Early exploration

Bird's eye view of the 'Wyatt Earp' pushing a difficult and tortuous way through the frozen seas
The 'Wyatt Earp' pushing a difficult and tortuous way through the frozen seas
Group of expeditioners, including Mawson, who returned on the 'Discovery' in 1931Scott's party hauling supplies to the PoleCamping in Graham LandFilming 'Mawson the Survivor' near Aladdin's Cave

Australia has had a long-standing involvement in the Antarctic. By focusing on Antarctic 'heroes', students will gain a sense of history and an appreciation of the importance of Australia's role there. The activities explore the human thirst for adventure and exploration, and trace the history of humankind's involvement in the Antarctic.

Divide students into groups and have them discuss and present one of the following:

  • Look at the early explorers who made their way to Antarctica or to the South Pole. Why did some expeditions fail?
  • Look at the page from Scott's diary when he reaches the pole and realises that Amundsen has beaten him. Talk about what he may have been feeling at the time. Write what you think the next entry might be.
  • Study the experiences of Australian explorers Douglas Mawson, Captain John Davis, George Hubert Wilkins, John Rymill and Philip Law. What did each set out to achieve? What did they actually achieve? What problems did they encounter? How did they overcome them?
  • Create a timeline of Antarctic explorers. Mark their voyages and journeys on a large map of the continent.
  • Can you find any information about these explorers' wives and families, who were often left behind for three or four years at a time, not knowing when or indeed if, their husbands would return. How do you think they coped and felt? Read the interviews with Glenda, Natasha and Kerstin Spry in the expeditioner profiles to see how a wife and children are affected by such separation now.

    Douglas… You don't know what it is meaning to me not to be able to hear anything from you. My pen has not its usual fluency in writing to you. It seems like writing to a wall. I want to know the trend of your thoughts & whether - oh I suppose you do though. There is no reason why you shouldn't like me as much as before. But this everlasting silence is almost unbearable. I don't want to doubt you dear but I'm afraid of the fascination of the South. All the members say they would go again & here is Shackleton off again. Will a calm life ever satisfy you?

    - written by Paquita Delpratt to her fiancee Douglas Mawson on 21 September 1913, over two and a half years since she had farewelled him to Antarctica [From Flannery, N R (ed). This Everlasting Silence: The Love Letters of Paquita Delpratt and Douglas Mawson. Melbourne. Melbourne University Press, 2000.]

  • What do you think it means to be a hero? How is a hero different from a celebrity? Who is your hero? Why?


The Mawson's Huts Foundation's site contains information on Mawson's Huts and the 1911-1914 Australasian Antarctic Expedition.

See also Home of the blizzard - the Australasian Antarctic ExpeditionThe history of Australians in Antarctica and Centenary of the first wintering expedition.

The story of Douglas Mawson can be found on the ABC's website. See also the South Australian Museum's In the Footsteps of Sir Douglas Mawson

The Antarctic Philatelic Home Page contains comprehensive online biographies of the great Antarctic explorers.

There is a very good overview of the history of Antarctic exploration on Terraquest's Virtual Antarctica website and another on the Lonely Planet website.

The BBC's History and historic figures tells the story of Ernest Shackleton and his 1914 expedition.

The Burke Museum has a site dedicated to Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Quest for the Pole: Historic Antarctic Land Journeys created by PBS (US) gives a brief overview of some early Antarctic expeditions, including those of Scott, Shackleton and Mawson.

See for yourself the dramatic moments in Shackleton's journey, including the crushing by ice of the Endurance captured on film by expedition photographer Frank Hurley .

The story of Byrd, one of America's greatest Antarctic heroes.

The Scott Polar Research Institute has an 'Expeditions' web page and provides summaries of some important but little known British Antarctic expeditions.

Shipwrecks, Sealers and Scientists on Macquarie Island is an exciting interactive website that contains 43 stories in The Shipwreck Watch, The Sealers' Shanty and The Science Observer journals. Teachers can find ideas for classroom activities and students can test their skills and knowledge with the interactive challenges.

For very good online lessons explaining what a good biography should be and how to write one see The Biography Maker.

Discussions about heroes in literature and mythology will benefit from visiting The Hero's Journey where students can create a story using the mythical hero structure.

There are many interesting websites that provide short summaries of some of the early expeditioners to Antarctica. It is well worth it to look around and see what you can find.

This page was last modified on January 23, 2014.