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The Southern Cross’s party lands on Antarctica

by Robert C. Brears Blog

Charles Bernnachi’s lifelong dream of exploring Antarctica came to fruition on December 30 1898 when the Southern Cross, led by Borchgrevink, met the ice-pack. Bernnachi was overawed by the different forms and colours of the ice-pack like many others on board. Bernnachi recorded in his diary:
Antarctic Peninsula

Regions: Antarctica

Destinations: Ross Sea

The Southern Cross’s party lands on Antarctica

Charles Bernnachi’s lifelong dream of mounting an Antarctica expedition came to fruition on December 30 1898 when the Southern Cross, led by Borchgrevink, met the ice-pack. Bernnachi was overawed by the different forms and colours of the ice-pack like many others on board. Bernnachi recorded in his diary:

Ice at last! We met our first ice at 4 p.m…within an hour of sighting the first piece of ice we were in the thick of it. It was a marvellous sight to one who had never seen anything like it. The blocks of ice were the most fantastic shapes imaginable…Grotesque palaces, pinnacles, towers, bridges and arches of ice formed in their architectural outlines and groupings the semblance of a great city…the most wonderful thing is the colouring in the cavities

The Southern Cross makes it to Antarctica

By February 1899, Southern Cross and her crew finally had made it to Cape Adare; a long 6 months after starting the voyage down the Thames. They arrived under a storm with wind reaching a furious gale with heavy snow falling on the boat’s deck. The ship plunged fiercely into the sea, the bow sometimes disappearing below the water. Bernnachi wrote that the storm was:

Such a scene I have never witnessed before. The horror of it cannot be imagined…our horizon narrowly limited by the sheets of spray borne by the wind. It was a day in hell. It was impossible to see the land although we were very close to it. During the night as we were running towards the land it much too suddenly loomed up ahead…no further than half a mile, and the ship had to put about quickly.

Spotting the landing site

By the time Southern Cross had reached Antarctica it was too late as the short summer season was over and so the expedition could not press on into the Ross Sea. There was now only time to land on Cape Adare, land the men and unload the provisions for wintering over before the ship could retreat into safe seas. Borchgrevink knew this area well as he had seen it before, landed there and could not find any fault with it. As they approached land Bernnachi studied the coastline commenting that Robertson Bay was clear of ice except for a huge stranded and weather beaten iceberg in its centre. As they got closer the deck of the boat became covered with snow-drift and frozen sea water. The bay they entered was about 40 miles in width and appeared to be sheltered from South Westerly, Southerly, South Easterly and Easterly winds but was exposed to Northerly and Westerly winds. The waters got calmer as Southern Cross made her way towards land. Cliffs could be seen rising straight out of the water, except for one place: a pebbly beach.

The pebbled beach home to Bernnachi

It was this pebbled beach that was to be home for the men over the winter. It was around half a mile and pointed towards the peaks on the other side of the bay and rose very minimally above sea level. From the beach the men could see the Adare Peninsula sweeping southwards, rising into mountains that eventually joined the mainland at a height of 10,000 ft over 20 miles away. Borchgrevink, happy with the landing site, requested the small canvas boat be prepared for him, along with two others, including Bernnachi to go ashore. It took a quarter of an hour to reach shore. Landing ashore the men hoisted the boat onto land: Becoming the second small band to set upon Antarctic land (continent). Shaking hands they then walked across the strip of land that was to be home.

First meeting with penguins

Straight away they met the inhabitants of the land, Adelie penguins in groups of 100 or more. As the men got closer the penguins began talking in their own form of communication. It was apparent the penguins had discovered that there was something unusual about the men’s appearance and some were sent out to investigate further. The penguins slowly marched up to the men and ogled up at them. Having finished their examination the penguins slowly made their way back to the groups and life went back to normal, with the penguins taking no more notice of the men. The men then returned back to the ship where the crew made speeches and celebrated with champagne. Afterwards Bernnachi and two others ventured back across the sea to Cape Adare where they scaled to the top of the cape, becoming the first men to ever do so. At the point above the pebbly beach a reading was made that it was 950 ft.

Bernnachi and company’s first Antarctic experience

On February 18 the landing of stores began with boxes and other goods lowered into small whale boats to be hauled to the beach using a line stretching from ship to shore. What was meant to take four days took twelve with storms passing through continuously. At one stage the Southern Cross had to directed into the head wind, steaming against it just so the ship could remain stationary so the line could remain in use. By now Bernnachi and a few others were on shore facing terrible conditions. The tent they pitched – a Lapp tent with an open top – was secured by piling stones around its edges. At first the men had a fire in the middle of it but it was put out by the gale winds. Then the pack of dogs that had been put ashore forced their way in. At first the men cursed the dogs but later found it to be ideal: the dogs lay on the men providing them warmth as they had no sleeping bags. It was a freezing cold night with Bernnachi getting severe frostbite on his ears. The men’s hair had frozen into solid lumps and ice on their beards took hours to melt while their clothes had become solid ice sheets. It was not until the evening of the next day they could join the rest back on the ship.

Bernnachi and crew building the huts

In between gales the living quarters ashore were being built for the party that was to remain over winter. Two huts of Norwegian pine that had been carried in the ship in numbered sections were now put together. Foundations were scrapped out of the pebbles to a depth of around two feet and the huts were placed end wise to one another separated by around ten feet. Large cables were passed over the roofs of the huts and secured to ship anchors embedded in the ground. On the sides facing the wind roofs were extended down to the ground using a wooden framework and seal-skins. The framework also linked the two huts up. On the sheltered side the roofs were joined but not extended to the ground. A door was put up providing the only access to the outside from both huts. Each hut was 15 square feet with one chosen as a dwelling and the other a storeroom. The dwelling hut was made secure from the cold with a double floor and double walls. The ceiling was seven feet high and again was doubled, with a loft formed by the pitched roof insulated well with seal skins as well as storing instruments and provisions. 

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