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Mawson's miracle - a tale of Antarctic heroism
on 4 May 2013
This book's subtitle - "The greatest survival story in the history of exploration" - is Sir Edmund Hillary's assessment of Sir Douglas Mawson's achievement, and Hillary of course knew a thing or two himself. Mawson is, or was, a household name in his native Australia, and used to adorn a banknote there, but few non-specialists outside the continent today will know who he was or what he accomplished. Mawson's Antarctic exploits have got lost somewhere between those of Scott and Shackleton. David Roberts, recognising a looming centenary when he sees one, has made it his task to remedy matters.
Douglas Mawson was a young geologist who would enjoy a lifelong association with Adelaide University. As an Antarctic explorer he earned his spurs on Shackleton's 1908 expedition aimed at reaching the South Pole, but as a scientist Mawson was interested in other things. Mawson's team on that trip was charged with getting as close as possible to the South Magnetic Pole which, unlike the fixed `true' pole, wanders considerably.
In 1912 Mawson returned with is own expedition at around the time Scott and Amundsen were racing each other to the South Pole. Mawson's aims were again scientific and geological, but he was also seeking to map as much as possible of the area of Antarctica closest to Australia. Sending part of his party to a separate departure point far to the west, he divided the main party into teams of three and, having overwintered, each set off to explore in different directions. Mawson's own team found itself in desperate trouble, the tale that is at the heart of `Alone on the Ice'. Even having survived appalling conditions in a crevasses-riddled landscape, with limited gear and dwindling rations, the endlessly determined and self-reliant Mawson found on his return to base new adversities waiting for him.
Mawson had with him in 1912-13 two men who played an important part in the golden age of Anatarctic exploration. One was Frank Wild, an Englishman who had been with Scott's 'Discovery' expedition and with Shackelton and Mawson in 1908. Put in charge of Mawson's western party, Wild would become even more famous as part of Shackleton's marathon trials of 1914-17. The other man was a young Australian photographer, Frank Hurley, whose photographs are well reproduced in this book and whose record of Shackleton's later expedition would set the seal on its fame.
The book cries out for a proper map of Antarctica, but in telling this thrilling tale for a new generation of readers, and putting it into context, the author has done the memory of Douglas Mawson a great service.