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Frozen in time

When Antarctic historian Professor Tom Griffiths landed in Antarctica, he was walking in Douglas Mawson’s shoes, writes SARINA TALIP.

When Douglas Mawson stepped ashore in Antarctica in January 1912, a blizzard was raging. Battling the wind and biting cold, Mawson and his team pitched tents, shared hot soup and mugs of cocoa, and snuggled into their reindeer skin sleeping bags, waking up to a “day bright but blowing fresh”.

One hundred years later, Antarctic historian Professor Tom Griffiths was on board the Aurora Australis as part of the Australian Antarctic Division’s centennial voyage to Mawson’s Hut at Commonwealth Bay. The journey commemorated Mawson’s epic Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911 to 1914. The ship edged its way towards Commonwealth Bay around an iceberg the size of the ACT named B9B.

While commemorative cups of soup and cocoa were enjoyed by the 2012 explorers, the group, which included oceanographers, glaciologists, journalists and scientists (including ANU climate scientist Professor Will Steffen and PhD student Kelly Strzepek), were unsure whether they would be able to land at Commonwealth Bay and visit the expedition huts because of the iceberg.

Eventually they were transported by helicopter to make the pilgrimage. Although Griffiths had been to Antarctica
nine years earlier, he was still struck by the surroundings.

“It’s an absolutely entrancing icescape. The ice is very beautiful, full of unexpected colours and so varied in its forms. It’s an astonishing, otherworldly, ethereal place,” he says.

As an historian, Griffiths cherishes being able to visit the places he studies. Visiting Mawson’s cramped hut brought history to life before his eyes.

“It’s very moving to travel so far, to somewhere so remote, and find this humble, beautiful, delicate hut of Baltic pine that’s still embedded in the ice and rock,” says Griffiths.

The hut still contains the bunks on which the original 18 expeditioners carved their initials, as well as the books and newspapers they read. Still in place also are the stove, the gas generator that provided lighting, the darkroom where the famous photographer Frank Hurley worked, and Mawson’s tiny cubicle, with his bunk and pillow.

The visit made Griffiths realise the importance of the science the men were doing.

“They were mostly young, educated, really keen to get down there and do good science. And when they had low moments they would have turned to their science,” says Griffiths.

“It’s the windiest place at sea level on the planet. In order to even check the temperature, or the wind speed, or the tide gauge, or take magnetic readings – just to get out there in the blizzard and get back safely – was an incredible achievement. So just doing your daily science were heroic.”

It was a successful and impressive expedition that laid the foundation for a century of Australian Antarctic endeavour.

“People like those on the ship, who are conducting science today, really get a lot of inspiration from the history,” says Griffiths.

“But it’s not just inspiration – the field observations and scientific work that Mawson did 100 years ago provide benchmarks for some of the research done today.”

Little did Mawson know when he stepped ashore all those years ago that his work would continue to inspire – and probably still will in another 100 years.

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