An epic journey into the icy wastes

IN THE middle of December 1912 Robert Bage, who had been chosen by Douglas Mawson to lead a daunting sledging expedition towards the South Pole, paused to review his party's progress. Bage and his companions were running out of time - Mawson had directed them to return to their Antarctic base by mid-January 1913.

Remarkably, Bage, a talented and resourceful 24-year-old engineer from St Kilda, and his comrades, 27-year-old photographer Frank Hurley and 22-year-old magnetician Eric Webb, had managed to trudge 350 kilometres across the icy wastes despite apocalyptic weather, hauling their heavy sledge of food and equipment uphill over formidably rough terrain where no one had been before.

Along the way they had recorded regular meteorological, geographic and magnetic observations, which required exceptional dedication in the diabolical conditions. Imbued with idealism, they saw themselves as scientific explorers.

All three were weary, hungry and, Hurley noted, ''frightfully cold''. They were repeatedly hit by ferocious hurricanes - it was the windiest place on the planet. They were also intermittently tormented by snow-blindness, a painful affliction caused by reflected glare from snow or ice that a sufferer likened to having one's eyes filled with sharp gravel.

A week earlier, when heavy snow and dim light had led to such limited visibility that they kept tumbling over as ''we could not see where to place our feet'', and ''the sledge kept on overturning and burying itself in the soft snow'', even the normally irrepressible Hurley had struggled to maintain his morale.

''I often wonder if ever this journey will be appreciated, and is it worthwhile,'' he confessed that night in his diary. Sledging in such ''wretched'' circumstances was ''without parallel'', he contended; other expeditions tended to halt during blizzards, but ''we travel in them as our normal conditions''.

In view of the hardships they had endured, Bage and his comrades were acutely aware of the magnitude of their achievement. But their satisfaction was tinged with disappointment, as they realised that they would not be able to get as far south as they (and Mawson) had hoped.

Still, they resolved to persevere, with 300 miles (483 kilometres) as their amended goal. It took them a week. The harsh conditions abated, and progress became easier. On December 21, when their sledge-meter confirmed that they had reached their adjusted target, Bage called a halt - it was his responsibility to decide when they should turn around and head back.

They all had misgivings, though. ''We somehow feel rather sad at turning back,'' Bage noted.

No longer would they be pioneering in such an uncommon environment with a unique mystique. As Hurley put it, ''the lure of the ridges was strong, and the vacant places seemed to beckon irresistibly. We all felt sad, for beyond the ridges a something seemed to call us back, eager to unfold to a distant world the mysteries of countless ages.''

Returning mostly downhill, mostly downwind and with a lighter sledge promised to be easier, and initially it was. Weather, wind and surface were conducive to good progress. In fact, they established a new record for distance covered in a day by a man-hauled sledge (75 kilometres). But the sharp gravel returned to plague Bage, who ended up on the sledge with his eyes bandaged.

Bage carefully allocated the rest of their food, allowing for the depots they had created on the outward tramp. But the last of these stores proved excruciatingly elusive. Without it, they had almost no food left at all. They kept searching, but to no avail. The weather was terrible, visibility was minimal, and they were in grave peril.

Eventually they decided to stop looking and head for home. This was a desperate gamble - they would have 120 kilometres to cover on trifling rations while contending with ravenous hunger, incipient scurvy and significant weight loss. Uncertainty about the right direction was another problem.

''We are resolved to make the hut or perish,'' Hurley declared. ''Matter of life or death,'' Webb wrote; ''with the greatest luck we might get in on hands and knees''.

It proved a horrendous ordeal. According to Bage, a measured chronicler not inclined to exaggerate, what they endured on January 9, 1913, was ''the worst day's march'' of their whole journey. ''How we struggled through the day is beyond me,'' Hurley noted in his diary. ''We are feeling very weak and another two days of this will about make statues of us.'' But their resolve was undiminished: ''My comrades are fine men and breathe no pessimism,'' Hurley added.

Next day, January 10, Bage came over a rise and looked ahead. His quick glance became a gaze of intense appraisal, as he recognised familiar landmarks at last. A rush of relief and jubilation overwhelmed him.

