This pioneering sled was used by members of the British-financed Southern Cross Expedition, led by Carsten Egeberg Borchgrevink (1864-1934), which in 1899 was the first to overwinter on the Antarctic mainland. One of the earliest vehicles to be used to traverse the icy continent – the expedition proved the viability of dog-drawn sleds for exploration in the south.
The Anglo-Norwegian Borchgrevink, inspired by the wooden sleds used in his Scandinavian birthplace, is believed to have had this example built by Laplanders. The expedition took 70 dogs with two Lapland handlers to work with them. These were to be the first dogs brought to Antarctica to pull sledges. The Lapp handlers, skilled at managing the dogs and described by their fellow expeditioners as indefatigable, were an essential part of the team. Following their advice, Borchgrevink took great care to dress according to their custom, even adopting their habit of wearing ‘komargar’ – reindeer-hair boots lined with sennegrass (a kind of sedge from Europe). The grass acted as an insulator as well as absorbing any sweat, helping to keep feet warm, dry and free of frostbite.
Borchgrevink had started his polar career on board the whaling ship Antarctic. Stepping ashore at Cape Adare he was determined to lead an expedition to explore the frozen continent. On his return to Australia, he tried in vain to raise money for his voyage and so headed to England where he was successful in securing funds from the wealthy magazine publisher Sir George Newnes. The explorer set about equipping his voyage on a whaling ship renamed the Southern Cross. Alongside the food and equipment that he thought he would need, Borchgrevnik took 53 Primus stoves, a new Swedish invention. The expedition was also armed with guns in preparation for the polar bears that they anticipated finding on the ice.
Sailing from London on 22 August 1898, the British Antarctic Expedition reached Cape Adare on 17 February 1899, where they set up ‘Camp Ridley’ on the rocky western shore amongst a penguin colony. Two pre-fabricated huts were erected and secured from the strong winds by cables attached to anchors embedded in the ground. On 2 March the ship departed leaving the ten men to brave the dark Antarctic winter. Borchgrevink had high hopes of exploring the area whilst collecting scientific data and maybe even venturing out as far as the geographic South Pole. The reality of life in the camp rapidly proved to be very different. With daylight ending on 15 May and not returning until 27 July, the men found themselves trapped inside cramped and dirty quarters with little to occupy their time. Beset with problems, tempers understandably frayed and morale was brought even lower with the death of Nicolai Hansen, the group’s zoologist.
When the Southern Cross finally returned in late January 1900, the wintering party were glad to leave the desolate spot. Instead of heading directly home the expedition ventured southwards to Ross’s Great Ice Barrier. Discovering an inlet, the expedition managed to land and Borchgrevink, William Colbeck and the dog-handler Per Savio made the first ascent of the ice Barrier. Using dogs and sledges, the party traveled ten miles to 78°50’S – the furthest south yet.
On their return to England, the expedition was met with a lukewarm reception by a public more excited by the upcoming National Antarctic Expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott. Borchgrevink had proved that it was possible to survive a winter on Antarctica but his account of the experience and the data he had collected seemed underwhelming. It was not until 1930, shortly before his death, that the Royal Geographical Society finally recognised his achievements and awarded him the Patron’s medal.
Currently on display in Argyle Galleries in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery