• Home
  • A The Beautiful South

A The Beautiful South

A The Beautiful South

Following in the footsteps of Frank Wild, Shackleton’s right-hand man, Bella Bathurst heads towards Antarctica.

Observer Magazine, 18th Dec 2011 

Each day, a fresh newsletter is posted to the walls of the Akademik Ioffe. On rougher sea passages, the notes are ornamented with spare sick bags tucked into the corners, but on the first day of our voyage to the Antarctic there is a Steinbeck quote instead. ‘A journey is a person itself,’ it reads. ‘No two are alike … We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.’

This trip is a strange one. Everyone who has gathered here in Ushuaia at the southernmost tip of Argentina has an agenda; needs, desires, something they hope the ice will offer or show them. Most passengers will have paid richly for the privilege; tickets start at $10,300 and end somewhere in the upper atmosphere. There are several twitchers, dangling lenses from their necks like electronic fertility symbols. There’s a couple of bucket-list completionists knocking off the last of their seven continents. Some are after the full box-set of penguins, and some are just seeking a place where the world can’t reach them. One couple walked into the travel agent planning a trip to Africa and walked out with a ticket to the end of the world. The rest have reason to be here – scientists hitching a ride, media, polar experts, those in search of Frank Wild.

Exactly a century ago, on the 14th of December 1911, Roald Engelbreth Amundsen raised the Norwegian flag at the South Pole. Because he’s foreign and because he succeeded, it won’t be his achievement that the British mark; it will be Scott’s heroic failure, and Shackleton’s great escape.

When Weddell sea ice crushed Ernest Shackleton’s expedition vessel the Endurance, his men took to the lifeboats and rowed their way to Elephant Island. There, Shackleton left his second-in-command Frank Wild in charge of the main group whilst he and five men set off in the James Caird to find help 800 miles away in South Georgia. They succeeded; Shackleton, Wild and the rest returned, ragged, malnourished, but alive and sane.

But back among the mapped territories, Shackleton lost his way. In photographs, his face remains young, but his eyes are lightless. Five years later in 1921, he contacted Wild – now living and farming in South Africa – and asked if he would like to act again as his second-in-command. The two balanced each other so well they almost became a single entity. ‘It is hardly necessary to write about him,’ Shackleton wrote of Wild in South. ‘He is my second self. I love him. He has been a tower of strength to me.’ The Quest Expedition’s aims were unsettled, but most of the original team came anyway. On the 5th of January 1922 just as they reached South Georgia, Shackleton died. With the blessing of his widow Emily, he was buried in the cemetary by the old Norwegian whalers’ church at Grytviken.

Wild returned to South Africa and died there in 1939. Over the years, various attempts were made to publish his memoirs or write his biography, but none succeeded. Wild’s achievements were as astounding as the Boss’s – he was involved in five separate polar expeditions and remains one of only two people to have been awarded the Polar Medal four times – but myths clouded his later life: he’d lost all his money, he was a drunk, a waster, a failure, he was nothing without Shackleton. There were fights over his memoirs, and – after his death – his medals. His ashes went missing. Something about Wild seemed very resistant to completion.

Until now. On board the ship are Wild’s new biographer Angie Butler, six of Wild’s descendants flown in from Australia, Shackleton’s granddaughter Alexandra, a Canterbury GP called Mike Wain who bought Frank Wild’s polar medal at auction, and a small wooden box classified as handbaggage containing the ashen remains of Frank Wild himself. We’re here to do Shackleton backwards – from the Falklands to South Georgia to Elephant Island to the Antarctic Peninsula, with a ceremony at Grytviken to mark Wild’s final reuniting with the Boss. But in all other respects, our experience will be utterly different to theirs.

The ship we’re on, the Akademik Ioffe, also has a history. Built and ice-strengthened in Finland to a Russian spec in 1989, it was designed for ‘hydro-acoustic research’ – Cold War code for sonic mapping and surveillance, and for submarine detection. In other words, the Ioffe and its sister ship the Vavilov were doing the research which the government was then using for spying. ‘Western governments had both ships listed as spy ships,’ says One Ocean expedition leader Andrew Prossin, ‘But then, everything Russian was listed.’

