Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 5, 2009

The Home of the Blizzard, by Douglas Mawson #BookReview

When I first came to Australia I was delighted to encounter the Victorian Readers and the Education Department’s School Magazine which came once a month or so.  These were the mainstay of the primary school reading program in those days, and they are so fondly remembered that the set of eight books was reprinted not so long ago.  Although today sometimes derided for being jingoistic and sexist, the collection included many memorable stories and poems, and the one which I remember best of all is the story of Australia’s heroic Antarctic explorer, Sir Douglas Mawson (1882 -1958).

As I remember the tale, Mawson and his companions Mertz and Ninnis were making good progress when Ninnis fell into a crevasse, along with most of the dogs, most of the rations, and the tent.  Their efforts to rescue Ninnis failed and they had to head back to base with what they had.  Starving, they ate the sled dogs, and the excess of Vitamin A in the dogs’ liver caused some kind of poisoning which led to their skin peeling off, to dysentery, and ultimately to Mertz’s death.  Mawson then had to go on alone, and he too fell into a crevasse but was able to haul himself back up.   The delay cost him dearly: he missed the ship back to Australia by a few hours and had to winter in Antarctica along with the rescue party that had been sent to look for him.

In the South Australian Museum there ‘s an exhibition about Mawson, the most vivid artefact of which is the knife that Mawson used to cut his sled to make it smaller and more manageable for the journey alone.  It is hard to imagine a more poignant and interminable task than using a knife to cut a wooden sled in half for the lonely journey back to the base.  There’s a website about it, but  it’s not comparable with the compelling story that I remember from all those years ago.  That was based on Mawson’s own story, The Home of the Blizzard, The Story of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, 1911-1914, and faithful to it, although some of the more grisly details of Mertz’s last moments of madness were excised for young readers.  These days you can read it online at Project Gutenberg but it’s worth shelling out for the recent reprint by Wakefield Press because it includes maps, diagrams and photographs, one of which was taken of Mawson after his epic sledge journey.  It also includes the narratives of others in the expedition and of the rescue party, but it is Mawson’s words which are unforgettable:

There was no sound from behind except a faint, plaintive whine from one of the dogs which I imagined was in reply to a touch from Ninnis’s whip.  I remember addressing myself to George, the laziest dog in my own team, saying “You’ll be getting a little of that, too, George, if you are not careful.”

When next I looked back, it was in response to the anxious gaze of Mertz who had turned round and halted in his tracks.  Behind me nothing met the eye except my own sledge tracks running back in the distance.  Where were Ninnis and his sledge?

It was difficult to realise that Ninnis, who was a young giant in build, so jovial and so real but a few minutes before, should thus have vanished without even a sound. (p160-1)

Mawson writes movingly about the dogs, their faithful companions:

Poor brutes! That was the way they all finished up; from putting little or no weight into the harness they relapsed into an uncertain ‘groggy’ pace with a slack trace; a few miles more and they would commence to totter and stumble, soon to rise no more. (p172)

And about Mertz with generous praise:

It was unutterably sad that he should have perished thus, after the splendid work he had accomplished not only on that particular sledging journey but throughout the expedition.  No one could have done better.  Favoured with a generous and lovable character, he had been a general favourite amongst all the members of the expedition. Now it was all over, he had done his duty and passed on. (p185)

This is the passage that I remember so vividly from my schooldays:

From the start my feet felt curiously lumpy and sore.  They had become so painful after a mile of walking that I decided to examine them on the spot, sitting in the lee of the sledge in brilliant sunshine. I had not had my socks off for some days for, while lying in camp [while Mertz lay dying] it had not seemed necessary.  On taking off the third and inner pair of socks the sight of my feet gave me quite a shock, for the thickened skin of the soles had separated in each case as a complete layer, and abundant watery fluid had escaped saturating the sock.  The new skin beneath was very much abraded and raw.  (p187)

Wondering whether there was ‘ever to be a day without some special disappointment’, Mawson could do nothing but bind the skin casts back in place, and struggle on.’ (p187) .

Struggle on he did, to the moment of crisis when he dangled at the end of a rope above the depths of a treacherous crevasse:

In my weak condition, the prospect of climbing out seemed very poor indeed, but in a few moments the struggle was begun.  A great effort brought a knot in the rope within my grasp, and after a moment’s rest, I was able to draw myself up and reach another, and at length hauled my body on to the overhanging snow-lid.  Then, when all appeared to be well and before I could get to quite solid ground, a further section of the lid gave way, precipitating me once more to the full length of the rope.

