Mawson in Antarctica by Joanna Grochowicz

Reviewed by Antonella Townsend

Best to wear a jumper and a beanie when reading Mawson in Antarctica, Joanna Grochowicz really takes you there.  At times during the narrative I did not want to be there – at all.  This is scary stuff of the non-fiction kind.

Joanna Grochowicz has written a well-researched account of Douglas Mawson’s Antarctica Exploration, 1912-1914.  Whereas the intended demographic is for ten- to fourteen-year-olds, I’m sure older readers will find it gripping.

Sir Douglas Mawson (1882-1958) was an Australian geologist, Antarctic explorer and academic.  He gained degrees in mining engineering and geology at the University of Sydney, later becoming a lecturer at the University of Adelaide.  In 1907, Mawson joined the British Antarctic Expedition, led by Ernest Shackleton attempting to reach the South Magnetic Pole.  Mawson always replied negatively when asked if he would ever return to the Antarctic.  However, in 1912 he led the Australasian Antarctic Expedition with the ambition of claiming territory for Australia, while conducting scientific studies including finding the elusive South Magnetic Pole.  This is where Grochowicz begins her historical novel.  Mawson and his team have sailed from Tasmania on the Aurora under the command of Captain Davis.  Mawson and Davis are standing on the bridge of the Aurora approaching Cape Denison looking for a possible landing point, the weather is making this a difficult task.  There were twenty men in this expedition each with their own special skills, all restless to disembark, to walk on firm ground.

Drawing on diaries, letters and narratives from archives and personal collections, Grochowicz reveals the character of each member of the expedition as the narrative progresses.  She does not flinch from the negative, clearly some men were less helpful than others.  Before the first chapter, there is a list of team members’ names, jobs and ages, including the sobriquets that a few of the men acquired describing an aspect of their personality.  It is surprising how, in the main, most of the team were under thirty, the youngest being nineteen.  But the cruellest character of all is the horrific weather conditions that are hard to imagine. Readers will be living vicariously in the windiest place on earth.  Average windspeeds of 80 kilometres an hour, with days where the wind exceeded 145 kilometres an hour, and, gusts from the interior reaching a staggering 320 kilometres per hour.  Even the penguins abandon this area in the winter.  The front cover of this book depicts what style of walking is necessary in such conditions.

Grochowicz fast-pace writing makes this historical novel a page turner, all the while providing interesting information such as the equipment used and the man responsible for it – the magnetograph measuring the geomagnetic field, a barograph measuring air pressure, tide and sea levels, the nephoscope showing the altitude and direction and velocity of the clouds, and the electroscope measuring the electrostatic charge in atmosphere, and the anemometer recording the amazing windspeeds, which had to be repaired regularly because it could not stand up to the hurricane conditions.

Readers need to remember that the values of the early 1900s were very different from the current context. It was the age of the amateur, work place health and safety was a faraway concept.  The expedition often seemed in disarray.  The stove was not operational for days because the struts could not be found.  Amazingly the boxes were not labelled, or, apparently packed according to category.  The men seemed under-prepared for the conditions they were to encounter.  At one point three men left to do a task not far away from the based hut but only two returned.  In the blizzard one man became separated, which in those condition was easily done.  They did not take the precaution of being connected by a rope.  He took three hours to gain his bearings and get back to the hut.  A lucky escape which could have so easily ended in death. Mawson seemed to assume his team’s competence beyond their knowledge.  Also, there are some upsetting attitudes towards the wild life, and the husky sledge dogs, who served them so well.  But as stated above it was a different time, carrying less compassionate values.

Nevertheless, this absorbing historical novel makes good reading, illustrating the bravery and determination it took to forward scientific knowledge – such endeavours do not always take place in cosy laboratories.  Men died in the pursuit of knowledge and for this they should be celebrated.

Mawson in Antarctica

by Joanna Grochowicz


Allen & Unwin


ISBN:  978 176118 059 0

$19.99; 272pp

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