This (search­ing)

Life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - This Life Extra - Emma Mcewin

COM­MON­WEALTH Bay, De­cem­ber 22, 2008: The front door is very low and we have to bend down and half-crawl (we can’t stand up­right) through an icy tun­nel to get to ‘‘ the work­shop’’, which once con­tained the wire­less set and a lathe and other tools for re­pair­ing their equip­ment. The work­benches are still here. We have come through the win­ter en­trance, and to get in and out this way the men had to reg­u­larly shovel ice to keep the tun­nel clear. In fact, there was quite a labyrinth of tun­nels around the hut, most lead­ing to food sup­plies.

A door­way leads into the main hut where the men lived and slept. I walk in with Ju­lia But­ler, grand­daugh­ter of Ce­cil Madi­gan, the ge­ol­o­gist on the Aus­tralasian Antarc­tic Ex­pe­di­tion. We hold hands as we walk through and our emo­tions get the bet­ter of us. Although not in quite the way as my great­grand­fa­ther, I am break­ing new ground in be­ing the first of my gen­er­a­tion and the first woman in the fam­ily to visit the Antarc­tic.

Con­fi­dent that Dou­glas Maw­son was for­ward-think­ing enough to feel glad of my pres­ence, and re­as­sured that we at least have sea­sick­ness in com­mon, I al­most wish his ghost would ap­pear, as Ernest Shack­le­ton’s had for Ed­mund Hil­lary when he vis­ited his hut at Cape Royds. Hil­lary said he opened the door and Shack­le­ton walked to­wards him to greet him. I want the same spe­cial wel­come, to be recog­nised as fam­ily, for my great-grand­fa­ther to spot me in the crowd as a right­ful guest.

The hut is very un­tidy, as if the men left in a hurry, as they no doubt did, des­per­ate to get back to civil­i­sa­tion when Cap­tain John King Davis came for them in the Aurora, on De­cem­ber 13, 1913. Five inches [12cm] of ice cover the floor, mak­ing the liv­ing area seem smaller and lower than it re­ally is. A pair of trousers hangs from a rafter; a dead pe­trel lies un­der one of the bunks. Bot­tles of pick­les and medicines line a ledge be­side a pile of penny dread­fuls ( To Plea­sure Madam catches my eye), and other aban­doned books, these things they left be­hind telling us as much about them as the things they didn’t. It would not seem out of place to see the re­mains of their last din­ner here. They feel so close, as if I have just missed them.

Bunk beds line three of the four walls. I draw a map of the lay­out, mark­ing where each man slept, ac­cord­ing to their ini­tials, writ­ten in black paint on the wooden sides of the beds. Know­ing that many of the men had been very tall, I am sur­prised at how short the beds are. In the sec­ond year, when there were fewer than half the orig­i­nal num­ber of men, the ones re­main­ing moved to beds closer to the stove (still in the hut), but the bunks of Xavier Mertz and Bel­grave Nin­nis were left re­spect­fully empty, where at night, in the bed above Mertz’s the ex­pe­di­tion me­chanic, Frank Bick­er­ton, cried over his dead friends.

Maw­son had his own room, sep­a­rated from the main area by a par­ti­tion against the wall di­rectly op­po­site the door­way lead­ing into the hut from the work­room. The ground is cold un­der my com­pletely numb feet (I don’t rec­om­mend rub­ber boots in Antarc­tica) and also slip­pery, so I have to tread very care­fully to go in­side this small room, which had also served as the li­brary. The book­shelves still hold some books and faded pic­tures of women.

I sit there for a while, in silent com­mu­nion with Maw­son, aware that just out­side a queue of peo­ple in iden­ti­cal aqua jack­ets is wait­ing to come in. I know they will want to take dozens of pho­to­graphs, as if by pho­tograph­ing things they can own them, the click, click of their cam­eras like the smear of dirty fin­ger­prints all over my fam­ily his­tory.

Sud­denly I want to bar­ri­cade the door, to be alone in­side. This is my her­itage and I feel an ur­gent need to pro­tect it, and an un­will­ing­ness to share it. I want them all to get back in the zo­di­acs and re­turn to the ship and leave me in peace. Our com­mon ex­pe­ri­ence of ship life has brought us close but here they are strangers. They don’t be­long. Their pres­ence is an in­tru­sion, a vi­o­la­tion, and I want them gone.

