2007/2008 Expedition

Extract from the Mawson’s Huts Conservation Expedition 2007-08 Expedition Reports, compiled and edited by Peter McCabe.

One week prior to our departure the Mawson’s Huts expedition team met as a group for the first time. Some of us were strangers and some had crossed Antarctic paths before. I had already been in Hobart for five weeks working from the Antarctic Division preparing materials for the extension to Sorensen Hut. Two weeks before departure, Jon and Steve had also arrived to continue preparations. In this final week we packed up our food, field equipment and work materials ready for departure. At 2200 on December the 5th, the team were onboard L’Astrolabe watching the lights of Hobart disappear on the horizon as we set sail for Cape Denison.

Our passage was fairly ice free; there was some congestion of ice around Dumont D’Urville (DDU) so the French captain decided to deploy us before heading to DDU, which gave us a few bonus days right from the start.

The helicopter cargo operations ran very smoothly, Anne and Michelle remained on L’Astrolabe checking off our cargo inventory before catching the last flight to our camp.

After setting up camp our first priority was to gain access to Mawson’s Hut. The top third of the entry door was exposed, and after a decent day digging a pedestrian friendly passage was carved down to the front door which served us well for the Mawson’s Huts Conservation Expedition 2007-08: Expedition Reports duration of our stay. This enabled the immediate start to Michelle and Anne’s work inside the hut, and also enabled everyone to begin their respective work programs.

Data was downloaded from the tiny tag system and whole monitoring system was recalibrated. Snow ingress was assessed and full details on the interior work inside Mawson’s Hut are available in the material conservator and archaeologist reports. We were most interested to inspect the effectiveness of the new roof cladding on the main hut, which seemed to provide an excellent barrier over last winter with only some small snow deposits recorded in the hut. Anne also spent many days conducting a survey of the cape in segments to document any artefact scatter in the region. The magnetograph hut and absolute magnetic huts were both only just visible when we arrived.

This year’s major project was to double the size of the Sorensen Hut, accommodating a new laboratory and a six bunk bedroom. A vast quantity of material was required to complete the project, far more than L’Astrolabe could accommodate. Subsequently this first cargo drop only delivered materials for the sub floor section. A second wave of cargo had been organised through Don McIntyre and Orion Expeditions. All of the freezer panels for the new hut were pre-packaged in Hobart and sailed down on board the Orion. Blessed with stunning weather on the day of their arrival the panels were ferried across from the ship to be unloaded on the sea ice in Boat Harbour. The Spirit of Denison sled and quad bikes were then used to tow the gear across to Sorensen. The hut was successfully completed to lock up stage and completely tied down for the coming winter. With only five weeks in total on the ice there was some concern that we would run short of time, but the combination of long days and phenomenal weather saw us moving into the new rooms and out of the tents a week before our final departure.

This was the first time a qualified electrician had been part of the team. Steve’s program was to develop a new wiring system that would replace the extension leads and lead lights that have been used in the past. Both the old and new structures at Sorensen Hut now have professionally fitted power points and fluorescent tube lights. The power system combines the use of solar, wind and petrol generators, with the ability to alternate between each energy resource. On a clear day computers can be charged and lights can be run well into the night on the 12volt solar. A new Dunlite 5.8kva generator was purchased by the Foundation and used this year with the intention of needing a large power output for some of the laboratory equipment in the future. Although providing ample power for our tools and equipment it did consume far more fuel than the smaller 2.5kva Honda already on site. The Dunlite will prove its worth once the oven and fume hood equipment is used in the lab, but for conservation of fuel it is recommended to use the smaller generator for general use.

There were two photographic programs in progress this season. Peter Morse used a combination of camera equipment to record images inside the hut and also of the surrounding Cape Denison. The two main image forms he was processing was stereoscopic and 360 degree. Both can be used for virtual reality projection and the 360 degree images from inside Mawson’s Hut provide amazing detail, and will be an excellent tool for conservation decisions to be made without actually being in the Antarctic. It also delivers a lounge chair tour of the hut and surrounds for those with an interest in the area that are unable to visit the site.

The other photographic work was undertaken by artist Brett Jarrett, who collected thousands of images of the local wildlife to gather subject matter for an exhibition of paintings in the coming years. In his travels he found a rare Leucistic Adelie penguin, this pale little creature was born with very low melanin levels which gave it a cream completion where it should have been black. Brett was also the official photographer, documenting work progress and gathering images for sponsors. He also gave Granholm hut a camouflaged paint job to help it blend into the environment.

The team also installed a tide gauge in collaboration with a French/Australian tide gauge program to calculate the sea level in boat harbour. This is the first time that the sea level has been properly recorded since Mawson’s team in 1912. See further information in Jon Tucker’s report.

We were visited on three occasions by tourist ships. First was the Spirit of Enderby on December 17th. On board was Emlyn Thomas, one of Sir Douglas Mawson’s grandsons, who brought along memorabilia including one of Mawson’s balaclavas bearing the Jaeger brand that also appeared on our badged sleaves. The Orion visited us on December 20th delivering our freezer panels as their guests enjoyed some supreme Cape Denison weather. Orion visited once again on January 7th, and again on January 23rd. The latter visit was after we left with conditions not so favourable. But Don McIntyre managed to get ashore and reboot the tiny tag system which had mysteriously stopped transmitting the day after we left.

Relations with the tourist groups are very firm, and the Orion team especially were wonderful in helping us out with some logistical issues. The team was openly invited to board both vessels for warm showers and restaurant dining in return for all our hard digging in gaining access to the hut. Anne and Michelle worked with the tourists and guide attending the tours through the hut.

This was also the first year for an official expedition blog site. Peter Morse set up the site which proved highly successful. Daily sitreps, personal accounts and small picture files were all able to be posted to the blog site. A link was placed on the Foundation’s website and became a wonderful way for family, friends and general public to keep up to date with our activities. It will become a perpetual site with each trip now and it’s sure to gain more exposure, providing an added attraction for the team sponsors.

Additional works this season included:

  • The construction of a platform under Sorensen hut for gas bottle storage
  • Servicing of the quads including replacing two wheels and one trailer tyre
  • Installation of a permanent aerial for the Iridium phone on Sorensen Hut
  • Servicing to the automatic weather station
  • Comprehensive inventories of equipment in Sorensen and Granholm Huts
  • Successfully returned all cage pallets back to Australia on our return

Further recommendations are categorised in the field leaders report, but as a general overview this report recommends:

  • The completion of the lab interior and installation of equipment for
    conservation artefacts from the hut
  • Additional upgrades to Sorensen Hut and apple
  • A user guide for living at Sorensen Hut be developed for briefing teams in the future
  • Expeditions continue to be conducted in the months of December and January
  • Helicopter operations using cage pallets should be favoured over internal loading to provide optimum efficiency

The team flew out of Cape Denison and back to L’Astrolabe around midnight on the 15th of January. Once again operations were smooth and a strong bond has been made between the Mawson’s Huts Foundation and the French, which should serve us well for logistical negotiations in the future. On the homeward journey we visited Dumont D’Urville and were shown warm hospitality, and spent one evening presenting them a slide show of our activities around at Cape Denison. In conclusion it is worth reiterating how well the team worked together; the time frame was tight for this year’s expedition.