There, exhausted, weak and chilled hanging freely in space and slowly turning round as the rope twisted one way and the other, I felt that I had done my utmost and failed, that I had no more strength to try again and that all was over except the passing.  It was to be a miserable and slow end and I reflected with disappointment that there was in my pocket no antidote to speed matters; but there always remained the alternative of slipping from the harness.  There on the edge of the great Beyond I well remember how I looked forward to the prospect of the unknown to be unveiled.  From those flights of mind I came back to earth, and remembering how Providence had miraculously brought me so far, felt that nothing was impossible and determined to act up to Service’s lines:

“Just have one more try – it’s dead easy to die,

It’s the keeping-on-living that’s hard.” [1]

My strength was fast ebbing; in a few minutes it would be too late.  It was the occasion for the supreme attempt.  Fired by the passion that burns the blood in the act of strife, new power seemed to come as I applied myself to one last tremendous effort. (p192)

What triggered these musing on my childhood hero Mawson was that today I read that there is to be a new expedition to find the remains of  his plane in Antarctica.  Well, not actually a plane, because although he took it there in 1911 it didn’t work and so they converted it into a tractor.  Still, it was the first plane ever taken to Antarctica, on Australia’s first expedition:

“[It is] the first aircraft ever built by the Vickers company in the UK, built in 1911, just eight years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight….Using it there, it didn’t fly unfortunately, there was damage to the wings but they converted it and used it as a tractor to tow things around on the ice. But it was the first aircraft ever taken to a polar region and we feel it’s still there.”  (Tony Stewart, leader of the expedition team, quoted on ABC Online).

Describing the preparations for the voyage (in 1915), Mawson himself describes this ‘plane’ thus:

At a late date the air-tractor sledge arrived.  This was a monoplane body on a sledge-runner undercarriage, constructed by Messrs. Vickers, Ltd.  The body was contained in one large case which, though awkward, was comparatively light, the case weighing much more than the contents.  This was securely lashed above the main deck, resting on the fo’c’sle and two boat skids. 

Air tractors are great consumers of petrol of the highest quality.  This demand, in addition to the requirements of two wireless plants and a motor-launch, made it necessary to take larger quantities than we liked of this dangerously inflammable stuff.  So a large quantity of Shell benzine and kerosene, packed in the usual four-gallon export tines, was carried as a deck cargo.

Whether it was a plane or a sledge, it would be a fitting tribute to the ingenuity and courage of Mawson if they find it.

Update 3.2.10: They found it!

Author: Douglas Mawson
Title: The Home of the Blizzard, The Story of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, 1911-1914
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 1996 ( reprint of the 1930 popular edition, abridged from the 1915 2 volume edition).
ISBN: 9781862543775
Source: Personal copy, purchased at the Museum of South Australia, $19.95.

PS 3.2.10 I re-read this book just prior to shouting The Spouse a joy-flight to Antarctica   on the new A380 double-decker plane for his 60th birthday, and wrote another brief review focussing on slightly different aspects on Library Thing.  

[1] From the poem, The Quitter, by Robert Service (1874-1958)


Responses

  1. The story of Mawson – and of Frank Hurley his phtographer – is fascinating. I haven’t read this book though – mostly I’ve seen the documentaries and re-enactments that seem to pop up with surprising regularity.

    • One of our ‘houses’ at school was called Hurley…

  2. Was it your house? My house at high school was Turner (for Ethel Turner no less). I was very happy to be in that house – and, funnily enough, we didn’t often win at sport!

    • I can’t really remember. I went to so many schools they’re all a bit of a blur. We were always in green house for some reason… Lisa

  3. LOL. I went to a few schools too – though probably not as many as you. I went to two primary schools and four high schools – the thing about the latter though is that I went to all four in one year (my second high school year). After that it settled down and I stayed in the same one for my last four years. It’s the one I remember. Turner was yellow!

    • Well, I think jazzing about in one’s schooldays makes for an interesting childhood!

  4. I do too .. you miss having those longstanding friendships with people you know in kindergarten BUT you gain so many other things don’t you.

  5. […] readers of this blog know, Douglas Mawson has been a hero of mine since I was a child.  He belongs to the heroic era of Antarctic […]

  6. […] since read Mawson’s story in his own words and found it even more compelling  – see my review of The Home of the Blizzard republished by Wakefield Press; it’s essential reading for teachers of history, IMO, especially since the […]

  7. […] Douglas Mawson, The Home of the Blizzard (Autobiography) (see review by Sue at ANZLL) […]

  8. […] ask myself why I deplore this hunting when I made no objection to it in my review of The Home of the Blizzard. Obviously explorers like Mawson in the Antarctic hunted polar animals for food too, so on the face […]


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