The Australasian Antarctic Expedition under Douglas Mawson – the pre-eminent scientific expedition of its time to South Polar regions – happened when Australia was little more than a decade old. While other expeditions had started out from Australia in the 1890s, they had been financed and led from elsewhere. Here was an expedition planned, largely financed and led from Australia – an astonishing achievement for so young a nation.

East Antarctica – the greater mass of the Antarctic continent that lies south of Australia, the Indian Ocean and Africa – remained one of the least-visited parts of the continent throughout the early years of Antarctic exploration. The first two circumnavigations of Antarctica (James Cook in 1772-75 and Thaddeus Bellingshausen in 1819-20) both sailed well to the north of the pack ice in Australian longitudes.Around 1840, three voyages did much to fill the gap. In 1839 the English seal-hunter John Balleny, after discovering the islands named after him, sighted Antarctic coast south of Western Australia. A year later the French explorer Dumont d’Urville and the American Charles Wilkes came close to the coast.

Wilkes traversed 1,500km along the Antarctic coast, but a controversial homecoming and a court martial amid claims that he had made up his Antarctic discoveries meant that his accurate coastal maps were overlooked until well into the 20th century. In 1909, when a young South Australian geologist named Douglas Mawson returned from an Antarctic expedition under Ernest Shackleton, Adélie Land (as Dumont d’Urville had named the coast he discovered in 1840) was virgin territory – a gap Mawson was determined to fill. He began planning immediately for his own, Australian-based expedition, an unlikely prospect for so young a nation. But Mawson was not one to give up. He persuaded governments and private interests in Australia, New Zealand and Britain to pay for a stout whale-ship named Aurora, in which he sailed from Hobart (after a tumultuous farewell on the docks) in December 1911, bound for Macquarie Island and Antarctica.

Ever the innovator, Mawson set up a wireless relay station on Macquarie Island (which would later transmit the first Antarctic radio signals) before heading for unknown parts to the south. By the time he reached Cape Denison on 8 January 1912 Mawson was running out of options – he needed to be close enough to Macquarie for his radio signals and the ship (which still had to set up a second, western base) was getting low on fuel. So Cape Denison it was, at the western end of a great bay Mawson named for his country, Commonwealth Bay.

1911-14 Australasian Antarctic Expedition

In this age of satellite networks and global mapping it can be difficult to imagine that not so long ago, no-one was really sure what existed at Earth’s southern extremity. The first human sightings of a mysterious seventh continent were recorded in 1820, and no human actually set foot in Antarctica until as late as 1895. What did it look like? What was it made of? Who or what lived there? What could we learn from it?

To scientists such as Dr Douglas Mawson, the opportunity to research and discover this new world was unprecedented and irresistable. The objective of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) was to investigate the “practically unknown Antarctic coast… west of the region visited by Scott and Shackleton.” Numerous studies were planned, with an emphasis on biology, geology, meteorology and magnetic charting for navigational purposes. The AAE aimed to identify new species, explore theories of continental drift and the geological connection of Australia and Antarctica, and examine glaciation and climate processes. The expedition would also conduct extensive surveys of the ocean and the seabed between Australia and Antarctica, and explore Macquarie Island, a similarly mysterious place some 1500km south-southeast of Tasmania, where a scientific base and wireless relay station would be built.

The party at Cape Denison (the Main Base) in 1912-1913 comprised 18 men:

  • Dr Douglas Mawson, aged 30 at commencement of expedition – Expedition Leader
  • Lieutenant Robert Bage, 23 – astronomer, assistant magnetician and recorder of tides
  • Cecil Thomas Madigan, 23 – meteorologist
  • Lieutenant Belgrave Ninnis, 23 – dog handler
  • Dr Xavier Mertz, 28 – dog handler
  • Dr Archibald Lang McLean, 26 – doctor and bacteriologist
  • Francis Howard Bickerton, 22 – mechanical engineer, in charge of air tractor
  • Alfred James Hodgeman, 26 – cartographer and sketch artist
  • James Francis Hurley, 24 – official photographer
  • Eric Norman Webb, 22 – chief magnetician
  • Percy Edward Correll, 19 – mechanic and assistant physicist
  • John George Hunter, 23 – biologist
  • Charles Francis Laseron, 25 – taxidermist and assistant biologist
  • Frank Leslie Stillwell, 23 – geologist
  • Herbert Dyce Murphy, 32 – supply officer, storeman
  • Walter Henry Hannam, 26 – wireless operator and mechanic
  • John Henry Collinson Close, 40 – assistant collector
  • Dr Leslie Whetter, 29 – surgeon

The Historic Site

Mawson’s historic site consists of four huts and other historical remains.

