Explorer’s ashes found in Joburg vault

Alan Buff with the box which contained the ashes of Frank Wild, one of the greatest British Edwardian polar explorers of all time. Buff works at the Braamfontein cemetery. Photo: Boxer Ngwenya

Alan Buff with the box which contained the ashes of Frank Wild, one of the greatest British Edwardian polar explorers of all time. Buff works at the Braamfontein cemetery. Photo: Boxer Ngwenya

Published Oct 20, 2011


Alan Buff was on a mission. The request had come through the day before, some or other writer desperate to find the ashes of some or other explorer.

A Frank Wild, whoever he was. Just one of the many requests that come through to Joburg’s cemeteries all the time. But Angie Butler had been told that if one man could find the ashes, it would be Buff, general manager of technical support for City Parks.

He carefully scoured the vault under the chapel in the Braamfontein Cemetery. Shelf by shelf, urn by urn.

Then – aha! – in niche 107.A Wild!

But it was a Leopold Wild, not Frank – not the forgotten Antarctic explorer Butler had spent the past seven years researching.

Buff pushed the urn back into the niche.

Clunk! It knocked against something. There was another box in there, wooden and green and hidden in the dark.

Buff pulled it out.

“Commander Frank Wild,” read the copper plate.

The explorer’s remains had been found.

It’s not a name most people know. Name some great explorers, and Frank Wild doesn’t spring to mind. But he was there, always just in the background, second-in-command and most trusted friend of the legendary Ernest Shackleton and quietly completing five trips to Antarctica.

When Shackleton died during his final expedition, it was Wild who took command and finished the journey.

After that, the story grows fuzzy.

He moved to South Africa, tried his hand at farming with little luck, and died in Klerksdorp – penniless, friendless and an alcoholic.

At least, that’s what all the rumours said.

But Butler, an avid fan of the great polar explorers, became fascinated with his story.

“He spent 16 years in South Africa,” she explains. “I felt this great sadness about him. He was a truly great explorer in his own right.

“The idea of him as drunk and penniless and friendless didn’t seem to tie up at all.”

And so she set out researching the truth behind the rumours, tracking down descendants and scouring through old newspapers.

What she found contradicted his reputation entirely.

“Everything he did was exceptional and unique. He was a party man and certainly liked his drink, but he had many friends and a happy marriage. I like to think we’ve cleaned the slate for him.”

But the trail grew cold after Wild’s death.

There was no grave. He had been cremated. Where were his ashes? Had they been scattered? Where?

All Butler had to go on was an old 1960s cutting from The Star, claiming the ashes were in a chapel. Which chapel? Which cemetery? It didn’t say.

Butler only knew of one: Braamfontein, the same cemetery where her own parents where buried. Wild had been under her feet the whole time.

Following the hunch, she flew back to South Africa.

As she descended into the vault below the chapel, the hairs stood up on her neck.”I had a very strong sense that either he was there or he must have been there at some point.”

But, pressed for time on a fly-in-fly-out visit, Butler couldn’t go through all the urns that day.

She returned to England and sent her request to Buff. Days later came the reply that took Butler’s breath away. Wild’s ashes had been found.

“I’d been looking for him for seven years. Many others tried, but pretty much everyone had given up. I never truly gave up.”

That was in January.

Butler was back in South Africa by April, fighting back tears as she held the green wooden box in her hands.

After decades in one place, Wild was once again travelling the world, this time in Butler’s hand luggage.

And next month he will make his final voyage as Butler and six of Wild’s descendants travel to the great white south. There, on the tiny island of South Georgia, his ashes will be buried next to Shackleton’s.

The great explorer returned, his reputation restored.

Butler likes to think it’s what Wild would have wanted all along. - The Star

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