The oldest and most significant material legacy ofAustralia’s Antarctic commitment are Mawson’s Huts. It is astonishing that they have survived a century in the windiest place at sea level on the planet. Relentless avalanches of katabatic winds thundering off the polar plateau have so far failed to blow the headquarters of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition out to sea.
In early January 1912, the Aurora found itself repelled from the Antarctic coastline by thick pack ice. For days the ship had been heading westwards, desperate for open water to the south. By the night of 2 January, Douglas Mawson was in despair: his whole expedition seemed in jeopardy, and he was facing personal failure and humiliation. Things looked so bad last night, he wrote to his fiancée, Paquita, that I could do nothing but just roll over and over on the settee on which I have been sleeping and wish that I could fall into oblivion. But then suddenly, at 6 am on the 3rd, they discovered an unexpected and huge glacier tongue, beyond which there seemed a clear passage south towards land. By 8 January, the Aurora had entered what Mawson would strategically callCommonwealthBay, and all hands were working in bright afternoon sunshine to land stores.
But later that day, by the evening of the 8th of January, the true character of the place – its defining elemental essence – was revealing itself. Winds such as no-one had ever known before – not even the old Antarctic campaigners like Mawson, Captain Davis and Frank Wild – were sweeping down onto the natural harbour they had found and forcing them to retreat to the ship and hang on for grim life, hoping that the anchor would also hold. Over the next few days it dawned on them that they had decided to build their home in an unusually windy corner of the windiest continent on earth and that some of the generating factors were quite local – and further, that the open water that had lured them there was also to some extent a creation of the relentless offshore winds. But harbours and bare rock were so precious, and finding this place had been so hard, that there was nothing for it now but to continue to hang on to their fragile foothold with canvas and planks and nails. Between the blizzards, the timbers of the huts were unloaded. On 12 January, Mawson pitched his tent, got out the reindeer skin sleeping bags, and fired up the Nansen cooker. He, Frank Wild and five other men spent the first night ashore atCapeDenison, warmed by soup and cocoa. Thus the Australian occupation ofAntarctica began.
Over the next few weeks the huts quickly materialised. There were two of them conjoined, for the difficulties of the pack ice had forced Mawson to reduce the number of landing parties from three to two. So the smaller second hut was attached to the first as a workshop. By the 23rd of January, a small group occupied the main hut for the first time, the stove was installed and they celebrated their first meal indoors, and on Australia Day, 26 January, the 18 men spent their first night together in Antarctica in their new home. By the 30th of January, with shelves installed, the bunks completed, the kitchen in a reasonable state and the table finally in place, they had a ‘House warming feast’. As Frank Stillwell recorded, first sit-down comfortable meal since leaving Hobart. Able to eat in peace without thinking of the next scramble for food. Celebrated with jellies and nuts and scones made by the Doctor. Within a few days the second, adjoining hut was complete.
The roof of the hut pulsated under the weight of the wind. It was a frail but wondrous refuge. On 9 April 1912 as the autumn storms strengthened, Mawson recorded in his dairy that Outside one is in touch with the sternest of Nature – one might be a lone soul standing in Precambrian times or on Mars – all is desolation and hard in the durest. Life opens up to one as it must to the savage. Inside the Hut all is 20th Century civilization. What a contrast.
Today the historic site atCapeDenisonconsists of four huts and other historical remains. As well as the Main Hut (which combined the huts of two parties), there is Magnetograph House, the Absolute Magnetic Hut and Transit Hut. The site is recognised as a National Heritage place and a Commonwealth Heritage place, and is protected under the Antarctic Treaty System. The site is also contained in an Antarctic Specially Protected Area and an Antarctic Specially Managed Area and is listed on the Antarctic Historic Sites and Monument List.
For further information, see the website of the Mawson’s Huts Foundation: