Books reviewed by Paul TalbotMawson and the Ice Men of the Heroic Age: Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen  by Peter FitzSimons 


and the Ice Men of the Heroic Age: Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen

by Peter FitzSimons

published by Random House Australia Pty Ltd

RRP $49.95 (737pp; 240mm x 160mm)


Peter FitzSimons was interviewed by Richard Glover in their record breaking, 24-hour stint on ABC radio. He writes like he speaks – colourfully, passionately and knowledgably. These are the qualities FitzSimons brings to Mawson. Indeed, they are qualities present in all his books.
Published in 2011, Mawson tells of Sir Douglas Mawson’s exploration of the Antarctic coastline below Australia and draws together his relationships with his contemporary Antarctic explorers, Sir Ernest Shackleton, Captain Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen.

Mawson would be epic enough if it told only of Mawson’s leadership of the Australian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) in 1912. But, it soars in scope as it recounts Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition in which Mawson himself participated, then Scott’s classical demise chasing Amundsen’s well planned and successfully executed race to the Pole.

Without the sponsorship of his mentor, Professor Edgeworth David, the young geologist, Douglas Mawson, might never have joined Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition. His interest in glaciers had been aroused during his research in the Flinders Ranges of his home state of South Australia. As it turned out, both the Professor and his former student made the trip helped no doubt by the Australian Government’s advance of funds to Shackleton’s expedition.

Shackleton made his own attempt to reach the furthest south that anyone had before him, even considering a last ditch dash to the Pole itself. He made the decision to turn back because of the lack of supplies to achieve the goal. Shackleton is widely respected for this and his successful saving of his crew of the later Endurance Expedition which foundered when the ship became stuck in the Weddell Sea ice.

Shackleton aided Mawson in fund-raising and planning for the AAE, which happened more or less simultaneously with the Scott and Amundsen expeditions. Fitzsimons’ telling of the race to the Pole is gripping for its tension and tale of hardships faced, particularly by Scott. With the benefit of hindsight it is not difficult to see why Scott perished so tragically and why Amundsen was so successful.

FitzSimons first describes Lawrence Oates demise, who, after drawing himself up with military bearing, says to his companions, “I am just going outside and I may be some time.”

Scott and the remainder of the team perish and are discovered by a search party, buried under their snow-bound tent.

Meanwhile, Mawson and his small team of Ninnis and Mertz are facing their own perils. With Ninnis lost in a crevasse and Mertz subsequently giving way to starvation and exhaustion, Mawson is left with a massive task of travelling by himself, against time and everything that the weather and Antarctica can throw at him. Again the author draws his readers into the struggle, urging Mawson on, even knowing the outcome.

There are still twists to keep Mawson and a small group from going home and little doubt remains at expedition’s end that Mawson has survived against mountainous odds. That he goes on to live a long, fruitful life in Australia runs against the fates of his fellow explorers – Scott already legend; Shackleton and Amundsen dying “with their boots on”.

Remarkably, Mawson had selected for the AAE a young Australian photographer, Frank Hurley, whose skill with his camera is well documented. Some of Hurley’s photographs are reproduced for this book and his photograph of Mawson, the one used on our previous $100 note, adorns the cover. Of course, Hurley’s celebrated photographic career reached new heights of extraordinary art with the later Shackleton expedition aboard Endurance.

Mawson is a “must-read”, during which your heart will reside in your throat.