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In this chapter:

  • Roald Amundsen and his team were the first people to reach the geographic South Pole
  • Robert Scott and his men also reached the South Pole, a month after Amundsen. Scott and his team died on their return journey.
  • Ernest Shackleton went to great lengths to save his men after their boats capsized on the Endurance expedition
  • Douglas Mawson is Australia's most famous Antarctic explorer


While earlier expeditions to the south polar region focused on conquering the area around Antarctica, explorers in the 20th century looked to conquering the continent itself.

Sir Ernest Shackleton

Ernest Shackleton was a famous British Antarctic explorer (see image 1). In 1908, Shackleton led his first expedition to Antarctica on the 'Nimrod' and established a base camp at Cape Royds. By November 1908, Shackleton and his team had discovered and climbed the Beadmore Glacier. Shackleton and his men reached further south than anyone else before them. Although they were only 180 kilometres from the South Pole, they were forced back by starvation and terrible weather. Nonetheless, Shackleton and his team had walked 2736 kilometres across the coldest place on Earth. Shackleton was made famous for his efforts and was knighted by King Edward VII of England.

The Endurance Expedition

In 1914, Shackleton began the Endurance expedition, which he said would be 'the greatest Polar journey ever attempted' (see image 2). Shackleton had to abandon his plans when the ship that he and his crew were travelling on became trapped in the icy waters of the Weddell Sea. The sea ice was so powerful that it crushed the ship to pieces. The exploration quest was abandoned and the main challenge became survival.
Shackleton and his crew of 27 abandoned the wrecked ship and used three small lifeboats to sail to Elephant Island. Shackleton left most of the team on Elephant Island and then sailed towards South Georgia Island with five other men in search of help. Their journey took them across the wild Southern Ocean and covered a distance over 1200 kilometres. Shackleton arrived on the island - but on the wrong side. The whaling station that Shackleton had been aiming for was on the other side of the island. The team were already exhausted from the ocean voyage and still had to cross a mountain range to reach help.
The team did reach the whaling station and were able to send help to the men left on the other side of South Georgia and also to the 22 survivors they had left behind on Elephant Island. The men left on Elephant Island had been stranded there for 105 days. Amazingly, not one person died during this expedition.
The story of Ernest Shackleton is sometimes said to be part of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration.

Roald Amundsen

On 14 January 1911, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen set up camp on the Ross Ice Shelf and began his attempt to become the first person to reach the South Pole (see image 3). Amundsen and his team used dogs and sleds to cross the ice shelf. His ship, called 'The Fram', was an unusual ship, designed for polar travel. The ship was round-bottomed and built to avoid the perils of being stuck in pack ice.

Amundsen left Christiana, in Norway, in August 1910. He set off with provisions for two years and nearly 100 Greenland sled dogs. The dogs were to be the key to his team's success in reaching the South Pole ahead of his rival, Scott and his party.

Because Amundsen's dogs had been bred for survival in the Arctic, they were superbly equipped for Antarctica. He referred to them as 'our children', and said that 'The dogs are the most important thing for us. The whole outcome of the expedition depends on them.'

On 18 October 1911, Amundsen's team set out from the Bay of Whales, on Antarctica's Ross Ice Shelf, for their final attempt to reach the pole. His British rival, Robert Scott, who had chosen to use Siberian ponies rather than dogs, began his trip three weeks later.
Aided by exceptionally cooperative weather conditions, Amundsen's party passed the point where Shackleton was forced to turn back. At approximately 3pm on 14 December 1911, Roald Amundsen raised the flag of Norway at the South Pole, naming the spot Polheim, meaning 'Pole Home'. He and his crew returned to their base camp on 25 January 1912, 99 days after their departure.

Robert Scott

The English navy captain Robert Scott (see image 4) first explored the south polar region in 1902 aboard the 'Discovery'. In 1911, Scott received word that Roald Amundsen had begun his attempt to be the first person to reach the geographic South Pole. Scott wanted his team to be first, so he quickly began the Terra Nova expedition to try to reach the South Pole first.

Terra Nova turned out to be a disaster. When Scott and his team reached the pole, they found a Norwegian flag and a letter from Roald Amundsen, who had reached the pole a month earlier. The adventure had a tragic end, as Scott and two of his team-mates died on the return journey.

One of Scott's companions, Captain Lawrence Oates, became convinced he was a burden to the team because of  his poor physical condition. Oates sacrificed himself by walking off into the snow. He was never found. Oates went down in history for his famous last words, which Scott wrote down: 'I am just going outside and may be some time.' Oates is remembered as an English hero for his sacrifice.

Douglas Mawson

Douglas Mawson is Australia's most famous Antarctic explorer. In 1911, at the age of 30, Mawson led the first Australian expedition to Antarctica. Mawson's goal was to map and explore the coastal area of Antarctica that was nearest to Australia. Mawson and his team sailed on the 'Aurora' to Antarctica, through thick pack ice.

The team set up a base hut, which they called 'Home of the Blizzard', after the 300 kilometre per hour winds that blew there.

In spring of 1912, Mawson and another two explorers, Mertz and Ninnis (see image 5), began to map the coastline and to collect geological samples from the area. During their trip, Ninnis disappeared down a deep crevasse and Mertz became sick and died. Mawson was also very ill but he managed to survive the 160 kilometre journey back to the base camp. Mawson's journey is described as one of the greatest stories of individual survival in Antarctica.

See image 6

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1. Who is Australia's most famous Antarctic explorer?

Robert Scott

Ernest Shackleton

Douglas Mawson

Roald Admundsen