What an amazing 24 hours.
I was privileged to obtain a place on the second and final trip into Mawson’s Hut – an approximately 60 km trip by Argo across fast ice to Commonwealth Bay. We set out about 8am NZ time (5am Australian Eastern Standard Time) on a still, crisp, minus six degrees Celsius morning in one tracked and one wheeled Argo (two vehicles for safety), with five people, ice coring equipment, penguin survey equipment and essential supplies, including a survival kit containing sleeping bags, medical supplies and food, in case of mishap or breakdown.
It was a brilliant clear day as we passed groups of penguins and seals resting on the ice, and on through ‘iceberg alley’, a series of beautifully carved tabular bergs set in the fast ice. The Argos are workhorses, not built for comfort, and we were tossed around as if we were in a small boat on a rough sea – in this case a frozen one. Further on near the base of the giant iceberg B09B grounded in and blocking access to Commonwealth Bay, the ice had become distorted, forming low pressure ridges interspersed with soft snow pockets. Fortunately the Argos did not get bogged. Finally after about four hours travel, the black rock ridges of Cape Denison became visible and soon we had a taste of the strong, bitterly cold winds that the area is notorious for.
We left the Argos on firm ice and walked several hundred metres to meet the two Mawson Hut Foundation members who had come in the previous day, at ‘Sorensen’s Hut’, the contemporary barracks where the Mawson Huts Foundation members and any visiting scientists stay when they work in the area. It is placed a few hundred metres from, and out of sight of, the historic precinct, to respect the historic setting. This building looks, and is built, like a refrigerated container – in this case, to keep the cold out. People are not looking for architecturally pleasing structures here – simple needs like shelter from the wind, a warm bed and hot food are the highest priority.
Then to Mawson’s Hut. It looked lonely, tucked into a snow drift on the slope above the frozen bay, yet its bleached timbers and simple sturdy design seemed homely, a welcome refuge from the harsh environment. Even though it is half full of ice and snow it was not difficult to imagine the 18 men gathering around the central table or in ‘Hyde Park corner’ where Ninnis and Mertz had led lively discussions before their ill-fated expedition. The hut itself seemed very small to accommodate so many, but no doubt the stove in the corner near Hurley’s darkroom kept it warm. Only Mawson had a separate room, and his bed, pillow and some pictures still remain in that tiny cubicle. On the rough shelves in the dining area there are books and other artefacts, and bottles and condiments on those in the kitchen area. Unlike a fully restored museum piece, the ‘work in progress’ atmosphere gave the hut a more authentic feel and a moving sense of history.
After paying our respects to Mawson and the hut, and soaking up the enormity and serene beauty of the landscape, we set to work. People work hard in Antarctica - there are such tiny windows of opportunity for access that every minute counts. We were no different – the five of us had a 12 hour window to collect as much data as possible from ice cores and the Adelie penguin colony, while the two Foundation members had to finish their condition assessment, do essential repairs and seal up the hut against the elements, all by midnight when we were due to leave.
The ice core team headed out onto Commonwealth Bay and the penguin survey team ‘rock-hopped’ across hundreds of metres of ridges and scree, counting nesting penguins cleverly tucked in amongst the boulders to shelter from the wind. After digging metres of snow out of the entrance the day before so they could get inside, the heritage team continued chipping hoar frost from the rafters and shelves in the hut. Each team had a minimum of two people, as a safety measure. In spite of the urgency to complete their own programs, all were mindful of others’ requests for assistance or to collect specimens for those could not make it to the hut to do their own research. It was very pleasing to be able to fulfil these requests, yet still achieve our own goals. In Antarctica there is a very strong sense of teamwork and mutual support.
While counting penguin nest sites, I reflected on the part that chance plays in Antarctic life. Before B09B grounded in Commonwealth Bay, the Adelie penguin rookery was perfectly sited to maximise breeding success. After B09B arrived, the bay became filled with solid sea ice. Where once the penguins could hop down from their rocky homes, dive into the bay and feed close to shore, they are now forced to walk tens of kilometres across the ice to the water’s edge, their lives transformed into ones of terrible hardship. It was dreadful to see so many dead chicks and abandoned eggs, apparently casualties of the lack of a nearby food supply.
At 11pm we returned to the Hut to prepare for the return journey but this trip was made in quite different conditions. Where we had clear crisp skies and snow on the way in, the weather had changed by late evening to overcast skies and warmer temperatures, so the snow did not refreeze. The wheeled Argo became bogged several times in the slushy conditions and needed to be towed jerkily over the humps and hollows. Landmarks that had been obvious on the way in became hardly recognisable in the dim flat light. It was not possible to follow our original tracks – they were extremely difficult to see and the changed snow conditions meant we needed to deviate around the pools of melt water. At one point we seemed to be on a slightly different course from the one on the way in, and this opened up a whole new set of ‘iceberg alleys’ – was the route straight ahead or diagonally off to the left?
I thought about how easy it would be to lose your way if you were even slightly out in your navigation; how easy it can be to head out over the polar ice but how difficult it can be to find your way home. If our equipment failed, there would be no rescue parties waiting around the corner – we were three hours from the middle of nowhere.
It left me in awe of the courage of historic and current day expeditioners travelling confidently yet respectfully through this last of lands. They are confident in their knowledge of survival techniques, their ability to use their equipment to achieve their goals and return safely to their loved ones. Yet they respect their environment and take nothing for granted, leave nothing to chance, fully preparing for any eventuality. This is a place which challenges the senses yet fills the heart. I now understand why these people speak reverently of “The Continent”.