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 Opinion Pieces
The Australian hero whose feats deserve more recognition

Published: Tuesday, 26 December 2017
Author: The Hon Josh Frydenberg MP
Publication: The Daily Telegraph

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Ask an Australian kid to name a national hero and a sporting star, actor or musician is more likely to roll off the tongue.

But there is one man whose name should be near the top of any such list and whose feats warrant far more recognition by the young.

His name, Sir Douglas Mawson. Scientist, geologist, engineer and Antarctic explorer.

It is because of Mawson that Australia today asserts sovereignty over 42 per cent of Antarctic territory and it’s because of him that Australia has built a proud century long tradition of Antarctic science and exploration, renown the world over.

So to honour this legacy and to help spread the word about Mawson’s heroics, the Turnbull Government is funding Mawson’s Hut Foundation’s mobile classroom.

It will include displays and exhibits about the five huts Mawson and his team built during the Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911-14 and travel to different schools around the country.

Added to the National Heritage List in 2005, four of the five original huts still survive to this day and tell an amazing story of heroism, adventure, survival and scientific discovery.

In the huts empty tins, clothes, a stove, bunks and books lay undisturbed more than 100 years on.

Born in England in 1882, Mawson came to Australia aged two.

Educated at Sydney’s Fort Street Public School and the University of Sydney he went on to lecture in mineralogy in Adelaide.
It was there he met in 1907 another famed explorer Ernest Shackleton with whom he joined the British Antarctic Expedition and got his first taste of the perilous yet exciting nature of a polar expedition.

After coming home to a hero’s welcome, Mawson aged 28 got engaged to his fiancée Paquita, the daughter of a BHP executive, and began planning what would be a three year Australian expedition which changed the course of Antarctic history.

This expedition would be one of fifteen that would take place to the icy continent in the years 1897-1917 a period simply known as the 'Heroic Era'. Denoting a time when dozens of brave souls took on the harshest environment imaginable in a bold journey of discovery which tragically for some ended in death.

Mawson’s expedition left Hobart docks on 2 December 1911 on board the Aurora with 31 men, the vast majority of whom were Australians with a small number of New Zealanders and British and one Swiss.

Tonnes of supplies from medical and communications equipment to tobacco and cocoa were loaded along with sledges and a trusted team of working sledge dogs from Greenland.

After battling storms they stopped midway at Macquarie Island to erect a wireless relay station which would subsequently enable them to send morse code messages from their Cape Denison base in Antarctica back to Australia.

While the conditions on Macquarie Island were far from serene it was in Antarctica that the limits of human endurance were really tested. Facing temperatures of minus 40 degrees and worse, Mawson built his huts at Cape Denison which he named ‘home of the blizzard’ for it is the windiest place at sea level on earth. 

Mawson would later write in his book of the same name about what he encountered “a hurricane of wind roaring for weeks together, pausing for breadth only at odd hours. Anyone who had been out in it would gladly exchange for hell and chance his luck.”

If anyone could speak with authority about the harsh conditions it was Mawson. For it was in 1912 that he and two colleagues Belgrave Ninnis a Lieutenant in the Royal Fusiliers and Xavier Mertz a Swiss ski champion headed out with 16 dogs and sledges to map the coastline east of Cape Denison.

Tragedy struck when Ninnis fell down a crevasse to his death and Mertz days later, weary and overwhelmed succumbed to sickness and died in his sleeping bag.

Mawson was left alone, with no human or animal companions as the remaining dogs were used as food simply to stay alive.

Suffering frostbite and starvation and with boils on his face and his hair falling out, Mawson staggered on alone for 32 days before reaching the hut.

It would take him months to recover before the Aurora returned him to Australia in 1914. The legend was born.

Mawson’s feat of survival and his success in mapping thousands of kilometres of previously unknown coastline and country became an important part of our young nation’s story.

Mawson’s heroics remain as inspiring today as they did then and every Australian school student should be given an opportunity to learn about his achievements.

Who knows the Mawson Foundation’s new mobile classroom may very well just find and inspire Australia’s next great explorer and scientist.
Josh Frydenberg is Australia’s Minister for the Environment and Energy. He recently returned from Antarctica, where he accompanied 12 Australian school students and their teachers.

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