The Sound of Silence: Hurley in Antarctica

August 18, 2019

Stephen Martin, historian and explorer of Antarctica,  has written:

‘The silences are a leitmotif, a characteristic of the environment that is a reminder of people’s unease and unfamiliarity in Antarctica. Sometimes it’s more than this, an intimation of intrusion.’

Frank Hurley, explorer and photographer extraordinaire, left Commonwealth Bay (an open bay between Point Alden and Cape Gray in Antarctica) on 10 November, 1912, with two other members of the Cape Denison team of Mawon’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition—Chief magnetician Eric Norman Webb, and astronomer/ assistant magnetician Edward Frederick Robert Bage. This three-man sledging party was to travel in the direction of the South Magnetic Pole and take magnetic measurements as they trekked over the previously unexplored region. During this voyage Hurley kept a journal and it is a valuable resource for researchers.

Hurley wrote of the intense winds and blizzards and the experience of being in their ferocious noise, and then of the silence:

‘It seems as if even sound has become frozen. The absolute calm strikes our ears making them ring. Not a buzz of insect, not even the note of the song bird but a silence awesome and spacelike. Nothing is comparable with the Antarctic Blizzard. Its awful winds and snow drifts & yet in a calmer mood its quiet would drive one mad. We are now camped on the plateau. Ice boundless as the eye can discern on all sides. Around reigns a silence stagnant that seems worse than even noise. Yet what a welcome change to us, that have been so wind battered.’

(Frank Hurley, sledging diary, MLMSS389/1, 16 November, 1912, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.)

Photograph taken by John George Hunter of three men pulling a laden sledge during the Australasian Antarctic Expedition. (National Library of Australia)

Below is an edited typescript of Hurley’s journal entry above.

‘A halt was made and tents were erected in a dead calm! What a striking contrast to the Blizzards eternal roar. Every sound seems frozen, Our voices seem strange in this awesome silence, whilst our ears so accustomed to continuous din, ache. What a stagnant silence! Our tent is limp, for not the gentlest Zephyr stirs. What is going to happen. Bob has just ordered our supports to throw snow onto the tent to make some noise so that we can go to sleep. What a place of excesses, and how welcome to us, wind battered toilers, this cessation comes.’

(http://acms.sl.nsw.gov.au/_transcript/2010/D04271/a1884.pdf)

The digitised journal can be found at the State Library of New South Wales website.

http://archival.sl.nsw.gov.au/Details/archive/110333267

Frank Hurley, sledging diary, 16 November, 1912.

For more on Stephen Martin, see the Aurora Expeditions website:

https://www.auroraexpeditions.com.au/team/stephen-martin

Martin, S. A History of Antarctica. Kenthurst, 2013.

Martin, S. ‘Frames of silence: Some descriptions of the sounds of Antarctica’, Antarctica: Music, Sounds and Cultural Connections, Bernadette Hince, Rupert Summerson and Arnan Wiesel (eds.) Acton, 2015. Available at The Australian National University:

https://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/p316261/pdf/book.pdf

 

For more on the Australasian Antarctic Expedition 1911-1914, see Australian Antarctic Division’s Home of the Blizzard website:

https://mawsonshuts.antarctica.gov.au/

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