The Spirit of Mawson - Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013 - 2014

Australasian Antarctic Expedition

History of Antarctic Exploration in 30 Objects

This motorised sledge is one of the earliest vehicles used on the Antarctic continent.  Built by the Dispatch Motor Company in England, it was used by the Ross Sea Party of Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition, 1914-1917. The plywood-bodied vehicle was designed by the inventor Albert Girling working with Sir Ernest Shackleton and motor expert Thomas Orde-Lees.  Intended to help haul supplies over the ice, the vehicle proved to be troublesome in the field, constantly breaking down and operating at a painfully slow pace.  In August 1915, when the team attempted to drive from Hut Point to their base at Cape Evans, the engine failed and the men were forced to man-haul the vehicle nearly twenty kilometres.  When the motor sledge was finally abandoned in September 1915 all of the team were pleased to see the back of it.

The Ross Sea Party, led by Aeneas Mackintosh was dispatched to McMurdo Sound to support Shackleton’s ambitious Antarctic crossing.  The party’s task was to lay a series of supply depots across the ice from the Beardmore Glacier northwards to Ross Island.  Shackleton’s six-man expeditionary team would be unable to carry sufficient fuel and supplies to sustain themselves over the whole distance and so were dependent on Mackintosh’s team for the final quarter of their journey.

Shackleton’s team on board the Endurance set sail from Plymouth in early August 1914, meanwhile the Ross Sea Party personnel gathered in Hobart awaiting their departure on the Aurora.  Mackintosh arrived in Australia in October 1914, to find himself immediately beset with problems. Shackleton had cut the team’s budget in half, leaving them dependent on financial gifts in Australia to pay for the men’s wages.  The Aurora was also in a poor condition, requiring a major refit before she could head southDealing with these concerns took up precious time, delaying the team’s departure until 24 December, three weeks later than planned.

Arriving at McMurdo Sound on 15 January 1915, the team established their base at Cape Evans and immediately prepared to start laying supplies.  Mackintosh, unaware that the Endurance was trapped in the ice, was deeply concerned that Shackleton might make an attempt to cross during their first season on the ice.   Against advice from other members of the party,  who argued that they needed more time to acclimatise and train, Mackintosh decided to head out at once.  Their expedition quickly ran into trouble, the men and dogs unused to working in the harsh conditions and the motor sledge constantly breaking down.  After laying depots up to 80˚S, the team struggled back, arriving frost-bitten and exhausted, having lost ten of their dogs.

Their arrival back at Cape Evans brought more bad news;  their ship Aurora had broken loose of her moorings in a storm, vanishing with eighteen of the men and most of the shore party’s supplies and equipment.  Caught in the ice like Endurance, the ship was stuck for a year, finally limping back to New Zealand on its release in March 1916.  The team of ten were left with depleted supplies, dependent on seal meat and oddments left behind by Scott.  Nonetheless, Mackintosh was determined to go ahead with the following season’s programme of depot-laying, cobbling together supplies that they had salvaged from Scott’s base and old depots.

On 1 September 1915, nine of the men headed out hauling 1,800 kilograms of stores on to the Barrier and from there travelled across the ice, laying depots up to 83° south. By early January all of the men were beginning to fail, and the first party of three turned back to Cape Evans.  The remaining six pushed further south reaching their final depot at Mount Hope on 26 January 1916.  Crippled by the effects of scurvy and frostbite, the men turned for home, with  Arnold Spencer-Smith, the chaplain, having to be carried on a sledge until his death on 8 March.  When a blizzard stopped them close to where Scott and his companions had died it looked as if the party would share the same fate, but the men managed to struggle on, reaching safety at Hut Point on 11 March.  The team were in a terrible condition and now faced four months stuck in the hut whilst they recuperated whilst waiting for the sea ice to stabilise for them to cross back to Cape Evans.  On 8 May, believing the ice-conditions better than had previously been thought, Mackintosh accompanied by Victor Hayward set out on the nineteen kilometre walk back to base, only to disappear.  The remaining three men searched for the missing pair in vain, finding their tracks disappeared at the edge of the broken ice.  After waiting until 15 July to cross, the final three rejoined the men at Cape Evans, but it was not until January 1917 that the Aurora finally made her way back to Antarctica to rescue the stranded men.

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Currently held by the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, New Zealand.