Exploration and conservation: the Australasian Antarctic Expedition 1911-1914

Video | Updated 3 years ago

Dr Ian Godfrey, Head of Department, Materials Conservation

How do you preserve fragile wooden buildings and artefacts in the windiest place on earth? Ian brings to life lesser known aspects of this heroic era of Antarctic exploration and explains the challenges (and solutions) of conserving this history.


You are probably familiar with the story of Mawson, but I’ll just give you a potted version of the whole story, because what I want to do is just go through, and show you a whole lot of images. Many of them were taken by Frank Hurley and other members of the 1911-1914 expedition, just to highlight a little bit about the people, the stories and what happened during those times.

The other thing that I want to do as well, is to emphasise a little bit of the work and the people associated with the other parties that weren’t with Douglas Mawson at Cape Denison. A bloke called Harrisson had his diaries published just late last year, and it was actually entitled The Forgotten Men – The Western Party, and they’re often overlooked. So I want to go through that.

But in a nutshell, Mawson first went to the Antarctic in 1909 with Shackleton, and so he got a bit of a taste for it, and they often say “When you go down there, you get ice in your veins,” and I think Mawson did. He was afflicted by that. So he then set about setting up his own major expedition. Shackleton was going to be the leader, and Mawson was going to be the leader of science, but he didn’t want it just to be one of these mere geographical exercises. He wanted to do some serious science, and that was what he set about doing.

Now to do that, he wanted to set up four stations. He was also an innovator. One of those stations was going to be at Macquarie Island as the radio relay station so that they could have the first radio wireless contact with the Antarctic continent. But the wireless signal wasn’t strong enough to go the whole distance. Have a relay at Macquarie which is about half way. That’s one station. Three continental stations at which they’d be doing geographical work, magnetic work, geological, biological, meteorological, doing some work with astronomical observations as well. Huge programs. In the end, he only settled on two bases because they couldn’t find suitable sites for the teams to land.

The first site that they came to was Cape Denison and that was where Mawson and his team ended up. Originally, this building here was going to be the living quarters for the second Antarctic party. They just combined the two and had 18 people staying at Cape Denison. They then set along, went looking for a place, dropped off another eight men about 2,000 kilometres, west of Cape Denison, and then they were staying for a year.

Tragedy struck Mawson’s party when he was on the Far Eastern sledging journey. Two men died on that journey and unfortunately, that tragedy often tends to overshadow the scientific work that they did during the expedition. They were still publishing the results from this time, in 1947, and there was something like 22 volumes of scientific works produced. It was quite extraordinary the amount of work that was done, and I think it was also one of the reasons why the people survived and managed to get on fairly well with each other, it was because they had such a lot of work to do, and they also had Mawson pushing them and driving them, and I’ll talk a little bit more about that as we go through.

So just to set the scene - selected the men, headed off from Hobart down to Macquarie Island. The ship was that overloaded with goods and materials - you’re going to build three huts, you’ve got supplies for a year for 30 people - that they needed another ship to carry it all down. When they got to Macquarie Island they then set about setting up the radio transmitter there. It was then straight down to the continent. It took a long time before they found a reasonable area to land at Cape Denison and at Cape Denison they found a nice rocky outcrop and decided “Here’s one camp.”

Once they were established, Captain Davis who was in charge of the Aurora, then set off trying to find somewhere else to land the Western Party. They ended up settling here, where they put the Western Base. It’s not even on the continent. It’s on a floating ice shelf called the Shackleton Ice Shelf, and left them there.

Macquarie – fantastic place. If you get the opportunity to go there, go. It is just the most amazing place as far as wildlife goes. Something like 3.5 million birds there, 850,000 penguins, albatross, elephant seals, fur seals, you name it. It’s a stunning place.

It had been known since the early 1800s, and the reason it was known, was just for what you could kill there and exploit economically. Initially they tackled the fur seals. So they took all of the fur from them, wiped them out in about five years. Completely wiped out the whole population. They then turned their attention from that to the elephant seals. It took them 17 years to obliterate those, and mainly they were just getting all the blubber from them, boiling it down and getting the oil and the fats from them.

So here you can see some of this trade. You can also see it wasn’t a particularly friendly place for ships. So there’s a shipwreck there. These are all just penguins on the beach.

When Mawson and his team went down there, they had to set up the radio. The radio masts were monstrous Oregon timbers. You get some idea of the scale when you see the men here - there we go - and it was a difficult job just getting them up, especially in the windy conditions.

Two huts up on the top of Wireless Hill. One was the engine room to drive the generators, and the other was the transmitter hut. They wanted to separate them because they were using Morse Code, and so they needed to have a bit of quiet, because otherwise you just don’t pick up the signals.

The living quarters. The chap standing out the front there was Ainsworth, the leader. A relatively small building, and I’ve got a plan of that. This was down the bottom of the hill. As it turned out, Ainsworth ended up pretty much living down the bottom here by himself. He didn’t get on well with the rest of the team. It can be a fairly isolating experience when you end up becoming a team of one. The two radio people spent most of their time up on top of the hill. Now they needed to be up there anyway because they sent their signals at about, between 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock in the morning, but it was easier just to stay and sleep up there.

The other two blokes just decided “It’s better for us if we just disappear off and do our work.” So they disappeared for months at a time, take food and then they’d go around the island doing their mapping, geological work and biological work. So Ainsworth, who was doing all of the meteorological work, spent a lot of time by himself.

The hut is typical of what we’d call a heroic era expedition hut. The leader had a room to himself, so a little cubicle to himself, and the rest then slept in bunks. So two bunks here – one up, one down. Blake – and there’s another bunk there as well for Hamilton. But a relatively small building, if you look at the scale up there in terms of feet. So you’re looking at just over four metres square for the building itself.

