A century after the explorer embarked on his expedition, Louise Southerden steps ashore on Australia's Antarctica.
You've spent days crossing the Southern Ocean from New Zealand, found your way through pack ice, seen your first house-sized berg. Now, here it is: the Antarctic continent, a wall of ice with a sloping brow, filling the southern horizon. Nothing prepares you for that first glimpse of this alien land and the simple vastness of it. The South Pole is still, incredibly, 2630 kilometres further south, across all that ice, some of it four kilometres thick. All you can do is stand and stare.
Then, out of the whiteness, a rocky point appears: Cape Denison, on Commonwealth Bay. This is one of the few places in east Antarctica, due south of Australia, where the largest ice sheet on the planet kneels down to meet the sea, allowing you to step ashore. It's also where a timber hut built by Douglas Mawson and his men in January 1912 still stands.
A hundred years is a long time in a place where human beings are relative newcomers. The first recorded sighting of the Antarctic continent, by Russian naval officer Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, was only in 1820. Sealers made the first bootprints on the continent the following year. And the first permanent Antarctic base, Australia's Mawson Station, was established in 1954 (a few thousand kilometres west of where Mawson actually landed).
Then the tourists started coming. A Swedish-American entrepreneur, Lars-Eric Lindblad, chartered a Chilean navy ship to take travellers to Antarctica in 1966, starting the "expedition cruising" snowball rolling. Figures from the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators show 36,875 people last year visited the Antarctic Peninsula, two days by sea (1238 kilometres) from Ushuaia at the southern tip of South America.
By contrast, only 242 people landed at Cape Denison, on the opposite side of the continent, and the Australian Antarctic Division estimates only about 2100 people have been there in the past decade. This is largely because the east Antarctic coast, being further south than much of the Antarctic Peninsula, is bound by pack ice for all but two months of the year and is at least five sea days, or about 2700 kilometres, from the nearest ports - Hobart, Dunedin and Bluff (near Invercargill). The journey is usually broken with stops at subantarctic islands but, even then, it's a long trip.
It's a misty Tuesday afternoon when we leave Dunedin and plunge headlong into our first sea day. We unpack and settle into the routine of morning lectures, exquisite meals and an afternoon briefing. Before we know it, we're communing with Hooker's sea lions, nesting royal albatrosses and rare yellow-eyed penguins at Enderby Island, one of the New Zealand's subantarctic Auckland Islands.
Back on the ship, we're told to "square our cabins away" in preparation for the part of the voyage I had been quietly dreading: four consecutive days at sea. Far from being something to endure, however, crossing the Southern Ocean turns out to be a highlight of the trip.
It helps that my anti-seasickness medication works and that the Southern Ocean plays nice - the swells are a moderate three to four metres. Most importantly, we're travelling on the MV Orion. Its 53 beautifully appointed staterooms (they can hardly be called cabins) accommodate up to 141 passengers, though there are only 96 on our trip, plus a crew of 82 attending to our every whim. There's 24-hour room service, two bars, a library, a gym and health spa, a hair and beauty salon, a lecture theatre (lectures are broadcast to every stateroom, too, in the event that a dose of mal de mer keeps us cabin-bound) and there's silver-service dining in the restaurant, where stemless wine glasses and rubber anti-slide mats on the linen tablecloths and chairs that can be chained to the floor remind us where we are.
Just don't be tempted to call it a "cruise ship", at least not in front of the captain, Mike Taylor. "We don't have an ice rink or one of those water slides," he says. "It's an expedition ship. It's what's out there, the destinations we visit, that's why we're here."
It's also why we have an 11-person expedition team of Antarctic veterans and biologists aboard, led by a yachtsman and adventurer, Don McIntyre, and his wife, Margie, who spent a year together at Cape Denison in 1995. Don reminds us at our first briefing to make the most of it: "You'll be staying in a five-star hotel for the next three weeks and it's incredibly easy to stay indoors because everyone looks after you very well. But force yourself to rug up, get your gear on and get outside. It's important to remember you're not waiting to go somewhere, it's happening all around us now."
My partner and I have a balcony suite, with sliding glass doors we can open for fresh air and leave closed for cosy, wide-screen views of dolphins leaping beside the ship (on leaving Dunedin), king penguins bathing in clear blue water (at Macquarie Island) and adelie penguins leaping from ice floes as the ship nudges them aside (near Cape Denison). But we do get outside at every opportunity, to watch prions, cape petrels and light-mantled sooty and wandering albatrosses swooping and circling and skimming the waves.
