7 mins

Reliving Polar history

After burying Frank Wild's ashes next to Shackleton's, Karen Bowerman ventures south to the scene of their greatest adventure

Karen Bowerman and friends

Frank Wild's ashesDay 8: Grytviken – the reuniting of two great polar explorers

In the early hours of the morning we gather on the bow to view the isolated settlement of Stromness on the east coast of South Georgia. It was here, almost 100 years ago, that Shackleton staggered into the whaling station and announced he was still alive. Now the site’s a wasteland: a handful of disintegrating buildings rusting away at the foot of mountains.

A few hours later we drop anchor in Cumberland Bay opposite Grytviken, another whaling station, where Shackleton’s buried in a small hillside cemetery. Today Wild will be interred next to him. Julie George carries the casket of her great uncle’s ashes across the water in a zodiac. “Careful,” I hear her say, as she steps ashore, “I have precious cargo.”

Wild’s memorial service is held in a white, Norwegian-style church among crumbling outbuildings. A few feet away penguins waddle around former whale oil tanks and fur seals slumber in the sunshine. We skirt round groaning elephant seals as we make our way from the church to the cemetery. It’s surrounded by a white picket fence and stands at the far end of the cove, overlooking the water.

Here Angie Butler, who’s brought Wild’s ashes this far, hands them symbolically to Julie who places them in the ground, in a grave next to Shackleton’s. Shackleton’s headstone is a lump of granite, about six foot tall; Wild’s is a granite ledger which reads: Frank Wild, 19 April 1873 – 19 August 1939, “Shackleton’s right hand man.”

After toasting Shackleton with whisky as is the custom when sailors visit his grave, we turn and toast Wild too. I notice that the pair’s graves point in a different direction to the others in the cemetery – while the rest look east, theirs look south, to the white continent.

It’s where I’ll be heading tomorrow.

Elephant SealDay 9: Snorting and belching at Gold Harbour

We land at Gold Harbour, a small cove on the eastern tip of South Georgia. Hordes of enormous elephant seals lie sprawled across the beach. They’re so huge, so still and so silent that at first I mistake them for boulders. But then they grunt and snort and sigh – long, drawn-out sighs as if life’s too much for them – and I realise they’re alive.

They’re ugly creatures with mound-shaped faces, wide set eyes and snub noses that resemble curtailed elephant trunks. Occasionally two or three raise their cumbersome bodies off the sand, throw back their heads, open their massive jaws and give loud, guttural grunts. Then they flop onto their bellies again, and seemingly return to stone.

Day 10: There may be trouble ahead…

It’s getting rough now: waves 20 feet high are crashing over the bow. An unexpected swell means the rector spills his tea on the stairwell and plates crash to the floor in the dining room. I decline the offer of soup.

Sick bags appear all over the ship. At first they’re arranged neatly, in small discreet piles on tables and sideboards, but gradually they take over, like Christmas decorations put up by someone who doesn’t know when to stop. They’re wedged behind notice boards, picture frames and mirrors and dumped in multiples of ten in the bathrooms, library and bar.

Fellow passengers start talking about patches, herbal teas and stem ginger. I try to ignore the chatter – and the sick bags: just because they’re there, doesn’t mean they have to be used.

The ship starts rocking and creaking.

Angie Butler and Alexandra Shackleton give lectures on Wild and Shackleton’s various expeditions including the Nimrod Expedition (1907 – 1909) and the Endurance, the voyage we’re retracing on our present journey.

I realise our 400ft Akademik Ioffe (a former Russian polar research vessel) is about four times the size of the Endurance, the ship that was the explorers' home in 1914. When I look at the size of some of the waves I can’t believe what possessed them.

Elephant IslandDay 11: Elephant Island: “Soaking clothes and sleeping bags”

On our second day at sea I grab a pair of binoculars and join a group of die-hard whale spotters on the bridge. Yesterday they saw so many fin whales they gave up counting. Today we also strike it lucky; our tally reaches seven humpback whales in half an hour. We celebrate with coffee and pastries.

Around lunchtime we spot Elephant Island where Wild, Shackleton and their men took refuge after the Endurance sank (on 21 November 1915) in the Weddell Sea.