The individuals – Ainsworth the leader did the meteorological work. Hamilton was a biologist. Hamilton and Blake were the two that just disappeared off and spent most of their time away from the main station. They did an incredible amount of work, and then we had the two radio operators – mechanic and an operator. Ainsworth I think, set the tone for the expedition when he was first put ashore, and he was there with his bags, waiting for someone to carry his bags ashore for him. It doesn’t really sort of set it well for the rest of your team when you have that sort of attitude. Mawson on the other hand was the complete opposite.

He was a very driven, very, very hard working person and he would expect no one to do anything that he wouldn’t do himself. When they were taking materials ashore at Cape Denison, a box fell overboard and Mawson just peeled his gear off and dived into the water to retrieve it. The water is minus 2.5 degrees Celsius. So it’s pretty cool. You’ve only got two or three minutes in there before you freeze.

The sad thing about this was Blake did a lot of fantastic work. When they were relieved, after two years, he went off, was in the war. About six weeks before the end of the war, he was in the artillery, his horse got hit by a shell and killed. He had his leg blown off and he died the next day. So it was a sad end for Blake unfortunately.

The other thing that I didn’t mention when I spoke about the potted version earlier, with Mawson and his expedition team, when he had the tragedy on the sledging journey where Mertz and Ninnis died, he got back to the base too late, to be relieved by Davis who had already left. So they had to spend another year down there.

Now it had extra repercussions because if they’re going to spend another year down there, they also needed the radio team to spend another year down there, and that was a fairly big ask. Ainsworth did ask the others, “Are you happy to stay for a year?” They chose to stay, which I think was a credit to them, considering that there was a fair amount of disharmony amongst the people.

The main base - just to give you an idea of the scale, you’re looking at around 2,670 kilometres down to the edge of the pack ice. Some of Hurley’s shots. That’s the Aurora, the ship that they travelled down in. Remember, this is a wooden ship, strengthened hull. It was an old Dundee Whaler, a very, very robust ship.

Now once they landed - when they first got there it was a fantastic day. It was just beautiful. It was calm, sunny skies and they thought “What a ripper. We’ve got this great place, rock. There’s a natural little spot where we can build the hut,” and so away they went. But little did they know that they’d chosen to have their base at the windiest place on earth at sea level. While they were there (?), they recorded wind gusts of over 300 kilometres an hour, and the average daily wind speed is 77 kilometres an hour. Now just think, that’s the average, and you have calm days.  So, it really means that it really blows and blows when it’s going.

But they worked like Trojans to unload all of the building materials, and then away they went to erect the hut, or the buildings themselves. None of them were builders. None of them were carpenters. They were all scientists. They were all young. Average age of about 26. There were a couple in their 40s. But what they’d done is they’d prefabricated them beforehand, colour-coded the timbers. It’s a bit like, I guess, IKEA without the little device to put all the timbers together. So that helped to get them up very quickly. It took a couple of weeks, and you can see them just working away on this thing here. The critical part of the whole thing is this stove, which ran 24 hours a day.

So the building itself, because they decided they’d used up so much time, so much coal, just travelling around, they knew they couldn’t set up a third station on the continent, so they just added the other building onto the end of this one here, put a door through. This became the workshop. This was the living quarters. The design Mawson had learnt from his time with Shackleton, but you want a strong building. So, built on a pyramid shape, just a square. Verandas on three sides, sloping down to only five foot in the old language, which meant that you got the winds deflected up and over. On the southern windward side they put all of their boxes of supplies, which helped to trap the snow and then the wind would come over the top of the building, which again, made the building a lot more stable.

Living in tents until the whole thing was put up. Now, you won’t be able to read any of this, but basically that’s the living quarters there. As with the other one, Mawson had his own little cubicle with a bunk in it. All of the rest of them around here, were double bunks around the side. You had 18 men living in an area that was 7.3 metres x 7.3 metres. So in the old measurements, it’s 24 feet. All double bunks except for Murphy. Murphy was going to be the field leader for the third thing. So he was lucky enough. He got a bunk without someone laying on top of him and snoring and doing the rest of it.

The one thing I think you probably could work out is how much it would smell in that hut – 18 blokes. They would get to have a bath once, or a wash, once every 18 days, because the night watchman - and they’d have to have a night watchman to keep the fire going, keep the stove going, make sure the hut didn’t catch fire - while everyone else was sleeping, he’d boil a bit of water and have a wash, and most of them smoked. That’s the other thing too. So, it’s really going to be reasonably unpleasant in there.

But, stove here, kitchen. This was the dark room that Hurley used. A big dining table, so they could all sit around. Over in this corner here was what they called ‘Hyde Park Corner’, and I’ll show you some images of that, and then the workshop, with the wireless here, lathe, stoves and so on. The dogs were housed off to the side here. In the second year they moved the wireless from there, into the main hut, and it worked in the second year. It didn’t work very well in the first year.

In addition to where they lived and worked in the main building, they also put up an astronomical observatory. So this building here. It had a slot in the roof for taking star sightings. Put up the radio masts. They’d put them up. They’d get blown down. They’d snap off. They’d put them up again.

I mentioned previously that Mawson was an innovator. He took down this plane here. It was Vickers No.2, but they called it Vickers No.1, the reason being, that Vickers No.1 crashed, and was trashed beyond salvation. So they called this Vickers No.1. Before Mawson took it down to the Antarctic, it also crashed. It crashed when they were taking test flights, damaged the wings irreparably, and as a result of that, they couldn’t take it down to fly. Probably a good thing, because I think people would have died if they’d try to fly it in the Antarctic. But, he took the wings off it and thought “We’ll just use this to tow sledges around the place.” So that was the idea, use it as a mechanised thing.

It’s an interesting device. This by the way is Dyce Murphy. I’ll talk a little bit more about him later. He was one of these blokes, I think you’ve got to have on an expedition because you need people that are going to break up a bit of the seriousness, be a little bit of a fool, have a bit of fun, but the interesting thing was how you’d turn this device.

