Mawson was more than a man devoted to scientific exploration; he was also the hero of one of the Antarctic’s most extraordinary tales of lone survival.
Sir Douglas Mawson’s first taste of the Antarctic was as a 26-year-old geologist aboard Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1907-1909 Nimrod expedition. It was on this journey that Mawson would first demonstrate his remarkable ability to withstand the gruelling Antarctic conditions.
Described as a man of “infinite resource, splendid physique, astonishing indifference to frost”, Mawson was in the party to first summit Mt Erebus in 1908 and to trek to the South Magnetic Pole a year later. His ability to cope with the rigours of exploration did not go unnoticed – Shackleton requested that Mawson would lead the search party if his own expedition became lost.
After the Nimrod, Mawson was keen to make another journey south and soon put together the Australian Antarctic Expedition. It left Australia in December 1911 heading to an entirely unexplored area of the Antarctic coastline.
In spring 1912, Mawson along with Dr Xavier Mertz, Lieutenant Belgrave Ninnis, and a team of huskies departed their base at Commonwealth Bay to embark on an extraordinary journey.
The party would map 1,000 km of coastline collecting geological samples in unrelenting weather – an extraordinary feat. However the trek took a tragic turn when Ninnis plummeted into a deep crevasse with a team of dogs and a sled carrying food and supplies.
Mertz and Mawson were forced to return home and, with few supplies, they had to cull their huskies to feed themselves and the remaining dogs.
They were tragically unaware of the high levels of Vitamin A in husky livers and Mertz soon became sick and eventually succumbed to the toxicity. Showing incredible physical and mental strength, Mawson completed a 100-day journey back to base alone. His ordeal was not over however.
The expedition ship had departed only hours prior, leaving Mawson (and the six men who had remained as a search party) to winter over in Antarctica before they were eventually able to return home the following year.