Karen Bowerman is reporting live from Antarctica on a special voyage that will reunite Sir Ernest Shackleton and Frank Wild for the final time
Almost 100 years ago two great polar explorers Sir Ernest Shackleton and Frank Wild set out to try to be the first to cross Antarctica. They failed, but their incredible bravery and courage meant their expedition became known as one of the most heroic failures in history.
Karen Bowerman is reporting live from Antarctica on a special voyage that retraces the mens' footsteps and sees them reunited for a final time.
I’m sitting in a café on the waterfront in Ushuaia, which today, on account of the drizzle, seems even bleaker than I imagine it usually is. After nearly 20 hours of travelling, I’ve reached the town at the end of the world.
Ushuaia lies surrounded by snow-covered mountains on the southern-most tip of Argentina. Skies are vast and dull and grey, as if the rest of the world, coming before it, has used every glorious colour. But the buildings that slope down to the harbour are bright enough – even the church is orange and yellow.
The main tourist attraction seems to be the town sign that depicts a row of colourful houses and five snowy peaks (the Five Brothers). Underneath is written “Ushuaia, Fin del Mundo” – Ushuaia, the end of the world. Coaches pull up and spew out tourists for snapshots.
Apparently Ushuaia’s USP irritates Chile, which claims it’s at the end of the world because it has a military base further south. But Paula the receptionist, who helped drag my massive bag down the stairs of my hostel this morning, told me (amid a lot of heaving and huffing) that Chile is mistaken: military bases aren’t towns, so Chile doesn’t count.
I told her of my trip to Antarctica. She paused in the stairwell and smiled.
“Now that’s south,” she said.
After a night at sea I’m awoken by an exceptionally cheery voice booming through the loudspeaker in my cabin. It announces our location, speed and sea conditions (Scotia Sea, 11 knots and calm) and informs me that “those who’ve been up since six” have spotted an “abundance of birdlife” from the bridge. I fear I have some catching up to do.
It’s not even 7.30 but breakfast is being served in the dining room. As I tuck into bacon and eggs I scan my fellow passengers wondering who the relatives of Frank Wild and the granddaughter of Sir Ernest Shackleton might be. I know they’re on the voyage but I’m waiting for the author Angie Butler (who's recently written a book on Wild) to introduce me.
Angie’s a softly spoken woman with a passion for polar exploration. Her interest in Wild led to the discovery of his memoirs and the start of a seven year quest to find his ashes, lost during the outbreak of the Second World War (Wild died in 1939, aged 66).
Now, 70 years later, after discovering the remains in a vault in South Africa, Angie is about to fulfill Wild’s final wish – to be buried next to Ernest Shackleton, the man he affectionately called “boss” on the island of South Georgia in the Southern Ocean.
Frank Wild was Shackleton’s right hand man on several Antarctic voyages, but the one the men are probably most well known for was the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-1916), more commonly called the Endurance Expedition, after the name of their ship.
It was a voyage that went disastrously wrong: just weeks after setting out from South Georgia, the Endurance was trapped in ice in the Weddell Sea. Ten months later she sank. The men camped on the ice for another five months until that began to melt beneath them, forcing them to take to the sea in three salvaged lifeboats. In waters full of killer whales and temperatures so severe that they were frequently chipping ice off their oars, they headed for Elephant Island. No one had ever set foot on it before.
They landed on the island but were still in the middle of nowhere. So Shackleton set off again, launching the largest lifeboat, the James Caird (that was still only 23ft). His plan was to try to reach South Georgia, 800 miles away. The voyage is still seen as one of the most dangerous open boat journeys in recent history.
Shackleton and his men made it but they still had to scale a mountain range, before reaching a whaling station and summoning help. Wild, meanwhile, was left on Elephant island in charge of 21 men – many of whom thought they’d never be rescued. For five months they slept under an upturned boat in temperatures of up to –45C, living off raw seal and seaweed.
This evening Angie Butler invited me to drinks in the ship’s library. I met Wild’s niece, Julie George, her brothers, Brian and Martin Francis, and Wild’s great, great niece, Carina Francis (Brian’s daughter) who have travelled from Australia to be here. I also chatted with Alexandra Shackleton, Shackleton’s granddaughter. She’s a formidable woman, with the same feisty spirit I imagine her grandfather may have possessed.
We were enjoying a glass of wine when Angie produced Wild’s ashes, taking them out of a floral holdall and placing them on the table in front of us. It was a bit of a shock and somewhat surreal to see his remains among us, but the mood remained celebratory, and we toasted him on his final journey.
Among those at the drinks was a retired GP, Mike Wain, who also had a surprise in store. He showed us a replica of Wild’s polar medal after buying the original (for £132,000) at auction. It’s one of only two ever awarded, with four clasps, or bars, on the ribbon attached to it. The four-bar Polar Medal is the highest polar honour.
As we leave the library and head to dinner I find it strange that Wild, who spent five winters in Antarctica (more than anyone else of his time), has been so overlooked when people talk about the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration (1901-1922).
Maybe Angie Butler is about to change this.
I’ve done my lifeboat drill, honed (theoretically) my zodiac skills (such as the “butt scoot” – shunting your backside along the side of the inflatable to allow others to get in) and have chosen my pair of wellies (since “dry feet are happy feet”) from the mud room where all the wet weather gear is stored.
Apparently that means I’m RTG – ready to go – which is just as well, as later this morning we’ll be visiting the island of West Point in the Falklands.
We land on a small jetty and are met by the farmer’s wife who together with her husband are the sole residents of West Point island – along with 1,000 sheep. She admits that even for them the winters are harsh and they decamp to Stanley when the cold sweeps in.
We hike over a hill to an albatross rookery where hundreds of birds are squatting on nests of mud and straw, built like small towers. Occasionally they get up, sashay around a little and settle down again, giving us a glimpse of their eggs.
Among the albatross, sunning themselves quietly, are funky-looking Rock Hopper Penguins, with deep red eyes, matching beaks and tufty bits sticking out of the sides of their heads that look like feathery ears. We gather in grassy tussocks, shoulder-high, and take photos. I can’t believe we can get so close.
This afternoon Carcass Island in the archipelago offers more delights – Magellanic penguins, oystercatchers and a massive selection of homemade cakes laid on by a B&B (one of two houses) overlooking the bay.
Follow Karen's progress over the next week as she reports live from Antarctica
Polar historian and author Angie Butler chats to Wanderlust about Frank Wild: The Antarctic's unsung hero | Interviews... More
The World According To polar historian and author Angie Butler | Interviews... More