Douglas Mawson & Scott of the Antarctic
Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
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When Douglas Mawson turned up at Robert Falcon Scott’s London office in January 1910, Scott assumed that the 27-year-old geology lecturer from Adelaide had come to enlist in his forthcoming expedition to the South Pole. Eight thousand men had already volunteered and Mawson was better qualified than any of them. He’d already explored large chunks of Antarctica, climbed its highest peak and reached Magnetic South.
Scott, by his own admission, had “no predilection for polar exploration”. A naval commander in the peacetime doldrums, his burning desire was to “bring honour to the British Empire” and “defeat the foreigners” who were eyeing the prize. Mawson was “obviously capable and keen on his work”, so Scott offered him a two-year contract, a salary and membership of the small sledging party that would make the final dash.
But Mawson wasn’t looking for a job, and 90° South held no compelling attraction for him. There was no geographic value in a glory hunt and, although it had made him a popular hero, Scott’s previous Antarctic foray had been a bit of a bungle. Mawson’s interests were entirely scientific. He wanted Scott to drop him and a reconnaissance party on a section of uncharted coast to collect specimens, take measurements and undertake observations.
The two men talked for three hours and met again several times over the next fortnight. Mawson dined with Scott and his glamorous sculptor wife, Kathleen. But Scott couldn’t spare the berths on his ship, so he turned Mawson down.
Undeterred, Mawson set about planning his own expedition. Waiting until Scott had sailed for Antarctica, he launched a funding campaign for the “Australasian Antarctic Expedition”, its members drawn largely from Australian and New Zealand universities. In December 1911, he headed for the home of the blizzard. It was two years before he returned.
In that time, he established three bases, saw brave companions perish and hauled himself out of a crevasse, hand over frostbitten hand, during an epic month-long solo trek. The data he collected filled 22 volumes.
Scott, meanwhile, had done his dash. Big on pluck and short on luck, his party walked every step of the way, dragging their sledges and eating the pack ponies as they went. When he finally reached the Pole, Scott found he’d been beaten by one of those bally foreigners, the Norwegian Amundsen. On the way back, he perished, famously.
Mawson explored Antarctica again in 1929–31. He declared the continent 42% British, named part of it after the man who gave us Freddo Frog and died at home in ripe old age, esteemed by colleagues and country.