It’s much larger than I imagined with precipitous cliffs and glaciers with very few landing places. In his memoirs Wild wrote:

“In the Sailing Directions, a book carried by all marines, Elephant Island was described as ‘an island… with many low lying beaches covered with tussock grass and swarming with seals, sea elephants (elephant seals), penguins and seabirds.’ No one had ever landed on it before us and we found the beaches and tussock grass conspicuous by their absence, and before we were rescued we were to go very hungry on account of the scarcity of seals, sea elephants or any other form of life.”

But it was Wild’s account of their landing on the island that made me realise what this inhospitable, uninhabitable place meant to them. As his men reached the shore after 16 months at sea, they forgot about their frostbite, exhaustion and hunger and were almost delirious:

“Many of the men were reeling about exactly as though under the influence of alcohol, roaring with laughter, filling their pockets with stones, and some of them rolling amongst the shingle, burying their faces in it and pouring handfuls over themselves.”

In contrast, Shackleton wrote of Wild: “I remember that Wild came ashore as I was looking at the men and stood beside me as easy and unconcerned as if he had stepped out of his car for a stroll in the park.”

The sea around Elephant Island looks relatively calm (to me) but the captain announces we won’t be able to land. Wild’s relatives are philosophical. They point out Cape Wild where in the harsh winter of 1916 their great uncle set up camp with 21 men after Shackleton and five others took to the sea, hoping to make it to South Georgia.

Wild and his men ended up spending four months on the island, living under an upturned boat and eating raw seal and seaweed. He knew that if Shackleton never made it, no search party would think of looking for them there.

April 18th marked his birthday. “Though I have spent many tough ones in my life, this was without doubt the worst ever,” he wrote. “Almost the whole day was spent under our flattened tents, in soaking clothing and sleeping bags.”

Wild and his men were finally rescued in August (1916) after Shackleton reached Stromness, scaled the mountains and raised the alarm at the small whaling station we spotted a few days ago.

Deception IslandDay 12: Getting closer… to the white continent

The ship’s gradually becoming my home.

I’ve sought out my favourite showers and discovered the seemingly little-known sofa on the 6th deck. It’s right by the fire exit but is cosy and quiet. My cabin’s pretty cramped, (there are two of us in it although it’s meant for three) but I’m beginning to remember where I’ve put things. Ship living is an exercise in being orderly and organised.

The corridors, once spick and span, have filled with hired expedition gear. Red waterproofs and matching gaiters hang over rails outside our cabins. Everyone’s found a place for their wellies in the so-called mud room (where we put all our gear on – and that takes an age) we’ve vacuumed every Velcro strap and pocket to make sure we don’t take anything ‘foreign’ ashore. Antarctica is a pristine environment and tourist boats do their best to keep it that way. We actually have to sign a form to say we’ve done our vacuuming and have been briefed on how to minimise our environmental impact.

There’s a buzz on the ship as we draw close to the white continent. We’re at 62 degrees south, (anything below 60 is classed as Antarctica) but everyone’s keen to step onto the peninsula itself.

At the crescent-shaped Half Moon Island we get our first close encounter with snow: I sink knee-deep into it and hiking is heavy-going, but at the top of the hill I’m captivated by the antics of a colony of chinstrap penguins.

They’re easy to identify because they have a line of black feathers running from the back of their head to beneath their beak, which resembles the strap of a small black bonnet. They waddle comically through the snow, collecting small stones to furnish their nests. Overhead the grating zeep, zeep sound of storm petrels fills the sky.

From snow to volcanic ash and the monochrome landscape of Deception Island, another of the South Shetland Islands. We pass through a narrow opening (Neptune’s Bellows) into the flooded caldera of a volcano. It’s ten miles wide. Our expedition leader, Andrew Prossin, points out the remains of a British Antarctic Survey base, abandoned during the last eruption in the early 70s.

The volcano’s dormant and we take our chances, traipsing through the snow to take in a view of curvaceous Telefon Bay.

Overnight we’re heading to the continent’s south-west peninsula; we’ve already spotted our first iceberg, a Henry Moore affair, floating past the ship in a rough, grey sea. I can’t wait to set foot on the continent!

Follow Karen's progress over the next week as she reports live from Antarctica. You'll find her first report here.

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