The Ioffe – silent, stable and thoroughly Soviet – is one of about 25 ships currently offering trips to the Antarctic. Three years ago, that was more like 35, but a recent ruling that all polar vessels use lighter, higher-grade fuel oil has eliminated the larger cruise vessels. The Antarctic tourist season starts at the beginning of spring in late October and finishes in March, and from a high of about 35,000 visitors in 2007, the Peninsula now gets around 25,000 a year. That figure alone explains almost everything about the way the poles have changed in the century since the Endurance was crushed. For those first explorers, the Antarctic was as foreign as the moon; now it’s a destination the same as any other, as accessible as a plane ticket.

And so we unmoor. All our associations beyond the horizon recede and now we have nothing to do except examine our bizarre new microclimate. The crew is Russian, the expedition leaders are Canadian and American, and the passengers are global – Brits, Americans, Australians, Kiwis, Japanese, Swiss, French, Dutch, Indian. Most of the passengers are at or past retirement age, ex-academics, engineers, artists, experts in aeronautics or cetacean biology.

Cruising, it becomes evident, is an acquired taste for many. We are here, we cannot escape, and many have paid half a year’s salary for a tiny cabin shared with strangers and a bathroom for four. ‘Good morning everybody, good morning!’ shout the expedition leaders down the public address system punctually at 7am every day, high-fiving us into wakefulness. Days at sea take on a recognisable routine; breakfast, lunch and dinner plus a nutrient-rich diet of lectures given by the expedition’s respective experts. By the end of these 18 days, we will have been fully briefed on the lives and works of the great explorers, the breeding habits of the cape petrel and the 47 names of ice. In between, there is the chance to be seasick, or to stand enchanted for hours watching the sea rolling and unfolding as the albatross and the petrels swing beatless over the stern.

The Falklands looks like the Hebrides; same diagonal vegetation, same proportion of sheep to people, same ability to seduce or assault with equal vigour. The Acting Governor, Rick Nye, has been here for about 18 months, and values Shackleton mainly for his thoughts on organisational bonding. He shows us the office that Shackleton used while he was here, and his walking stick – ‘Do you want me to twizzle it?’ Upstairs, there is the billiard table on which Shackleton once played with the names of all those have visited written in chalk underneath.

Shackleton never really got the point of this place. Staying at the Governor’s house on Port Stanley whilst trying to organise a vessel to rescue the men left on Elephant Island, he could not conceal his frustration. ‘The street of that port is about a mile and a half long,’ he wrote in South. ‘It has a slaughter-house at one end and the graveyard at the other. The chief distraction is to walk from the slaughter-house to the graveyard. For a change one may walk from the graveyard to the slaughter-house.’ His granddaughter Alexandra has a more patriotic view of the place. An abrupt, patrician figure, very definite, very English, she corrects anyone who offers a less-than-Empire view of the Falklands with speed and vigour.

The Wilds, by contrast, are relaxed about their ancestor. The family’s stock of Frank Hurley prints got traded or swapped between them (in one case for a pack of cigarettes) and several of the original glass plate negatives which Hurley snatched from the drowning Endurance were broken when they were kids playing tag in the laundry room. ‘Scott and Shackleton have had their day,’ says Julie George, Wild’s great-niece, ‘Now there’s more of an emphasis on the unsung ones. I’ll be really interested to see what it was about the Antarctic that kept pulling Frank back – what he called the ‘call of the little voices.’’

South Georgia has six whaling stations; Grytviken is the only one which remains accessible. The others, including Stromness, are off-limits partly because they’re full of asbestos and partly because they’ve already been trashed by trophy hunters and scrap merchants. Over in Grytviken, few buildings still in use – the old Norwegian church, the world’s most southerly post office – stand surrounded by the machinery once used by the whalers. Picturesque and macabre, the skeletal tanks and irrelevant engines still dominate the bay. Shackleton was buried at Grytviken with full honours by the Norwegian whalers; now his right-hand man will be buried beside him. ‘Here you go, Frankie boy,’ says Julie fondly, placing the casket down on the altar.

The congregation sit: the Wilds, Alexandra Shackleton, Angie Butler, most of the Ioffe’s passengers and crew, a group of British Antarctic Survey staff, and the full two-person might of the the South Georgian authorities. Out of the church and on the way to the graveyard, the congregation sidestep elephant seals sleeping like speed-bumps across the track. Wild’s ashes are placed in a new grave besides Shackleton’s. For as long as the Boss has lain here, there has been a tradition that all ships’ companies arriving in Grytviken toast him with a nip of whisky; the tradition is now extended for the first time to Wild.

