South Georgia On My Mind

The ladies from Singapore were perturbed. The revelation that we were leaving Antarctica a day earlier than planned sent them into a huddle to discuss options, as if they had any.

I caught snippets of their conversation and the tone seemed to lie between conspiratorial and mutinous. Finally, one raised a hand and tried to catch the attention of the Aurora Expeditions’ staff member who was explaining why we had to leave the White Continent and head north-east to South Georgia. Antarctica was the reason they had booked, a place that offers bragging rights like no other, but now bad weather was forcing us away. Were they being cheated? Conned? The ladies’ spokesperson struggled to make herself heard over a louder, more aggressive Australian group close to the front of the ship’s lecture theatre.

Seeing the Singaporeans distress, I leaned over and said as reassuringly as I could. “Don’t worry, South Georgia is better.” I’m not sure they believed me entirely, but I wasn’t simply trying to placate them – I happened to be telling the truth.

Named by Captain Cook in 1775, sub-Antarctic South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands is officially a British Overseas Territory. Its government is based in the Falkland Islands, which lie roughly 810 nautical miles to the west. From there, or from Antarctica, South Georgia is around a three-day sail in a modern cruise ship. Owing to its inclement topography, it has no airstrip, and because of the extra distances and time at rough sea, it is not included on most Antarctic itineraries. This is good news for those who make the effort, and doubly so for anyone troubled by the volume of ships now cruising the southern seas.

I first visited in 2015 aboard Aurora Expedition’s plucky little ship the Polar Pioneer, then again at the start of 2020 on the vessel the Australian company had built to replace it, the Greg Mortimer. In many ways, the ships were irrelevant – I was there for the archipelago, its dizzying menagerie, and its improbable, magnificent history. 

When I told the Singaporean ladies that it’s better than Antarctica, what I really meant was that it is more diverse – it has several things the continent proper does not, most notably the colour green. From afar, tussock grass gives the South Georgian foothills an alpine appearance and, along with 25 other native plants (plus many more introduced besides) this comparative lushness allows for species of birds to thrive here which would perish further south. Among them are the South Georgian pipit, the world’s southernmost songbird, and the South Georgian pintail, the world’s only meat-eating duck. 

These endemic curiosities are of great interest to birders, but they represent just a handful of the 30 million or so birds that have made South Georgia home. They are ruled by the ridiculous regents of the south, the king penguins, which number around a half a million here. They may not be as tall as their emperor cousins in Antarctica, but they are more colourful, more numerous, and far more accessible. 

Both times I’ve been to South Georgia I made it to one of their strongholds, Gold Harbour, a notoriously difficult landing for expedition staff, but one unanimously beloved by passengers. Mountains wearing a glacier like a heavy cape rise from the rear of its long beach. These are preceded by streams and pools, almost all of which are stuffed with penguins and fur seals. Above giant petrels and vicious southern skuas patrol the sky, looking for abandoned eggs, or young penguins, though the youngest seals aren’t entirely safe, either. The southern end of the beach resembles a Tokyo train station at rush hour, with king penguins packed so tightly, creating so much dazzling movement, as to appear like noise on a gigantic television screen. These flashes of black and white and gold are occasionally interrupted by the hulking brown masses of adolescent elephant seals, rearing up to butt and barge each other, play-fighting now before the gladiatorial battles of adulthood.

While I stood watching this bedlam last year, expedition staff member Isabelle Howells came up and grabbed the thick cuff of my polar jacket, her eyes glittering, her face tight with excitement. Though she had worked several Arctic seasons as a whale expert, this was her first time in the south and she found it impossible to feign indifference. Days later, when we spoke in the ship’s bar, she had found the words to describe what she had felt: “South Georgia was a much more intense experience than I had been ready for,” she said. “A few years ago, I watched some BBC documentaries, so I knew that places like it existed, but I didn’t expect I’d ever realistically be there. Gold Harbour was the first time we had that real density of animals and I was running around taking photos… I had to pinch myself to remember: ‘Oh yeah I need to do some work, too.’”

It’s easy to be undone by South Georgia, by the ludicrous drama of Drygalski Fjord, at the head of which icebergs gather like a spectral fleet. Or by huge pods of fin whales, so numerous their blows appear like fleeting forests, now returned to these rich waters since the last of the island’s whaling stations were abandoned in the 1960s. 

In the early 20th century, South Georgia was the most important location for shore-based whaling in the southern hemisphere. Grytviken, the first station, was established in 1904 and only shut in 1965, when the whales had become so scarce it was unviable. Many of the old buildings still stand there, macabre remnants of an industry that saw more than 175,000 cetaceans butchered, an almost incalculable volume of gore.

Today, these grim facilities are hollow and silent, rusted the colour of ground cinnamon, yet so much as there is a settlement remaining on South Georgia, then Grytviken is it. Near the town limits the Norwegian Lutheran church is looked after by the same contingent of Britons working for the South Georgia Heritage Trust in the excellent South Georgia Museum and its inexplicably popular gift shop. 

