In the Footsteps of my Ancestor

Mawson's Hut's, Commonwealth Bay - Antarctica

My Great Great Uncle fell down a crevasse and died.  He took with him the expedition tent, most of the food and the fittest dogs.  He was just 25 years old, and his name was Belgrave Ninnis.

When I was little girl my grandmother used to tell my sister and me some interesting and often highly inventive stories of her forebears, one in particular captured my imagination, that of Belgrave Ninnis.

Belgrave Edward Sutton Ninnis was born in 1887 in Streatham, His father had been Ships Surgeon on Sir George Nare’s voyage to find the North West Passage and so polar exploration was already in the younger Belgrave’s blood.

Educated at Dulwich College, (incidentally the same school as the great Earnest Shackleton), followed by two years at Sandhurst, he finally ended up in South Africa.  It was here in 1909 that he heard Scott was to make another attempt on the Pole.  He wrote asking to join but received this tepid response “Cpt Scott wishes to thank you very much for your letter of the 3rd August last which will receive consideration in due course” Unhappy with this and determined to get to Antarctica Belgrave decided to take leave and go and pitch for a place in person.  Not so easy in those days, no handy 12 hour flights, this was a 6 week boat journey, and not only that he had to cover the fare for his replacement to go to South Africa. Finally in London he got about 15 minutes with Scott, and that night rather disappointedly he wrote in his diary “had I been in England, it would have been quite likely that I should have got the job which was afterwards given to Oates.”

But Scott was so impressed by the tenacity of the young fusilier that he recommended him to his old friend and expedition chum Douglas Mawson.  Mawson, a geologist, had himself already turned down a place on Scotts impending trip in favour of his own scientific expedition.  He wanted to explore these lands directly south of Australia, namely Adelie Land, and taken by Belgrave’s energy and enthusiasm he signed him up straight away as a surveyor and dog handler.

Left: Belgrave Edward Sutton Ninnis

In the summer of 2000my grandmother sadly died.  It washer dream that one of her family would follow in these icy footsteps.  She left me some money and I decided the sensible thing would be to pay off my mortgage, so I immediately started looking for an expedition to Antarctica! As luck would have it I stumbled across a ship going to Mawson’s Hut’s that December. This was an expedition of scientists and carpenters organized by the Australian Antarctic Division, who had already begun restoring these historic huts.  And so over oneSunday lunch in august I announced to my family I would be spending Christmas in Antarctica!

I arrived in Hobart,Tasmania at the start of December clutching a copy of Belgrave’s personal expedition diary, camera bag and a huge box full of film.  The following morning I was introducedto the ship, the Sir Hubert Wilkins, here on the left, next to Belgrave’s shipthe Aurora.  This small ice-strengthened boat was to take 13 scientists, 18 crew and me across the often unpredictable and tempestuous Southern Ocean to Commonwealth bay,Antarctica. That day arrived on December 16th, 89 years and 16 days after Belgrave’s ship the Aurora had set sail from the very same Queens Wharf. 

Commonwealth bay - Antarctica

After much bouncing around, pitching and rolling, we arrived at Commonwealth Bay on a beautiful and calm Christmas Eve. I could hardly contain my excitement.  It looked just as majestic as I had imagined.  Little did Mawson and his crew know they had actually landed at the windiest spot on earth, andCommonwealth bay was later to be named “the Home of the Blizzard”

When I had originally joined this expedition it was agreed that I would be documenting the restoration of the huts, and the pictures would be exhibited here at the RGS when I got back.  However when I arrived in Hobart I was told that they hadn’t got me a permit for overnighting on the continent, absolutely no reason was given and it was too late for me to get one.  Having spent my inheritance on this life changing expedition I had no choice but to make the best of every opportunity. 

Dusk, Commonwealth Bay - Antarctica

True to formCommonwealth Bay was experiencing terrible weather, and I spent my time watching the expeditioners unload and restoration start, from the ship.  It was so frustrating, I was so close,but was unable to do anything but wait for the weather to abate. Hunkering downwith Belgrave’s diary I saw how he evolved from the young arrogant and steelydetermined boy who had walked into Scotts office into a charismatic andconfident young man. The youngest member of the team his companionsaffectionately called Cherub.  Hewas also officially the worst cook. And wrote rather beautifully about the Greenland dogs which he wasextremely fond of.  

