At 9.30 pm on the evening of 2 September 1908 the Wimmera sailed from Lyttelton for Wellington, Napier, Gisborne, Auckland and Sydney.
On board, as a passenger for Sydney, was Dr William Arthur ‘Rupert’ Michell, the surgeon of Shackleton’s Antarctic vessel Nimrod.
Canadian-born Michell was bound for Sydney on a holiday visit and disembarked there on Friday 11 September.
As surgeon on the Nimrod, Dr Michell was a member of the ship’s crew and was aboard when the Nimrod sailed from Lyttelton for Antarctica on New Year’s Day 1908. Following the voyage South which landed the expeditioners on Ross Island, Michell remained aboard the Nimrod which returned to Lyttelton to wait out the winter before returning south.
An interview with Michell following the Nimrod‘s return provided graphic accounts of his experience which were published throughout New Zealand. The following extract appeared in the Marlborough Express:
GRANDEUR OF MOUNT EREBUS.
LAND OF THE MIDNIGHT SUN
An interesting narrative of the voyage and the landing of the stores was told to a Truth reporter-by the genial doctor of the Nimrod, Dr W. A. R. Mitchell.
“Once clear of the Heads,” he said, “the Nimrod started to roll frightfully, and we all suffered the inconveniences of sea-sickness, The Nimrod, through being so heavily laden, went through all ‘the combinations of motions one could conceive. When the heavy weather struck us, things were as wet and disagreeable as they could be, a vast change from the comfortable mail steamers we had known. The Kooyna left us just over the Antarctic Circle, and, I believe, the steamer gained the distinction of being the first iron ship to cross the Circle. We had very fine weather in the Circle, and we just steamed along, without bothering to sail much. We encountered no pack ice, but there were countless numbers of icebergs, of a flat, tubular variety—the typical Antarctic bergs. The sides were white with the action of the sea, deeply fissured, and in places the
BEAUTIFUL DARK BLUE ICE
could be seen. After passing through the bergs we came into perfectly open sea–the only ice visible was on the horizon. At this time we were getting twenty-four hours’ daylight— you could only tell what time it was by your mealtimes, and everybody lost a lot of sleep. Wake up at midnight, and the sun would be brightly. The Ice Barrier, when we sighted it, was just like one huge iceberg—the big cliff of white reminds you of the chalk cliffs of England at a distance.
An exploration of the barrier showed that Borchgrevinck’s Balloon Bight had disappeared.”
Dr Michell described the easterly and westerly voyagings of the Nimrod, and the final landing at Ross Island at the foot of Mount Erebus— an “active volcano, ‘13,000 ft high. ”The volcano is a marvellous sight.” said Dr Michell. “It stands as
THE SENTINEL OF ANTARCTICA.
“It has the true volcanic cone, and is covered with snow, and ice from the base to the summit. The snow-clad sides are deeply fissured right from the sea level to the top. It is wonderful to see the steam issuing ceaselessly from the icy top. The mountain is a splendid weather gauge, as you can tell by the clouds round it what the weather is going to be. Altogether, Erebus was as magnificent and grand a sight as one could wish to see. The companion mountain, Mount Terror, about 11,000 ft, is an extinct volcano, but its attractions are completely overshadowed by the more active and scenic beauty of Erebus.”
The ponies, Dr Michell stated, were delighted to get on shore, and the first thing they did was to enjoy
AN UPROARIOUS CARNIVAL ON THE SNOW
rolling and prancing about, and giving every sign of equine delight. They were very soon got into condition, and were utilised in the landing of the stores. The building of the hut and the landing of the stores occupied the energies of everybody.
Work was carried on day and “night”. No one knew any difference until soft sleep put his chains on the eyelids. The sun was very brilliant, but no one suffered from snow-blindness, that scourge of some Arctic exploration parties. The hut was built near a penguin rookery, and the party got no end of amusement watching the antics of these laughable birds. A few of the penguins went to replenish the larder, and the epicurean verdict was that “they can be used down here all right, but that’s all you can say.”
The suddenness of the Antarctic blizzard greatly impressed Dr Michell. A blizzardy blow would come on in full force in the short space of ten minutes, with hardly any previous warning. The Nimrod had simply to make for open water. One party, of which Dr, Michell was a member had
A THRILLING EXPERIENCE,
owing to the sudden descent of a snow blizzard. They had landed some coal from a ship’s boat, and were making for the Nimrod, when the snow commenced to fall, completely blotting the ship out of their vision. Providentially the snow cleared off temporarily, and the party were able to pick her up and get on board. The snow then came on again so thickly that it was physically impossible to see over the side of the ship. The storm developed into
A VERY SEVERE BLIZZARD,
and the Nimrod had to steam out to sea, where she was hove to for about three days. “The ship,” Dr Michell continued, “became practically an iceberg. She was
COATED WITH ICE FROM STEM TO STERN,
and each sea that came over seemed to be frozen in the process. Some members of the landing party were on board, and they spent most of their time in making up for the sleep they had lost and sitting about the engine-room, getting warm. The cold was very intense—about 16 below zero. The officers on the bridge had a terrible experience, being nearly frozen.
WONDERFUL SUNSET EFFECTS.
Dr Michell gave a picturesque description of sunset effects in the Antarctic. “The sun began to dip about the 10th of February, and a kind of twilight, not darkness, prevailed for several hours of the day. The colours on the snow-covered and ice-tipped mountains during these few hours were something wonderful—you had every conceivable shade and tint. On the mountain peaks the glow of the declining sun was marvellously beautiful. The cold, of course, became much greater when the sun disappeared in this way. We found our heavy pilot cloth suits and sea boots very satisfactory wearing apparel when these conditions prevailed, and we never suffered much.
…on your nerves as well as the silence, and the only antidote is plenty of work. After experiencing the Antarctic it is easy to understand how melancholia gets hold of a man ; if the daylight has this effect how much more so would the darkness?” There was not much time to do scientific work, every man being required for pressing duties. Dr Michell said that there was no plant life visible, and the animal life was chiefly seals and penguins. As much meteorological work as possible was done, and a number of soundings were taken, with what results he did not know. Professor David was the most enthusiastic man at his work the doctor has ever seen.
“I think a great many of us would rather liked to have wintered in the Antarctic,” said the doctor, “but as it is we are looking forward to the return trip to see what success our comrades have had. The landing party were in fine fettle, and confident of success. The last sight we had of them was their dark figures on the top of the ice cliff, outlined against the skyline, when we dipped our ensign in farewell.”
Marlborough Express, Volume XLII, Issue 59, 11 March 1908, p2