Dispatch Number Four
Date: January 5, 2013
Place: Grytviken, South Georgia
Falklands, South Georgia & Antarctica: Dispatch Number Four
(L-R) Jonathan Shackleton (historian, author and cousin to Sir Ernest), Susan R. Eaton (geologist, geophysicist and journalist) and Dr. Toni Williamson (geologist) at Sir Ernest Shackleton's gravesite in Grytviken, South Georgia, during the 2010 Elysium Epic Visual Expedition.
JANUARY 5, 2013
54° 16.9' SOUTH AND 36° 30.5' WEST
GRYTVIKEN, SOUTH GEORGIA
Ninety-one years ago, to the day, Sir Ernest Shackleton died aboard a boat anchored in Grytviken Harbour, South Georgia. Suffering a massive heart attack at the age of 47, Shackleton’s death marked the end of the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration.
On this auspicious and rainy day, we made the obligatory pilgrimage to Shackleton’s gravesite in Grytviken. We raised a wee dram to his polar achievements. As is customary, each of us saved a modicum of the single malt whisky for Shackleton, reverently pouring it on his gravesite.
During the 1907-1909 Nimrod Expedition, Shackleton’s team discovered the magnetic South Pole and came to within 100 miles of the geographic South Pole; his difficult decision to abort the race for the pole – due to dwindling food supplies and the deteriorating condition of his men – ensured that everyone made it home alive. When Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, was crushed by ice during the 1914-1917 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, his leadership ensured that all the men under his direct command survived the two-year ordeal.
But Shackleton’s gripping story didn’t end with his death: in a convoluted series of recent events, Frank Wild’s ashes were discovered after languishing, since 1939, in a South African crematorium.
In 2011, Shackleton’s right-hand man was laid to rest on Shackleton’s left-hand side. We toasted Wild’s return to the Bottom of the World, and his enduring friendship with Shackleton which began more than one hundred years ago.
Wild’s dying wish was to be buried beside the “Boss,” his friend and commander. His wish was fulfilled by Angie Butler, a South African journalist and author of “The Quest for Frank Wild” which was published in Great Britain in 2011. Butler located Wild’s misplaced ashes in a crematorium near Johannesburg, and she also found (and later published) Wild’s unpublished memoirs.
Counted amongst Shackleton’s closest friends, Wild participated in five Antarctic expeditions from 1901 to 1922. Second in command of three of Shackleton’s expeditions, Wild received the CBE, Commander of the Order of the British Empire. He also received the British Polar Medal decorated with four clasps, one for each of his polar expeditions.
When Shackleton died on January 5, 1922, Wild assumed command of the Shackleton-Rowett Expedition. Wild’s first task was to bury Shackleton – in South Georgia, as per Lady Shackleton’s wishes – and to erect a memorial cross and cairn at the entrance to Grytviken Harbour.
Closed in by a white picket fence, Grytviken’s cemetery sits atop a grass- and moss-covered hillside with a commanding view of the harbour. The cemetery’s outer perimeter is patrolled by self-appointed sentinels, King Penguins who stroll by in groups of two or three, seemingly lost in penguin conversation.
In order to reach the cemetery’s gate, visitors must first run the gauntlet of barking and lunging Antarctic Fur Seals. According to the expedition’s marine mammal specialists, the seals’ bite is far worse than their bark – if bitten, one is immediately treated with large and frequent doses of antibiotics. Visitors must also avoid getting close to low lying, contour hugging Elephant seals who can be identified, at a safe distance, by rising columns of steam and frequent snorts.
The majority of the cemetery’s 67 occupants are Norwegian whalers. A lone Argentine soldier, killed during the 1982 Falkland War, also lies here in his final resting place.
Shackleton’s gravestone is made of grey Scottish granite and measures over four feet tall – it dwarfs the other gravestones, small white plaques which are positioned flush to the ground and aligned in an east-west direction. In stark contrast, Shackleton’s gravestone is aligned in a north-south direction, in honour of his polar pedigree and the discovery of the magnetic South Pole. Wild’s gravesite, a modest white wooden cross, also faces towards the South Pole.
Jonathan Shackleton (historian, author and cousin to Sir Ernest) stands beside the memorial cross and cairn erected, in 1922, in Shackleton's memory, at the entrance to Grytviken Harbour, during the 2010 Elyisum Epic Visual Expedition.
I first visited Grytviken’s cemetery in 2010; my return, today, was more poignant because of the compelling story of Frank Wild’s return journey to South Georgia.
But, I wasn’t the only person swept away with Shackleton nostalgia, and a sense of time and place.
George Pedersen of Highland Park, New Jersey, was a senior in high school when he became fascinated by reading an account of Shackleton’s survival story in Endurance, by Alfred Lansing. Pederson, who retired three years ago from the finance department of the US Postal Service, owns a first edition copy, published in 1959, of Lansing’s Endurance.
Closing the circle some fifty years later, Pedersen, like most others, was excited to follow in Shackleton’s footsteps. “The hike from Fortuna Bay to Stromness Harbour gave me a tiny sense of the elation that Shackleton and his men must have felt upon reaching Stromness,” said Pedersen who tobogganed down the snow-covered mountainside, the final leg of the hike to Stromness.
“No matter how well written the book, I don’t think there are any words that can bring it to life,” said Pedersen. “I’ve always enjoyed seeing the landscape that the historical setting is based upon.”
I concur with Pedersen. Prior to my departure for the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Antarctica, I purchased a copy of Butler’s book, “The Quest for Frank Wild.” But, I’d only managed to read 25 pages of the book before visiting Wild’s gravesite.
Despite feeling like I’ve skipped ahead to the book’s final chapter, I look forward to reading the remaining pages of Butler’s book – my reading pleasure will be enhanced, no doubt, by my newfound sense of time and place. And, as the centennial of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition approaches, I will take delight in knowing that the Shackleton saga continues to evolve, in the 21st century, with strange and wonderful twists.
Frank Wild's ashes were laid to rest on November 27, 2011, at Grytviken, South Georgia Island, next to the grave of Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. The burial was preceded by a funeral service at Grytviken Anglican Church, attended by Shackleton's granddaughter Alexandra, Wild's descendants, and passengers from the Akademik Ioffe. Video courtesy of bobbieharv.
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Town of Grytviken, South Georgia.