The Spirit of Mawson - Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013 - 2014

Australasian Antarctic Expedition

History of Antarctic Exploration in 30 Objects

This woollen balaclava was worn by the Australian explorer Sir Douglas Mawson on his Australasian Antarctic Expedition (1911-14).   Deciding what to wear for the harsh Antarctic climate was a challenge and many of the early explorers faced great hardship through wearing inappropriate clothing.  Most expeditions relied on layers of natural fibres such as cotton or wool topped with a waterproof layer.  Furs, although popular with indigenous populations in the North, were not practical in the South as they become too heavy and wet when frozen.  Much of Mawson’s woollen clothing was supplied by Jaeger of London, who produced high quality camel’s-hair garments, designed to keep the wearer warm.  Over woollen undergarments and a fluffy one piece body suit each man would have worn a loose fitting outfit made from Burberry gabardine, selected as it was strong, lightweight and wind resistant.  Each man on the expedition was provided with two Burberry polar outfits at a cost of 100 pounds.  These suits consisted of trousers with a hooded jacket or a jacket with a separate wire brimmed hood, all of which featured large buttons and toggles that could be manipulated whilst wearing thick mittens.  The men’s polar outfits were completed with fur mitts, reindeer skin boots and googles to protect the eyes from the glare and bitter winds

Anchoring at Commonwealth Bay in January 1912, the Aurora was blasted by the fierce winds that were to prove typical for the area.  The men frantically set about establishing their base at Cape Denison, taking ashore all the building materials needed for two huts, along with scientific equipment, supplies for eighteen men, twenty-nine dogs and twenty-three tonnes of coal for fuel. The huts were erected quickly, the men working against winds that at times blew so strongly that they could barely walk and which made temperatures plummet.  Within three weeks the Winter Quarters were habitable and the Aurora sailed off to drop a small team of men, led by Yorkshireman Frank Wild, to establish the Western Base at Queen Mary Land, further along the coast.

Before the start of winter, the Australasian Antarctic Expedition had established their three bases (one at Macquarie Island and two on Antarctica), and were ready to begin their extensive programme of geographical and magnetic surveys.  From the outset, Mawson had planned this to be a major scientific expedition investigating the geology,  meteorology, aurora, geomagnetism and biology of Antarctica, alongside a programme of marine science to be carried out from the Aurora.  Although several extensive land expeditions were planned for the following summer, much of the expedition’s scientific work would be observations at the base.  Throughout the winter, Mawson’s men were occupied by methodically collecting data from their equipment and with carefully recording what they saw.  At times this proved challenging in the face of the terrible conditions at Cape Denison.  Winds gusting as high as 300 kilometres an hour and freezing temperatures affected their instruments and made collecting their measurements a dangerous enterprise.  The men reported being picked up by the wind and dashed against the rocks and were forced to wear specially adapted crampons on their boots to help them cling on.  Frostbite was also a real risk, with many of the meteorological team suffering facial frostbite on the short walk to collect data from the thermometers and barometers, despite wearing masks.

Aside from taking scientific measurements, life at Cape Denison was focussed on preparing for the springtime sledging programme: dogs were exercised, sledges were adapted, and supplies were carefully rationed into food bags. Repairs were also undertaken on some of the equipment, including upon the monoplane that Mawson had brought south to make aerial observations.  The aircraft, unfortunately damaged prior to leaving Australia, was adapted for use as a sledge-towing tractor on skis.  The freezing conditions of Cape Denison, however, meant that the engine did not operate well and was accordingly abandoned.  By the end of winter their preparations were complete and the men were keen to get going on what would prove to be a dramatic expeditionary season.

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Currently on display at the South Australia Museum.

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