You had to use the air tractor with three men – one in the driver’s seat and two people standing down here on the sleds, on these skids, because these things are screws. If you want to turn to the left, the bloke on this side here would turn the screw so it digs into the ice, and then the tractor would swing that way. So they had no way of turning it otherwise. As it turned out, it went for about 12 kilometres and then the motor seized, blew up, snapped the propeller and so that was the end of it. So it was a nice thought, but it just didn’t work unfortunately. The good thing was that the dogs, the sledges, they all worked well.

Inside the hut, just to give you a bit of an idea of what it was like. Bage and a couple of others just working. In through this door here was the workshop. Kitchen bench. Off here was the stove that went 24 hours a day. They burnt coal and they also burnt seal blubber. To the left of that was Hurley’s dark room.

This is Hyde Park Corner. Fantastic. You can just sort of see the blokes. They’ve just had their evening meal, and afterwards, what do you do? You’re all going to get together and you’re going to sit around there and choof on your pipes. All of them just sitting around smoking and chatting. Later in one of the slides that I’ll show you, up on the top here, is actually painted in black paint, ‘Hyde Park Corner’. All of the people painted their initials and the year on the bunk that they slept in, and so you see where they were for that first year.

In the second year, you see where they moved to, and all the people that were on the southern end of the building that got the wind and the drift snow coming through, moved towards the northern end closer to the fire. But it’s nice because you’ve got this memory of where they were. The sad thing is Hyde Park Corner, because it was in this corner here, that Francis Bickerton, Cecil Madigan, Xavier Mertz and Belgrave Ninnis, that was where their bunks were. Ninnis and Mertz died, and it became – or went I should say - from a corner that was the social hub, basically, of this little hut, to a place of desolation.

Now the other one is this one. This is Dyce Murphy. That’s him there in Hyde Park Corner. This is also Dyce Murphy earlier in the 1900s. He went to Oxford and while he was at Oxford he was in a few pantomimes, played the role of a woman, and he was recruited to travel around Europe, dressed up as a woman, as Edith Dyce Murphy, in the early 1900s, spying on the French and Belgian train systems, so that they could work out, you know, how big the stations were, what sort of troop movements could be accommodated in these different stations. So he actually makes a damn good looking woman I reckon.

The other thing was, interestingly he applied for a spot on Shackleton’s earlier expedition and he was rejected on the grounds of being too effeminate. It’s quite interesting because I don’t really know what Mawson would have made of someone like Dyce Murphy.

I’ll give you a bit of an idea of what the chaos would have been like in the building as well. You go outside, you work. You can still build up a hell of a sweat if you’re working hard. You bring your clothes in, you’ve got to put them somewhere to dry, and so every available bit of space, up in the higher parts of the building, they would have been up there so they can dry. This is Bage just working with the sewing machine trying to fix a sleeping bag.

Inside the workshop. Again, it’s got a bit of a smoky haze to it. The generator here, a lathe and so on. What’s left in Mawson’s Huts now is not very much. There’s not a lot of equipment. There’s not much there at all. Because Mawson and his team had to spend – well six people plus Mawson spent an extra year there, there was another year of expedition costs, and so Mawson took everything that he thought he could sell, took it back with him so that he could sell it off. It was sort of interesting. When he went back in 1929, ’30 and ‘30/’31 as part of the BANZARE Expedition, he realised he’d left the sewing machine behind. So he grabbed that then as well and took it back. There are certainly reminders of the people, but a lot of it’s the smaller personal objects that didn’t have any commercial value.

The Magnetograph House. This one they built twice. The second time they built it, it wasn’t going to fall down. The first time it got blown away, and so the second time they just collected rocks from everywhere, and put it around it, especially on the southern side, which is down there. You’ll see the roof slopes up this way as well, so the wind would be deflected up and over, covered it with hessian, sheep skins, everything to keep it snow free. That building is still snow free. It’s interesting though. We’ve put data loggers and things in there to monitor the environment and measure corrosion and so on. I went there in 2006 and we didn’t even know where the building was. It was completely buried under a couple of metres of snow. It can be preserved by the elements, just in that way.

One of Hurley’s classic photos. This is – I think it’s Whetter and Close outside just collecting ice. It’s interesting. There’s the most fresh water in the entire world is in the Antarctic, but the problem you have is getting water, because it’s all solid and you’ve got to melt it. So, it’s quite energy expensive. But they did have tremendous hassles, just trying to stand upright in there, in the wind.

Mawson insisted they work. It didn’t matter what the conditions were. If you were taking the magnetic readings, you’ve got to go 300 metres to the Magnetograph House, and to the Absolute Magnetic Hut, and do your work. If you were taking the met observations, you get out there and you do it, and you can see here. You get some indication of what the wind’s like. Madigan is just trying to hang onto this thing which is on top of the hill. The wind’s got inside his clothes and is billowing out as well, but I think it’s part of the reason why they were actually able to live and survive so well in that first year. By having a strong focus on work, and Mawson insisted that they work hard, I think that gave them that drive and it would cut down a lot of the potential problems that can arise when you have people living in such close quarters.

Bage at the Astronomical Observatory, and I’ve got some photos of that later. You’ll see it’s more a ruin now.

Okay, the sledging journeys. They covered a tremendous amount of distance. The Southern Party here, that was with Hurley, Bage and Webb. They were trying to get to the South Magnetic Pole. They got fairly close to it, but they didn’t quite make it, but they covered a distance of around, just below 600 kilometres out. Others went in different directions, to the west, over the sea ice around the place.

This was Mawson’s journey, the Far East Sledging Journey, and it was at this point here, where Ninnis went down a crevasse. Absolutely tragic. Mertz was skiing ahead, and it’s an interesting thing. The dogs will pull sleds and they’ll run if they’ve got a target, because when you’re on a featureless plain, there’s nothing for them to run towards.

