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Sir Douglas Mawson - Australia’s Greatest Antarctic Explorer

Sir Douglas Mawson (far right) with Alistair Mackay, and Edgeworth David at the magnetic South Pole. Photo: Public Domain

Sir Douglas Mawson is widely regarded as Australia’s greatest Antarctic explorer for mapping untrodden areas and surviving some of the most harrowing situations. Born in England on 5 May 1882, his family immigrated to New South Wales when he was only two.

Consulting Other Explorers

Mawson originally sailed with Sir Ernest Shackleton on the 1907 Nimrod Expedition and afterwards felt he had had enough of the ice. But the thought of exploring the unknown coast of Antarctica nearest Australia intrigued him. He discussed the possibility of an expedition to the coast just west of Cape Adare with Captain Robert Scott. But Scott said he had his hands full at the time. (2)

Mawson then approached Sir Ernest Shackleton who was at first enthusiastic about the trip. But in the end Mawson put the expedition together himself.

Mawson’s Australian Antarctic Expedition (AAE)

Mawson was adamant that his expedition be “maintained by Australia”. (2) But when he ran into funding difficulties he was happy to accept an offer from Shackleton to write an appeal in London’s Daily Mail promoting the AAE. By October 1911, Mawson had secured funding from Australia and Britain.

The whaling ship Aurora, a Scottish steam yacht, was outfitted for the trip and sailed to Australia. This is the same vessel Shackleton would take to Antarctica in 1915 only to be crushed by pack ice.

The Sailing

On 2 December 1911, Mawson embarked on his expedition to explore a part of Antarctica which had never been touched by man. He mapped more territory on the continent than any other explorer of his time totalling some 1,500 miles. (1) The Aurora sailed from Hobart, Australia to the South with 49 Greenland Esquimaux sledging dogs which howled relentlessly during departure.

“It was quite evident that they were not looking forward to another sea voyage. The pandemonium made it all but impossible to hear the orders given for working the ship, and a collision was narrowly averted,” Mawson wrote. (2)

Once at sea, the journey was tough. Several of the dogs dropped dead from various illnesses. The surviving dogs would play a critical and fateful role as the journey progressed.


Mawson stopped at Macquarie Island where his team built a radio relay station which would connect Antarctica to Australia and the rest of the world. After a long and arduous journey, the Aurora made landfall at Cape Denison in January of 1912. (3) The men of the AAE assembled what would come to be known as Mawson’s Huts which sheltered them over the winter.

Sir Douglas Mawson blah and blah, at the beginning of their expedition
Sir Douglas Mawson (far right) with Alistair Mackay, and Edgeworth David at the magnetic South Pole.

Setting Off on the Ice

On 10 November 1912, they set off in sledges with 17 dogs and 1,723 pounds of food and equipment to explore the geography of the region. Mawson was accompanied by Dr Xavier Mertz and Lieutenant Belgrave Ninnis. (2)

High winds, crevasses and strict food rations made the trip nearly intolerable. After a month and 300 miles of sledging, tragedy struck. A fresh dusting of snow had covered a large crevasse. Lieutenant Ninnis disappeared into it along with six of the best dogs, food and vital equipment. (1)

Feeding on Sled Dogs

Mawson and Mertz were left with six dogs. They killed some of them to feed the other dogs and themselves. Strong gales forced the two men to hunker down in their tent. Mertz’s health deteriorated and he could no longer stomach eating dog meat. Instead he ate the softer liver tissue which eventually caused him to die from hypervitamonosis A poisoning on 8 January 1913. Mawson also ate dog liver and reported feeling ill but did not know the cause.

“I find my nerves are in a very serious state and from the feeling I have at the base of my head I suspect that I may go off my rocker very soon,” Mawson wrote. (1)

It was later discovered that a single dog liver contains enough vitamin A to kill 10 people.

Back to the Huts

Mawson faced a 300 mile sledge back to the huts fighting blizzards, crevasses and dwindling food supplies. When he finally made it to Commonwealth Bay on 9 February 1913, crewman Frank Bickerton barely recognised him. The Aurora was within sight in the bay but a coastal blizzard prevented her from returning to pick up the men. She sailed on to Hobart leaving Mawson and six other crewmembers to overwinter for a second year at Mawson’s Huts. (3)

The year was not wasted. Mawson’s men studied the Aurora Australis, wildlife, geology and mapped new tracks of Antarctica before the Aurora brought them back to Australia in December 1913.

Mawson returned a hero and was knighted in 1914. On 14 October 1958 he died at the age of 76 from a cerebral haemorrhage. Today his image adorns the Australian $100 bank note. Mawson’s Huts at Cape Denison are now conserved by a foundation which bears his name.


1. - Mawson’s Will: The Greatest Polar Survival Story, Lennard Bickel and Sir Edmund Hillary, Stein and Day, 1977

2. - The Home of the Blizzard, Being the Story of Australasian Antarctic, Sir Douglas Mawson, Public Domain Books, 1914

3. - Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration, David Robert, W. W. Norton & Company, 2013

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