The ups and downs of Cape Denison life

‘It is nine o’clock on a typical evening in midwinter,’ wrote a reminiscing Laseron, looking back on his year at Cape Denison.

Outside the hut there is the unending shriek of the blizzard, and inside the air pulsates as the rook bends inwards beneath the pressure of the fiercest gusts. Ears are so attuned, however, that it passes unheeded. The day’s tasks are ended, and all amuse themselves in various ways. At one end of the table Bickerton, Hannam, Hunter and myself are engaged in a game of bridge, while Madigan, Murphy and the Doctor look idly on. Further down the table Mertz, with his favourite old pipe, its stem mended with adhesive tape, offers his advice. Stilwell is reading a book and Close is writing something in his diary. Lying on his bunk, Whetter has his nose in a medical treatise, and on the other side of the hut Hurley, with facetious remarks, is cutting Correll’s hair, and doing a job that would cause any self-respecting barber to have a fit.

Anniversaries were much sought-after. Birthdays were always a time to celebrate with lavish dinners, gifts and menus wrought by Hodgeman’s expert hand and printed by Hurley (who always enjoyed a bit of fun) in the darkroom. When there were gaps between birthdays the men looked for other anniversaries: ‘Once,’ wrote Laseron, ‘for want of better, we kept up the anniversary of the lighting of London by gas.’

On 21 June, Midwinter’s Day, the expedition celebrated five months since Aurora had sailed from Cape Denison. Hannam prepared a sumptuous meal. Besides listing the multiple courses, the elaborate menu advised diners that ‘During dinner the blizzard will render the usual accompaniments — The Tempest, For Ever and Ever etc.’ Mawson noted that

For once, the weather rose to the occasion and calmed during the few hours of the twilight-day. It was a jovial occasion, and we celebrated it with the uproarious delight of a community of 18 young men unfettered by small conventions. The sun was returning, and we were glad of it … It was the turn of the tide, and the future seemed to be sketched in firm, sure outline. While the rest explored all the ice-caves and the whole extent of our small rocky ‘selection,’ Hannam and Bickerton shouldered the domestic responsibilities. Their menu du diner to us was a marvel of gorgeous delicacies. After the toasts and speeches came a musical and dramatic program, punctuated by choice gramophone records and rowdy student choruses.

See the Midwinter dinner Menu, 21 June 1912 [PDF]. Photo: Liz Hayward. © Mawson Collection South Australian Museum

‘It is a queer mixture of “every man to himself” and “share and share alike” here,’ wrote Bickerton:

… each man must keep himself to himself, but anyone who does not realise his duty to others is an impediment, a curse and might easily become a danger.

Mawson’s natural reserve led some of the men to see him as aloof — he was given the Latin moniker ‘dux ipse” (the leader himself) by his men — often abbreviated to ‘DI’ when they talked among themselves.

Mawson’s main interpersonal difficulty through 1912 was with assistant medical officer Whetter. After simmering all winter, a row erupted on 3 October, when Mawson noted that Whetter’s attitude seemed to have changed from a willing helper to an irresponsible layabout — ‘This is a criminal matter,’ was his startling note to himself in a moment of frustration. Mawson’s problem with Whetter did not seem to have been a major source of discontent; others did not note difficulties with Whetter, who was regarded favourably by his later sledging companions.