So Mertz who was the Swiss cross country skiing champion, he’d be skiing ahead, and then he’d point it out, “Crevasse here”, crossed it. Mawson went across it with his dog sled as well and his dog team. Ninnis was the third in line. He went down the crevasse. The thought is that he wasn’t on the sled. He was running next to the sled, and you run, you have a point pressure through your feet, so you don’t spread the weight over a big surface area, created enough downward pressure to break the bridge of the crevasse. Down he went. No trace of him.

It would have been horrific if it had been observed. On the side of the crevasse there were all dog paw marks. So what had happened, Ninnis had gone down, the sled had gone down and pulled the dogs backwards, down into the crevasse as well. One dog survived for a short amount of time, about 50 metres down, just whining on a cliff on this ledge where it landed. They couldn’t do anything. Ninety percent of their food gone, their tent gone. So Mertz and Mawson had a tent cover, a pole that they could use, 10% of their food, to cover a distance of 500 kilometres to get back. It’s almost a mission impossible.

So they decided - they took a gamble. They said “Well take the shorter inland route,” rather than going down to the sea and hoping they might be able to kill some seals or penguins, because they didn’t know what the sea ice would be like. They progressively killed and ate the older dogs, or the dogs as they weakened and died of starvation. They were even doing things like boiling up the dog’s paws. It would have been horrific, especially for Mertz who was a vegetarian. You can imagine you’ve got to eat all this stuff, and meat would turn your stomach anyway. He eventually died after being in a fever for a couple of days. A terrible death. Initially it was thought that it was probably due to Vitamin A poisoning.

The more recent thought is that he died from a combination of starvation, exertion and depression, because Mertz and Ninnis were almost inseparable on the expedition. They wouldn’t speak about Mertz without it being “Mertz and Ninnis” or “Ninnis and Mertz”, because they looked after the dogs, they worked together. So I could understand, and I think I lean more towards that last version as well.

The interesting thing is, there is a very strong possibility that his body could be found there still. According to the location that Mawson gave for leaving Mertz, I’ve had some discussions with a chap called Benoit Legresy who’s a French Glaciologist and he said that in this area here, the ice is not moving. So it’s not going out to sea. It’s also not an area of accumulation, and so the chances are, the body would still be there. Ninnis on the other hand, would be long gone out to sea. Okay, so died there.

Mawson had a horrific trip back. Fell down crevasses. Managed to pull himself out. He got to a point where the others who’d gone out looking for him had left a supply of fresh food, and so he got some fresh food. He then made it to an area called Aladdin’s Cave which is only a matter of about seven or eight kilometres from the camp, and there was also fresh fruit there. So he knew the ship was in, but then he got caught in a blizzard for a week. Couldn’t get down there. Arrived hours after the ship had gone. They radioed the ship and said “Come back.” They couldn’t come back because the winds were too strong.

Davis then made the decision, “We can’t stay. If we stay here and try to get back, the blizzard might just hang around for a week. We’ll be too late to rescue the Western Party,” and he felt these people were at least safe. They left a party back at the hut of six people to look after any survivors that came back. “We’ve got to go and rescue the others who are living on an ice cliff,” and so they left them there for another year. A hard decision, but I think the right decision.

So just a few shots. This is what they do, by the way. When they’re heading out on these sledging journeys, they cache food. Initially you’d go out and you’d cache some food here. You’d go a bit further and you’d cache some more food. The reason being, so that when you are doing your normal sledging journey, you don’t have to carry so much. You can go out, you continue on your merry way. On your way back you’ve got food supplies, and so they’re obviously well marked so that you can find them.

The other nice thing for the Southern Party at least, is the wind always blows from the south. So when they’re on their way back, just rig up a sail and it’s going to make it a hell of a lot easier for you to make that journey, and this was critical, because they ran out of food. They also got caught in a blizzard and they thought “What do we do? Do we just stay in our tent and die of starvation, or do we make a run for it?” and Hurley convinced the others to go for it, and they did. They weren’t even sure the right direction that they were going, but they managed to make it back to the hut. There are so many amazing stories associated with all of this.

This was Mertz, Ninnis and Murphy, and the dogs at Aladdin’s Cave. Aladdin’s Cave was just a snow cave, an ice cave. They just dug it into the ground. So a refuge where if the wind’s blowing too strongly, you can get down there, and just you're out of the wind, you’re safe, it’s warm.

This is the memorial plaque. In the second year Hodgeman carved this and put it with a huge cross that was made out of radio masts on Azimuth Hill, as a memorial to Belgrave Ninnis and Xavier Mertz. Now, the original is in Hobart at the Antarctic Division, but there’s a replica plaque there.

This one is, I think ,really quite poignant. Can you read that up the back by the way? Okay, because just the sadness of the people that were left behind, because Bickerton and Madigan were in the six that stayed behind. So they were there in a hut that the previous year had 18 people in. There’s now seven of them including a very sick Mawson, and they’ve got Hyde Park Corner. That’s Hyde Park Corner now. You can see just written up the top here, ‘Hyde Park Corner’ painted on the top. It does look bare, barren, and I think it brings home the desolation and for me anyway, it’s a really powerful feeling of just what it would have been like for them, to come back there, and Ninnis and Mertz were no longer around.

Okay, I’ll move onto the Western Party. I don’t expect you to read that, but basically they went looking for a place to land. They couldn’t find anything. Eventually they got to a point where the Aurora was running out of fuel. They needed somewhere, and they came to the Shackleton Ice Shelf, and Wild said, “You can leave us here. It’ll be okay.” They had to go up about 30 metres I guess, up onto this ice cliff, move all of their materials a long way back, and build their hut.

