Ice Cold in Denison: The Original Australasian Antarctic Expedition (Part 2)

The preparations for Mawson’s original AAE took a year. The following excerpt is from my book 1912: The Year The World Discovered Antarctica.  I do hope you enjoy it.

Mawson’s effort was born of Shackleton’s British Antarctic Expedition. Perhaps inevitably, his Australasian Antarctic Expedition—AAE, as it became known—used many of the same members, suppliers and equipment. In addition to Shackleton and David supporting the effort at home, John King Davis and Frank Wild agreed to join Mawson in the south. Davis had become a firm friend of Mawson’s during the previous expedition, nursing him through frequent bouts of seasickness and saving him from a crevasse after the young Australian’s now famous journey to the South Magnetic Pole.

Mawson in turn had been greatly impressed with Davis’s skill as a navigator and captain. In the final phase of the British expedition Shackleton had given Davis command of the Nimrod and ordered him to return the vessel to Britain—a journey of eight thousand kilometres—during midwinter. Not only did Davis bring the ship and crew home safely; he also disproved the existence of several islands marked on navigational charts of the time. It was a remarkable effort, and proof to Mawson that Davis was more than capable of being his second-in-command. Wild too had demonstrated ability in the Antarctic, with an incredible feat of endurance during the southern journey with Shackleton. The AAE needed all the experience it could get; most of the other men taking part had none at all.

Mawson had also learned a few of Shackleton’s tricks when it came to finances. An old Dundee wooden whaling vessel, the Aurora, was identified as the expedition ship. It needed modifying, including reinforcing the bow with steel plates to handle the sea ice, but it would do. Because funds were short Mawson ‘had to buy the Aurora without even having the money to purchase her. Materials which required time in preparation had been ordered and bought—we could not turn back. Already Capt. J.K. Davis and I had made a solemn compact that we would go come what may, even had we to go in a cutter with no equipment. We felt sure that even should we not succeed by this latter procedure, our example would not be lost on the Britishers of the future.’ And it was not just the ship—a large part of the expedition’s inventory was bought on credit. It was becoming an Anglo-Saxon exploration tradition.

A focus of the Australian effort was to be Cape Adare, Borchgrevink’s former base on the north coast of Victoria Land. Mawson had been deeply frustrated by Scott’s lack of interest, and at the time wrote, ‘This area is crying out for investigation. It offers the greatest range of rocky coastline anywhere obtain- able on the Antarctic is here a connection must one-time have been effected with Australia...In my opinion it is the pick of the Antarctic for scientific investigation and I deplore Capt. Scott’s inability to include part of it in his programme.’

Shortly after, Scott reconsidered. In early May 1910 he wrote to David, who was in Sydney: ‘My idea has always been to try for the South Pole a second season if it is not possible to get there in one; and should the main object of the Expedition be achieved during the first season I have wished to transfer the station to the west of Cape North for the second season. Such a transference would, I think, be quite possible, though it would not be possible to go far beyond Adelie Land.’

Just a couple of weeks later Scott’s mind was made up, and he reiterated the prospect of visiting Cape Adare in the outline of his expedition to the Royal Geographic Society. These plans were brought forward dramatically when the Terra Nova discovered the Fram in the Bay of Whales and took what then became the British Northern Party to Cape Adare. Mawson was furious. In the Australian’s eyes, Scott had stolen his idea and, after Mawson’s fallout with Shackleton, Scott’s actions seemed hypocritical. Others were not so sure. Scott’s former engineer, Skelton, wrote to the British leader at the time, ‘Don’t take any notice of what those other people say about that being Mawson’s ground because you have a prior right to the whole of it, and anyway Shackleton and his friends can’t talk about what is right.’

Calmed by Kathleen Scott, Mawson presented his proposed Antarctic expedition to the Royal Geographical Society in April 1911. It was breathtaking in scale: ‘to accomplish a complete geographical and magnetic survey between Cape Adare and Gaussberg, a distance of over 2000 miles.’ Mawson reminded the audience that ‘it had been our intention of dropping a few men at Cape Adare, for that is the easiest and most accessible landing on the Antarctic continent. The facilities there afforded of coal and stores left by Borchgrevink’s expedition would have further simplified matters...In the light of recent events’—a thinly veiled reference to Scott’s switch to Cape Adare—‘this must be eliminated from our programme.’

The plan was modified, but still unparalleled in vision: four expedition bases spread out along a near-unknown Antarctic coastline. This was not a return to old ground; it was a complete scientific exploration of what many suspected to be an entirely new continent, lying in the ‘Australian quadrant’. With Scott taking Cape Adare, Mawson’s expedition was becoming more daring. Multiple sledging parties were to head into the Antarctic hinterland, investigating almost all fields of science, including biology, glaciology, magnetism and meteorology, backed up by the first wireless link to Australia.

In tandem with the work on the ice, the Aurora, under Davis’s command, would traverse the Southern Ocean collecting ocean and biological samples alongside depth soundings. Mawson was in no doubt about the importance of his mission: ‘The early glimpses of the Antarctic continent, and its history, illustrate how little is yet revealed of the wealth of scientific data locked up within its icy ramparts, and calls for the united efforts of scientific bodies throughout the world to banish this ignorance, which stands as a reproach in this enlightened twentieth century.’ Not averse to striking a nationalistic note, he reminded the audience that it was his intention to claim the region for the Empire. Here, he made clear, stood a worthy successor to Shackleton.

