Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Douglas Mawson documentary on C4

Last night, those doing Antarctica may have been interested in a programme which recreated a journey made by the noted Polar explorer Douglas Mawson in 1912.
Here's a mixed review of the programme from the Telegraph which gives a flavour for the programme, which is repeated on the 3rd of November at 8.35 on Channel 4 Plus 1

Mawson was a Yorkshire-born Australian, who, in the same year that Scott and Amundsen raced each other to the South Pole, led a geological expedition in Antarctica. Having established base camp on the windiest place on Earth, he then took two colleagues on the toughest of the field trips: a 900-mile journey in search of minerals. All went well until one of the party, Belgrave Ninnis, fell into a crevasse and was never seen again. Neither was his sledge, which had been carrying most of the food.

From then on, all thoughts of mineral-discovery were abandoned – and during the long slog back to base, his other companion Xavier Mertz died too, probably from the toxins in the livers of the huskies the two men were forced to eat. Carrying on alone with little food, no dogs and the soles of his feet falling off, Mawson eventually made it home. In Europe, his achievement was overshadowed by the tragedy of Captain Scott. In Australia, he became a national hero.

As far as I could see, all of this was perfectly clear last night – not least because the programme drew heavily on Mawson’s own account. So, why did When Hell Freezes claim that it was “shrouded in mystery”? The answer, naturally, was that some grizzled adventurer of our own time had decided to don some 1912 polar clothes and have a go too. “For one man,” said the narrator supportively, “the terrible fate of Mawson’s party has become an obsession.”

The man in question was Tim Jarvis, who was soon faced with another of the problems with programmes like this: they don’t actually follow the footsteps that closely. Not only did Jarvis take a different route from Mawson, but in these enlightened times, he neither used nor ate dogs. Fairly crucially as well, he had no chance of dying, what with a film crew in attendance and regular check-ups from the team doctor. Of course, I’m not suggesting that Jarvis should have risked his life for our edification – just that his knowing he’d survive meant the whole experience couldn’t possibly be the same as Mawson’s.

No wonder then that, instead of illuminating Mawson’s story, Jarvis’s merely ran in uneasy parallel with it. His toughness was admittedly impressive in itself – but in the context of the documentary it simply got in the way. By the end, Jarvis had certainly proved that dragging a sledge across hundreds of miles of ice on starvation rations is very hard. Needless to say, though, we could probably have worked this out for ourselves.

1 comment:

xavier-ninnis said...

Haven't had the chance to see the thing (in fact I stumbled upon this site when trying to find somewhere I could download or purchase a copy of it)., but I did want to let you know what the mystery has always been surrounding Mawson's return journey.

Though almost always discussed off the record and in a whisper, the question among those of us who are obsessed with the events and characters of Antarctic exploration's "heroic age" is simply this: in order to have survived was it necessary for Mawson to have resorted to cannibalism?

Of course, having, as I've already mentioned above, not having seen the program I haven't any idea whether or not this subject was broached; but even if it was, as you've said, there's no way what Jarvis went through (starting with the fact that he wasn't suffering from Hepatic hyper-vitaminosis A or "Vitamin A poisoning") came close to approximating Mawson's hellish experience.