One of the occasions that he and I shared on our polar trips was our birthdays.  He had a rather posh menu I think you will agree; I took a more liquid approach.

Finally the wind subsided, and my hangover and I were able to set foot, at last, on this great continent.  I will never forgetthat moment.  I headed first forthe hut that I had been observing from the relative comfort of the ship.  Made of Baltic pine it has remained insitu for all the years because it simply fills with snow every winter, makingit a solid immovable mass.  Therestoration team had to spend days carefully clearing snow before they couldstart work, and by the time I got my chance on the ice they had already clearedan enormous amount and I was able to at last to set foot where my great greatuncle had. Here is a glance into Mawson’s room, being the leader of theexpedition had its perks of a little more privacy.  These plays and books, and other household objects, gave mea glimpse into the lives of the 18 men who lived here for two years and wherehistory has literally been frozen in time.

On this expedition the carpenter Ted Bugg had made a wonderful discovery.  Whilst erecting the hut, Belgrave must have sat by theskylight and tapped out his name with a nail, as you can see here, B E S NINNISJAN 24TH 1912. This had been hidden away until now and so on thelast day of an absolutely incredibly year I was able to sit proudly by thishistoric graffiti and look out onto the Mackellar Islands, just as Belgrave haddone 90 years before.

Adelie Penguins, Commonwealth Bay - Antarctica

The first few days of a new year and I stole another few precious hours on the ice.  The Adelie penguins were getting ready to hatch and I was enjoying a moment of freedom to photograph.  Short lived as I was ordered back ontothe ship as bad weather was approaching. Choosing to ignore the Expedition leader I carried on and within minutes was suddenly blown off my feet, by a ferocious katabatic wind that had come thundering off the plateau.  Lying on my back clutching onto two ice axes and my equipment I watched as the Adelie’s trotted passed as if it were a mere breeze.  Between gusts I managed to make my way, almost on my hands and knees, to Gadget hut.  This had been erected by two Australian explorers who also happened to be my expedition leaders.  They had spent a year in this hut in 1995.  As the weatherwas too bad to get me back on board ship I had to spend the night on theice.  The trouble this got me into was worth it. I finally experienced the home of the Blizzard.

All too soon my time at Commonwealth bay had come to an end, I walked up to observation hill whereBelgrave’s companions had erected a cross in memory of him and his friendXavier Mertz.  Here is the last entry Belgrave made before he set off on his final sledging journey.

“We and theSouthern Party leave tomorrow.  I must close my writing now, maybe for two months, maybe for good and all, for who knows what may happen during the next two months.”

So what did happen on that fateful day?  It was December22nd 1912, Mawson, Belgrave and Mertz had just turned back having reached their 300m halfway point. Mertz, who was out in front signaled to the others that there was danger under foot, Mawson swung his sled diagonally across the top, but Belgrave had not heard and continued to run along side his sled as he often did.  The weight of his stride would have broken through the ice bridge and it wasn’t long before Mawson and Mertz turned around to see him gone.  They ran back to where his tracks had ended only to pear down into a seemingly bottomless crack in the ice. According to Mawson’s diaries he believed Belgravewould have died instantly for the only thing they could hear was the pitifulcry of a dog half dead deep in the heart of the crevasse.  Mawson and Mertz waited for hourshoping, but eventually even the whimpering stopped, they read the last ritesand continued on their journey, with only a ground sheet, little food and weakdogs.  Mertz died a couple of weekslater from vitamin A poisoning leaving Douglas Mawson to struggle the 100 miles back to base camp alone.  As he came up over the plateau he saw his ship the Aurora had already left with out him.  6 brave men had stayed behind incase they returned, Mawson was so badly ravaged by the weather that they were unable to recognize which of the 3 he was.  This incredible story of his epic tale of survival has beeneclipsed by the heroic stories of Scott and Shackleton, but his journey mustrank alongside as one of the greatest ever stories of polar survival.

For me, my journey had just begun, and I was proud to have walked in at least a few of the steps of my heroic and courageous great great uncle Belgrave.

Me and the memorial cross errected in honour of Belgrave Ninnis and Xavier Mertz, Commonwealth Bay - Antarctica

More images from this expedition can be forund in the RGS picture library

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