A cen­tury af­ter Dou­glas Maw­son’s doomed Antarc­tic ex­pe­di­tion, his­to­rian David Day ar­gues the ex­plorer’s am­bi­tion and in­ex­pe­ri­ence were largely to blame for the death of his two com­pan­ions

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

ACEN­TURY ago, Aus­tralian ex­plorer Dou­glas Maw­son stared death in the face. Kneel­ing on the edge of a deep crevasse, he looked down in hor­ror at the wreck­age of the sledge that held most of his food and other vi­tal sup­plies.

There was no sign of the com­pan­ion who had also fallen into the icy em­brace of the glacier.

Nearly 500km of bl­iz­zard-swept ter­rain sep­a­rated Maw­son and his one sur­viv­ing com­pan­ion from the safety of their hut. With the lim­ited food on their other sledge, it was doubt­ful whether one, let alone both of them, could make it back alive.

Two months later, it was only Maw­son who stum­bled half-starved to­wards the snow­cov­ered hut at Com­mon­wealth Bay.

When he sailed for the Antarc­tic in De­cem­ber 1911, Maw­son was a young ge­ol­o­gist from the Univer­sity of Ade­laide who wanted to be more than a lec­turer daubed in chalk dust.

Maw­son had al­ready been to the Antarc­tic as part of Ernest Shack­le­ton’s ex­pe­di­tion in 1907. Re­ject­ing an of­fer from Robert Fal­con Scott to join his ill-fated ex­pe­di­tion in 1910, Maw­son opted to lead an ex­pe­di­tion of his own.

In Jan­uary 1912, Maw­son es­tab­lished a main base of 22 men at Com­mon­wealth Bay and sent a smaller party off on the ship the Aurora to es­tab­lish a west­ern base 2400km away un­der the lead­er­ship of po­lar ex­plorer Frank Wild. He had wanted to es­tab­lish a third base to the east but had been un­able to find a safe land­ing place.

So Maw­son’s main base had more men than he had an­tic­i­pated. That should have given him an ex­tra mar­gin of safety as they spent the year mak­ing prepa­ra­tions for the fol­low­ing sum­mer’s trekking.

How­ever, Maw­son had in­ad­ver­tently built the main base at a place of al­most per­pet­ual gales. As a re­sult, there were few days when they could leave the hut.

Im­por­tantly, only one sup­ply cache was es­tab­lished, which was dubbed Aladdin’s Cave be­cause it was carved out be­neath the ice. But it was less than a day’s jour­ney from the main base. Sur­pris­ingly, this did not cause Maw­son to change his plans.

Af­ter be­ing cooped up in their hut for months, Maw­son planned to send one group to the South Mag­netic Pole; an­other would head west­ward along the coast, an­other would ex­plore the coast im­me­di­ately to the east; while an­other ex­pe­di­tion would push far­ther east across the sea ice. The long­est trek of all would be done by Maw­son and two com­pan­ions on an­other east­erly route, which would be par­al­lel to the coast.

As his com­pan­ions, Maw­son chose a young Bri­tish sol­dier, Bel­grave Nin­nis, and a Ger­manspeak­ing ski cham­pion, Xavier Mertz.

Their out­ward sledge jour­ney gave lit­tle hint of what was to come.

Af­ter trekking for a month and cross­ing two mas­sive glaciers, Maw­son aban­doned one of the sledges and re­ar­ranged the sup­plies and equip­ment on the re­main­ing two. In do­ing so, he made an ill-fated de­ci­sion.

Rather than di­vid­ing the hu­man and dog food equally be­tween the two sledges, Maw­son put all the dog food and most of the hu­man food on the sec­ond sledge, while the first sledge car­ried all the fuel and the cooker.

Maw­son would later ar­gue that he was be­ing cau­tious by putting most of the food on the sec­ond sledge, which he thought was less likely to fall down a crevasse. In fact, los­ing the fuel would have been as dis­as­trous as los­ing the food, since they would not be able to melt ice for water. With­out water, they would be dead within days.

