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The Search for Magnetic South: Douglas Mawson and the Nimrod Expedition

The Nimrod Expedition
The Nimrod Expedition

Editor's note: This is a piece of historical fiction. The dialogue and most details have been invented by the author. The following key facts are not fictional:


  • Every character except for the Professor and Rohnen did exist

  • Douglas Mawson was a lecturer in Mineralogy at Sydney University

  • The Nimrod Expedition did go to Antarctica aboard the Nimrod in search of Magnetic South with Shackleton as a leader

  • T. W. David was the leader of the three and Alister was a medical doctor

  • The expedition's tent was green

  • They did have sled dogs

  • They were under time pressure not to miss the Nimrod

  • They never precisely located Magnetic South

  • They placed a Union Jack near Magnetic South, gave three cheers for the King and took a photo

  • Douglas Mawson did indeed fall into a crevasse in his haste to board the ship.


 

The Professor abruptly looked up from his desk as one of his lecturers for Sydney University burst into the office waving a newspaper. Douglas Mawson suddenly halted, embarrassed that he had once again let his excitement get the better of him. The Professor glared at him over his glasses. 


“I know, and I’m sorry,” started Douglas, “but you’ll understand once you see this.” And he pointed to the article titled Explorers Seek Magnetic South.


“The Nimrod Expedition are looking for able-bodied men to find Magnetic South. Earnest Shackleton is their leader. I was wondering… whether you might let me join them in this noble pursuit. I could be of great help to them with my knowledge in Mineralogy,” (Douglas lectured in Mineralogy), “and my going would also bring great recognition to our…”


“My boy, you are mad!” roared the Professor.


“To go would be self imposed suicide! Besides, who would lecture in your place? Your students would be forced to leave and you would be the cause of this shameful disgrace! Mr. Mawson,” he continued in a more proper manner, “To preserve our dignity and your safety, I absolutely forbid you to participate, and that’s final.”


The Professor replaced his glasses which he had torn off in his rage and waited for the response. 


“Y-yes, Sir.” Douglas sighed as he left the room. Then he mumbled, just loud enough for The Professor to hear, “But it will be a shame to see other Universities receive this honour.” 


“Eh! What’s that?”


“Oh, it’s just that whoever does go and succeed and return will be heaped with fame and prestige, and now that can’t be us,” he finished sadly.


Then, seeing his opportunity, Douglas squared his shoulders, looked the Professor straight in the eye and quickly continued, “In fact, some other University, probably our nearest rival, is preparing their explorers while we dawdle.


Then all of our students will see of their success on the front page of the Sydney Times and flock to their campus simply because they had the sense to send some men on a harmless little voyage to Antarctica. Then it won’t matter that there’s nobody to lecture in my place because I won’t have anybody to lecture.”


Douglas was careful not to use an argumentative tone but to sound mournful at their non-existent loss. Now it was his turn to wait for a response. The Professor looked first at Douglas then at the newspaper then back at his conniving lecturer. He removed his glasses and made himself very busy cleaning them, not because they were dirty but because he was feeling so very awkward.


Then to Douglas’ utter shock, he slowly began, “You have a fair point there Mr. Mawson. Not only do I give you leave, but Sydney University will also fund your costs for the expedition. Now, don’t tell me I didn’t warn you. Good luck, boy.”


After Douglas hastily mailed his application form to the address mentioned in the newspaper, he wholeheartedly applied himself to studying Antarctica.


Douglas learned of the weather patterns such as blizzards. He also discovered that they had had an unusually warm few years down there so that much of the shoreline, which is made of ice, had melted away since the coast of Antarctica was last mapped. Amazingly, the Nimrod Expedition accepted his application and he was mailed preparation instructions.


Douglas was then informed who his team members were.


T.W. David would lead the group, Alister Mackay was the team’s medical doctor, and finally Douglas Mawson himself. It seemed as if the real task of reaching Magnetic South would be performed by these three. 


On the appointed date, the men boarded the Nimrod with Captain Earnest Shackleton in his search for Magnetic South. Even the Professor himself came down to the port to wave them off.


