Sunday, July 03, 2016

Exploring some of Hobart’s Antarctic Connections



Steven Walker's Bernacchi tribute which honours the Hobart - based  scientist and photographer, who accompanied two of the earliest Antarctic Expeditions

It’s a quiet Sunday morning in Hobart and I am down at Constitution Dock. To my right lies Australia’s Antarctic icebreaker, the Aurora Australis, and dead ahead is Tasmania’s tall masted wooden ship The Windward Bound.  Ignoring for the moment the one or two modern buildings in the background, it’s not hard to imagine the excitement that would have prevailed on this wharf in the days of sail and steam 

Tall Ship in the Harbour - the Windward Bound
 Strolling north towards Hunter Street, I come upon Stephen Walker’s sculptures commemorating two of the many Antarctic expeditions which have departed from here. Reading the inscription I realise that I haven't heard of either of them. One is dedicated to English explorer James Clarke Ross, who sailed from Hobart in 1840 and sighted the coastline. The other is to Norwegian -born Carsten Borchgrevink who set sail in the Southern Cross in 1898 and was the first to make confirmed landfall in Antarctica. He overwintered there and also pioneered the use of dogs and sleds. The Tasmanian scientist and photographer Louis Bernacchi who accompanied him and later Scott, is honoured here as well. I hadn't heard of  him either. 

I'm not certain what caused this memory lapse in our history books. Perhaps it is because they were all printed in England, but it seems to have been that Borchgrevink obtained private funding from his British publisher which enabled him to proceed a whole year before the official British Antarctic Expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott could obtain funding.

The Aurora Australis  Australia's expedition ship named after Mawson's lies at anchor in Waterman's Dock from which Mawson set sail for Antarctica in 1911
After walking back to feed the very hungry parking meter where the parking inspector is already hovering, I turn my back on the sea and find myself in Mawson Place near which crowds gathered in 1911 to see Mawson off. Almost everyone has heard of  Scott and Shackleton, even  Amundsen in his preemptive dash to the South Pole, five weeks before Scott got there, but Mawson, the young South Australian geologist who led the Australian Antarctic Expedition of 1911 -1914 in the original Aurora, is not so well known. However,  as Kennedy Warne wrote in his centenary article in The New Zealand Geographic, "... Mawson explored more of the frozen continent than the other three combined"  and Sir Edmund Hillary is reported as saying that "his solo journey was 'probably the greatest story of lone survival in polar exploration.' " Antarctica lies almost 3,000 kilometres from Tasmania and Mawson had explored over 6437 kilometres (4,000 miles) of its surface.
Sir Douglas Mawson who used to be on our $100 notes until supplanted by Dame Nellie Melba
Mawson had previously managed to reach the South Magnetic Pole as part of Shackleton's 1908 expedition and was invited by Scott to join him on his quest for the geographic South Pole but Mawson, more interested in studying glaciers and exploring the unknown, turned him down. Instead of a a race to the pole, the aim of the Australian Antarctic Expedition was to " discover new species, investigate theories of continental drift, to study geology and glaciation, climate processes, terrestrial magnetism and do seabed surveys," so Mawson took with him a complement of 18 men, most of them scientists, as well as dog handlers, an engineer, a mechanic, a wireless operator, a doctor and a surgeon, an artist/ cartographer and  Frank Hurley, a photographer. Most were in their early twenties and Mawson himself was only 30.

 On the way to Antarctica he established a radio relay station at Macquarie Island and at Cape Denison he put up a hut made from two prefabicated ones. He also established one at Cape Adare and another in the west. Although like Scott, he endured terrible hardships and also lost two of his men, he managed to survive and return to a hero’s welcome in Hobart. He later received numerous honours such as the Royal Geographic Society's Founder's Medal and was knighted in 1914. Analysis and compilation of his scientific reports which he edited himself, took until 1947 and resulted in 22 volumes! It also led to the establishment of the Australian Antarctic Territory.

