Douglas Mawson’s centenary flotilla

By Ian Connellan 7 November 2013
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Earlier this month, a flotilla of ships celebrated 100 years since the Australian Antarctic Expedition set off.

Australian Geographic journal editor Ian Connellan reports back on what he found at the Australasian Antarctic Expedition centenary celebrations in Hobart.

HOBART, 2 DECEMBER: More than 100 descendants of expeditioners from the 1911-14 Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) were aboard the 99-year-old MV Cartela and it was a perfect day on the Derwent River.

Led by the Australian Antarctic Division’s supply and research vessel Aurora Australis, a flotilla of about 200 vessels, old and new, power and sail, was celebrating the 100th anniversary of the AAE’s departure for Commonwealth Bay. At 11am, the flotilla’s largest vessels steamed past Tasmanian Governor Peter Underwood, who was aboard Egeria, and the river and shore near Hobart’s Regatta Ground resounded to a 19-gun salute.

On Cartela, the AAE descendants, current Australian Antarctic Division and MHF expeditioners and various friends and family were smiling, swapping stories and dodging sunburn. Twins Alun and Emlyn Thomas, the youngest grandsons of Sir Douglas Mawson, were cheerfully nonplussed at all the fuss. “Well, I mostly thought he was very big,” said Alun, when asked what he remembered of his famous grandad – before explaining that he and Emlyn were only 8 years old when Sir Douglas died.

Winning the race to the South Pole

After Cartela returned to dock, the AAE descendants headed for Hadleys Hotel for a lunch in their honour. Hadleys has its own rich Antarctic heritage. It was here that, in March 1912, Roald Amundsen holed up while waiting for confirmation via telegraph that the King of Norway was the first in the outside world to learn that he’d won the race to the South Pole.

Lunch was a spirited affair, with Mawson’s Huts Foundation director Gregory Holland and founder and CEO David Jensen both applauding the attendance of the descendants and the living connection and emotion they’d brought to the celebrations.

The stories that flowed in the room throughout lunch and after were astonishing. Australian Antarctic Division director Dr Tony Fleming revealed his own “deep south” connections: he’s the grandson of eminent Antarctic scientist Dr Raymond Priestley and great-nephew of Charles Wright and Thomas Griffith Taylor; all of whom were part of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated 1910-13 Terra Nova expedition.

Tripping over national treasures

Owen Gale and his mother Irene proudly showed me the Burberry anorak issued to Stanley Taylor – Irene’s dad and Owen’s grandad – as a seaman aboard the AAE ship MV Aurora. “Dad’s one of the people whose part it in was really kept secret,” said Irene. “Because he was a regular seaman on Aurora, not an officer or a scientist, all the official reports just referred to him as one of several ‘others’ aboard Aurora.”

Through the cooperative efforts of his descendants, Stan Taylor’s diary has been transcribed and makes for fascinating reading – not least because he defied regulations to keep it in the first place!

But my favourite quip of the day came from Sir Douglas Mawson’s eldest grandson, Andrew McEwin, who was in his early teens at the time of Mawson’s death.

“I knew he was an important and respected man, as much for his university career as for Antarctica,” said Andrew. “But it was the Antarctic stuff that really dominated us when we were little – it was all through the house; we were tripping over it!”

Those bits and pieces are mostly national treasures now, and safely tucked in museum collections…

Read about the AG Society-sponsored plan to build a replica Mawson’s Hut here.