Everything was perfect.


A light westerly breeze caught the sail and blew the Nimrod out to sea. She gently rocked up and down on the waves. The ten arctic dogs aboard her barked every now and again. It was a beautiful introduction for someone like Douglas, who had never been sailing. He found his sea legs soon enough and was the fifth person to throw up, which he was especially proud of since he was beaten to this prize by three experienced seamen.


After weeks aboard the Nimrod, they noticed a change in wildlife. There were more seals about now and the air began to have a frosty bite to it.


The first day that they passed an iceberg felt like a dream come true. Especially for someone like Douglas, who had always lived in Australia, it was hard to imagine a place like Antarctica – a place covered with snow. But the more the air chilled, the easier he found to believe it and the more excited everyone became. 


One bright morning in the cabin, Captain Shackleton had his head bent over the chart of the Southern Ocean.


All his instruments lay scattered on the table around him as he tried to identify their exact location. He took a swig of rum, scratched his head and straightened up. According to this map, they should have been on top of Antarctica already, but they were certainly still sailing on water.


He pushed back on his wooden chair until it was balancing on two legs. His face wore a look of bewilderment as he dug his hands deep into his pockets. Shackleton called through the open doorway up to the man on lookout. 


“Rohnen, do you see anything?”


“Can’t tell, Captain. The glare off the water is messing with me eyes.”


“Hmm.”


After sunset that night, the crew let down a measuring line to discover their depth.


The sounding read “37 yards.” Later that evening they measured again, “20 yards.” At the twenty-third hour the sounding read “17 yards.” Rohnen made toward Captain Shackleton’s cabin and knocked loudly on the door. 


“Sir, we’re rapidly measuring shorter every sounding. At this rate She’ll be run aground by third watch.” 


There was much hustle and bustle aboard the Nimrod as the crew prepared to anchor her. It turns out that the warm summer had melted away much of what had been falsely mapped as Antarctica’s shoreline so that according to that outdated map they would have indeed been on the continent of Antarctica. 


As the sun revealed the icy wilderness that they had drawn alongside, everybody leaned against the railing in silent awe. Many were tempted to feel like they had arrived when really, the journey had only just begun.


Preparations were made to send T.W. David, Alister Mackay, and Douglas Mawson off on their venture the day after tomorrow. They had forty days to locate Magnetic South and return, for the Nimrod must leave before the Autumn blizzards began. 


There were one or two distant clouds in the clear sky when the adventurers waved goodbye to the Captain and crew. The eight best sled dogs led the way in front of both loaded sleds, while the other two dogs remained aboard the Nimrod.


A beautiful, deep stillness hung in the air, which they would later come to dread. 


“Won’t this be some story to tell our grandchildren,” remarked Alister.


“If we live to tell it,” replied David, as he cracked the ice of his frozen breath out of his moustache. 


Douglas just listened to the others chat back and forth.


After some hours, the talking died down as there seemed to be nothing more to say. 


Then: “Oughtn’t we be going a little more to our right if we’re to find South?'' observed Douglas. They adjusted their direction and continued walking.


Despite having specially designed snow gear, their feet and fingers numbed from cold. They tried marching and slapping their hands on their thighs. Soon enough, however, it was time to set up camp. They pitched their little green tent and sheltered the dogs underneath a covering in the sleds.


That night the wind began to howl and whip around the little lonely dwelling in the wilderness of whiteness. 


The following few days were very much the same with a light smattering of snow here and there. After one especially freezing episode, the men had great trouble keeping themselves warm.


No amount of clothing or crouching oneself down by the fire seemed to reach that penetrating chill that had settled inside each of them.


One dreadfully still night they had all settled down and were doing their own thing, each man holding a steaming tin mug of Billy Tea, when they all suddenly heard one of the sleds crash over. But before anyone had time to think about it, much less do anything to fix it, a monstrous gust of wind struck their own tent with such a howl that they had to shout to be heard by those only a few feet away. 


“Alister! Chuck me that tent peg. My side is flapping furiously!” yelled Douglas.


