A difficult parting

Arriving at Cape Denison on 13 January, JK Davis calculated that Aurora would have to depart by the end of the month to allow enough time to collect the Western Party, over 2000 km to the west, and safely depart the pack ice before the end of summer. That left a little over a fortnight to load men and cargo. But there was a problem: at the 15 January deadline for the return of the sledging parties, only three of the six parties were back at Cape Denison.

Within a day Cecil Madigan’s party had arrived from their eastern sea-ice journey, and two days later the group led by Frank Bickerton struggled in from an arduous trek to the west. There remained only the ‘Far Eastern’ party, comprising Douglas Mawson, Xavier Mertz and Belgrave Ninnis.

Mawson had instructed that should he fail to return, Davis should take charge. Davis did so, selecting Madigan, Bickerton, Alfred Hodgeman, Archie McLean and Robert Bage to stay behind for another winter if Mawson’s group was not back before Aurora needed to depart for the west. With them would be Sidney Jeffryes, wireless operator, who had been an unsuccessful candidate for the original AAE party.

The initial deadline of 30 January came and went, with still no sign of Mawson, Mertz and Ninnis. Then, when it was deemed past time to leave, bad weather prevented the returning Cape Denison party from boarding the ship. When the men finally managed to board late in the morning of 8 February, the ship was away within an hour.

Aurora was 160 kilometres north, under clear skies in a smooth sea, when an abrupt wireless message from Cape Denison sent the ship’s company into shock: ‘Mawson arrived. Mertz and Ninnis dead. Return at once and pick up all hands.’ The ship sailed through the night back to Cape Denison, but as usual the wind kept it offshore and prevented any contact with the five castaways and their ailing leader.

Mawson radioed to the ship that Davis should use his discretion whether he should leave, but Davis never received the message. In the wardroom, he told the land party that if the ship did not leave immediately there was a great risk they would be too late to collect the Western Party. The men agreed to abide by Davis’s decision, which was to leave now.

Though they did not speak up at the time, not everyone aboard agreed. One of them, CJ Hackworth, said the men would have ‘risked everything’ to try taking a boat ashore to get the party off: ‘It is a disgrace to the Expedition,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘to turn away like this and leave a man in such bad health in this awful hole.’