On the occasion of the centennial pilgrimage to Mawson’s Huts, Commonwealth Bay

January 2012

The oldest and most significant material legacy of Australia’s long Antarctic commitment is this historic site.

It is astonishing that these wooden huts have survived a century in the windiest place at sea level on the planet.

Relentless avalanches of katabatic winds thundering off the polar plateau have so far failed to blow the headquarters of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition out to sea.

Here we stand at the main base of the most earnestly scientific expedition of the ‘heroic era’ of Antarctic history.

In early January 1912, the Aurora found itself repelled from the Antarctic coastline by thick pack ice. For days the ship had been heading westwards, desperate for open water to the south.

By the night of 2 January, Douglas Mawson was in despair: his whole expedition seemed in jeopardy, and he was facing personal failure and humiliation.

Things looked so bad last night, he wrote to his fiancée, Paquita, that I could do nothing but just roll over and over on the settee on which I have been sleeping and wish that I could fall into oblivion.

But then suddenly, at 6 am on the 3rd, they discovered an unexpected and huge glacier tongue, beyond which there seemed a clear passage south towards land.

By 8 January, the Aurora had entered what Mawson strategically called Commonwealth Bay, and soon all hands were working in bright afternoon sunshine to land stores.

But later that day, by the evening of the 8th of January, the true character of the place — its defining elemental essence — was revealing itself.

Winds such as no-one had ever known before were sweeping down onto the natural harbour they had found and forcing them to retreat to the ship, hoping that the anchor would hold.

Over the next few days it dawned on them that they had decided to build their home in an unusually windy corner of the windiest continent on earth and that some of the generating factors were quite local — and further, that the open water that had lured them there was also to some extent a creation of the relentless offshore winds.

But harbours and bare rock were so precious, and finding this place had been so hard, that they were determined to hang on to their fragile foothold with their canvas and planks and nails.

Between the blizzards, the Baltic pine timbers of the huts were unloaded.

On 12 January, Mawson pitched his tent, got out the reindeer sleeping bags, and fired up the Nansen cooker.

He, Frank Wild and five other men spent the first night ashore at Cape Denison, warmed by soup and cocoa.

Thus the Australian occupation of Antarctica began.

Over the next few weeks the huts quickly materialised. There were two of them conjoined, for the difficulties of the pack ice had forced Mawson to reduce the number of landing parties from three to two. So the smaller second hut was attached to the first as a workshop.

On the 19th of January, the Aurora left them all alone here, sailing west to establish the second base.

Captain John King Davis recorded:

They are a fine party of men but the country is a terrible one to spend a year in.

By the 23rd of January, a small group occupied the main hut for the first time, the stove was installed and they celebrated their first meal indoors.

On Australia Day, 26 January, the 18 men spent their first night together in Antarctica in their new home.

By the 30th of January, with shelves installed, the bunks completed, the kitchen in a reasonable state and the table finally in place, they had a ‘House warming feast’.

As Frank Stillwell recorded:

[our] first sit-down comfortable meal since leaving Hobart. Able to eat in peace without thinking of the next scramble for food. Celebrated with jellies and nuts and scones made by the Doctor.

The roof of the hut constantly pulsated under the weight of the wind. It was a frail but wondrous refuge.

On 9 April 1912 as the autumn storms strengthened, Mawson recorded in his diary that

Outside one is in touch with the sternest of Nature — one might be a lone soul standing in Precambrian times or on Mars — all is desolation and hard in the durest.Life opens up to one as it must to the savage.Inside the Hut all is 20th Century civilization.What a contrast.

One of the happiest and most beloved members of the expedition was the young Belgrave Ninnis who, on 14 December 1912, was to be swallowed by a crevasse.

In that final year of his short life he reflected on time and history in Antarctica:

From the creation, the silence here has been unbroken by man, and now we, a very prosaic crowd of fellows, are here for an infinitely small space of time, for a short time we shall litter the land with tins, scrap timber, refuse and impedimenta, for a short time we shall be travelling over the great plateau, trying to draw the veil from a fractional part of this unknown land; then the ship will return for us and we shall leave the place to its eternal silence and loneliness, a silence that may never again be broken by a human voice.

But Ninnis is not forgotten, and Xavier Mertz is not forgotten, and not only have human voices sounded in this hut again and again, but the voices of the original expeditioners resonate in our hearts and minds with growing power, and their vision continues to inspire us.