The Spirit of Mawson - Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013 - 2014

Australasian Antarctic Expedition

History of Antarctic Exploration in 30 Objects

This lantern slide taken by photographer Frank Hurley shows the cut-down sledge used by the explorer Sir Douglas Mawson and his Far Eastern sledging party, during the Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1912 to 1913.  Made from hickory and American ash, this was one of twenty Norwegian-made sledges that the expedition took south, supplied by L. Hagen & Co., a sporting goods manufacturer.  Each of the three men teams on the AAE would have taken three of these sleds laden with provisions and equipment to support their exploration of the Commonwealth Bay region .  Amongst other items they carried reindeer-fur sleeping bags, stoves, cooking utensils, spare clothing, scientific equipment and a Willesden-drill tent.  A nine-week supply of food for the men, dried seal meat and blubber for the dogs, and six one-gallon tins of fuel were also packed.  The back of the sledge was fitted with two plywood boxes one of which was used to carry their Nansen stove and fuel; the other box would have protected their scientific equipment.

After a winter spent taking measurements, recording observations and making preparations, the Australasian Antarctic team were keen to explore further.  Mawson had planned for three separate sledging parties to head out from Cape Denison, with himself leading the Far Eastern Party, who were to journey over the plateau to Victoria Land to connect Cape Denison to the western discoveries of Borchgrevink, Shackleton and Scott.       On 10 November 1912, Mawson accompanied by Xavier Mertz, a 28-year-old Swiss lawyer and ski champion, and Lieutenant Belgrave Ninnis, a 22-year-old British Army officer headed east, to survey King George IV Land.  Ninnis and Mertz, both experienced with the dogs, were natural choices to accompany Mawson on the most ambitious and arduous of the treks.

Initially Mawson’s sledging party did well, making excellent progress mapping the region and collecting geological samples. On 14 December all of this was tragically to change, when Ninnis following in the rear, fell down a deep crevasse to his death, taking most of the party’s provisions and equipment as well as their six best dogs with him.  Mawson and Mertz were 507 kilometres east of Cape Denison, a journey that had taken them nearly five weeks.  The two men were left with a scant one and a half week’s rations, to last a thirty-five day trek.  Their lack of supplies meant that the two men were forced to eat their way through their remaining six dogs.  The dog meat was foul smelling and tough and did little to satisfy their near constant hunger.

As they trudged on, both men suffered from constant lethargy and dizziness.  Mertz seemed to deteriorate more quickly, with bouts of dysentary, loss of skin, depression and finally madness.  The cause of this rapid decline most likely attributable to vitamin A poisoning brought on from having eaten the dogs’ livers, which contain toxic levels of this vitamin.  On 8 January 1913, in a final bout of madness Mertz bit off the tip of his little finger before suffering seizures and finally dying.

Physically and mentally wrecked, Mawson was forced to struggle on alone, discarding everything not essential to his survival other than his geological specimens and his account of the journey.  Using a pocket knife, he cut his sledge in half, allowing him to be able to drag it the remaining 160 kilometres back to base.  At one stage, whilst crossing the southern of the end of what we now know as the Mertz glacier, the explorer fell five metres down a crevasse, saved only by his sledge wedged in the opposing wall of ice.  Using the harness attaching himself to the sledge, he managed to struggle back to the surface.  Eventually, after another three weeks trudging, Mawson stumbled upon a small snow cairn that had been erected only a few hours earlier by Archibald McLean, the chief expedition doctor – he was nearly home.  Caught in a week-long storm on his final descent to Cape Denison, Mawson finally struggled into camp in early February 1913, three months after his departure, only to discover that his ship Aurora had sailed that morning.

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Currently on display at the South Australia Museum.

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