The Main Hut is actually two prefabricated expedition huts – originally planned for separate locations – which were built together to form the Main Hut. Timber uprights were placed in holes blasted in bedrock, and held in place with rock and ice, before being joined to form a frame and clad with Baltic pine boards. They provide a living hut with a workshop leading off it. The entire structure is still complete but largely ice-filled. The frame building is clad in tounge and grooved baltic pine boards with little or no insulation material added. It has a distinctive pyramidal roof over a square plan with verandahs on three sides – enclosed to provide storage and insulation space. Its survival in the most severe of polar climates attests to the merit of Mawson’s design and its great strength of structure.

Magnetograph House – still intact and largely ice free.

Absolute Magnetic Hut – now in ruins with the roof lost, walls largely collapsed, and is ice filled.

Transit Hut – still standing but in poor condition with sections of the walls eroded.

Memorial Cross – erected in memory of expedition members Belgrave Ninnis and Xavier Mertz in 1913.

Sitting poles for magnetic observation, wireless masts and various artefacts including a sledge and other equipment are scattered and also in a poor state.

Mawson’s Huts are entered in the Register of the National Estate and the Main Hut and Memorial Cross are recognised as Historic Monuments by the Antarctic Treaty Parties.

The Australian Heritage Commission has recommended that the whole of the Cape Denison establishment be recognised as an historic zone.

Mawson’s Huts represent the only in-situ evidence of early Australian Antarctic research. Among the many scientific achievements of Mawson’s Expedition was the first use of radio on the Antarctic continent, linking the base at Cape Denison with mainland Australia via the relay station established on Macquarie Island, for the continuous recording and transmission of meteorological observations.

The Main Hut

The AAE’s winter base is considered the primary historic artefact at Cape Denison.

Commonly known as the Main Hut, it combines two expedition buildings into one. The pyramid-roofed hut, measuring just 7.3m square, provided sleeping, kitchen, dining, laundry, storage and darkroom facilities for 18 men. The adjoining hip-roofed hut measures 5.5m x 4.9m and was equipped as a workshop, complete with wireless equipment and generator, lathe, stove, and benches for the carpenter, mechanic and scientists. Skylights in the living quarters’ roof provided natural light, while an acetylene generator mixed calcium carbide and water to create the acetylene gas used as artificial lighting.

Needless to say, space was cramped. “Taken all in all,” remarked Laseron, “if the desire had come to swing the proverbial cat, it would have been hard on the cat.”

A 1.5m wide verandah surrounded the structure on three sides. The section surrounding the living quarters stored food and other supplies and biological specimins. Next to the biological store area a structure of benzine cases provided a makeshift aircraft hanger, where Bickerton transformed the AAE’s first wingless aeroplane (damaged before departure) into a tractor sledge. The workshop’s western verandah provided the entrance porch, latrine, and trapdoor access to the meat cellar; the eastern verandah housed the sled dogs. An auroral observatory was attached to the northern face of the workshop. During winter, when the hut was encased in drift snow metres thick, access tunnels were dug from the western verandah to the outside world. Even so, the men were occasionally required to exit the workshop via a trap door in the verandah roof.

