National Geographic News
Photo of Australian explorer Sir Douglas Mawson and his party on the heights above the newly named Proclamation Island in Antarctica.

Exploring the Antarctic has been fraught with challenges, like the famed Australiasian Antarctic Expedition of 1912 led by Sir Dougas Mawson, shown here above Proclamation Island in Antarctica after hoisting the flag on the claimed territory.

Photograph by Haynes Archive/Popperfoto/Getty Images

Michael Robinson

for National Geographic

Published December 30, 2013

Exploration still has its challenges, as the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) team learned when they ran into the teeth of a gale.

As they sailed for home aboard the Russian research vessel Akademik Shokalskiy, winds drove pack ice against the expedition's ship and has prevented it from reaching open water. (See also: "Who's on That Russian Ship Stuck on Antarctic Ice?")

A Chinese icebreaker tried to assist but was unable to get through, and on Monday an Australian icebreaker made it only to within 20 nautical miles of the stranded Shokalskiy. If that icebreaker fails on a next attempted rescue, the expedition will have to be evacuated by air.

The AAE is reenacting an expedition of the same name that took place a century ago. The leader of that AAE, Australian geologist Douglas Mawson, hoped to differentiate himself from other South Pole explorers by grounding his expedition in serious scientific research. (Read "Into the Unknown" in National Geographic magazine.)

He succeeded, but at a tragic cost.

Mawson's three-man sledge team set out to map unexplored coastline. Several weeks in, British crewman Belgrave Ninnis fell through a glacial crevasse to his death. Food and supplies were lost with him, and Mawson and the remaining member, Swiss skier Xavier Mertz, were forced to eat their own sled dogs.

Mertz died of vitamin A poisoning from eating dog liver; Mawson alone survived to tell the story in his book, The Home of the Blizzard.

What Do We Gain?

The second AAE does not face these calamitous problems—the Shokalskiy is in good shape, and vessels are en route to assist her. Yet the time, effort, and risk involved in recreating Mawson's expedition inevitably raise the question: What do we gain by reenacting historic expeditions?

Ever since Thor Heyerdahl sailed his balsa-wood raft, Kon-tiki, from Peru to the Tuamotu Islands in the Pacific in 1947—an adventure inspired by legends of pre-Columbian Inca crossings—one school of exploration has argued that such expeditions can illuminate historical truths.

In 2005, trekker Tom Avery sledged to the North Pole in 36 days, a feat he said "rewrote the history books" by vindicating Robert Peary's claim to have done the same in 1909.

From 2008 to 2010 Philip Beale sailed the Phoenicia, a 20-meter, square-rigged ship, around Africa, hoping to show that the Phoenicians accomplished this route in 600 B.C.

"Europeans think it was Portuguese explorer Bartholomeu Dias who did it first," Beale noted. "But I think the Phoenicians did it 2,000 years earlier and I want to prove it."

To say that something is possible, however, is not to prove that it happened. Expeditionary reenactors routinely blur this distinction, making historical claims based on the outcomes of their modern recreations and adventures.

Even if we ignore important differences between original and reenacted expeditions—Avery, unlike Peary, didn't have to make a return trip; Beale's crew had knowledge of Africa's coasts and currents that ancient Phoenicians didn't have—showing that something can happen now by no means proves it did happen then.

Gaining Insights

Yet reenacted expeditions have their uses. This became clear to me last year when I followed Henry Morton Stanley's footsteps across East Africa.

I was working on a book about a strange claim made by Stanley during his Trans-Africa expedition of 1874-77, when he encountered four Africans whose light complexion and European features, he wrote, "aroused my curiosity to the highest pitch."

They came from the slopes of Gambaragara, a snow-capped mountain west of Lake Victoria. That such a towering peak existed in the heart of equatorial Africa was astonishing enough.

"But what gives it peculiar interest," Stanley wrote, "is that on its cold and lonely top dwell a people of an entirely distinct race, being white, like Europeans."

It was a fantastical story, but one I felt compelled to follow, if only because the idea of this white tribe was taken seriously by Victorians of Stanley's day. With the help of a Bakonjo guide I spent six days climbing Gambaragara, now renamed Mount Stanley, in the Ruwenzori Mountains.

