating in Australia’s own national expedition: Douglas Mawson’s 1911–1914 Australasian Antarctic Expedition, based at Cape Denison south of Tasmania. Ninety years later the buildings still resist one of Antarctica’s harshest environments. Mawson’s main hut is listed as a historic site under the Antarctic Treaty (Historic Sites and Monuments No. 13) and is listed on the Register of the National Estate. On a hill 300m southwest of the main hut, a cross and plaque erected by Mawson to commemorate Lieutenant Belgrave Ninnis and Dr Xavier Mertz, both of whom died during a sledging journey with Mawson, is listed as Historic Sites and Monuments No. 12.

In 1929–31, Mawson led two summer voyages of the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE) in the Discovery. Extensive BANZARE voyages along the Antarctic coast resulted in British territorial claims which a few years later were transferred to Australia. Mawson erected a rock cairn and plaque on Proclamation Island, Enderby Land on 13 January 1930, and installed another plaque at Cape Bruce, MacRobertson Land on 18 February 1930 marking BANZARE visits and asserting sovereignty. Both places are now listed as historic sites under the Antarctic Treaty (Nos. 3 and 5).

On 20 February 1935 Klarius Mikkelsen, captain of the Norwegian vessel Thorshavn, sighted the Vestfold Hills (named after a Norwegian province which he thought it resembled). A lifeboat containing Mikkelsen and his Danish-born wife Karoline landed on the coast and buried a provision depot under a cairn. This site of the first landing of a woman in Antarctica was relocated in December 1995 and is now an Antarctic Treaty historic site (No. 72).

Sir Hubert Wilkins, pioneering Australian polar aviator and explorer, was manager of Lincoln Ellsworth’s private US expedition which departed Cape Town late in 1938 aboard Wyatt Earp. After departure, Ellsworth informed Wilkins of his intention to claim for the United States any land that he might visit in Antarctica despite a pre-departure joint statement declaring no intention to claim any land in Antarctica. Wilkins resolved to reassert Australian sovereignty over the areas claimed by Mawson. On 8January 1939 he and fellow pilot J. H. Lymburner landed on the northernmost of the Rauer Islands, flew the Australian flag and deposited it near a rock cairn with a record of the visit in a small aluminium container. He repeated this exercise on the following day at the southwestern end of the Vestfold Hills, and again on 11 January at what is now known as Walkabout Rocks, because of the copy of the Australian magazine Walkabout which he deposited with the Australian flag and record of visit. The latter, the only one of these three Wilkins sites subsequently located, is listed as an Antarctic Treaty historic site (No. 6).

Bruce Hull
Environmental Management and Audit Group,
Australian Antarctic Division