A trip to East Antarctica is anything but a walk in the park. Our Adventure Cruise Guide editor follows gingerly in the footsteps of Sir Douglas Mawson. Words & Photos: Roderick Eime

“Beyond the Roaring Forties there are the Furious Fifties and Shrieking Sixties, for the storms that ravage these regions become more and more severe as one proceeds further south.” – Herbert Ponting, 1921

Who in their right mind would willingly subject themself to this kind of discomfort? And to call a voyage to Antarctica a ‘cruise’– especially if you’re venturing beyond 70 degrees south – is a serious misrepresentation.

If your idea of a cruise is sitting on a deckchair beside a pool with a pina colada in one hand and a Jackie Collins potboiler in the other, read no further. Deep Antarctica is one of those places, like the moon, that is just so distant and unreachable that to travel there is almost the stuff of fiction.

In pursuit of this fantasy, I’m aboard the 71.6-metre, 48-passenger Spirit of Enderby operated by New Zealand-based adventure specialists Heritage Expeditions. In another life, she was the Professor Khromov and part of the Soviet ‘oceanographic’ fleet, the National Oceanographic Data Centre (NODC). This will be her 20-somethingth trip to Antarctica: most have been undertaken with the indomitable company founder, Rodney Russ, at the tiller of a Zodiac, such is his intoxication with this destination.

In truth, we have it easy compared to those heroic explorers of a century ago who ventured here in steam- and sail-powered wooden vessels to be violently buffeted and, often, left icebound, eating penguin stew. Heated, stabilised, fully catered and ice-strengthened, a modern expedition vessel is a far cry from those that sailed in the days of Douglas Mawson, Ernest Shackleton and Captain Robert Falcon Scott.

In fact, this voyage dubbed ‘In The Footsteps of Sir Douglas Mawson’ retraces much of the great explorer’s route on his travels south, cruising through the sub-Antarctic islands right down to Commonwealth Bay, where Sir Douglas (rather unfortunately) built his famous hut at Cape Denison.

At just 10 knots we are in no rush, so there is plenty of time to swot up in the ship’s library and attend the many lectures given by the expert expedition staff. Russ’s passengers are traditionally bird-crazy ‘twitchers’, feverishly spotting such rare and endangered species as the yellow-eyed penguin,
sub-Antarctic snipe and majestic southern royal albatross. None are disappointed. “The New Zealand and Australian authorities are in the midst of vermin eradication on these (sub-Antarctic) islands,” Rodney tells me, “so it’s exciting to see species that were at the brink of extinction return in healthy numbers. Rats, cats, rabbits and even livestock devastated the endemic populations here for decades.”

For me, however, the great fascination lies in the insight, albeit meagre, that one gets into how incredibly harsh life would have been for the men who came here 100 years ago. After many years spent reading the famous tales of hardship, privation and bravery, it is a surreal experience to be standing inside Mawson’s snow-covered main hut with its rusty Columbia stove centrepiece, surrounded by the scarce items that sustained them through dark and mind-numbing winters. Ice-encrusted tins of Colman’s mixed mustard, bottles of Imperial stout and jars of Heinz sweet midget gherkin pickles still line the shelves, just as they were left.

Official expedition photographer James Francis (Frank) Hurley’s darkroom is still there, complete with discarded Lumiere dry plates and packets of Kodak Pearl Platino-Argentic paper. His notes, including the prophetic phrase “Near enough is not good enough”, are etched into the woodwork. I wonder whether, a century hence, adventure travellers might marvel at the site of the first lunar landing in the same way.

Unlike the other preserved and re-created historic huts of Scott and Shackleton, Mawson’s has been left ‘as is’. For most of the past decade, conservators and restorers from the Mawson’s Huts Foundation have diligently documented every item, right down to old boots and broken bottles in the trash heap outside, recording their final resting places and leaving them there. Naturally, our briefing beforehand carried a firm “look but don’t touch” warning. Removing any items from the site, even pebbles, is forbidden.

“There is some debate about the value of these items,” Dave, the conservation team’s doctor, tells me as we survey the debris, “but for now, at least, everything stays where it is.”

Dave is one of a team of five that has just arrived aboard the French icebreaker re-supply vessel Astrolabe, settling in for a stint of five weeks. He invites me into their modern ‘digs’ over the hill, just in time to see teammate Pete swirling a bolognaise sauce on their tiny gas stove.

“I’m also the postmaster,” he chuckles, showing me great packets of philatelic items he has to process for collectors all around the world. “I did a crash course before I left. These guys are serious: everything has to be just so.” And he franks my little pocketbook and poses for a photo.

While we make three separate landings at Cape Denison, blessed with moderate weather, we do get a blustery send-off when the fabled katabatic winds start building up.

These winds are gravity-driven, emanating from the high plateau above, and can fall at devastating speeds, often more than 80 kilometres per hour. Mawson, seduced by fair weather, chose Cape Denison as his base unaware that this cove is, in fact, the windiest place on Earth at sea level.

He wrote: “Having failed to demolish us by dogged persistence the gale tried new tactics on the evening of May 24 (1913), in the form of a series of Herculean gusts. As we learned afterwards, the momentary velocity of these doubtless approached 200 miles (320 kilometres) per hour.”

Back at sea, our intended visit to the Dumont D’Urville base and the neighbouring emperor penguin colonies is thwarted by freakishly heavy sea ice. We make several attempts to break through but are eventually turned back by ’bergs the size of small Pacific Islands, some towering to 50 metres above us. I learn that in a year-old collision, a massive iceberg codenamed B9B knocked the end off the Mertz Glacier tongue, unlocking decades worth of heavy ice that now forms a protective belt around the entire region.

We set a course for home via the seabird haven of Campbell Island. Such is the caveat that must accompany any voyage to this region: all landings are dictated by weather, sea conditions and tides.

Mawson’s experience ended with frostbite, starvation and the death of his two companions. Mine included moments of tummy wobble and a runny nose but, as it did with Mawson, left me forever changed and with an inkling of what life is like in the most inhospitable land on Earth: the home of the blizzard.