I would like to sleep here, to see if some­one comes. I want to know if Nin­nis, who was lost in a crevasse, cir­cles the hut at night call­ing for help, for some­one to save him, even though I know he dis­ap­peared with­out a sound. I have this idea that if I can be here with­out the oth­ers, some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary like this will hap­pen. Con­ver­sa­tions the men had in the hut will be played back if I lis­ten care­fully. Maw­son will ap­pear and tell me all the things he never said; all the things he never wrote down. I just need si­lence, and for the oth­ers to go.

Of course I have no power to or­der any­one off the site. I am just an­other tourist who has to ad­here to the rules, much as a part of me re­sents this. (There are ar­eas where I can’t walk; things I’m not al­lowed to touch.)

Over­whelmed by a sense of own­er­ship, I want to send ev­ery­one away but in­stead I sit there a while longer, my eyes wa­ter­ing and my breath steamy in the cold air. Even­tu­ally I have to go and let the oth­ers in to poke around my great-grand­fa­ther’s house. Out­side my water freezes in the bot­tle. It is around mi­nus 15C, the cold­est night since the be­gin­ning of the voy­age. Light snow be­gins fall­ing and I catch the snowflakes. I walk over to Az­imuth Hill, cov­ered in grey rocks and lit­tered with Adelie pen­guin car­casses in var­i­ous stages of de­cay, most just a pile of white bones pol­ished clean by the wind. I reach the me­mo­rial cross and look down across the sea to the ship and then west to the ice cliffs that line the coast where Cap­tain Davis steamed along in the Aurora fir­ing dis­tress sig­nals in the hope of find­ing Maw­son’s miss­ing party.

I sit there for a long while look­ing out at the view Maw­son looked out on many times. From my po­si­tion on the hill, I would have been able to see the Aurora’s first ar­rival on Jan­uary 13, 1913, to pick up the men, only to leave three weeks later. Cap­tain Davis had waited for Maw­son’s party to re­turn to base, but when they failed to ap­pear, he left. Six men re­mained to search for the miss­ing party. Maw­son ar­rived back at the hut with­out Nin­nis and Mertz, and he and the men who had waited for him spent the rest of the year at the hut un­til Cap­tain Davis re­turned in De­cem­ber.

On this very day 95 years ago, Maw­son fi­nally left the hut in a bl­iz­zard. Be­fore leav­ing, he and the men bat­tened down the win­dows, filled the chim­ney with bags, boarded up the ve­randa en­trance (no longer here), and left an in­vi­ta­tion ‘‘ for fu­ture vis­i­tors to oc­cupy and make them­selves at home’’. With a drag­ging an­chor and the loss of their mo­tor launch in the winds, Cap­tain Davis wrote in his diary: ‘‘ Our de­par­ture from Com­mon­wealth Bay was cer­tainly in keep­ing with the var­i­ous trou­bles we ex­pe­ri­enced there. For­tu­nately we had com­pleted our work, and are not obliged to re­turn to this windy spot again.’’

In an in­ter­view on his re­turn to Ade­laide af­ter en­thus­ing about the dis­cov­er­ies made there, Maw­son was asked if ‘‘ the so­journ in Adelie Land’’ had been ‘‘ a bless­ing in dis­guise’’. ‘‘ It was no bless­ing, I can as­sure you,’’ he replied, stat­ing in the same in­ter­view that ev­ery man who came back would ‘‘ com­mit sui­cide rather than stop an­other year’’.

For us there is no trace of the vi­o­lent weather for which this place is so well known. This is Antarc­tica in a good mood, and hav­ing been here for a few hours rather than two years and two win­ters, we do not leave with the same sense of re­lief. Yet I look back with an un­easy feel­ing that I am aban­don­ing my great-grand­fa­ther as he was aban­doned in early 1913; that I am leav­ing him, if only his soul and his rep­u­ta­tion, in a place I am not quite sure he has ever truly been al­lowed to leave.

This is an edited ex­tract. Emma Mcewin is the au­thor of An Antarc­tic Af­fair (2008).

The au­thor stands out­side Maw­son’s hut in Antarc­tica

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