Oamaru: First with news of failed expedition

By Don Donovan

Oamaru's red waterfront sheds have a story to tell, writes Don Donovan.

Contractual obligations prevented the people of Oamaru finding out about the tragedy until they read about it in the newspapers some six weeks later. Photo / Don Donovan
Contractual obligations prevented the people of Oamaru finding out about the tragedy until they read about it in the newspapers some six weeks later. Photo / Don Donovan

The old red sheds on Oamaru's waterfront look quaint but unless you know their story you wouldn't expect them to have played a key role in one of the most dramatic events of a century ago.

In an internet age when messages flash around the globe in a twinkling of an eye, it is almost impossible to appreciate that, in times past, the latest news of an event might follow its happening by weeks, months, even years.

Thus it was that the world heard of the deaths of British Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott and his companions almost a year after it happened.

Scott's party died within a few miles of safety after having travelled to the South Pole. Their journey home was blighted by the knowledge that they had not been the first to the pole, having been beaten by Roald Amundsen's Norwegian expedition.

A sense of failure pressed upon them as they realised their food and fuel would run out before they could get to their base.

They died in their tent on March 29, 1912. Scott kept his diary up to date to the last and was the last to die. There they lay until they were found eight months later on November 12, 1912.

Thereafter, the news had to be taken to the outside world. The ship Terra Nova sailed north from the Antarctic and on February 10, 1913, arrived in Oamaru .

Two officers rowed ashore and walked along the wharf to the nightwatchman's hut to inquire the whereabouts of the overland telegraph office. From there, the message was flashed to London that Scott's expedition had ended with the deaths of all the party almost a year earlier.

The people of Oamaru did not find out the news until they read it in the London newspapers (which would have taken about six weeks to reach New Zealand).

That delay was caused by contractual arrangements surrounding the polar expedition which forbade any but its official sources to publish news.

The nightwatchman's hut still stands at Oamaru Harbour: it's that red one, the one with the brick chimney and modillions under the eaves.

Visitors who know the story can wander there and meditate on its role in a great moment in history ... and on how the world has changed in the past century.

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Further information: To find out about visiting Oamaru see visitoamaru.co.nz.

- NZ Herald

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