Eventually we're so far from land the seabirds disappear and I become acutely aware of our isolation: we are an island of comfort in this ocean world, completely alone (we see no other ships in 18 days), the sea beneath us thousands of metres deep. It's hard not to spare a thought for explorers such as Mawson, Ross, Amundsen, Scott, Dumont d'Urville and Shackleton, who travelled in vessels far less comfortable than ours and often braved rougher weather - even in the Furious Fifties and the Screaming Sixties, the seas remain relatively smooth for us.
As our ship glides through this nether world towards the bottom of the globe, the days become longer and colder. By our fourth sea day, the air temperature is zero. It's sleeting when we step outside after dinner. Back in our stateroom, we watch snow petrels and humpback whales taking breaths between ice floes, a sign we're close now.
But for all its 21st-century gadgetry, our ice-strengthened, German-built ship is ruled by the ice as much as Mawson's Aurora was and we thread our way carefully through this floating jigsaw puzzle.
Soon after crossing the Antarctic Circle the next morning, we get our first glimpse of the Antarctic continent, enter Commonwealth Bay and prepare to go ashore at Cape Denison, all in the space of a few hours.
What made Cape Denison an ice-free harbour for Mawson is that it is the windiest place on Earth, where katabatic gusts up to 320km/h blast down from the polar plateau.
In 1913, Mawson's chief meteorologist, Cecil Madigan, wrote: "For nine months of the year, an almost continous blizzard rages and for weeks one can only crawl about outside the shelter of the hut, unable to see an arm's length owing to the blinding snowdrift." The two days we're here, however, Commonwealth Bay is eerily calm, a 60-kilometre-wide millpond strewn with sea ice and tabular bergs.
Stepping on to "the ice" for the first time is exhilarating. We're in Australia's Antarctic claim but this place really belongs to the Weddell seals that lie like slugs on the snow and the thousands of adelie penguins that nest here every summer and accompany us while we get our bearings. It's not unlike a small ski field (minus the skiers, though we do see adelies tobogganing on their white bellies): a snowy bowl with a single lodge, Mawson's Hut, its 18 bunk beds last occupied in 1914.
Stepping inside the hut, four at a time and wearing chain crampons on our gumboots to avoid slipping on the icy floor, we step back in time. Thanks largely to the efforts of the Mawson's Huts Foundation, which was set up in 1996, this is one of the purest kinds of museums you will ever see, with many of the things Mawson and his men used still here, in situ, making pictures in your head about how they lived. There are books such as The Hound of the Baskervilles, To Pleasure Madame and Nautical Almanac 1913, sparkly with hoar frost. There are cans of cocoa, tins of Bovril, Eiffel matches, the old stove where the men would have warmed themselves after venturing outside and a darkroom where Frank Hurley scrawled on the wall: "Near enough is not good enough." (Hurley came to Antarctica with Mawson before joining Shackleton's legendary 1914-16 expedition.)
On our second landing the following day, we explore the limits of Mawson's home away from home - John O'Groats and Land's End, high ice cliffs east and west of the hut. Walking back to the waiting Zodiacs, we skirt frozen lakes and cross slippery blue ice dusted with snow - the northern edge of the Antarctic ice sheet. "To me ... [this is] the real Antarctica because it's so vicious in terms of being the windiest place in the world," Don McIntyre says. "You get the plateau, you get the rocks and the history and the seals and the penguins, the birds. Even at some of the Australian bases, you don't get half of that. It's a taste of Antarctica in one little spot."
The next day the ice keeps us ship-bound - no landings, no Zodiac cruises - but we do find B9-B, the second-largest iceberg in the world. It's 95 kilometres long, 30 kilometres wide and rises 60 metres above sea level. Imagine a chunk of land extending from Sydney to Wollongong and from Bondi to Parramatta breaking away from mainland Australia, as B9-B broke away from the Ross Ice Shelf in 1987. It's so huge that when it collided with the Mertz Glacier tongue, east of Cape Denison, in February last year, it created another berg 78 kilometres long. We stand on deck, awestruck, as our 100-metre ship cruises alongside this massive block of ice.
Too soon, we're heading north again. The two sea days on the way to Macquarie Island, halfway between Antarctica and Tasmania, are a chance to catch up on sleep after the 24-hour days. Then, on the morning of day 14 of our trip, we see a long, green, mountainous landscape off the port side; it's 10 days since we've laid eyes on anything but sea, rock and ice.
With Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife officers as our guides, we spend the day exploring this free-range park. The trick is to walk at penguin pace, the rangers say. So we stroll along the black-sand beach with promenading king penguins and royal penguins sporting eyebrow-like tufts of yellow feathers and watch 13,000 royals nesting, sparring and feeding their chicks in a hillside rookery; it's like a Where's Wally drawing in motion.
Then there are the elephant seals, great boulders of flesh weighing as much as four tonnes; it's intimidating sneaking past them at the water's edge.
Leaving Macquarie feels like the end of the trip but we have another sea day before our last stop at Campbell Island and the Southern Ocean isn't about to let us go lightly.
The swell builds all day until, that night, it peaks at 10 metres. At dinner, we hold on to our plates and watch the windows of the dining room submerge, like the doors of front-loading washing machines on the rinse cycle. After dessert, a few of us put on wet-weather jackets and stand at the stern railing watching a procession of monster waves chasing us, the 90km/h winds blowing rain squalls and salt spray in our faces, until a couple of rogue waves catch up to the ship and splash over the aft deck, forcing us inside. It's a rolling night; the sea breathes deeply under us.
The sun is shining again when we cruise into Dunedin's long harbour on our last day, past the lighthouse and between green hills dotted with sheep. It's pretty in the evening light but I suddenly miss the open ocean, not to mention the penguins, the ice, the elephant seals, Mawson's world. "Once you get Antarctica in your blood, it's very hard to get it out," Margie McIntyre had said and walking down the gangway on to the dock, I'm already plotting my return.
To the land down under
APPROACHING the centenary of Sir Douglas Mawson's historic 1911-14 expedition, it's timely to remember one of the great Antarctic heroes of the 20th century. An Australian geologist from Adelaide, Mawson was on Shackleton's 1908-09 Nimrod expedition. On his return, Mawson turned down Scott's offer of a place on his ill-fated 1910-13 quest for the South Pole, to lead his own Australasian Antarctic expedition to King George V Land and Adelie Land, the previously uncharted part of Antarctica, south of Australia.
On December 2, 1911, Mawson and his 17 men left Hobart on the Aurora; they reached the pack ice on December 29 and entered Commonwealth Bay on January 8, 1912. Soon after, they landed at Cape Denison and built what is now called Mawson's Hut, where they overwintered before setting off on exploratory missions in November 1912.
The expedition mapped and studied more than 3000 kilometres of Antarctic coastline but Mawson is perhaps best remembered for his epic solo sledging journey after losing his two companions: Belgrave Ninnis, who fell into a crevasse, and Xavier Mertz, who died from vitamin A poisoning after eating the livers of their Greenland huskies.
In '29 and '31, Mawson led two British Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expeditions (BANZARE) and claimed for Britain, later Australia, 42 per cent of the Antarctic continent. He later campaigned for a permanent presence in Antarctica and in '54 the first Australian base was established and named in his honour.
Louise Southerden travelled courtesy of Orion Expedition Cruises.
Mawson's Antarctica trips with Orion next summer begin in Hobart and end in Bluff (38 kilometres from Invercargill) on New Zealand's South Island. Jetstar, Virgin Australia and Qantas fly non-stop to Hobart from Sydney (1hr 55min, from $130) and Melbourne (75min); Tiger Airways flies from Melbourne only (from $30). From Invercargill, Air New Zealand flies to Melbourne and Sydney from $325 one-way including tax (about 6hr via Christchurch).
Orion Expedition Cruises' next Mawson's Antarctica trips to Commonwealth Bay depart Hobart on December 1 (19 nights) and January 3, next year (18 nights). Fares cost from $23,735 a person, twin share, and include an experienced expedition team led by Don and Margie McIntyre, 24-hour room service, entertainment, talks and lectures, Zodiac excursions, port and handling charges, government fees and taxes. The 19-night voyage includes an invitation to the Mawson's Huts Centenary dinner in Hobart on December 1. Phone 1300 361 012, see orionexpeditions.com.
Antarctic Tasmania is hosting Antarctic Centennial Year, which started last month and goes to June next year, see www.antarcticcentennial.tas .gov.au. The Australian Antarctic Division website (centenary.antarctica.gov.au) lists Mawson centenary events. Mawson's Huts Foundation is hosting a fund-raising dinner in Hobart on December 1, tickets $200, see mawsons-huts.org.au.