Issues Magazine

Conserving the Legacy of Antarctica’s Heroic Era

Inside the main hut

Inside the main hut after recladding of the roof and removal of much of the ice. Credit: David London

By David Jensen

Mawson’s Huts are a reminder of the most significant scientific expeditions of the Antarctic’s heroic area. The main base for 2 years of Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition, the main hut has survived a century of assault from the fiercest blizzards – but only just.

It is a sad fact that the story of the 1911–14 Australasian Antarctic Expedition, led by the nation’s greatest polar explorer, Sir Douglas Mawson, is known by too few. At 4 pm on 2 December 1911, Mawson and 30 other young men (average age 26) pulled away from Queen’s Wharf, Hobart, on board the Aurora and sailed down the Derwent River at the start of what was to be the world’s first serious scientific exploration of the Antarctic.

Their first stop was Macquarie Island, where five members of the party disembarked and established a wireless relay station, which led to the first-ever wireless transmissions from the Antarctic. This team spent 2 years on the island and their work led to Macquarie Island eventually becoming a world wildlife sanctuary. They also began providing meteorological data just 3 months after landing, and these continue today.

Mawson continued sailing south to begin searching for a suitable site to establish the main base, and on 8 January 1912 found a rocky promontory jutting out into what he named Commonwealth Bay. The promontory was called Cape Denison after Lord Denison, one of Mawson’s benefactors. The small inlet where they unloaded their supplies became Boat Harbour.

It took them just a few weeks to combine and erect two prefabricated wooden huts made in Melbourne and Sydney, which today are known as Mawson’s Huts. These became the main base for 18 men, and was used for 2 years. Mawson and his team erected 30-metre wireless masts at Cape Denison to transmit radio signals to Macquarie for relaying to Australia. It took 12 months to make connections between the two stations, but gave the men a direct link to the outside world.

Aurora sailed further east for 1200 miles to establish the third and final base, on what is now named the Shackleton Ice Shelf, where an eight-person team built this base and lived for 12 months, exploring and recording scientific data.

This third building, constructed on a floating ice shelf, would have disappeared into the Southern Ocean many years ago, and sadly the three huts erected on Macquarie have also disappeared. The main hut was demolished in the 1940s to make way for larger quarters when Australia established its first full-time scientific base in the sub-Antarctic. But the main base at Cape Denison has withstood blizzards driven by winds over 300 km/h, and still stands proudly.

The Australasian Antarctic Expedition departed Cape Denison for home in December 1913. When he returned to Antarctica as Sir Douglas in 1931 to claim 42% of the Antarctic Territory for Australia, Mawson was surprised to see the main hut still standing.

Mawson’s legacy, the largest Antarctic claim of any nation, and four scientific and research bases operated by the Australian Antarctic Division, is enormous but not widely known or understood within his own country. Mawson’s Huts are the birthplace of Australia’s Antarctic heritage, and the Mawson’s Huts Foundation is working to conserve these important reminders.

Cape Denison is the windiest place on Earth at sea level, with the average daily wind strength just under 80 km/h. With these winds driving ice particles at that speed into the soft baltic pine used for the outer cladding, the result has been dramatic. The thickness of the tongue-and-groove roofing boards, originally 25 mm, has been reduced in parts to less than 5 mm, and many boards have been torn off. Some have disappeared forever into the Southern Ocean just 50 metres away and others lie in the surrounding ice.

Limited conservation work at Cape Denison was done at the site until the Mawson’s Huts Foundation, established in 1997, sent its first expedition in 1997–98. Since then the Foundation has funded and organised 10 major expeditions. An expedition planned for 2012–2013 has been cancelled because of a large iceberg blocking the entrance to Commonwealth Bay but hopefully conditions will improve for 2013–2014.

Each expedition costs in the region of $500,000, and teams have included heritage carpenters, material conservators, an archaeologist, doctor, photographer and camp manager. The average size of each team is 7–8 and, while some choose to sleep in tents, the Foundation constructed an accommodation unit about 800 metres from the main hut. This has been built from 30 cm thick insulated panels mounted on a wooden platform, bolted onto the rocks and tied down with steel hawsers. This unit also houses a fully equipped conservation laboratory that allows artefacts to be recovered from inside the main hut as ice is removed, then treated and replaced in their exact position.

The main hut and workshop area was almost totally full of ice when work began in 1997. Oregon beams inside were broken and ready to collapse the entire hut. These have been repaired and the roofs of the main hut over-clad with Baltic pine from the same areas in northern Finland as the original timber, and of exactly the same dimension. The original fabric on the roof remains intact underneath and a special membrane has been laid between the two roof layers to prevent moisture from entering yet allow the hut to breathe from within. The work has prevented any further ingress of ice and allowed the excavation of ice from the interior, uncovering a treasure trove of artefacts – just as they were left when the Australian Antarctic Expedition departed for home in December 1913.

Much more work remains to be done at Cape Denison because the window of opportunity to allow work at the site is limited to 6–7 weeks between early December and late January. In the meantime the Foundation is planning to build a full-scale replica on the Hobart waterfront as a tourist attraction and to raise funds for ongoing conservation (see box, p.38). The Foundation last year recovered the remains of the 30-metre wireless masts erected on Macquarie Island by the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, and returned them to Australia. This was in partnership with the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service, which has responsibility for Macquarie Island.

Three of Australia’s scientific and research bases operated by the Australian Antarctic Division are on the Antarctic continent at Casey, Davis and Mawson, with a fourth on Macquarie Island. Information about current activities can be found at www.antarctica.gov.au