The expedition would have the largest number of scientists of any Antarctic expedition to date. Scott had ten science gradu- ates and professionals in a cohort of thirty-three men; Mawson had nineteen in his complement of thirty-one, covering the breadth of scientific endeavour.
Magnetism would be a feature of the extensive observation program. Although Shackleton’s British team claimed to have reached the South Magnetic Pole area, there were mutterings they might have fallen short; David and Mawson were unsure. Charles Chree, director of the Kew Observatory, wrote to David and said that, regardless, ‘Every one, I am sure, appreciates the truly heroic quest made by you & Dr Mawson...We want a little poetry and adventure in science to show to the public that scientific men are not machines.’ Mawson was determined to resolve the issue, preferably without heroics. He needed the expedition to approach the South Magnetic Pole from another direction and to be led by an expert. Just as Amundsen had, Mawson approached the Terrestrial Magnetism department at the Carnegie Institute for advice. After some deliberation they suggested Eric Webb, a trained magnetic observer, who after a five-month secondment at the Institute joined Mawson in Australia.

Mawson was all too aware that scientific results in themselves could not compete against what David had called the ‘microbe of sport’. It was important to follow Shackleton’s example and engage people with a strong visual record of the expedition: the BAE had shown just how powerful photographs were for scientific work and in exciting the public. Fate would deliver the expedition Frank Hurley, then a little-known photographer based in Sydney. Hurley had purchased a Kodak box brownie camera when he was seventeen and by his early twenties was running a postcard business in Sydney.

At twenty-five Hurley cornered Mawson in a train compartment and talked non-stop through the journey. His enthusiasm was infectious. Three days later Hurley was hired and charged with a wider remit than that of his day job: he was to keep a film record of the expedition’s exploits. Unfamiliar with this new technology, called a cinematograph, he learned to operate the hand-cranked movie camera in just a few days. The expedition now had a dedicated professional photographer who would go on to repeatedly put himself in danger for the best possible shot, and who scribbled above his Antarctic work bench ‘Near enough is not good enough.’

With stores and staff appointed, financing once again became the priority. After Mawson’s presentation, the Royal Geographical Society marked their approval by contributing £500—the same as was given to Scott—while the promise of shares in future mineral discoveries helped secure thousands more pounds from investors. Several of the Australian state governments chipped in, offering a total of £18,500, while the federal government matched the funds provided to Shackleton, £5000—followed up later with a further £5000—but New Zealand controversially declined. Significantly, the British government also chipped in £2000. With loans and grants, Mawson could count on £39,000. Although considerably short of the £48,000 target, he had his expedition—and it was all arranged in just one year.

To maintain public interest in the enterprise—and keep funds flowing—Mawson looked to Scott’s motorised sledges for supporting work on the ice. After reviewing the designs of the vehicles, however, he regretfully concluded they would not do. Instead, Mawson thought flight might be a better money- spinner. It was a shrewd move. Only ten years before, the Wright Brothers had famously made the first powered flight; the technology had advanced swiftly since then, and with it public excitement about the possibilities of air travel.

Scott’s wife, Kathleen, was an enthusiast and encouraged Mawson to take a plane for reconnaissance purposes. An unimpressed Reginald Skelton wrote to Scott in 1911: ‘Mawson is apparently taking an airplane with him and a soldier called Watkins to fly in it,—really it is very silly,—wonderful flights have been made this year,—but we haven’t got anywhere near the so-called conquest of the air yet, even in Europe, and going up in the Antarctic seems to me to be only asking for trouble.’

Negotiating with the manufacturer Vickers, Mawson acquired a single-winged two-seater with skis for landing on ice for under £1000, on credit. The pilot Hugh Evelyn Watkins told Flight magazine, ‘it is doubtful if the airplane will be used for the final dash to the Pole, as it would have to surmount the great ice barrier.’ Although Mawson had no designs on the South Geographic Pole, the magazine ended on the exasperated note: ‘What hope is there of surmounting it if it could not be done by aeroplane?’ Regardless, the plane was shipped to Australia, with much fanfare.

Wild wrote of this episode in his unpublished memoirs: ‘Like almost all British explorers, Mawson had found a great difficulty in raising the necessary funds for his expedition...and he had planned to use the aeroplane to assist in this. For this purpose a huge marquee was erected on the race course, thousands of invitations sent out, and a sufficiency of refreshments of every kind provided for the guests. The Governor of South Australia promised to attend with his family, and to open the proceedings by taking the first of a series of short flights which would be given during the day at a charge of £5 a trip.’

The plane was checked over and all appeared well. Watkins and Wild took the opportunity for one last test flight the next morning:
The plane took off all right and had climbed to 500 ft when in making a turn it suddenly side slipped. We were almost down before Watkins got the plane straightened out, and the sensation was far from pleasant. We climbed again to about 150 feet when the plane put its nose down and dived. We were then over the centre of the race course and as the earth rushed at us, all my past life did not panorama before me. I felt no fear, just had time to think ‘Frank old boy your days of exploration are done,’ when we struck, and the plane fell over on its back on top of us. A heavy weight was on my chest and I could hardly breathe but was fully conscious. One leg was touching a hot cylinder and I was drenched in oil and petrol and in horrible dread that the machine would burst into flames. I lay it seemed a very long time when I heard Watkins grunt and then gasp out ‘Poor old bus, she’s jiggered up!

The plane was a write-off and the event had to be cancelled. Mawson was unimpressed and blamed Watkins for the accident, ‘as he had been very late at the Naval and Military Club the night before’. Although the plane could no longer fly, the engine and body were salvaged and shipped to Antarctica to be used as an ‘air tractor’. In the Sydney Morning Herald, Watkins was said to be ‘keenly disappointed’: this was the first time he had ever had a serious accident. He returned to England and promptly had another crash. When the war came the Royal Flying Corp decided to overlook him for service.

An excerpt from 1912: The Year The World Discovered Antarctica by Chris Turney (

Learn more about the original Australasian Antarctic Expedition tomorrow.

Jovan Miric's profile photo
Add a comment...