Mawson's Huts Replica Museum is  a short walk towards the city from Constitution Dock
As come to the end of the pedestrian zone, I come upon the Mawson’s Huts Replica Museum diagonally across from Mawson Place. Opened on December 2, 2013, 102 years after Mawson's departure, the museum's proceeds support conservation and restoration work on the original huts which are still in Antarctica and are now part of the National Estate. According to the article by Kennedy Warne things there are apparently very much as the explorers left them – flour in the bins under the bed,  pictures above the bunks, condiments in the cupboards, much as we see them here, except perhaps for the rubbish and the penguin carcasses which are no doubt historically significant by now. 

Dogs contributed enormously to several successful missions including Mawson's  who owed his survival to them. Initially used to pull sleds full of provisions, they were ultimately used as food themselves. Mertz however, one of Mawson's two companions on his trek, is believed to have died from eating the livers, which contained too much Vitamin A
These craftsman built huts, made using traditional techniques and materials, are very cosy and warm - a lovely place to be on a Tasmanian winter's day. Old Antarctic hand Rod,who was a meteorological observer with the British Antarctic Expedition of 1966 -67 and his wife Jeannie, previously a doctor on Macquarie Island where most of the support teams for today's expeditioners are based, are answering questions and telling some interesting anecdotes while showing visitors around.

 Rod, former meteorological observer with the British Antarctic Team, tells a yarn or two
There's a big cast iron stove in the kitchen, a library, a workbench and a gramophone. Mawson's striped pillow lies on his bunk, along with a soft toy which it is presumed to have belonged to Ninnis, the team member lost in a crevasse. The men smiling down from black and white photos look healthy and happy, but perhaps these were taken before their trials really began or before their second enforced winter.

Then we come upon Mawson's improvised crampons, the ones he made from a theodolite case to protect his feet from which all the skin had been flayed. The idea of  being cooped up with seventeen people through four months of perpetual darkness in " the coldest, windiest place on earth," suddenly becomes less appealing.  Insanity and scurvy were two of the perils which afflicted earlier expeditions. I won't tell you too much, so you still have plenty of reasons to visit, but one thing which does surprise me while looking at some of the newer maps, is the many new Chinese bases which have been established since the last time I looked.
 
Mawson's Bunk - the soft toy is believed to have belonged to Ninnis and was reputedly given to him by the ballerina Anna Pavlova
If you want to feel like an explorer, or simply eat like one or meet one to support the cause, you could go to the Antarctic Festival Dinner being held on Saturday the 10th of September. There will be some typical Antarctic fare and a modern adventurer - mountaineer, writer and philanthropist Peter Hillary, son of Sir Edmund, as guest speaker.  If you are interested, please phone them on 1300551 422  for more details.
 In the kitchen
There are many other places around Hobart with Antarctic links such as Hadley’s Hotel where Borchgrevink, Mawson and Amundsen stayed, or the Maritime Museum just across Davey Street. The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, on the other side of the street, also has an extensive section on Antarctica including its plant and marine life, artefacts and photos, audio visuals and interactive displays. There's also an excellent seafaring exhibition called "Tempest." I want to linger longer, but it's time to feed that meter again.  The scientific and research sections also deserve a chapter of their own, but that too will have to wait for another day. 


Part of the excellent Antarctic display in the museum, 2nd floor

There's just one more little place not too far away where I make a quick stop. It’s the Subantarctic house in the Royal Botanic Gardens just five minutes down the road. Normally I like to come here in summer because it’s delightfully chilly, but in winter you get more of the atmosphere and the sense of isolation. Sea birds cry and you glimpse the typical vegetation of places like Macquarie Island.

 Subantarctic House, Botanic Gardens - Atmosphere and typical vegetation of the higher latitudes

Admission to Mawson’s Huts Replica Museum is $12 per person, ($10 Concession), $4 for children and $28 for a family. They are open daily from 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. from October 1 – April 30th and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from May 1 to September 30th.
The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and The Royal Botanic Gardens are free, but donations are much appreciated.

For more walks and places of interest on this topic, look for the brochure PolarPathways
which I unfortunately only discovered on the internet when I came home.

No comments: