ACT News


Antarctic diaries reveal drama of Mawson trek

Marjorie Collins remembers her uncle - the pioneering Antarctic geologist Frank Stillwell - as an unassuming gentleman.

Stillwell was only 23 when he was invited to join Sir Douglas Mawson's 1911 Antarctic expedition, his diaries from 1911 to 1913 capturing the drama, hardship and death that occurred during their exploration of the frozen continent.

''He was unassuming. Full of fun. A quiet gentleman,'' Mrs Collins said.

''I was too young to understand his exploits but he wouldn't have talked about them in any case. He had a retiring nature.''

Wearing her uncle's medals, including his Order of the British Empire, Mrs Collins, 84, from Frankston in Victoria, attended the launch yesterday in Canberra of Still No Mawson: Frank Stillwell's Antarctic Diaries 1911-13.

Stillwell had seven siblings and Mrs Collins' father was his brother. She does remember that he had a curiosity about the world. ''It was his nature to be diligent. He always wanted to find out more,'' she said.


The book of his diaries was edited by the Australian Academy of Science's publication manager, Bernadette Hince. She came across the diaries in the academy library in 2002 while doing research for her PhD on sub-Antarctic islands and environmental history. ''Neither I nor - apparently - anyone else outside the academy was aware of their existence,'' she said.

Stillwell didn't marry and had no children so, after his death in 1963, his papers were donated to the academy, of which he was a fellow and for which he held great affection.

The title of the book reflects how Stillwell would often start his diary entries during January 1913 as he waited in a hut for a long overdue sledging party led by Mawson.

On January 27, 1913, Stillwell wrote: ''Still no Mawson. The most optimistic among us are now beginning to have fears not easily calmed''.

By then, two of the three men in the party were already dead, with Mawson the only one to return unscathed.

Hince said: ''When I got to the section where he was waiting for Douglas Mawson to come back, I just got goose pimples because I knew what had happened but he didn't know what had happened.''

Australian Antarctic Division director Tony Fleming launched the book of diaries at the academy as it celebrated 100 years of Antarctic Science.

He said Stillwell was part of a truly pioneering expedition, as they mapped the coastline, explored the inland and were the first to use radio communication in Antarctica.

''It must have been an extraordinary opportunity for someone so young and at such an early stage of his career to go into a continent that had never been explored before - to literally go off the map,'' Dr Fleming said.