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Wild’s ashes found in Joburg Print E-mail
20 October 2011

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The ashes of Antarctic explorer Frank Wild have been found, and will be taken on a symbolic final adventure, to be placed in South Georgia, in the icy South Atlantic.

THE missing ashes of British explorer Frank Wild have been found at the Braamfontein Cemetery.

City Parks' Allan BuffCity Parks' Alan Buff with the container that held Frank Wild's ashesAlan Buff, City Parks technical support manager and a horticulturist, found the ashes in the columbarium, the vault under the cemetery’s chapel. Buff said the ashes were found by pure chance, following a lead biographer Angie Butler had from a newspaper clipping from 1966 that indicated his ashes were in a chapel.

Commander John Robert Francis Wild – known as Frank (1873-1939) – was famous for his five expeditions to Antarctica, for which he was awarded the Polar Medal with four bars, a unique achievement. He spent more than 10 years on the frozen continent and ended his days in South Africa.

According to the records at City Parks, Wild’s body was taken to the Brixton Crematorium but two days before the cremation, his body was moved to the Braamfontein Cemetery. After being cremated, records show that his ashes were reverted to his family but the mystery, Buff said, was that the ashes returned to Joburg.

Wild’s last wish was to be buried alongside Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton – who died at the age of 47 – with whom he had travelled to Antarctica on a few occasions.

It was during his time at sea that he had struck up a friendship with Shackleton, whom he referred to as his loyal friend and boss. Shackleton’s fourth expedition aimed to circumnavigate Antarctica, but on 5 January 1922, he died of a heart attack off South Georgia. He was buried on the island.

Final voyage
Following an intense seven-year research journey – which largely involved finding the missing remains – Wild will embark on his final voyage of a commemorative 19-day trip led by Angie Butler, the author of The Quest for Frank Wild and co-founder of Ice Tracks Expeditions to the Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica.

Auther Angie ButlerAuthor Angie ButlerAmong the confirmed guests are Alexandra Shackleton, Sir Ernest’s grand-daughter, and six Wild family members. The expedition will depart from Ushuaia, Argentina on 20 November and return on 8 December.

Wild’s ashes will be laid to rest beside Shackleton, and the two great explorers and friends will finally be reunited at the whaler’s graveyard in Grytviken, the principal settlement in the British territory of South Georgia in the South Atlantic Ocean.

After Shackleton’s death during the Shackleton-Rowett Expedition, Wild took over as captain of the ship, visiting the South Shetland Islands, Gough Island and Tristan da Cunha before bringing the adventure to an end.

Wild took part in the British National Antarctic Expedition aboard the Discovery (1901-04), the British Antarctic Expedition aboard the Nimrod (1907-09), the Australian Antarctic Expedition aboard the Aurora (1911-14), the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-17), and the Shackleton-Rowett Expedition aboard Quest (1921-22).

Gold mine
He died of pneumonia in 1939 at the age of 66, while working as a storekeeper on a mine in Klerksdorp, a few hours’ drive from Joburg. Little was known of his later life in South Africa, most of which was maligned by hearsay and sensational journalism.

Over the years, it was reported that he died in poverty, an alcoholic and a drifter, forgotten by his fellow explorers and disregarded by his adopted country. It was also reported that was never able to come to terms with Shackleton’s death.

In her book, which was released on 1 August, Butler paints Wild as “an outstanding man lost in life and death”. “I realised that practically nothing was known of Wild’s life in Africa and the little that was known was a truly damning account of his time spent there,” she notes in the book.

The steps leading down to the calembariumThe steps leading down to the columbarium“I have felt an affinity for this story because I was born and brought up in [Johannesburg] South Africa and have a passionate love for the country, and also because Wild’s exceptional character as an explorer did not tie up with the man who ended his days in that country.”

She adds: “This description of his later life has often even eclipsed his brilliant career in polar exploration. There was something utterly bewildering in the story: no one knew where he was buried. How had one of the greatest explorers of the ‘Heroic Age’ become lost in life and seemingly in death too?”

In an interview, Butler said that she wanted to change people’s perceptions of this great man and his life in South Africa. “I’d like to think we cleaned his slate about what people thought of him. He didn’t deserve that reputation.”