The museum covers the whaling industry as well as more recent history, with an understandably large section devoted to the Falklands War, which started here when Argentinians seized the old whaling station at Leith Harbour, then fought a two-day skirmish with the SAS in the bay around Grytviken. The conflict soon grew and moved west in the aftermath. 

If learning about the onset of the Falklands War on South Georgia represents surprise, the short trip to visit its most famous resident comes with more expectation.

Sir Ernest Shackleton eventually died leading his third Antarctic mission in 1922, not in the frozen hellscapes of the continent, but here in Grytviken Bay, most likely of a heart attack. An alcoholic at the time, he shouldn’t have come south again, but it’s unlikely he’d have lived much longer in the developed world, anyway. He’s now buried in a small cemetery at the far end of the settlement, under a monolithic headstone with a simple dedication: Explorer. 

There are other tales of incredible Antarctic survival – Sir Douglas Mawson’s excruciating month-long trek in 1913, completed alone and starving, never gets the recognition it deserves. Historical hipsters may well point out that Swedish explorer-scientist Otto Nordenskjöld’s catastrophes and near-divine rescue a decade earlier would surely be spoken about more if he was British, too. Yet above all the mighty figures of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, Shackleton surely stands alone.

He led three missions south, but it’s the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-17 that sets him apart. After months of calamities on the continent, including the loss of his ship, Endurance, Shackleton chose six men with whom to sail to South Georgia from Elephant Island to raise the alarm in a final, desperate roll of the dice on behalf of his crew. 

Their hideous 16-day journey saw freezing salt water flay the skin from their hands and their rank reindeer sleeping bags go rotten in the boat. Sleep-deprived and frost-bitten, they eventually ran out of tobacco – their sole luxury – and with it, most of their hope. When they reached South Georgia, they were almost dashed on the rocks by a storm but, after nine hours of toiling, finally made it ashore. It was then they realised they had 35 miles of trekking to do in their raggedy, sodden clothes, over uncharted mountains and glaciers, to reach a Norwegian whaling station at Stromness. 

With three of the men already near-dead with exhaustion, Shackleton chose Frank Worsley and Tom Crean to follow him across the island, an unimaginable test of their will to live. Miraculously they made it — arriving, in Worsley’s words, like “a terrible trio of scarecrows” — and began the complex rescue of the constituent parts of his expedition. No one in his party died. “We had pierced the veneer of outside things,” Shackleton wrote later. “We had suffered, starved and triumphed, grovelled down yet grasped at glory, grown bigger in the bigness of the whole.”

Narcotic fanatic and writer Hunter S Thompson used to type out pages of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby so he could “feel” what it was like to be a great writer. In some ways, coming to South Georgia is like that with Shackleton. It offers the chance to see land he saw, unchanged by development; to be in proximity to his greatness, even with a century of distance; to feel just a little of what it’s like to be an explorer of old. I found this was never easier than when following in his footsteps over the final four miles of his epic trek to salvation.

The weather was kind, so we disembarked the Greg Mortimer in Fortuna Bay where we were met by gangs of belligerent fur seals, not thankful for having morning naps disturbed. Nervously passing them, we climbed steeply through tussock grass, before transitioning onto shale, then over a wide, bare pass. After an hour or two, the scenery opened up and we eventually reached a promontory overlooking a yawning U-shaped valley. At its head, we could see Stromness. Close to this spot on 20 May 1916 Shackleton and his men huddled together and listened closely for a whistle coming from the whaling station. When they heard it, they knew they were saved.

The drama for we passengers was mostly related to more cantankerous fur seals close to shore, many of which flopped angrily around old whale oil drums like the final protestors of a long forgotten cause. When we boarded our Zodiacs, most passengers did so with thoughts of Shackleton, but also a sense of relief.

The following morning, there were more seal confrontations on the walk to Salisbury Plain, though as this was through a nursery, they were mostly babies, full of vim and vigour, but no real menace. We were there to see one of the archipelago’s mega penguin colonies, where over 100,000 breeding king penguins cover the hillsides like snowfall. All senses aflame, I wondered where else such a glut of animal life might be visible – during Africa’s Great Migration, perhaps, if your timing was right.

As we made a final retreat to the ship, I fell in stride with Heidi Krajewsky. I’d met her on the 2015 trip and by chance we had ended up sailing together again in 2020. We brought up the rear as our group marched back to the ship for a final time. This was our last landing and, as well as the dread reek of elephant seals, melancholy carried on the air. Walking across the grey sand, we were challenged by two adolescent fur seals, awkward teenagers seized by the bravado of the adults, but not the chutzpah to commit to violence. Heidi addressed them with the weariness of a nanny: “Come on guys, we all know you aren’t going to do anything.”

The seals didn’t know what she was saying, but they understood her message and shuffled aside. I mentioned how sad I was to be leaving again and felt a slight creep of anxiety – what if this is the last time? “If you love it so much, why don’t you apply to become expedition staff?” Asked Heidi, a veteran of 12 Antarctic seasons. I thought about it and realised I had no good answer, so when we got back to the Argentinian port of Ushuaia a few days later, that’s exactly what I did.

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