Davis wasn’t all that happy about doing it, and he said to Frank Wild, he said “I just want you to write me a note, just saying ‘Dear Captain Davis. I’m really happy that you’re going to leave us here, and I’m glad to spend the next 12 months on this ice shelf with my men,’” because Davis didn’t want to leave them there, the ice shelf break off, float out to sea and they all die. So he said “You write something just so that my rear end is covered,” and so Wild did that.

The good thing is this was Wild’s third Antarctic trip. He was a veteran of earlier Scott and Shackleton’s expeditions. So he was a very, very good leader and a good person to have at that party. This was Frank Wild here.

Harrisson was the biologist and then the other men in the party. Interestingly, where is he? Dovers down the bottom here, his son became the first field leader at Mawson Station when Mawson Station was first established in 1954, but they had a fantastic year.

Wild was a different sort of a leader to Mawson. He expected them to do all of their work, but he also let them play. So they’d do their work in the morning, into the early afternoon and then he said, “Do whatever you like after that.” So they’d go outside. I read Harrisson’s diaries last year. They’d go outside and they’d play football on the ice, or they’d go sliding down the ice slopes, or they’d just go out and take some photographs of penguins. So, they had what I considered to be a fantastic year. They did their work, but they had a bit of fun, and they all got on well.

The only unfortunate thing I guess was for Harrisson. He was the oldest one of the party. He was the only non smoker, and when I read his diaries, he said there were times when he had to run outside and throw up because he was just choking on the smoke inside the hut.

So this is the Aurora on the ice edge. It’s just parked up against the fast ice. Then they had to set up a flying fox, drag everything up the top. Dogs, building materials, away they went, and then they built the hut. It’s exactly the same dimensions as the other one. The good thing about this hut was it had felt over the entire surface, and so that kept it snow free. So it was a very cosy environment.

That’s the hut a couple of months after it was put up, completely covered in snow and ice, but this is where Wild’s experience showed as well because what he did was he just said “Oh well, let’s just build a whole lot of tunnels around here.” He stored all of the food, all of the boxes, everything inside the tunnels, so they didn’t have to go outside to get their food. They’d just open the door, go into the tunnel, grab a box, bring it in.

Actually that reminds me of one story I probably should have told you about the other hut. The other hut had a cellar under the building, and Murphy was in charge of the stores, and what he’d do if you wanted a leg of lamb or some meat, he’d just throw a husky in there. The husky would go in there, grab a chunk of meat, come out. Murphy would grab the dog and then get the meat, and you read in the diaries and he said “Sometimes the dog won.” So it got past Murphy and that was the end of their meat. They then had to send another dog in to get some more meat, because it was only a small hole and grovelling around down there wouldn’t have been that much fun. There’s just showing a ladder just to get out to the building, out from the veranda and so on, and the tunnels.

They also did a lot of exploration. It was very difficult terrain though. You’re on an ice shelf, very heavily crevassed. It wasn’t nice territory to be moving around in, but they still covered a heck of a lot of ground, a lot of cartography. They did the same sort of biological work. Not a lot of opportunity for geological work, but where there were exposed islands and so on, they could do that.

But, I think this is where probably a little bit of experience, but also, it might have been because the conditions were so bad, they had to be more cautious than the other party. But you can see here, they’re just crossing a heavily crevassed area where there’s a lot of really broken snow, but there’s one bloke here. He’s roped to this chap, he’s roped to the sled, he’s roped over to this chap. They all have harnesses and there were numerous times - the number of times they fell down crevasses, they lost count of it. So they’d just be falling down and they’d become almost quite nonchalant about it. They’re just describing the beautiful blues and greens of the ice while they’re hanging there, five metres down, just waiting to be pulled out. But you’ve got to have a lot of faith in your harnesses.

They did have a little bit of a drama there as well, with their time there because, on one of the last sledging journeys that Wild left, Harrisson wanted to come along with him, just so he could have a look at some Snow Petrel colonies, and Wild wasn’t keen for him to come. But he said “Okay, look you can come along, and then head back.” He was going to be away two weeks.

Unfortunately when they got to this area where the Snow Petrels were, and there had been a food cache and a sled there, it had all been dispersed by the wind. So they needed Harrisson’s sled and his food to continue on, and so Harrisson went with them.

Now Moyes, who was left back at the camp, was expecting Harrisson after two weeks, and he never turned up. So he then, he spent nine weeks altogether just thinking that Harrisson was dead. He got his own sledge organised and went out looking for him, couldn’t find him, came back, and so psychologically there would have been a huge pressure on him.

This is just waiting for the Aurora.

Just one more story too, just about being left there while I remember it. The other thing with Wild and Davis, just before Davis left them on this snow cliff, Wild just yelled out to Davis. He said “Look, I hope you have a safe journey back to Hobart,” and Davis whose nickname was Gloomy, he just said “You’d better hope we do because,” he said, “no one else knows where you are.” So they would have been absolutely had it because they did have a radio, but it couldn’t transmit any distance. The other thing was when they unpacked all of the radio, there weren’t enough parts there to make the radio operational. So that didn’t help.

They also dipped out because the sewing machine they were meant to have, wasn’t there either in their supplies, and so they had to do all of their sewing by hand. This is just waiting for the Aurora to come. Wild just relaxing on the top. This is also nice when you read it in the journals and you see Davis saying, “I was starting to wonder what had happened with the Western Party. I left eight people there.” When he came back he could see 12 people, or 12 figures on the shore, and there were the eight blokes and four Emperor Penguins just sort of out waiting.

I’ve included this cartoon as well, because Mawson I think must have been a fairly polarising individual. This is a contemporary cartoon of the time. So, “Douglas Mawson listening to nice things about himself.” So there’s probably a couple of different views about Mawson, including views about whether or not he ate any of Mertz, to survive on that trip. Personally I don’t think he did. I think that Mawson was too straight and too, I think fixed in his beliefs to even contemplate doing anything like that.

