Expeditioners set sail for a six-week project to preserve historic Mawson’s Huts in Antarctica

On Friday, six expeditions sail against Commonwealth Bay in Antarctica on French icebreaker L’Astrolabe to spend six weeks restoring what is left of the historic Mawson’s Huts.

The listed cabins were built by the Antarctic expedition Douglas Mawson and his crew at Cape Denison between 1911 and 1914, and housed a group of about 32 men for a year when they missed being picked up by their relief vessel.

But restoring what is considered to be the most significant Australian historic site in Antarctica would be in contrast to typical home renovations or outdoor projects.

Expeditioners will sleep in a lift truck known as the Sorensen cabin, go to the toilet in a bucket so everything can be packed in containers, and spend their days working in minus-20 degrees Celsius while battling gales and blizzard-like conditions .

A woman examines the inside of a wooden hut in a cold environment.
Expedition leader Michelle Berry examines the living part of Mawson’s Hut in 2015.(Delivered by: David Killick)

“The main task will be to do a bit of a health check on Mawson’s Huts,” said Greg Carter, CEO of the Mawson’s Huts Foundation.

“They were built to last six months, and they’re still there 110 years later. The team will do things like cut out the ice that’s inside the cabin, maintain the lumber, and preserve all the artifacts we find there.

“There are always new artifacts found as well as those we know of.

Other jobs include setting up an automatic weather station and counting the number of penguins living in colonies around the huts.

View of old wooden hut in snow.
Expedition people will work to remove ice and snow that settles in the old huts.(Delivered by: David Killick)

Access to history not without challenges

If the group succeeds in coming to Cape Denison, it will be the first time restoration work has been done on the cottages since 2015.

“There was a big iceberg called B19B, which was the size of the ACT, that blocked the entrance to Commonwealth Bay, but it’s broken up a little bit now,” Mr Carter said of the recent voyage.

‘Fast ice’, or ice attached to the continent, could also prove to be a challenge for expeditions.

“Currently [fast ice] covers about 23 kilometers, so they should probably be driven to [work site] by helicopter, “Mr Carter said.

A man peels ice in a wooden hut.
Chief curator Ian Godfrey removes ice from the shelves inside Mawson’s cubicle during the 2015 expedition.(Delivered by: David Killick)

Four of the expedition members have been to Antarctica several times before – including Mercury newspaper reporter David Killick, who will serve as base camp manager and take responsibility for cooking for the crew.

It will be a maiden voyage for the material conservators Karina Acton and Eoin O’Suilleabhain.

“I’m really excited, definitely a little nervous … I did not think I would ever go to Antarctica in my life,” Mrs. Acton said.

Interior of a very old wooden hut.
Mawson’s Hut had simple living and dining areas.(Delivered by: David Killick)

Ms Acton said planning the trip did not begin until March, but she was only confirmed as an expedition traveler last week.

“Our permits came through to get into Tasmania last Thursday … we’ve been planning it most of this year, but we have not had any security until a few days ago,” she said.

“It’s six weeks on the ice, and one week to travel back and forth, so that will be eight weeks out of our daily lives.”

The trip means that the expeditions will spend Christmas and New Year away from their families – but plans have been made for their own Antarctic festivities.

Frost-covered items on a wooden shelf.
Several artifacts from Mawson’s time in Antarctica remain in the cabins.(Delivered by: David Killick)

Conservation works ‘integrated’ to preserve history

The team will benefit from Antarctica’s 24 hours of daylight, but will face unpredictable weather conditions.

“On previous trips we have encountered winds of over 100 kilometers per hour, snowstorms that went on for days and temperatures down to minus 20 [degrees], “said Expedition leader Marty Passingham.

File photo of Australian Sir Douglas Mawson surviving a shocking Antarctic expedition in 1918
Mawson’s work during his Antarctic expedition is still used by scientists today.(AAP: Australian Antarctic Division)

The cabins do not get many visitors, but Mr Carter said their place in Antarctic history makes them worthwhile.

“Mawson was really special because his expedition to Antarctica was the first real scientific trip to Antarctica,” he said.

“Many of the other guys at the time, Shackleton and Scott and Amundsen, were all trying to be the first to go to the South Pole, it was all about honor hunting.

“Mawson was a scientist, he was a geologist, and many of the weather records he took down there are still used in [climate] modeling today, so it’s really relevant what he did 110 years ago. “

The expedition will be documented on Mawson’s Huts Foundation Facebook page.

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