Sir Hubert Wilkins Sir Hubert Wilkins - SA's forgotten hero: Keith Conlon visits Mt Bryan in the Outback region of South Australia

Sir Hubert Wilkins is a forgotten South Australian hero who's invisible to most of us yet he's arguably one of this state's greatest sons - a pioneer aviator, explorer and adventurer.

In search of his fascinating life story we set out to visit his birthplace. Heading north through the once bustling mining town of Burra we come across the first sign that we're getting close - a mosaic monument at Mount Bryan.

Further up the Barrier Highway to the wheat town of Hallett and a sign directs us off the highway and up and over the northern end of the Mount Lofty Ranges. Onto the back roads and around to the back of Mt. Bryan and at last real acknowledgment - the restored cottage of Sir Hubert Wilkins. Sir Hubert who? Well, George as he was known when he was born and raised here, became a war hero and then, as an American newspaper put it, the famed Australian explorer of the North and South poles.

The lonely stone cottage in the middle of beautiful but harsh and unpredictable farming country was where young George was born in 1888.

The youngest of a dozen children, he witnessed devastating droughts, seemingly endless hot summers and bitterly cold winters. Things Wilkins admirer and local farmer, John Honan knows too well.

"The family must have endured very hard times," said John. "It couldn't have been much harder for them as there's no running water, no electric power - just kerosene lamps. And very cold in winter and very hot in summer."

The locals, with the help of the likes of Dick Smith, a self-proclaimed Sir Hubert devotee and Australian Geographic have restored the cottage - from the foundations up literally as a tribute to the local lad that strode the world stage.

George Hubert Wilkins was 16 when he caught the train from Hallett to study engineering at the School of Mines in Adelaide. But he never completed his course. By his early 20s he had stowed away, they say, to London to pursue his passion for the film camera and the flying machine - something he put to good use covering the Balkans War.

In 1913 his first Arctic adventure came as official photographer on Vilhjalmur Stefansson's Canadian Expedition. Our forgotten hero walked over 8,000 kilometres over 3 years in the hostile frozen north. According to another Wilkins enthusiast, Valerie Sitters of the Royal Geographical Society of SA, he also learned how to survive.

"He was also realising that the Arctic and the Antarctic was very much involved in world weather," said Valerie. "So you are going to need a chain of weather stations in the Arctic to see what was eventuating there and how it was going to effect Europe and America. And in the Antarctic of course, Australia."

But when the expedition got back to civilisation three years later they discovered a world consumed by war. Of course, our man signed up and, as an aerial photographer on the Western Front and was awarded the Military Cross - twice!

After the war he returned to England and entered the great air race - the Australian Government was offering 10-thousand pounds for the first all-Australian flight from England to Australia.

Wilkins was the navigator on the "Blackburn Kangaroo" - but things didn't quite go as planned when the plane crashed in Crete. Adelaide's Keith and Ross Smith went on to win the race in their Vickers Vimy.

But Wilkins still had a deep fascination with the world's weather patterns and flight - a fascination that would make him one of the world's first great airborne explorers.

"Always constantly at the back of his mind," said Valerie. "Is the effect of devastating drought and flood on Australian farmers and what it did to his own family. And this driving need to establish meteorological studies."

In the 1920s George Hubert Wilkins was back in the Arctic experimenting with planes. He sold the unsuitable but famous 'Southern Cross' plane to Kingsford-Smith for his epic first flight across the Pacific.

Our pioneer polar aviator was about to win world headlines too. After several successes and scrapes in the Arctic Circle he dared to fly the shortest route from North America and Europe - up and over the North Pole!

"Airline companies were beginning to realise that the shortest routes from Europe to America were over the poles," said Valerie. "Wilkins was successful with his co-pilot and navigator, Ben Eielson. They did the flight in 20 hours and 20 minutes."

An incredible effort - they flew across the Arctic Sea from Alaska to Spisbergen in Norway. He was knighted for his efforts and chose to be known as Sir Hubert - not bad for a boy from the mid-north.

There was more to come. In the US he married a beautiful Australian actress, Suzanne Bennett but she was soon to see him off on his most incredible and ambitious expedition of all. He'd flown over the Arctic ice - now he wanted to go under it to the North Pole!

Sir Hubert bought an unwanted submarine from the US Navy for a song and renamed it after his good friend, Jules Verne's famous fictional underwater pioneer, 'Nautilus.'

"Everyone said but your men will freeze to death in a submarine under the polar ice," explained Valerie. "No they won't because it's the temperature of water, it won't be any colder than that they won't freeze to death they'll be fine…"

He was right. Mechanical problems saw them fall short of the Pole but again Sir Hubert was a pioneer - his voyages under the ice proved it could be done.

He was also the first to explore the Antarctic by flying over it. In WWII the US military employed him to advise on surviving in extreme climatic conditions - after all he'd done it most of his life.

He was 70 when he died in a hotel room in Massachusetts in 1958.

The US Navy granted his final wish - they took his ashes in their submarine USS Skate and gently eased up through the ice at the North Pole where they scattered his remains as a final mark of respect.

If you'd like to visit the Sir Hubert Wilkins cottage, it's off the Barrier Highway at Mount Bryan East.

The Burra Visitor Centre will tell you how to get a key and map. The Hallett Town Hall History Room has a display and there is a host of information on the web. If you have any further questions please email info@postcards-sa.com.au

Sir Hubert Wilkins Cottage
Mt Bryan East

Burra Visitor Centre
Market Square
Burra
Phone: (08) 8892 2154

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