Okay, very quickly. This is an interesting one because you might get an idea when you think Wild and his team were on an ice shelf. When we went there in January this year, we couldn’t get into Commonwealth Bay, or to Cape Denison on a boat because there were 20 kilometres here of solid fast ice, and that came about because this thing here, which originally was one iceberg, parked itself there, trapped the pack ice, it froze solid and then you couldn’t get the ships in. This iceberg by the way is about 2,500 square kilometres. I wanted to include this just to give a bit of an idea of the scale of operations, or scale of things down there, and how it came about.

This is the Mertz Glacier Tongue, sticking out into the Antarctic ocean. This is the land here. Cape Denison is down there. The French station at Dumont d’Urville is here. This thing, is the big iceberg B9B which had broken off from the Ross Sea. The drift is from east to west. So it came along and it just gave the Mertz Glacier Tongue a bit of a nudge, cracked it. A few days later, bigger crack, bit more, and off she goes.

Now, this part of the Mertz Glacier Tongue which is also a couple of thousand square kilometres, is now about 5,000 kilometres to the west. So it just drifted away. Unfortunately B9B just moved along here. When the water got shallower, it hit the ground, beached itself and then trapped all the pack ice, and that’s made life really quite difficult because ordinarily, it’s a completely ice free area at Cape Denison. Tourist ships can get in. We can get in. The reason that we could get in was because the Mertz Glacier would block the pack ice that’s moving from east to west. Any that did get around there, would get blown out to sea by those howling winds.

It also made life very difficult for the penguins. So all of this is normally ocean, out here. These are just the MacKellar Islets. So Cape Denison, Mawson’s Huts. That’s the Transit Hut, the astronomical thing. This is normally all water. But what it meant was penguins had 20 kilometres extra to go to get their food. As a result of that, they bred at the rate of about a quarter of their normal breeding, this year. So, very, very low breeding because they’re only little fellas and to do 20 kilometres, they use up a lot of energy to do it.

This is Mawson’s Huts as it was earlier this year. We just had to dig out the door so you could get inside to do a bit of work. This is what it was like before any conservation work was undertaken, 90 odd years of just being ice blasted. Soft wood timbers. The wind picks up snow and ice particles and smashes it into the wood, and it abrades the timbers away. You can see the roof on the workshop. Some of the timbers had gone completely, and it’s just tongue and groove timber by the way. So you think, you only have to get through half the thickness of the timber, the groove and tongue join is going to be exposed, and powder snow will get in there anywhere.

Just to show you what it’s actually like to get a bit more of a global setting, this is the bit that’s all frozen now, all frozen solid. This was Boat Harbour where Mawson came in, parked their little boats there, built the hut there, Astronomical Observatory there, Magnetograph House is here and the Absolute Magnetic Hut is just in there. So they had four buildings. So you can imagine trying to go from here, to there. It’s a distance of about 300 metres in a blizzard. In a blizzard you can see maybe a metre, maybe two metres. Close got lost when he went outside to get snow and they found him within 10 metres of the hut, but he couldn’t find the hut. So it gives you some idea of what it’s like, and on occasions they had to crawl over there to do their work.

The Transit Hut as it is now. Or no, that’s actually in a better state than it is now, and the Magnetograph House. The main living quarters is just off here a little bit. These are the things that bring the hut to life for me by the way. On the door inside the Magnetograph House - and you go through three doors to get inside there - you can’t read all of that, but basically Bage who did the magnetic work in the second year, just painted instructions on the door, as to what you should do if you want to repeat these magnetic readings, so you can then compare what’s going on with the earth’s magnetic field now, compared to the early 1900s.

The sad thing is down the bottom, “Good luck and a speedy release. R.B.” – Robert Bage, “18th December, 1913.” When he came back, and he came back at the end of the first year, went to Gallipoli and was killed in machine gun fire when he was marking out trenches there. So another sad end, unfortunately.

I’m actually a bit of a softie for a little bit of graffiti and tagging places when you see things like this. When we took a skylight off to repair the skylight, we found this, “B.E.S. Ninnis. Jan 24, 1912.” So he’d got up there with a hammer and nails, and just put his tag on the building. It’s nice to have some sort of tangible reminder. Inside the dark room, if you just peer around the corner of the dark room – this is the wall of the building. There are still things like these dry plates there – Hurley’s just written, “Near enough is not good enough,” in pencil on there, and it pretty much summarises his attitude towards photography and so on.

Right, I’ll just start racing through now. So a little bit of speed talking. With “Conversation Issues” – this is what the building was like inside the main hut, the main living quarters, in 1984/’85 and you get some sort of an idea what the damage of snow ingress had done to the building - shattered timbers, broken collar ties, smashed shelving. It was a real problem.

Just to show you what the abrasion can be like, in the second year, Mawson and his team put hessian, sheep skins, sail cloth, everything over the outside to try and keep the snow out, and they attached it with batons. You can see where batons have been and they’ve protected the wood from the blasting.

Timber like that has gone from 25mm thick down to 1mm in parts. The abrasion is quite extraordinary on the timbers.

So, the Mawson’s Huts Foundation, a private foundation that has been responsible for doing most of the work since about 1996, and initially they sent down two architects to inspect the building and work out what to do, what work needed to be done. Got a conservation plan, came back and then said “Okay, let’s do it.” So, re-adhered timbers to this, put a new roof on the workshop, stabilised the Absolute Magnetic Hut – there wasn’t much left to it – but just screwed timbers together – reattached the cross arm of the memorial cross, put a new roof on the Magnetograph House.

But there’s - what would you call it - robust debate about whether or not you remove snow and ice from the inside of the building, and there was one part of the conservation community that said “You don’t remove it. You don’t remove it because it stabilises the environment inside. It anchors the building to the bedrock so it won’t be blown into Commonwealth Bay, and also it stops people from pinching stuff,” because if it’s all covered in snow and ice you’re not going to be able to grab souvenirs.

