The Aurora Expedition

1911 – 1914

Douglas Mawson was a scientist, interested in scientific discovery and exploration. He was never interested in taking part in the race to the pole, having already refused a place on Captain Scott’s Terra Nova expedition. On Ernest Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition Mawson was part of the first team of men to reach the Magnetic South Pole. Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic expedition would be the largest exploration of the Antarctic continent so far.

The Aurora carried 31 men to Antarctica. Five men were left to set up a communication base on Macquarie Island, making them the first exploration team on Antarctica to have radio contact with the rest of the world.

After leaving Macquarie Island, the ship couldn’t land as planned and was forced to head west along the coast. Eventually they docked in a small inlet they named Commonwealth Bay. This bay is now known to have the fiercest, most continuous winds of any place in the world at sea level. The team’s scientific efforts were hampered by almost constant 60 mile-per-hour winds. The men would winter in Antarctica, undertaking the larger expeditions the following year.

Portrait of Douglas Mawson in 1911

Portrait of Douglas Mawson in 1911

Commonwealth Bay

Commonwealth Bay has since been described as "the windiest coastal place on earth"

When summer arrived Mawson began his attempts to discover new land and chart the unknown continent. Mawson set out as part of a three-man group with the ambition of heading east. His party consisted of Xavier Mertz, Belgrave Ninnis and Mawson himself.

The three men set out on 10th  November towards the Ross Ice Shelf. Their intention was to reach the area that Captain Scott’s expedition had explored a year earlier. Immediately along the route they began to encounter crevasses, deep fissures which opened up in the ice hidden by fresh snowfall. Mertz, an experienced skier, led the party. Mawson chose to take the middle position, manning the first of the sledges and carrying the least essential supplies, with the six weakest dogs. He believed if any sled was to fall into a hidden crevasse, it would be his. The essential supplies and equipment were on the second sled, as this was deemed the safest position.

After five weeks travelling through Antarctica, Mertz, who was leading the party on skis, signaled back that there was a small crevasse ahead. Mawson then signaled back to Ninnis, but when he looked back couldn’t see the third sled or the third man. Retracing their steps they found an eleven-foot-wide crevasse had opened up, swallowing Ninnis and the six best dogs. In desperation, they called into the crevasse for three hours, listening for any sign their friend was still alive.

Above: The Western survey party

With no rope, the two men strung together any cord they had. The crevasse was 150 feet deep. They couldn’t see the sled, or Ninnis, and had no means of getting down into the crevasse. On the lost sled was their tent, all the food for their dogs, and the majority of their own rations. They only had around ten days’ worth of rations left.

The men were five weeks’ travel away from their base, and had no option but to turn back. Taking a route back that went further south, they hoped to avoid the difficult terrain they had encountered on the way out. Along the way they were forced to shoot the dogs one by one to feed both themselves, and the remaining dogs. They ate the ‘best’ bits of the dogs themselves, this included the livers. Unknown to them the livers, very high in vitamin A, were actually making them ill. Soon they had no dogs left, and were succumbing to the toxic effects of excess vitamin A. Their hair began to fall out and their skin was falling off. Both men were suffering from stomach pains and diarrhea.

Despite the discomfort they pushed on, hungry, ill and hauling the sleds themselves. Somehow, the men reached within 100 miles of their base camp, but Mertz, struggling with the harsh conditions and vitamin A poisoning, was physically unable to pull his sled. Mawson believed he could make it alone, but refused to abandon Mertz. Weak, Mertz suggested one day of rest, sure that he would be able to move the next day. On 8th January, Mertz became hysterical, and died the same night.

Above: The Far Eastern Party expedition, 1912

"I could pull through myself with the provisions at hand but I cannot leave him. His heart seems to have gone. It is very hard for me—to be within 100 m of the Hut and in such a position is awful.”

Douglas Mawson

Mawson was still 100 miles from safety. He managed to construct a small grave for his friend. To make his sled easier to haul, he cut it in half, and gathered his remaining supplies. He was working to a deadline of 15th January, when his sledging parties would make their way back to base. His ship, the Aurora, was leaving Antarctica on 17th January, and would not return for at least eight months. Faced with blizzards and rapidly declining health, Douglas Mawson gave up hope of making it back to safety. He set his sights instead on reaching somewhere he could leave his and Mertz’s diary where they would be found. Then, if nothing else, at least the world would know what happened to the three Antarctic explorers.

"I have no hope of making it back."

Douglas Mawson

On the 17th January, Douglas Mawson fell into a crevasse. Attached to his sled by a fourteen foot rope, he believed he was going to die. Miraculously, the fissure was a little narrower than his sled, which caught across the top and held his weight. Mawson was now hanging in the crevasse, weak and malnourished. He feared he didn’t have the strength to pull himself out. With tremendous effort, Mawson managed to pull himself to the top of the crevasse using the sledge harness. As he reached the top, about to haul himself out, the edge gave way, sending him falling back down. He wrote in his diary that he thought of simply unfastening his harness, and falling to his death.

Mawson's half sledge

Mawson's half sledge

This was only the first of many crevasses Mawson fell into on his return journey. Alone and starving, his health deteriorating, somehow Mawson made it back to his base camp. But his ship, the Aurora,had left only hours earlier. A party of six men had stayed behind, willing to spend another winter on Antarctica in the hope Mawson would return.

Their only contact with the outside world came from their newly established radio. Only one man understood how to work this radio, and for the first few weeks they regularly received news from home, including Australian cricket scores. But the harsh Antarctic winter proved too much for Jeffryes, the radio operator. His mental health deteriorated severely. He became violent, convinced the other men were trying to kill him. Mawson successfully managed the man’s condition for the next year, and he was admitted to psychiatric care upon their return. The Aurora returned in December 1913 and the expedition left for Australia in February.

"Shackleton grafted science on to exploration. Mawson added exploring to science."

Frank Hurley, Aurora expedition photographer

Above: The Main Base Hut