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Racing with Death: Douglas Mawson - Antarctic Explorer Paperback – August 3, 2009
'The greatest survival story in the history of exploration' Sir Edmund Hillary 'In Beau Riffenburgh, [Mawson] has found a biographer who truly knows his way around the hut politics and intemperate journals of Antarctic history The biographer takes the Edwardian view that it's by the explorer's heroics you shall know him, which is why, like the best polar books, Racing With Death is on peak form when out on the ice' Daily Telegraph 'Beau Riffenburgh has delivered an outstanding adventure' Literary Review
About the Author
Beau Riffenburgh is an historian specialising in exploration, particularly that of the Antarctic, Arctic, and Africa. Born in California, he earned his doctorate at Cambridge University, following which he joined the staff at the Scott Polar Research Institute, where he served for 14 years as the editor of Polar Record. He is the author of the highly regarded Nimrod: Ernest Shackleton and the Extraordinary Story of the 1907-09 British Antarctic Expedition and The Myth of the Explorer. He also served as Editor of the Encyclopedia of the Antarctic.
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A fine read. Like many heroes, his later years deteriorated into squabbles about money and bragging rights, but even that was fascinating!
Another thing it makes you ponder is just how many skills the men on these expeditions had as opposed to most modern men. I’ve no desire to eat puppies or learn how to pull a sledge across a glacier, nor how to build a hut (even if it was pre-fabricated prior to the expedition) nor am I fussed on the discerning the finer points of survival biscuits but the general ‘handiness’ of the men on this expedition, the way they had to be able to do so many physical things such as basic carpentry, how to butcher animals and the like does make one realise how few people nowadays could come close to the level of survival skills displayed by almost all the chaps on these expeditions.
And while I’m pondering the (im)ponderables another thing that struck a chord with me in relation to this book was the way there were still so many parts of the worlds surface remaining to be explored up until only a century ago. There were still places of such size and untouched wildness that men such as this could still find a way of making a name for themselves. That there were still such untrammelled parts of the world about. The instant temptation is to think that one hundred years or so after these events there are so few such places, and the people who go about in them so often have a film crew with them to document how daring and brave they are.
All up Beau Riffenburgh has here compiled a riveting book that gets across the hardships that Sir Douglas Mawson faced on his various Antarctic adventures. He strikes a balance between detail and overview, he has not written a hagiography and the work comes across as balanced, Mawsons faults are not ignored, nor his sometimes fractious relations with his various ship captains. The herculean fortitude he displayed in leading his expeditions, his visionary zeal in terms of scientific enquiry and a desire to not only contribute to his nations well being but also to the overall body of scientific knowledge is well portrayed. Details are light in regards to his personal life, whether through little being known about it or due to the authors preference for it to be thus.
The main issue with this book for those wanting to take it as a biography of Sir Douglas Mawson is that it is scant on details of his part in the 1907-1909 Nimrod expedition. There is of necessity a sketch of his life up until he started his exploring career but the Nimrod expedition is not included, presumably because it would have overlapped with the authors already published work on that expedition. Still, given the way the prose flows nicely in this work it probably just means that the average reader will turn around and purchase that book as well for a more complete picture. But it does mean perhaps that those wanting a single volume overview of the man and his life will have to look elsewhere. Though this book does delve into his fundraising efforts and also does discuss his later years and involvement in matters relating to the Antarctic after his personal involvement was no longer occurring.
One boon for this book is the photography – a number of pages are given over to photographs of the expedition and they very much add to the whole. Latter day audiences are so used to the seeing Goretex clad adventure travellers and their expedition tents and attendant ice breakers and support crews and satellite phones etc etc that to see the way these guys went about their business is humbling.
As for the less glamorous bits? Well the typeface is nice, the bibliography is extensive and probably worth a poring over and the index is useful. All up a good read and ideal for those interested in exploration, tales of hardship, the Antarctic or really anyone just wanting an adventurous story.