The journey confirmed many aspects of Stanley's report, from the fields of ice and snow to the lakes in the shadow of the glacier. But there were no white tribesmen on the summit.

"I could have told you that," my guide told me with a grin—and, to be sure, I hadn't expected to find any.

Yet climbing Stanley's mountain gave me something else: a sense of the desolate beauty of the Ruwenzoris, a record of Bakonjo stories about the mountains, and an appreciation of Stanley's efforts as well as his immense isolation from the Western world he had left behind. These insights have enriched my book, even if they tell me nothing about the historical veracity of Stanley's "white tribe."

The second AAE did not set out to prove anything about Mawson's earlier expedition. Its leaders hope to use Mawson's observations as a baseline for their own scientific findings—a benchmark of climatic changes that will illuminate Antarctica's future, not its past. As such, the voyage will prove to be well worth the time and effort.

Michael Robinson is an associate professor of history at Hillyer College, University of Hartford (Connecticut). He is working on a book, Lost White Tribe: Explorers, Scientists, and a Theory of Race that Changed Africa. He writes the science, history, and exploration blog Time to Eat the Dogs.

Douglas Mawson
Douglas Mawson

Load the tourists up with vitamin A, pemmican and dog meat and let them crawl across the pack ice to safety.  Now that would be an adventure.

Jack Buckmeir
Jack Buckmeir

it was funny to view the side picture of the chinese helicopter and note that it had an obama logo on the upper right hand corner

Clay Kemper
Clay Kemper

The location of the Seattle Space Needle was under 3,400 feet of ice nearly 20,000 years ago.  I honestly cannot account for the thawing of this massive glacier other than to attribute it to global warming.  Of course, the flatulence of the numerous mammoths were the principal greenhouse gases of the day that undoubtedly started our damned problems. 

RC Monkeyboy
RC Monkeyboy

The Mawson expedition must have travelled in warmer times, since Commonwealth Bay was largely ice-free 100 years ago. And certainly getting your ship stuck in ice is not going to help with the global warming meme.

Alas, this latter day expedition is just a vanity cruise, a publicity stunt that has suddenly become deadly serious

Robert Kosta
Robert Kosta

A group on a field trip trying to prove the existence of global warming are stuck in the ice?

You can't make this stuff up!!!!!!  I wonder who paid for this folly???

Russell Potter
Russell Potter

A stimulating essay! But I disagree somewhat with two points: 1) I don't think that re-enactments of the Heyerdahl or Severin variety -- showing what could be accomplished by ancient mariners with their technology -- should be lumped in with tourist trips. Who would have believed a balsa-wood raft, or a leather curragh, could have transited such seas? 2) What strikes me about the current Mawson re-enactment mishap is how expensive it will turn out to be, now that rescue has been required, relative to what I imagine will be a not very substantial body of new information. There's no point in re-creating Mawson's challenge aboard a big modern ship because, in the first instance, it's not the same challenge, and in the second, it's not a legitimate scientific expedition but a paid trip for exploration buffs. There may be a grey area in the middle -- Geoff Clark's retracing of Greely's retreat with Greely's great-grandson -- but this "Mawson"trip is really a form of entertainment, and very expensive entertainment, for its passengers.

Daniel Costa
Daniel Costa

@Russell Potter The cost of the rescue comes in many ways.  The Chinese, Australian and now the US Icebreaker that have been involved in this rescue are all heavily booked with their own research missions and Antarctic Base support missions.  The activities of these research/support vessels have all now been severely altered.  The US Icebreaker that is now in route to assist was in route to US McMurdo Station in the Ross Sea. It has to open  channel to allow for resupply vessels to reach that station by the end of this month to allow resupply vessel to reach the station before it closes at the end of February.  

It's not clear what research was accomplished under this adventure.  Collecting baseline data requires more than a few days effort, even with the advanced technology we have today. 

Peter S.
Peter S.

Well stated Russell. One must question the honest intentions of the current sightseeing adventure by a group of tourists and pseudo-scientists.


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