The opening decades of the 20th century witnessed a surge in Antarctic exploration, as well as in nationalist fervour. There was a race for the South Pole.
Scott’s first expedition
British Royal Navy officer Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery expedition, named after the expedition’s main ship, visited the South Island ports of Lyttelton (near Christchurch) and Port Chalmers (near Dunedin) on its way to Ross Island in 1901. The expedition returned to Lyttelton in 1904 after leaving Antarctica. During their time on the continent, a sledging party led by Scott reached 82° south, while another party travelled west as far as meridian 159° east. ‘New Zealand,’ wrote Scott, ‘welcomed us as its own, and showered on us a wealth of hospitality and kindness.’1
Lieutenant Ernest Shackleton, a member of Scott’s 1901–4 Discovery expedition, led the next British attempt to reach the pole. The New Zealand government contributed £1,000 ($155,000 in 2011 terms) towards the costs of Shackleton’s 1907–9 British Antarctic Expedition. Shackleton’s ship, the Nimrod, arrived in Lyttelton in November 1907 and departed for Ross Island on New Year’s Day 1908. Shackleton and three companions reached the 88th parallel – a mere 97 nautical miles from the South Pole – before deciding to turn around on 4 January 1909 and head back to their base at Cape Royds. Another group from Shackleton’s expedition – including Douglas Mawson, who later played a crucial role in Australia’s exploration of Antarctica – were the first people to reach the south magnetic pole (then situated at 72° south and 155° east).
When Shackleton’s expedition returned to New Zealand in March 1909, he was struck by the friendliness of New Zealanders, describing ‘a welcome from that sunny land that had always treated us with such open-hearted kindliness.’2
Reaching the South Pole
On 14 December 1911 a five-man party led by Norwegian Roald Amundsen was the first to reach the South Pole. Amundsen, an experienced explorer of both the Arctic and Antarctic, had set up a base in the Bay of Whales, wintering over there and setting up supply stations along a direct route to the pole. The explorers waited for spring before setting out. Using dogs to pull their sledges, they made the journey there and back with no loss of human life (although most of the original group of 52 dogs died or were killed, and used to feed the rest).
Scott’s second expedition
Scott’s second Antarctic expedition arrived in Lyttelton aboard the Terra Nova on 28 October 1910, stayed for four weeks, and then briefly called in at Port Chalmers before leaving New Zealand on 29 November. In Antarctica, Scott’s base was again on Ross Island – this time at Cape Evans – and he and four companions set off for the South Pole on 2 November 1911. When they reached the South Pole on 17 January 1912, they learned to their utter dismay that Amundsen’s party had arrived there almost five weeks earlier. Scott wrote in his diary, ‘Great God! this is an awful place …’3 Scott and the other members of his polar party perished on their return journey. The last words in Scott’s diary – ‘For God’s sake look after our people’4 – were written on 29 March 1912.
Two members of the Terra Nova’s crew came ashore in the South Island town of Ōamaru on 10 February 1913 and telegraphed the news of Scott’s death to the world. New Zealanders, who had identified strongly with the expedition, were deeply shocked.
Mawson and Shackleton
New Zealanders also took part in two other notable Antarctic expeditions. Douglas Mawson’s 1911–14 Australasian Antarctic Expedition included four New Zealanders: two scientists, a doctor, and a wireless operator. Ernest Shackleton’s 1914–17 Trans-Antarctic Expedition – an Antarctic foray characterised by both disaster and successful survival – included Frank Worsley, the Akaroa-born captain of Shackleton’s ship the Endurance, as well as Harry McNeish and Thomas Orde-Lees, both of whom settled in New Zealand after the expedition.