Sailing from Hobart on 2 December 1911, Aurora took six days to reach its first port of call – Macquarie Island, halfway between Tasmania and Antarctica. There was a further two weeks of steady unloading of stores and coal, and deployment of the five-man island party. Then the ship was prepared for what most saw as the real adventure – penetrating the pack ice and treading land that, as Davis later wrote, ‘had never known the imprint of a human foot’.
The voyage was not without its incidents. Even before it left Macquarie Island, Aurora was almost wrecked while collecting fresh water at Caroline Cove when an unexpected wind shift took it against rocks. An uneventful four-day transit to the pack ice was followed by fog, and then a frustrating search for open water to the south as the ship moved westward.
Gaps appeared and closed, but the ship moved gradually southward. In early January 1912 hopes were raised with the sight of an enormous wall of ice over 100km long, later found to be part of the Mertz Glacier tongue. Aurora steamed along the tongue’s western face, coming across small, rocky islets. Then on 8January, with Mawson starting to get anxious about a possible landing place, Davis pointed out a promising rocky cape amid the ice cliffs of a large bay, and a boat was lowered.
‘Advancing towards the mainland,’ Mawson later wrote, ‘we observed a small islet amongst the rocks, and towards it the boat was directed. We were soon inside a beautiful, miniature harbour completely land-locked. The sun shone gloriously in a blue sky as we stepped ashore on a charming ice-quay – the first to set foot on the Antarctic continent between Cape Adare and Gaussberg, a distance of one thousand eight hundred miles.’
With Aurora anchored a mile off the coast, building materials and supplies were ferried ashore to enable the erection of the main expedition base – a frantic race against the elements to provide Mawson and his 17 men with shelter before the ship had to leave.