So there was a fairly long period of monitoring, and we monitor with temperature relative humidity sensors to keep tabs on the environment. We also have vibration data loggers inside the building to measure how much the building moves. We eventually won the argument that you should remove the snow and ice to stabilise the interior, to expose the spaces, and by monitoring the environment, we’ve shown the environment hasn’t changed significantly. We also have shown that by removing snow and ice, it hasn’t led to the building moving more. It doesn’t vibrate anymore, or more or less with that snow and ice removed.

We’ve also put corrosion monitors in there, so that we can see by removing the snow and ice, has it changed the environment so that you get more corrosion. If it did, we’d have to reconsider, because we don’t want the bolts and nuts and nails that are holding the building together, to corrode at an accelerated rate and possibly lead to structural failure, but just some of the problems.

Repair work – we always use original timbers if we can, glue them, screw them, but if we can’t and we have to use a replacement timber, they’re always stamped and dated so that anyone will know in the future that this wasn’t an original part of the building. So there’s been quite a lot of work done to fix the ceilings and collar ties, and so on. But we will use any original materials we can, such as these metal straps, U-bolts, spacer blocks, etc.

A bit of ice removal. This was Mawson’s cubicle by the way. He had a little picture gallery along there. So we just removed the snow and ice from that. That was where it was. So he had a couple of big biscuit barrels in there too, a few other bits and pieces. That was one of the pictures that he had on his wall. Probably a little bit risqué for the time, I guess.

The kitchen – and I’ve included this - there’s Dyce Murphy again - through to the workshop - Walter Hannam, the radio operator. That’s the kitchen bench, stove over there. Just keep that in mind there. That’s the kitchen bench now. So, there’s still a lot of snow and ice in the building. What we want to do is we want to remove all of this if we can. We’ve started excavating the kitchen, and so we start from the top and move down. It was lovely when we started. We found all these bottles up there, especially you chip through and you see a Mckinlay Scotch label and you think “Oh yeah.” But Mawson didn’t leave anything behind. They were completely empty. It would have been interesting to sample it, and just see how the scotch had aged over the years.

Okay, just a few of the locals checking the place out. One of the last big jobs we did structurally was put a new roof on the building, on the main hut, and we had to do this because these batons were being lost. There was a baton there originally, and all evidence associated with the sail cloth that was used to seal the building, and also - that was all being lost - but the building was leaking, and so we had to put a new roof on it.

The problem was when we got down there, we couldn’t. The building was almost buried, and so the first thing we had to do was dig it out. That took a long time. We ended up moving something like 80 cubic metres of snow and ice. We’d expose one roof plane at a time, and over clad it. There’s no point doing more than that, because if you get a blizzard, it just fills up again. But we were very, very lucky to be able to get all of the work done without any major blows.

I’ve included this one because we initially discussed whether or not we should take scaffolding down with us, so that for an occ health and safety thing, we wouldn’t hurt ourselves when we fell off the roof. We had to put a fence up so we wouldn't hurt ourselves when we fell onto the roof. So it was the opposite. But the actual over cladding was really neat. A lot of the work I’ve done in the past has been related to shipwreck conservation. Ships in the 1600s – sacrificial skin of pine over the oak. They go sailing around. Teredo Worm chews its way through the pine. You strip it off, you put a new layer on.

So what we did with Mawson’s Huts was apply the same basic principle to it. We put a layer of batons like this, underneath, attached to the structural timbers. Then we put this snow proof, waterproof membrane on the top, another layer of batons, and these have got little channels cut out of them, so that if any snow and ice gets through this outer layer and then melts, it can drain out. So it won’t build up in there, but in 50 or 60 year’s time - and it will be about that I imagine - these tongue and groove timbers are going to be shot. You can just rip them off, put a new layer on, and you’re not going to be damaging the original timber. If you did want to get through to the original roof, you can do it easily enough just by peeling it off. So that’s the job when it was finished.

We’ve also done a bit of artefact conservation. We built a little laboratory down there. This is attached to the living quarters. It’s quite a nice lab. The end of summer. We’ve got to just take all of our equipment, put it into a big, virtually a bloody great big Esky, and put silica gel in there to keep the electrical stuff dry, and then away we go.

Some of the things that are still left behind. This is inside Hurley’s dark room. So a lot of the chemicals and so on are still there. Books, pretty tatty. Mawson took all the good books, left the penny dreadfuls. They got sick of reading them in the second year. I think they’d read them two or three times over.

This is what I like. These little things. When you excavate the ice off one of the bunks and you find a book there, this little tin with a candle in it, and you can just imagine after the lights had been turned out – and they had an acetylene generating plant – that would be off. This was on Correll’s bunk. You could see him just laying there reading by candlelight.

Dog chain. This one I like because that was in the pre-conserved state. This is conserved. We don’t do anything to take them back to new. What we do is we just stop them corroding more. But what was fantastic about this one, was that when we recovered it from the workshop, it was frozen solid. We took it back to the lab which is at about 8 or 10 degrees and it thawed out, and it just smelt like wet dog. It was really quite evocative to think you’ve got this smell of dog from about 90 years ago. It’s no less – so it’s as unpleasant as modern dog.

Just little things – matchboxes. Just repair jobs on those, and we apply the same principle to plates and pans and pots. We stabilise them against corrosion, but we leave grease and oil and whatever on them, just as evidence of their previous use.

Okay, very quickly I’ll finish off with some happy snaps, because you can’t go to the Antarctic I don’t think, with at least having a few shots of penguins and other people. I’m trying to work out who’s more multi-coloured here, Megan or the King Penguin. This is on Macquarie Island by the way. These birds will just come straight over to you. They’ll peck your clothing, they’ll peck you. They want to see what you’re made of basically.