Research
She begins her book by explaining her attraction to Wild’s story and notes that it was not intended to be a book. Rather all the research was going to be handed to the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

“As time went by, my interest in Antarctic exploration and in particular my obsession with Wild increased. Not only had his name been besmirched by sensationalistic reporting that was repeated and often embellished, but as I picked my way through the maze I found other dark areas, shadows of intrigue and shades of wrongdoing.

“Several years later, sitting ankle deep in papers, firing off stinging emails to those who repeated the inaccurate accounts about him, I knew I had to tell his story. As a biographer I would need to give up my role as Wild’s minder, stand back and let the truth speak for itself.”

The Quest for Frank Wild tells the tale of Butler’s determination to unravel the truth about his final years through insight into his early life; war years and time in Nyasaland in 1917-1929; his final expedition: the Shackleton-Rowett Expedition aboard Quest; in South Africa; his briefly better times and about his medals and ashes; expeditions; and his memoirs.

The colunmbariumThe columbariumWith the encouragement of his second wife – a South African named Beatrice Lydia Rys Rowbotham, fondly known as Trix – Wild began writing his memoirs in 1934 with the sole intention of having them published as a book.

They comprised his adventures from his merchant navy days in 1889 and ended with a brief account of life on Elephant Island in 1916.

Worst journey
In her book, Butler writes: “By all accounts, Wild had a publisher who had been introduced to him by the well-known and prolific author of the day, Valentine Williams, ‘waiting’ for the book … Why nothing came of this is unknown.”

At the beginning of her journey, Butler’s interest was sparked after reading The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, which she calls “one of the definite books on the ‘Heroic Age’ of polar exploration that has fired up many people’s interest in polar history”.

She began to devour books on the subject. She read about Robert Falcon Scott, Sir Ernest, Douglas Mawson and Roald Amundsen, who each wrote about their ordeals in beautifully succinct prose with a modesty not often found today, she noted.

“But one man in particular caught my attention: he was much less known than the others, yet he had more experience of the Antarctic than any of the famous four.”

At a one-on-one interview with Butler at the Braamfontein Cemetery, she said that her interest in Wild was further fuelled after she found an article written in 1966 about the sons of England, which included information on Wild, and said that there was no record of where his ashes were kept.

A short while after that article, another was published by The Star newspaper, indicating that “Mrs Wild says the ashes are in a chapel”. However, she failed to mention which chapel. Since her only lead was that she knew the full name of Trix, Butler set out on an extensive research journey.

The bookThe Quest For Frank Wild unravels the truth of the final years of the British explorerAfter numerous telephone calls, she got hold of a relative, June Rowbotham. During that impromptu conversation, she learned that Rowbotham had inherited all of Trix’s papers and letters, including typed copies of Wild’s memoirs and his diary of the voyage to the farthest south.

Second World War
“With regard to the ashes there is documentary evidence that Trix guarded them in the belief that they could be sent to Antarctica to be buried with Shackleton on South Georgia. However, this was impossible for her to do until the Second World War was over,” Butler noted.

“After that, she may not have had the wherewithal to arrange it, and so had held on to the ashes. She died on 2 February 1970 and was cremated on 17 February. Her ashes were scattered the following day in the Garden of Remembrance [at the Braamfontein Cemetery].”

After fruitlessly searching for the ashes, Butler, who was unable to take his remains to South Georgia, made an arrangement to have a plaque set up in the little Lutheran church where Shackleton’s funeral was held.

“It took two years to bring the project into fruition, but in March 2009 I sailed from Ushuaia via Falklands to South Georgia [aboard] the Professor Multanovskiy. After five days at sea we docked in Cumberland Bay off the Port of Grytviken and, clutching the bronze plaque depicting Wild smoking his pipe, I was taken ashore,” she writes in her book.

Video
City Park's Alan Buff and author Angie Butler talk about the quest to find Britich explorer Frank Wild's ashes. Watch video

And in a simple unveiling ceremony, the plaque was erected on the wall of the gallery at the back of the church.

Now that his remains had finally been found, Butler said she was elated. She heard the news in a phone call from Buff. “I believe they were never scattered and remained here [at the cemetery] to be taken back to Antarctica.”

She is now able to complete her journey by taking Wild back to where he belongs.

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