On March 5 2022, exactly 100 years to the day that Ernest Shackleton was buried at Grytviken on South Georgia, where a hundred whalers and sailors sung him to his rest with a Norwegian funeral hymn, an SA ship, skippered by ice pilot Knowledge Bengu, finds the Endurance at the bottom of Antarctica’s Weddell Sea.
In an apartment in Greece, SA writer Darrel Bristow-Bovey starts receiving messages from friends around the world who know of his fascination with the Endurance expedition, one of the great tales of derring-do, and the unlikely survival of Shackleton and his 27-man crew in the harsh, unforgiving Antarctic wilderness.
Thus, the spark was lit for his new book, Finding Endurance: Shackleton, My Father and a World Without End. And what a triumph it is.
Tons of books have been written about the expedition, but Bristow-Bovey has breathed new life into his retelling of one of the most iconic adventures of all time. He links his meticulous research with a tender, deeply personal tribute to his father, who himself was a great raconteur, and with memories of growing up in SA.
Speaking at the launch at Love Books in Johannesburg, he said that in the process of writing he recognised for the first time the sacrifices his mother made to raise two children, on a government teacher’s salary, after the untimely death of his father.
“Combining elements of memoir with biography, the story questions the meaning of time, hope and ultimately, home,” he said. “The book explores how time’s arrow can be turned around, and the heartbreaking yearning we all have for a return to what we think is home, but which we have forever lost.”
As a small boy, Bristow-Bovey’s father told him he had been part of Shackleton’s crew, an impossibility that was recounted often. It led to an enduring relationship between the author and Shackleton’s perhaps overly optimistic approach to the conditions the Endurance would face and the feasibility of his goal to traverse the Antarctic from one coast to the other.
When Shackleton and his crew set sail on the eve of World War 1, the plan was to land on Antarctica and begin the expedition from there. But the Endurance became trapped in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea. For months, the crew tried to free the ship from the ice, but as winter approached, the pressure crushed her and she finally succumbed, splintering and sinking in the icy waters in November 1915.
Standing on ice, the men watch Shackleton as he watches the black ship disappearing. “They’re as far away from the world as any human will be again until humans go into space,” Bristow-Bovey writes. “They are in space, alone and facing extinction in the cold, expanding, measureless reaches of a great and terrifying blankness, and there is no-one to rescue them.”
But there is. “Shackleton lowers the binoculars and makes himself meet the gaze of the upturned faces. He says: ‘Well boys, she’s gone.’ And then: ‘So now we’ll go home.’”
As the characters fight for their lives, the narrative delves into their backstories and personal struggles, revealing their vulnerabilities and strengths. Shackleton’s remarkable leadership kept the crew united, and their spirits lifted as they camped on the ice floes. Having bought only 18 reindeer-fur sleeping bags for 28 men — because only the shore party was expected to sleep outside — he held a lottery to decide who would have to get by with lighter, porous woollen bags.
Shackleton cheated and made sure the fur bags went to the crew and not the expedition leaders. He repeatedly put the needs of his team ahead of his own. After months of failed attempts, he successfully organised the rescue of the remaining stranded men on Elephant Island, and not a single life was lost throughout the entire ordeal.
It may be a myth that the Inuit have 50 words for snow, but Bristow-Bovey has more than 50 ways to describe Antarctic land and sea ice and its multiple formations. The book masterfully weaves together breathtaking descriptions of the natural landscape with heart-stopping action.
The raw emotions of fear, determination, and hope leap off the pages. But the narrative is also peppered with brief, delightful and insightful observations and digressions about topics as disparate as bears, family and midges.
Whether you know your barquentines from your brigantines, this is courageous storytelling at its finest.
* ‘Finding Endurance: Shackleton, My Father and a World Without End’, by Darrel Bristow-Bovey is published by Jonathan Ball.
Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.
Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.