He turned to alert his comrades, and in his excitement fell down a crevasse - euphoria to crisis in an instant. Hurley and Webb had to focus on hauling him up, still unaware of the view that had thrilled him. Having rescued Bage, they found they were rescued themselves. This was hard to grasp after all they had endured - ''incredible'', Webb felt. It was the ''most memorable day of our lives'', he added.

They had covered almost 1000 kilometres. They had tramped for 20 days into winds between 30 and 65 kilometres per hour, and for seven days into gales that were heavier still. They had returned with important magnetic, geographic and meteorological records. And they had survived.

Their stupendous feat is little known a century later, partly because some of their expedition colleagues in another group - the far eastern party under Mawson himself - did not survive. These deaths delayed Mawson's return, with the result that five expeditioners were selected to stay on for an unexpected second year at Antarctica. They included Bage, who was popular as well as capable, and universally seen as a reliable and respected senior colleague for Mawson.

John Hunter, a scientist from Sydney who had not known Bage before their months together at Antarctica, became an ardent admirer. Bob Bage ''is the best liked man on the expedition and personally I think he is the best man we have,'' Hunter wrote. ''There is no one that I have met that I have greater respect for than Bob.''

Mawson's grand mission, with its sweeping conception and impressive achievements, was hailed as ''the greatest and most consummate expedition that ever sailed to Antarctica''.

Bage's contribution had been considerable. His southern sledging party ''accomplished even more than I had anticipated'', Mawson wrote.

Moreover, before the sledging parties set out, when the wild weather had kept the expeditioners in their hut for months, Bage had significant roles as the expedition's astronomer, assistant magnetician and recorder of tides. The meticulous records he created as he measured tide levels despite the blizzards have proved illuminating even in ways that he and Mawson did not foresee - notably as evidence of tidal variation in the context of assessments about climate change.

Bage returned to Australia in February 1914. He found himself in some demand as a speaker, including at his former school and university. Bage had attended Melbourne Grammar and resided at Trinity College while accumulating admirable results in his engineering degree at the University of Melbourne.

After his graduation he had worked for the Queensland Railways before deciding to join the Australian regular army as an engineer. He had obtained leave from the army to join Mawson's expedition, and rejoined it when he returned to Australia after more than two years on the ice.

Five months later, when the Great War began, Bage enlisted immediately and became deputy commander of an AIF company of engineers. He left Australia with the convoy of original enlisters, and landed with his company on the original Anzac Day. Within a fortnight he was dead.

General William Bridges, the commander of the First Australian Division, having decided that he wanted the AIF infantry in a sector near Lone Pine to occupy an advanced position, directed Bage to mark the spot beforehand to guide them. But this was 140 metres ahead of the then Anzac front line, and the Turks would be able to see what he was doing. Bage pointed out that such a perilous assignment would be more likely to be carried out successfully at night, but Bridges insisted that he wanted it done immediately.

Bage accepted his likely fate, and arranged for the dispersal of his possessions. He was hammering a marker peg where Bridges wanted - in broad daylight and in full view of the Turks - when he was killed by concentrated enemy fire from riflemen and machine-guns.

His death was lamented by many Anzacs familiar with the circumstances and familiar with his calibre. It was ''madness - he is a great loss to us'', a sapper confirmed. Back in Australia his devastated mother, sisters and fiancee grieved privately, while others emphasised that Bage's death was a national tragedy.

''His death is a great loss to Australia,'' Mawson said. A ''real loss to the country and everyone who knew him,'' wrote another admirer.

''The world is poorer for me without Bob B,'' lamented Eric Webb.

A memorial service to pay tribute to Bage was held at Trinity College. The fervent eulogy of the college warden, Alexander Leeper, highlighted Bage's ''noble and self-sacrificing life'', his ''perfect serenity of disposition'', and the destiny that he - and Australia - had been denied: Bage ''seemed certain to do well in anything he undertook''.

Harry Murray, the AIF's most decorated soldier, reminisced about the war in 1931. Whenever he thought about Gallipoli, he wrote, ''Memories come flooding in of the very fine fellows who fell in the first few weeks.'' He went so far as to add that ''I think we lost better men in those first few weeks than we ever had afterwards.''

Robert Bage was a compelling example, but he is little known today. He should be better remembered than he is.

Ross McMullin, author of the award-winning Pompey Elliott, has written an extended biography of Robert Bage in his latest book Farewell, Dear People: Biographies of Australia's Lost Generation (Scribe).

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