The days on either side are bookended by wildlife. South Georgia has one of the largest king penguin rookeries in the world, home to about a quarter of a million birds all simaultaneously laying, gestating, moulting, eating and singing tuneless intergalactic folk songs to each other. King penguin chicks take a year to go from egg to fully watertight penguin, and for most of that time they stand around on the beach smacking each other and mugging their parents for food. Finally, when the chicks are wider than they are tall and almost too fat to stagger into the sea, they vanish.

In the meantime, they are photographed. Getting a hundred or so mainly elderly passengers into a dozen layers of clothing, onto the zodiacs and safely ashore is a trip in its own right. Ensuring that all of those passengers stay in line and do not disturb nesting penguins or oversexed fur seals is equally challenging. The solution are single-file photocalls in which one group of chicks get roughly the same level of close-focus attention as footballers in detox. Everyone here has brought along an average of two cameras plus camcorder to absolutely ensure that no stage of a penguin’s sexual or digestive development remains unnoted. Only those people who have been here many times before don’t fall victim to the conviction that nothing in life has really been experienced unless it’s been recorded in six formats.

On top of that, there are the penguin-counters. Ron Naveen, head of Oceanites, used to be a lawyer but chucked it in and came to Antarctica. Since then, he has been manually counting gentoo, adelie and chinstrap populations, his theory being that penguins are the canaries of global warming. Because the poles reflect changes in temperature and climate faster and more dramatically than anywhere else on the planet, penguin populations rise or fall equally dramatically. So gentoos are up by around 40 to 60%, but adelie and chinstraps are down by about the same.

His work is now used by many of the 48 signatories to the 1991 Antarctic Treaty to establish guidelines for tourism and science. The Antarctic has no government, no passports, no police force, no permanent human population, just a system based very largely on trust. Inevitably, politics intrudes – the British and Argentinians still squabble over everything – but the point of greatest weakness is probably in the seas surrounding. Vessels which get into trouble (last year four crew members of the Norwegian yacht Berserk were killed during a storm in the Drake Passage) may be so far from any other ship that nothing can be done in time. At present the only way of dealing with a major maritime incident is to make sure it doesn’t happen.

On Elephant Island, Frank Wild was left in charge of 22 men while Shackleton set off for South Georgia. They found shelter under the two remaining lifeboats in a cove with a calving glacier at one end and the sea at the other. Wild, unrelentingly hopeful, kept the men’s spirits up by allowing them to read out a single recipe a day. Thick pack ice meant that it was four and a half months before Shackleton was able to get through. When the Yelcho finally arrived, Wild was serving out lunch, ‘which was particularly good that day, consisting of boiled seal’s backbone, limpets and seaweed.’

Now the cove is unreachable; the glacier has receded and the sea has advanced. Still, we stand there on the bow, well-fed and warmly clothed, imaginatively as remote from Wild’s experience as if we were still in London or Sydney.

And then, finally, the place itself. ‘Welcome to Antarctica,’ says Prossin as often as possible, ‘The coldest, highest, driest, windiest, darkest, loneliest place on the planet.’ And somehow, despite the penguin origami and the Soviet broadcasts, despite all the distance between us and Shackleton, this place is still astounding, and still unimaginable. Unimaginable because it’s vast – 10% of the world’s continental surface, unimaginable because it doubles in size every winter, unimaginable because everything here somersaults the ordinary laws of physics. Waterfalls flow upwards, storms stay petrified, snow shrieks.

Going out in the zodiacs, we slide past icebergs shaped like galleons, castles, symphonies. ‘People come down here for the wildlife,’ says author and guide David McGonigal, ‘But they come back for the ice.’ Over millennia, the air in glacier ice is pressed out, compressing the water into an essence of itself. So the deeper the blue, the older the berg. In these abstract fragments is contained a record of ourselves and our planetary history like the rings on a thousand-year tree.

This is the engine room; this is the place where climate and weather come from, where the world is made and unmade. Zipping from shore to ship to island on the zodiacs, even the numbest of the passengers stops taking photographs and listens. Ice snaps, birds cry and once in a fabulous while, a glacier or an iceberg calves with a sound like the end of time.

Does any of this connect to the journeys that the great explorers made? Not really. Reaching Antarctica is both too different and too usual now. But it does act as a reminder that part of what we reach for in Shackleton and Wild’s story is not just that they got out, but that they came back. ‘What the ice gets,’ Shackleton said as he stood watching the Endurance crack and fall, ‘The ice keeps.’