The Royal Penguin or the punk penguin. Quite gorgeous. There’s something like, I think 850,000 of those, of just the Royal Penguins, and then you’ve got the King Penguins on top of that. That’s a juvenile King Penguin. The pimp without the bling, I think, and just on the beach. You’ll go onto the beaches at Sandy Bay and other places, and there are literally thousands of these penguins there, and the interesting thing is because they can breed all year round, they’re in various stages. So this one is a juvenile who’s still got his full fur coat ,and these two are in various stages. This one’s got the egg on the foot. So they’re going through the whole lot.

A Weddell Seal. Now these were a prime source of food, and also blubber for Mawson and his team. I think it would have been quite difficult to kill them to be honest. I’d find it difficult because they’re just like the Antarctic cat. They’re very cute looking, but you get a lot of meat out of them, you get a lot of skins, and there are still skins, stacks of skins, stacks of Adelie Penguins around Mawson’s Hut, because even in that second year when they were waiting for Davis to come back and pick them up, they weren’t sure that the ship would come back. So they’ve got to start killing penguins in case they had to spend another year there, killing penguins and killing seals. So you’d get caches of penguins this high that are just stored outside in the ice. They’re getting a bit skeletal now.

That was earlier this year. The dog is called Stay because it’s only the command that he obeys, but he’s a veteran of the Australian Antarctic Division. I was quite surprised because I was down there and the helicopter came in with a load of cargo and out popped Stay. Now he’s got his own passport, wherever he goes, and he just travels around the different Antarctic stations, and wherever he goes, the postmaster will put the stamp in for that. So, at the moment, Stay is still down at Cape Denison. What we did is we took him over and we put him inside the field hut, and we thought we’d better leave him a bowl, but he doesn’t really drink much or eat much, so we left it empty. But he’s got his rug, stamped his passport. He’s going to be there at Christmas this year. So we put some Christmas ears on him and left him there.

Got to have the iceberg shots. For me, I love them. The more misshapen the berg, the better it is. They’ve weathered and there’s something really quite magnificent about them, and the bergs that you can see, they can vary. They can be 100 kilometres long. They can be relatively small. This is a bit of a cheat. This wasn’t taken at Cape Denison. It was taken at Casey Station when I went on an iceberg cruise in the evening, but I just love the scalloped look of that berg.

And then finally just some shots of these little guys leaping out of the water because this was my tenth trip to the Antarctic and I’d never been able to get a photograph of the penguins jumping out of the water. I think no one had told them that they can’t fly. Normally at Cape Denison you have these little snow cliffs around the edge, and they’re a metre and a half to two metres high, and what the Adelie Penguins do, they go out, they feed and then, when they’re coming back to shore, they just accelerate and go up, like that, so that they can make it up onto the little ice cliffs.

Now this year, at this particular season - this is all sea ice by the way, so underneath here is the ocean – it was just perfectly flat. So we’d go down there with our camera, just set it on automatic. When you see the penguins coming in from feeding out here, and they’re heading in this direction, you just put the camera on automatic and just shoot. So you get these sort of shots of the penguins going. They’re good at leaping. They’re not so good at landing. That’s the only problem. But it’s just fantastic. What I quite like about this photograph, this one is almost, “What the hell is that?” There’s this strange person on the shore in front of me. And then this one, this for me is a cracker because you’ve almost got the cheer squad here just looking at him and thinking “Yeah, what a pearler of a leap.”

I just want to finish off with the Hyde Park Corner shot and just the fact – because one of the things that critical with any expedition is the selection of the teams. I think Mawson was exceptional in terms of selecting a team because he selected people who could do the science and could do the work that they wanted, but they also had to be able to get on, and there are obviously going to be some difficulties and some issues amongst people. I mean, I know that Murphy didn’t get on particularly well with Mawson. Hurley was a real joker, but you needed people like that to lighten the effort.

In the second year, a radio operator, Jeffryes was left behind, and Jeffryes was a person that Mawson rejected for the post of radio operator. It was a very sad story because Jeffryes suffered, I would assume it’s a serious case of depression, possibly a psychosis as well in that second year, and so he got the radio operating which was wonderful, but he was sending out messages like “They’re all going mad,” “They’re turning the heat up,” “They’re trying to kill me.” He accused Mawson of putting him under a magnetic spell and then goes “I resign.” So he’s got the radio working, but he’s sending out all these bizarre messages.

So, all I wanted to say is you can see the camaraderie. The success of an expedition depends entirely on these sorts of things, and then reading Harrisson’s diaries, and I’ll read that out just in case you can’t read it at the back, “The wife left the room,…” This was after they’d got back from the expedition. “…we joined hands all round and sang ‘Auld Lang Syne’ – and then the Second Party was no more. It was the worst part of the whole expedition, this breaking up!” and it gives you some sort of an idea of the friendships and the bonds that are formed, when you live together, you work together in these sorts of extreme environments.

I’ll just finish off with this shot. This was a team of people that I was with earlier. I’ve included this just to show you that Antarctic cross dressing is still alive. That’s Pscyho. I didn’t even know he’d brought down his Aunty Jack black and blue frock, but we had been out playing a game of cricket because it was Australia day, and so you have to have a game of cricket in the snow, and out came Psycho dressed in that frock. But again, as with Mawson’s team, I’ve been very, very lucky to be able to be part of teams that have been hand selected, and so you normally go down, you don’t have any problems, because it’s essential. You’ve got to be able to do your job, but you’ve got to be able to get on with people.

Now just in conclusion, I’ve got a few acknowledgements there and I’d particularly like to acknowledge the WA Museum because without the support of the Museum, I wouldn’t have been able to take part in this work, and it really has been unbelievably rewarding on a whole range of levels, but also the Mawson’s Huts Foundation, the Australian Antarctic Division and also fellow expeditioners including Peter Boyer who collected a lot of these images of Hurley’s slides that you’ve seen.

So, that’s it from me. I’ve gone a little bit over, but I hope that it’s been sufficiently enjoyable for you.

Chevron is a presenting partner of In the Wild West lecture series.