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Mawson: Life and Death in Antarctica (2007)


In 2007, polar adventurer Tim Jarvis returns to Antarctica to try to answer his own questions about the epic journey made by Douglas Mawson in early 1913. Mawson trekked across almost 500 km of Antarctic terrain after the death of one of his companions, Belgrave Ninnis, and the loss of most of the supplies. Mawson and his remaining companion, Xavier Mertz, killed and ate their dogs, until Mertz himself succumbed, leaving Mawson to go on alone. Jarvis wants to know if Mawson could have done the journey without resorting to cannibalism. With a Russian-Australian colleague, John Stoukalo, Jarvis sets out to walk the same distance, using the same equipment and towing the same load, while subsisting on much the same food. They eat kangaroo jerky instead of dog meat, and a doctor checks their health at regular intervals. Their journey is extremely arduous, the weather brutal. After 25 days, Stoukalo leaves Jarvis to pull the sledge by himself, at the same point that Mertz died. Jarvis completes the trek in just under the 47 days that it took Mawson to reach safety. He can now draw some conclusions about how Mawson was able to make the journey.

Curator’s notes

Australian geologist Douglas Mawson established his reputation as an Antarctic explorer through his leadership of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE), which arrived at Commonwealth Bay in late 1911. His fame was built both on the science he produced, and on his epic walk back to safety in early 1913 after the deaths of his companions, Belgrave Ninnis and Xavier Mertz, during a scientific sledging expedition. The story of his survival, during which he crossed almost 500 km on foot, dragging a sledge, is one of the most famous in polar history. Given that most of the food disappeared into a crevasse with Ninnis, there have long been accusations that Mawson could not have survived except by cannibalism. Mawson always denied these claims.

These darker questions about Mawson bothered Tim Jarvis during his own epic trek across the Antarctic ice in 1999. British-born Jarvis and Australian Peter Treseder established a new record for the fastest unsupported journey to the Geographic South Pole. They walked there in 47 days, during which both lost a large amount of weight, while eating a much larger amount of food than had been available to Mawson. Jarvis wondered how Mawson could have made a longer journey without cannibalising the body of Mertz, who died midway through the return. Jarvis decided to make a similar journey and to replicate, as far as possible, the circumstances that Mawson endured.

Jarvis himself acknowledges in the film that it is impossible to repeat the trek exactly. Nevertheless, he and expatriate Russian pilot John Stoukalo encounter enough hardship to give us a sense of the original experience. Director Malcolm McDonald adds re-created sequences, filmed in Australia and New Zealand, using actors to play Mertz and Mawson, but most of the documentary is actually filmed In Antarctica, during a six-week trip across the ice. The walkers went unaided, observed only by a four-person film crew, following strict rules of non-intervention. The cinematographer, Wade Fairley, captures an extraordinarily powerful landscape – although not quite the same one that Mawson traversed.

Mawson and his companions set out from the winter quarters at Commonwealth Bay in late 1912 to explore east along the coast of what he would later name King George V Land. Jarvis, Stoukalo and the filmmakers were forced to film on the other side of the vast continent, starting from the Vestfold Hills, close to 3000 km from where Mawson made his base. The film could not get insurance unless they made the journey within the range of a helicopter rescue, which meant starting from the Australian base at Davis. So the terrain that Jarvis and Stoukalo crossed is not the same, although many of the difficulties are similar – rough sastrugi ice, high winds and major blizzards that confined them to their flimsy tent for days on end.

The filmmakers went to great lengths to replicate the clothing and equipment. Burberry’s of London had made the Mawson party’s original protective clothing; they re-created the garments exactly for Jarvis and Stoukalo, using gabardine cotton. Modern Antarctic clothing is vastly superior, but only the four crew members could wear it. The crew travelled on three open skidoos towing sleds, but McDonald says that the crew kept away from the walkers, unless filming. They pitched their camps at some distance from the walkers each night and never shared food. The crew carried a satellite phone, but the walkers had no modern devices. The non-intervention was very strict: McDonald said nothing when he noticed the walkers leaving a shovel behind as they broke camp.

The plan called for Stoukalo to leave Jarvis after 25 days or 320 kms, which was the point at which Mertz died. Jarvis continued alone and unaided for the rest of the journey, another 160 kms. He completed the full journey, just short of 500 kms, as planned in slightly less than the 47 days Mawson took to reach safety – a food dump left on the ice 48 km from the base hut.

The other major difference is that it is impossible to replicate the physical condition of each man. Mawson and Mertz had been travelling on the ice for five weeks when Ninnis disappeared into a crevasse, with half the dogs and most of the food. They were probably extremely fit, but already lean. Jarvis and Stoukalo, whatever their respective levels of fitness, were not in identical condition as they started. Nor did they make the journey under the same levels of mental stress. Xavier Mertz had lost his best friend with the death of Belgrave Ninnis. Mertz was in charge of the dogs, and both he and Mawson felt a great debt to these animals. Having to kill them one by one and then eat every part of the dog, including the paws, was extremely distressing, as Mawson notes in his diaries. Mertz was also a vegetarian. In the late 1960s, Adelaide scientists suggested a new theory about why Mertz had died. The dogs’ livers contained high concentrations of vitamin A. It was not understood in 1913 that large doses of vitamin A could be harmful to humans. That does not necessarily explain why Mawson did not also succumb, unless he ate less of the liver.

Jarvis’s conclusions about the question of cannibalism are somewhat equivocal. He says that he does not believe that Mawson resorted to eating parts of his dead companion, although he believes he would have been capable of doing it to survive. The journey that Jarvis made does not prove the question either way, although it does make it more plausible that a man could have survived that incredible journey on the amount of food that Mawson had. Jarvis and Stoukalo did it, with similar clothing, food and load, and without the benefit of the dogs, which at least helped to drag the sledge through the first part of the return journey for Mawson and Mertz. They did not cover the same ice, nor walk with the same heavy threat of death, but the film makes clear that theirs was also an amazing journey.