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