All that night the blizzard kept up.


They shivered till they were warm enough to sleep. And then they tossed and turned for a long while as the snow fell thick and hard. Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, Douglas dropped into a restless sleep.


He rolled over. The frozen blanket cracked. 


“Ahhh.” Douglas was in that lovely half-awake state and was feeling unusually cosy this morning. This was so lovely. He didn’t want to wake up. He mustn’t wake up. But how could it be this warm?


He forced his eyes open and the feeling didn’t leave.


Douglas sat up. His frozen blanket cracked some more. His pocket watch read 5:57 a.m. How come it was still so dark?


His curiosity got the better of him, so he clumsily dragged his stiff body off his mat, pulled on his boots and stumbled to the door. Untying the strings, Douglas loosened the material and prepared to step outside. Smack! He was hit in the face by a clump of falling snow. He kicked it to one side and proceeded to walk out.


As he pulled the green canvas aside, ‘Thud!’ This time the whole wall of snow fell into the tent. By now David and Alister had awoken and were looking on in interest. 


“Sorry chaps. I’m not quite sure…” his voice trailed off as he became quite sure of what was happening.


“Oh! The ground out there is at eye level!”


“What?!” 


“There has been so much snowfall over night that we are near buried! And of course! That would also be why it was so warm this morning. The snow insulated us from that dreadful wind.”


“What about the dogs?” put in David. “We’ll have to dig them out ASAP.”


At this, they jumped to action. Their only spade was inside a sack on the second sled. So they had to use their tin mugs or hands. After one hour of digging, both sleds and all eight dogs stood on top of the deep, fresh snow.


The dogs had been protected beneath the sled when it flipped. 


Travel would be impossible in such thick snow. So they waited a few more precious days until the snow hardened. Then they kept pressing on to Magnetic South. 


A few days later: “Now, look here,” began David. “We only have nineteen days until the Nimrod sails. We must be back by then at all costs.” 


“But we’re so close now. I can tell by the way our compass is indecisively flickering,” argued Alister. 


“We’ve come this far. We might as well keep on,” put in Douglas. 


“Alright. We shall continue for two more days. Then, if we haven’t located it we shall hightail it out of here and make a dash back to the coast.”


So that is what they did.


Pushing ever forward, David, Alister, and Douglas camped and travelled then did it again. 


Midday on the second day saw them draw as near Magnetic South as any man alive had ever come. 


“Let’s stick ‘er here,” David shouted above the increasing roar of the wind. He plunged the Union Jack into the snow while Alister set up a camera. David, Alister, and Douglas sent up three cheers for the King, posed for the camera then immediately began their hasty retreat. 


The next fortnight was all one exhausted, snowy blur.


Everyone’s strength was failing them; the dogs were slower too. But with this strict time limit, they couldn’t afford to dawdle. Despite all hindrances, they must push forward. Douglas’ shoes had worn through at the toes where the ice had worn through the leather. However, this didn’t make his feet any colder. They couldn’t get any colder without being actually frozen solid.


David, Alister, and Douglas hobbled along as if their feet were wooden. The dogs hadn’t had so much trouble with their paws because Alister simply kept replacing the cloth around their feet.


With three days left… They had to be close now, yet they couldn’t be sure because nobody had been tracking how much ground they had covered. The only way to defeat desperation was to struggle on. 


The next day: “Why, I do believe that’s water ahead!”


“Can’t tell. Everything looks the same out here.”


“No! Really – it’s moving!”


In case that wasn’t evidence enough, a dark silhouette sailed out of the fog.


“The Nimrod!” shouted everybody at once.


This sparked new energy within them.


They ran, as well as a frozen man can, toward it waving their arms and shouting. In their distraction, nobody noticed the ominous stillness that hung in the air. With a perfect stroke of misfortune, a blizzard struck right at that moment.


The Nimrod was instantly blotted out of sight by whirling snow. 


“Arrgh!” All the tension of the desperate dash burst from Douglas’ lips. The dignified university lecturer knew getting mad would never help. So, after that little outburst, he turned to David and Alister and they held a council. Huddled together in the snow they shouted to be heard above the blizzard. 