Magnetograph House

The Magnetograph House, located some 310m northeast of the Main Hut, housed the delicate equipment that continually measured variations in the Earth’s magnetic field near the South Magnetic Pole. The hut was purchased in kit form and in March 1912, explosives were used to clear a suitable construction site. After wind gusts demolished the first construction attempt, the rectangular oregon frame was rebuilt and lined with baltic pine tounge-and-groove boards and tarpaper using copper nails salvaged from the Clyde, a schooner the AAE had found wrecked on Macquarie Island. The team spent two days heaping some 30 tonnes of rock around the building, creating a weatherproof barrier that kept the temperature inside the hut relatively constant. The hut’s double porch (with three doors, including one from the Clyde) and roof covering of sheepskin and hessian also helped to regulate the temperature. A copper ventilator in the roof over the porch provided air flow.

Eric Webb collected records from the Magnetograph House at least once a day, every day, regardless of the weather conditions. During blizzards and winter nights, when visibility was almost zero, he navigated his way to the hut and back by dead reckoning, keeping a constant bearing on the wind coming from the south. “I have the greatest admiration,” wrote Mawson, “for the unfailing manner in which [the scientists] carried out their duties under such difficult conditions.”

During the summer of 1997-98 the Mawson’s Huts Expedition replaced damaged external cladding on the roof with new Baltic pine boards coated with a protective varnish. This new cladding, and repairs to the external southern and western walls, has proved largely successful in keeping the hut interior free of snow and ice.

Absolute Magnetic Hut

The Absolute Magnetic Hut is located some 52m south of the Magnetograph House and was used to collect measurements of the Earth’s magnetic field. These measurements were then used to calibrate the records collected from the Magnetograph House. Measuring just 1.8m x 1.8m, the hut was constructed during February 1912 with remnant timber and tarpaper, and copper nails salvaged from the shipwrecked Clyde. Copper was preferable to steel because as a non-ferrous metal, it would not interfere with the magnetic measurements. However, achaeologists have discovered that steel nails were used when the supply of copper nails ran out! No-one actually entered the hut – the scientific instruments inside were set into rock and accessed from outside via small sliding doors.

After the departure of the AAE, this hut and the Magnetograph House were reused by the French Antarctic Expedition, which mademagnetic observations in 1951 and 1959, and by New Zealand researchers in 1962. THe weather has since inflicted considerable damage on the hut, tearing off some boards and eroding others to a fraction of their original thickness. In 1997-98 the Mawson’s Hut Expedition salvaged boards from the ice surrounding the hut and reattached them. Today the hut is considered a standing ruin.

Transit Hut

Originally known as the Astronomical Observatory, the Transit Hut housed instrumentation used to take star sights to determine the exact latitude and longitude of Cape Denison. Construction of the hut commenced in May 1913. The Oregon timber frame was braced with metal helf brackets and lined externally with timbers salvaged from packing crates. The structure was weatherproofed with sheepskin and canvas. There was a door in the northeast corner, and narrow slots in the roof and upper parts of the north and south elevations to enable observations. The ‘ten-inch transit instrument’, presented to the AAE by the Government Astronomer, was positioned on a square timber pillar and set into the rock inside the hut.

The Transit Hut has been repaired numerous times. Recent repairs entailed refixing loose boards and bracing members with stainless steel screws. However, wind-induced vibrations and other movements have caused the screws to fatigue and fracture. The wind has also eroded the hut’s timbers to the point that the integrity of the building is marginal. Experts believe the installation of new timbers will not improve the situation, and the hut is now considered to be a standing ruin.

Memorial Cross

The Memorial Cross was erected in November 1913 in memory of Belgrave Ninnis and Xavier Mertz, the AAE members who perished during the notorious 1912-13 sledging journey that Mawson himself barely survived. The Cross was build by Bickerton and Hodgeman with Oregon timbers salvaged from broken radio masts. “Strength was essential in order to brave the hurricanes”, Mawson noted. “The several parts were bolted together and bound with heavy strips of brass. When completed it appeared solid enough to last for a hundred years even in that strenuous climate.”

However, the position of the Cross, high on Azimuth Hill, means that it has borne the full brunt of the winds. The crossbar has blown off on numerous occasions: in 1931 it was reattached by the BANZARE; in 1978 by AAD personnel; and in 1997-98 by the Mawson’s Huts Foundation expedition using a purpose-built stainless steel bracket. The original plaque, inscribed by Hodgeman, was returned to Australia for conservation in the 1970