Douglas Mawson's first trip to Antarctica was in 1907 when he joined the British Antarctic Expedition led by Ernest Shackleton. As a member of that party, he was one of the first to climb Mount Erebus and to reach the magnetic South Pole. Together with two others, Mawson also set a record for an unsupported sledge journey (having travelled over 2 000 kilometres in 122 days).
Back in Adelaide in 1909, Mawson soon started planning his return trip. Two years later he set out, aged 30, as the leader of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition to map and explore the coastal area of Antarctica closest to Australia.
On 8 January 1912, the Aurora reached a wide inlet that Mawson named Commonwealth Bay and landed at Cape Denison, which was to be the party's Main Base. Prefabricated huts made from Baltic pine were erected there to house the expedition members and their scientific equipment. These structures have withstood the severe battering of this wild location and are still standing today. In 2005, Mawson's Huts were included on the National Heritage List.
Mawson and his men set out on many major expeditions, describing new plants and animals, noting geography and recording weather patterns. In November 1912, Mawson embarked on an expedition with two others, Lieutenant Belgrave Ninnis and Dr Xavier Mertz. After five weeks and more than 500 kilometres from base camp, Ninnis, with sledge and dog team, fell into a large crevasse and died. Many of the trio's supplies were lost with him. Mawson and Mertz turned back, but their journey was fraught – their provisions were seriously depleted and weather conditions had deteriorated. Mertz did not survive and Mawson was left alone, more than 100 kilometres from camp, in unimaginable conditions. His now-solo trek back became increasingly difficult and hazardous. Despite the odds, Mawson arrived back at Cape Denison 30 days later, near death, hungry, frostbitten and weak, only to learn that the Aurora had left just a few hours before. Mawson and the six men who had remained behind to look for him stayed on at the base for another year, until December 1913, continuing their scientific and research work.
Douglas Mawson was knighted in 1914 and received the David Livingstone Centenary Medal from the American Geographical Society in 1916. He led two more expeditions to Antarctica between 1929 and 1931. These journeys resulted in Australia claiming 42 per cent of Antarctica (an area the size of Australia without Queensland) as Australian territory.
Sir Douglas Mawson was driven by a need to learn, to discover and to understand. And it was a theme of ‘Discovery’ that led the $100 banknote designers to intrepid explorer and renowned scientist Douglas Mawson.