8 January 2012

We have just crossed what is perhaps the longest and most significant biological boundary on Earth, the Antarctic convergence, where cold Antarctic waters encounter and slip under the warmer sub-Antarctic waters.  The boundary is manifest in mists and cold and southern marine biodiversity.  And indeed, the temperature has suddenly dropped, the visibility is poor and light snow has been falling.

It is the centenary of the landing at CommonwealthBay.  Our commemorative voyage had hoped also to land at CommonwealthBayon this date, but blizzards at Casey station in late December delayed the return of Aurora Australis and our departure from Hobart.  As I suggested in my blog of 2 January, this seems appropriate and entirely in keeping with the uncertainties faced by the Aurora one hundred years ago.  Also the original landing took twelve days and included other symbolic moments such as the first night sleeping ashore on 12 January.  At the moment, weather permitting, that may be the date of our own landing – although I doubt we’ll be sleeping ashore.

As I mentioned yesterday, finding a way south through the ice had Mawson in a state of high anxiety in early January.  But, after days of searching and disappointment, suddenly on the 8th of January they had a clear prospect of accessible land!  Well, they really do seem to be making up their minds to land the first party at last, wrote Percy Gray at 5 pm on the 8th.  [W]e proceeded on our way to the westward at six this morning, along the coast line, and at one o’clock we noticed a very promising looking place with a good deal of bare rock showing, towards which we altered course and arrived off at 3 pm this afternoon, when they sent a boat ashore which has not yet returned with news.  It has been a most beautiful day, brilliant sunshine, with the temperature above freezing.  The appearance of this ice covered land is very beautiful, rising away in the distance to meet the blue sky, with the bare rock showing in places, and enormous great ice bergs all round the ship.  We are at present just to the East of Adelie Land … We are all waiting in great excitement for the boat to return.

Belgrave Ninnis was also on the ship awaiting the news and took the chance to pen a letter to his family: We have just discovered what looks like a good landing place for our hut, and any minute we may receive the order to land stores that will see us working day and night until the ship leaves… This place has an extraordinary formation and I am already gripped thereby.  Is so huge and white and quiet and … forbidding looking.           … I am enjoying myself more than I can possibly describe. …

            Well now fare ye well. Welcome me with open arms if I return and weep over my distant and frozen corpse if I don’t, and cast thoughts after me as I head my devious and crevasse ridden ways…

The first boat ashore carried Mawson, Wild, Kennedy, Madigan, Webb, Bickerton, Hurley and Bage.  Mawson later described it in The Home of the Blizzard: We were soon inside a beautiful, miniature harbour completely land-locked.  The sun shone gloriously in a blue sky as we stepped ashore on a charming ice-quay – the first to set foot on the Antarctic continent between Cape Adare and Gaussberg, a distance of about 2000 miles.

The boat returned to the Aurora at 7.30 pm with seal meat for the dogs and a report of a sheltered harbour and a promising site for a hut.  The motor launch and the whale boat were loaded with the first cargo for the shore.

But very soon the true character of the place – its defining elemental essence – was revealing itself.  Winds such as no-one had ever known before were sweeping down onto the natural harbour they had found and forcing them to retreat to the ship, frozen, where they hoped that the Aurora’s anchor would hold.

I was pretty well done up, confessed Captain Davis.  It is anxious work with a ship of this size, pushing about in unknown places close to land with snags visible in all directions.  However by great good fortune our anchor has held.  The wind comes down off the slopes in terrific gusts…

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 they were determined to hang on to their fragile foothold with their canvas and planks and nails.