“You never know, She could come by us again. Anyhow we mustn’t lose hope now,” yelled David. 


“I vote to dig into the snow, set up camp, try to survive, and wait,” Alister put forward. 

“Yeah. Digging in will give us shelter from this wind.”


“But there’s no way we could ever set up in such a fierce gale,” yelled David, not because he was angry, but just trying to be heard. 


“Dig in and wait it out,” Douglas concluded.


There seemed to be nothing else that could be done. But digging in was not necessary. The snow had already begun to build up on one side of the sled forming a wall of protection. Alister unhitched the dogs and they all huddled beside the sled together.


Here they remained for three days. Eating and surviving and trying to keep up morale. Douglas made himself busy constructing a seal trap from pieces of the sled.


“We won’t be needing that anymore,” he reasoned. 


Finally, on the morning of the fourth day, the wind had stopped howling, the snow had ceased falling, and the ocean beside them gently crashed against the icy shoreline. 


That evening, oh! What joy! “The Nimrod! The Nimrod!” shouted Douglas, who was the first to see it because he had gone seal catching at the peninsula. Excitedly jumping up, he raced toward their camp.


The smarter thing to do would have been to wait until he was sure some crewmen had seen him. But there was nothing to fear, for Rohnen had already spotted the smoke rising from their fire and was preparing to drop anchor close to shore. 


“Alister! David!” Douglas called, “The Nimrod’s coming ‘round!” 


Words cannot describe the relief they felt at that moment.


Instantly everybody dropped what they were doing and prepared to board her. David set down the tent, while Alister readied the dogs. David, Alister, and Douglas would spend the night in an honest hammock at last.


They didn’t have either of their sleds left because what Douglas didn’t turn into a seal trap had gradually been burned. So Douglas received the job of carrying all their equipment from their camp to the shore — a distance of about 400 yards.


As he raced along in the twilight with yet another armload of luggage, his foot slipped on the ice. Douglas lost balance, wobbled and fell, sliding into a crevasse. 


It really wasn’t too serious. Aside from a few bruises and a bit of annoyance, the plummet hadn’t hurt him badly and he knew that he would be found soon enough. Unless there was another snowstorm, others would be able to trace his footsteps and pull him out. Back at the camp, David assumed that he was chatting with a crewman.


Aboard the Nimrod the crewmen assumed that he was back at the camp. At last, David sent Alister into the darkness to find him. 


From within the crevasse, time seemed to be moving very slowly.


One of the sacks he had been carrying had slid in with him, the rest of his armload must still be up there. Eventually, another light appeared aside from the stars — a gentle, flickering light.


Alister trudged along holding his lantern high, following the route between his camp and the ship. He came upon a lone sack and the billy lying to one side of the path. When he noticed the crevasse just beyond them and heard a voice shouting from below, Alister immediately saw what had happened. 


“Don’t worry, chap! We’ll get you out of there.”


Then he hurried on to the ship where Alister knew there would be spare ropes. Half an hour later everybody was standing back at ground level under the stars. Captain Shackleton and T.W. David agreed to move all the luggage onto the ship before settling down to sleep. 


Below deck, out of the wind, and back with old mates, all seemed right with the world. Late into the night, the Captain, crew, and explorers exchanged tales of their adventures, warmed by a cask of the best rum that Shackleton had saved especially. 


The gentle rocking of the Nimrod lulled them all to sleep. Soon soft snoring filled the hull.


Bright and early in the morning: “Pull away,” ordered Shackleton.


Everything was perfect.


A light southerly breeze caught the sail and blew the Nimrod out to sea. She gently rocked up and down on the waves. The ten arctic dogs aboard her barked every now and again. It was a beautiful conclusion after such a gruelling few weeks, but Douglas had survived.


They had all survived and set a record, and finally, they were returning to receive their due reward. Now every man in Sydney will want to be lectured by the great Douglas Mawson.


Won’t the Professor be pleased!


The Nimrod
The Nimrod

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