Wild would later say pri­vately that he ‘‘ al­ways felt afraid for the safety of the party un­der Dr Maw­son’s lead’’, as he was ‘‘ not a prac­ti­cal man at all, and does not un­der­stand when a thing is worth the risk and when it is mad­ness’’.

The risks Maw­son and his men were run­ning only be­came ap­par­ent on De­cem­ber 14, 1912, af­ter they had trekked al­most 500km. It was then that Nin­nis fell sud­denly to his death.

Along with Nin­nis went the heav­ier sec­ond sledge, most of their food, their best dogs and some vi­tal items of cloth­ing and equip­ment. Mertz had been lead­ing the way on skis, with Maw­son fol­low­ing some dis­tance be­hind sit­ting on his sledge. Nin­nis was far­ther back, walking along­side the sec­ond sledge. Maw­son saw Mertz in­ter­rupt his singing of Ger­man stu­dent songs to raise a ski pole in warn­ing. As he ap­proached the spot, Maw­son saw indi­ca­tions of a snow-cov­ered crevasse and shouted back to Nin­nis.

Not think­ing it par­tic­u­larly dan­ger­ous, Maw­son did not bother to see whether Nin­nis made it safely across the snow bridge, even though Nin­nis was walking rather than rid­ing on the sledge to spread his weight. It was only when Maw­son heard a shout from Mertz that he looked back to see an empty land­scape of snow and ice.

Maw­son and Mertz had lost their tent, their best dog team, most of the hu­man food and all the dog food. Mertz also lost his Burberry trousers, made from close-wo­ven fab­ric that pro­vided pro­tec­tion in a bl­iz­zard. At best, they had suf­fi­cient food for one of them to make it back alive, but not both. Whether Maw­son con­sciously cal­cu­lated it or not, it was clear the longer both of them stayed alive, the less chance ei­ther of them would sur­vive.

Ly­ing in their makeshift tent that night, the fu­ture looked as un­palat­able as the starv­ing dogs they would soon be forced to eat. It would take at least a month to get back. Yet they had suf­fi­cient food for only 11/ weeks. More­over,

2 the re­turn jour­ney would be much harder. With no dog food, the pair would soon be forced to man-haul the sledges. This meant they would need to con­sume more calo­ries.

The fol­low­ing morn­ing, the weak­est of the dogs was butchered. On the third day of the re­turn jour­ney, an­other of the starv­ing dogs had to be shot and shared be­tween man and beast.

By De­cem­ber 28, just two weeks af­ter the death of Nin­nis, the last dog was slaugh­tered and the two men feasted on its brain and thy­roids. Much of the dog meat was stored on the sledge.

To en­sure his sur­vival, Maw­son rig­or­ously ra­tioned the food ac­cord­ing to the dis­tance they trav­elled. When the weather forced them to stay in their makeshift tent, he would re­duce the ra­tion.

Their strength was ebbing away, not only for want of food but from their con­tin­ual ex­po­sure to the cold and wet. It was even wet in their tent, which lacked a floor and was only high enough to sit in. Melt­ing ice from the roof dripped on them as they cooked, and the snow floor be­neath them melted from the warmth of their bod­ies. Their clothes and sleep­ing bags were never able to dry out.

Their skin be­gan slough­ing off in sheets and Maw­son’s strict ra­tioning was starv­ing them to death. Both were also be­ing grad­u­ally poi­soned by eat­ing dog liv­ers, which were caus­ing them to have too much vi­ta­min A.

The two were in a ter­ri­bly weak­ened state by early Jan­uary 1913, when days of heavy snow and poor vis­i­bil­ity forced them to spend the best part of a week in their wet sleep­ing bags. Once again, Maw­son re­duced their ra­tion.

On Jan­uary 4, con­di­tions be­came very good for trav­el­ling. But Maw­son was forced to stop and tend to Mertz. The fol­low­ing day, Mertz re­fused to move at all. On Jan­uary 6, they trav­elled only 3km be­fore Mertz re­fused to go any far­ther. Maw­son also com­plained in his di­ary of be­ing dizzy and weak.

The fol­low­ing morn­ing, Maw­son was de­ter­mined to get Mertz mov­ing but found his

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