“He lived his dreams waking.”
When I first started reading about Hubert Wilkins, I had absolutely no idea who he was. But after just a short while, I soon began to wonder why on earth he hasn’t gone down in the annals of history as one of the greatest explorers of all time.
George Hubert Wilkins was born on Hallowe’en, 31st October 1888, on a sheep farm on the edge of the Australian outback. He grew up amid the distress caused by repeated seasons of drought and failed crops, and he vowed that, if he did one thing with his life, he would find a way of predicting weather patterns so that farmers could avoid the worst effects of famine.
“While it might not be possible for man, with his limitations, to control the weather, it might be possible to learn something of its laws and movements.”
During the First World War, Wilkins served with the Australian forces in Belgium as an official cinematographer. He covered every battle in which the Australians were engaged, and survived them all unscathed, despite his refusal to carry a firearm. He was described by one of his commanders, General Monash, as ‘the bravest man I have ever seen.”
After the war had ended, the stakes were raised still further. As a newsreel reporter, Wilkins was offered a three-month assignment in Russia, where he was instructed to film the relief efforts being organised by the Society of Friends. He was walking into a powder keg: the Tsar and his family had just been assassinated, and the whole country was in a state of volatile upheaval. Bolshevik secret police stalked the streets, and people were dying in their millions from hunger and disease.
NOTHING TO FEAR
At Buzuluk, a city on the Samara River, a gruesome rumour reached Wilkins’ ears. A dark story was going around of an old woman’s house where people were being killed and eaten. “Keep well away,” he was told. “No one who goes there ever comes back.”
Did Wilkins take any notice? No.
“Still believing in the inordinate luck that had seen me through many an apparently hopeless situation, I set out alone, carrying what little food we could spare.”
About half an hour later, Wilkins was waking up on someone’s back porch, with a large and painful lump on his head and the sound of angry voices in the background. Raising himself up, he focused dizzily on his surroundings, which were not pleasant. Dismembered arms and legs were everywhere.
“The cannibal story was true after all, and I felt that at last I had been too venturesome.”
Too venturesome? Just a tiny bit.
But the horror turned quickly to pathos. Wilkins bravely confronted his captors and showed them the food that he had brought. They fell to their knees, weeping with relief. He was allowed to go free, on the condition that he sent them some more.
That must be several lives used up already… and Wilkins hadn’t even set out on his true calling, which was Arctic exploration.
On 15th April 1928, Wilkins and the American aviator Carl Ben Eielson took off in a Lockheed Vega monoplane from Barrow, Alaska. The next day, after nearly 21 hours of flying time, they arrived in Spitsbergen, having crossed 2,200 miles of unknown seas. In the same year, Wilkins made the first flight in the Antarctic, mapping undiscovered land from his aircraft.
SCIENCE AND PRESCIENCE
Wilkins’ family claimed that he had the gift of foresight, and one of his forebears certainly did. In 1648 John Wilkins, Bishop of Chester and co-founder of the Royal Society, predicted the invention of submarines and described their advantages in great detail. Did he know what one of his descendants would attempt to do?
In 1931, Hubert Wilkins became the first man to attempt to sail a submarine underneath the Arctic ice, travelling via the North Pole. His vision was without question, but sadly the mission seemed ill-fated from the start, and by the time the vessel, named ‘Nautilus’, arrived in the Arctic, it had been badly damaged and was unable to make more than a short dive below the surface. Wilkins always maintained that it had been sabotaged. Whatever the cause, it was a daring attempt, and it paved the way for others to follow.
“Wilkins, with his forward thinking, saw this expedition as the beginning of a highway under the pole. He envisioned fleets of submarines travelling beneath the Arctic ice cap on the shortest routes between the American and Asian land masses.”
What else did Wilkins do?
He circumnavigated the globe on board the German airship, Graf Zeppelin; he crossed the Atlantic four times by air; he spent two years recording endangered wildlife in the Australian outback; and he was a member of Shackleton’s crew on his last voyage to the Antarctic. When Shackleton died, it was Wilkins who filmed the men building his memorial cairn in South Georgia.
Wilkins also had the inexplicable ability to receive radio signals in his head. It was his companions on board Shackleton’s ship, the Quest, who first reported this phenomenon.
“He could be far away from the radio room and pick up the radio messages as they came over the receiving sets inside the room. I’ve heard of this quality in people before, but only saw it in his case, and then he could work it only occasionally.” D G Jeffrey, navigator on the Quest
“We really should be able to put ourselves outside this earth of ours and study it as a whole.”
Even more importantly, Wilkins noticed signs that the Antarctic ice was receding long before the world had grasped the concept of climate change. He believed that the Poles held the key to understanding global weather patterns, and he dreamed of establishing weather stations in the Antarctic to monitor the changes. Decades later, the world woke up to the truth that Wilkins already knew.
“Through a study of world meteorology we can hope to provide information of extreme value to primary producers and so help feed the ever increasing population of the world.” ‘Flying the Arctic‘ by G H Wilkins
In 1931 Sir Hubert Wilkins was awarded the Livingstone Medal by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.