Great advantage to science

Antarctica’s hidden crevasses

Exploring and discovering in Antarctica proved a difficult business on Ernest Shackleton’s first expedition. The sea ice was impenetrable in places. One of the expedition members lost an eye in an accident. Dissent brewed between Shackleton and the ship’s captain.

But their stamina was exemplary. When bad weather stranded the explorers at Cape Royds, they cheered themselves up by climbing to the top of Mt Erebus – at almost 4,000 metres high, it hadn’t been attempted before.

Shackleton's hut at Cape Royds, Ross Island, ca 1908Shackleton's hut at Cape Royds, Ross Island, between 1907 and 1909. Ref: A1-q-216-043.

"Anyhow, he's gone."

In this rare audio clip taken from the original wax cylinder held at the Turnbull, Shackleton describes some of the perils involved when routinely crossing the ice. In many places the ground beneath their feet was hollow, undermined by huge crevasses concealed by a deceptive layer of ice or snow.

Shackleton, My South Polar expedition

Record page.

Recording transcript

Main results of the British Antarctic expedition of nineteen hundred and seven, under my command of, follows.

We reached the point within 97 geographical miles of the South Pole. The only thing that stopped us from reaching the actual point, was the lack of 50 pounds of food. Another party reached for the first time the South magnetic pole, another party reached the summit of a great active volcano, Mount Erebus.

We made many interesting geological and scientific discoveries, and had many narrow escapes throughout the whole time.

A typical narrow escape was when we were going up the great glacier towards the pole. We were marching along, three of us harnessed to one sled, in very bad light. Our last pony was being led by another man, with 500 pounds of stores. All of a sudden, we heard a shout of help from the man behind. We looked round, and saw him supporting himself by his elbows on the edge of a chasm.

There was no sign of the pony, and the sledge was jammed with its bow in the crevasse. We rushed back and helped the man out, and then hauled the sledge out. Then we laid down to have a look, but nothing but a black gulf lay below. The pony may have fallen a thousand or a thousand five hundred feet. Anyhow he’s gone.

What had happened was this. We, the first three, with our weight distributed, crossed in safety in the bad light, the bridge over an unseen chasm. The weight of the pony following was too much, it smashed through, but the [inaudible] of the sledge snapped, and that saved the sledge. The man leading the pony said that he just felt a rushing of the wind, the rope was torn out of his hands, he flung himself forward and thus escaped.

After this, we four men had a thousand pounds to pull, and we were unable to pull the whole load at once, so we had to relay. That is, we hauled half our loads for a mile, then we walked back a mile, then we hauled the other half up. So for every mile we gained to the south, we had to cover three to do it. And slowly we arose, up the largest and longest glacier in the world, some days spending 12 hours doing 3 miles, other times spending nearly half the day hauling the sledge up by means of the alpine rope.

And thus, we went along, and thus we returned. Having done a work that has resulted in great advantage to science, and for the first time returning without the loss of a single human life. And throughout all this, I was helped by a party of men who were regardless of themselves and only thinking of the good of the expedition.

I, Ernest Shackleton, have today, March the 30th, dictated this record.

Ernest Henry Shackleton on board his boat, accompanied by a dog, circa 1909.Ernest Henry Shackleton on board the 'Nimrod', ca. 1909. Ref: 1/2-116771-F.

Interior worlds

These hidden chasms and the ascent of the volcanic cone were to become central plot devices in a science fiction story written by Douglas Mawson for Aurora Australis . The book was produced by the expedition team in another bid to keep up morale while overwintering in the Cape Royds hut that year. It was probably also intended as a money-raising venture, although most of the 30 or so volumes bound were given away to friends and family rather than sold.

The literary merits of the book’s 10 contributions are variable. The poems (including Shackleton’s, written under the pseudonym ‘Nemo’, after Jules Verne’s character) are pedestrian and too patriotic for modern sensibilities. The article on the ascent of Erebus is fascinating, and a fantasy about an encounter with a giant whisky-loving emperor penguin is pleasantly wry.

Mawson’s story, ‘Bathybia’, is the most accomplished of the fictional pieces, intriguing for its mingling of science and speculation.

Douglas Mawson is best known as the determined geologist who turned down Robert Scott’s offer to join his Terra Nova expedition (the one that ended badly), and was among the first to reach the magnetic South Pole with the aim of carrying out scientific studies.

He is famous for his gritty fortitude. When the sled dogs, a member of his party, and their food supplies disappeared into a crevasse, he continued on foot. He ate the remaining sled dogs, watched his other companion perish, and when the soles of his feet fell off he tied them back on with string so he could continue walking. For someone not known for whimsy, ‘Bathybia’ is a remarkable flight of fancy.

Montage of photographs on a postcard relating to the British Antarctic Expedition. Images of Shackleton and the ship 'Nimrod' are visible.Montage of photographs relating to the British Antarctic Expedition, 1908. Ref: PAColl-6408-01.

Water bears and rotifers, oh my

In Mawson’s story, an expedition party on the Victoria Land polar plateau descends into a ruined volcano. They find a warm, humid interior world and name it Bathybia. Travelling along a river edged by tangles of outsized fungi and bacteria, they fend off water bears and rotifers – usually microscopic but now huge and dangerous.

The party climbs a volcanic cone to get a better view, and at its summit find a creature frozen in the snow. They take it back to camp where it thaws, is reanimated, and begins to attack... at which point the narrator wakes up and we learn the story is the dream of a quarter-hour’s sleep.

Mawson was clearly influenced, as Shackleton was, by Jules Verne’s popular adventure stories. There are obvious similarities to Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1865), which was itself based on a geological treatise about the ancient beginnings of humans. In a similar vein, Mawson’s imagined interior is named after Bathybius haeckelii, a substance described by a British biologist who thought he’d discovered primordial matter, the source of all life (although he later had to admit it was merely the result of the chemical process of precipitation).

For those early explorers Antarctica was a place of thrilling potential for scientific discovery. The mysteries of all life were locked up in its ancient ice and rocks. But attempting to learn these secrets was also to be constantly risking your life. The expression of this paradox, whether in evocative factual accounts such as Shackleton’s, or in fantastic speculation such as Mawson’s, becomes its own poetics in which the distinction between fact and fiction break down and become intermingled, as perhaps the only means of describing that strange land.

Find out more about how Antarctica has been imagined and documented in the exhibition, Extreme South, on until 12 September at the Turnbull Gallery.

By Fiona Oliver

Fiona is Curator of New Zealand and Pacific Publications at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

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Laura Jones August 27th at 10:47AM

Realy interesting, thanks Fiona. I also wonder if Douglas Mawson was fantasising about a warm bath when he named his story..?!

Andrew Leachman September 6th at 8:55AM

As an Irish born person, I would have expected Shackleton to have a voice which held traces of an Irish accent, but obviously his time at Dulwich College, as a day boarder, buried that accent beneath the British upper class brogue. hearing him read from "The Heart of the Antarctic" was an enlightening experience.

Andrew Leachman September 7th at 10:33AM

Often in Shackleton's writing, he refers to " the pony lead by another man" or "the man behind". There were only four in the party, Adams, Marshall and Wild, could it be that Shackleton did not remember their names? or was it his desire to centre the story telling around the main character.....himself.