On Sunday morning, 15 January, I step outside. And then gasped, my jaw dropping to the deck. Sure, I had read a bit about it here and there, but nothing could have prepared me for the sight that greeted my eyes: a slice of South Georgia.
What must it have felt like to chance upon this island say, 150 years ago?
Captain Cook and his landing party were the first people to go ashore. He described the place as ugly, barren and inhospitable. Given his priorities, I can understand his descriptions of barrenness. But how could he possibly have been blind to the astonishing beauty of this place? Perhaps he was just super-peeved that he had only arrived at an island, and not at Antarctica!
A poetic description
In 1946, Niall Rankin described South Georgia in these words, and I will not try to outdo him:
"If you were to take a giant carving knife, slice along beneath one of the highest mountain ridges of Switzerland, just where the huge glaciers tumble into the valley below, and then drop your slice of mountain, dripping with sugar-icing, into the sea, I think you would get a fair idea of the place.
For it is long and narrow, and everywhere the snow-covered mountains rise straight from the water, reaching, near the centre of the island, to a height of over 9 000 feet [3 000m]. Seen from afar on an early spring day, South Georgia is a breathtaking sight and one not easily forgotten."
We entered the Eastern finger of Cumberland Bay and then sailed into and anchored in the smaller, King Edward Cove, where the remnants of Grytviken whaling station are still to be seen, along with a few ship wrecks dotted about. Ahead of me was the most peaceful scene imaginable. It even looked cosy and inviting. Had we sailed back in time?
We waited. Calm water. Quiet. Looking out and into this world from the past. The rusted whaling station machinery barely hinting at its grotesque past. It was almost eerie. If we had entered this bay a hundred years ago, the water probably would have been red from whale blood and the stench of death and boiling blubber would have choked us. From an ecological point of view, I thought about the destructiveness that had come from the combination of man's greed and inventiveness. When this combination is put to work, even on a small scale (compared to our modern technological abilities) but with such great intensity, disaster usually follows. And so it was that when the elephant and fur seals were almost wiped out, they turned their attention and ingenuity to whaling. Between 1904 and 1966, 175 250 whales were killed at the 6 whaling stations on South Georgia. Certain species still have not recovered and probably never will.
We were waiting for the British Administrator to come aboard our ship. Our SA Weather Services people were going to hand over about a dozen buoys that the British would deploy later in the year and we were to be briefed on the rules that applied on the island during our visit. This included washing our boots in disinfectant before disembarking, to avoid spreading any alien life forms onto the islands.
While waiting, I scanned the environment with my binoculars and discovered, to my utmost glee that the dark lumps all over the place, that appeared to be moving, were various species of seal and the little stripey things were actually penguins. OK, now I really could not wait to get ashore!
Eventually, a rather skinny but surprisingly stable gangplank was lowered from the side of the ship and we climbed down and into the rubber ducks to be taken ashore.
We only had about 4,5 hours on the island, before we would set sail again and by all accounts, there was too much to see and do. So, first stop was the post office, to post a few letters. I was in such a hurry, I even bought postcards and forgot to post them. Then, a quick wander through some of the rusted and gigantic whaling factory equipment. One lone King penguin walked around on the pathways as if he were a person, going about his normal routine. It was a very peculiar sight.
We walked up to the church, which was pre-constructed in Norway and then erected here on the island and consecrated on Christmas day, 1913. It is apparently one of the least-changed of all the buildings on the island.
Stepping inside really was like going back in time. Just the smell of the wood, the simplicity of design and the beautiful mountain vistas visible through the windows, had me utter another 'wow'. I went up the steps to ring the church bells, a loud and joyous sound!
From there, a group of about 7 of us went for a hike in the mountains behind the whaling station, to be able to see over into another bay, edged with lakes. We walked in a valley between two ranges, the mountains on our left rising vertically into the clouds. The wind blew the clouds around and kept exposing different snow-capped peaks. There was a stream with ice cold, delicious water; there was lots of thick and saturated moss, plenty of scree to traverse on the uphill bit at the end. The wind gusted. It was cold, invigorating. It snowed. It was perfect. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. The view on the other side of the mountain seemed to confirm that!
Later, back at Grytviken, we set off to walk to the whaler's cemetery where Shackleton lies buried, along with his right-hand man, Frank Wild, whose remains were only buried there in November 2011. (A fascinating story, but for another day!) Getting to the cemetery was a challenge of a most unexpected kind. There does not seem to be much of a path, not that it would have mattered much, as the entire area is occupied by fur seals and elephant seals. We stopped to plan our route and to discuss what to do if we were chased. The advice was "RUN!" I am not sure if that was sound advice. Where I come from, Africa, there are few animals that can be outrun by man. And running will usually guarantee your demise. It took a long time to get to the grave, as I could not stop marveling at all these creatures, all their activities and noises.
As Ernest Shackleton has long been one of my personal heroes, it meant a lot for me to stand at his grave and pay my respects, so to speak.
Then I spent some time conversing with the King penguins en route to the museum. Most of them are in moult and appear to be rather depressed, not being able to do much while Nature takes her course. Nontheless, it was awesome to get close enough to observe them.
The museum is not very big, but it is superb, by any standard. It is a great pity that we had so little time on the island, as I could easily have spent an entire day engrossed in the many and varied museum exhibitions, from geology to biology, from modern explorations to Shackleton and his generation, and of course, the art of whaling.
The whalers became so expert, that it took a mere 20 minutes to 'process' a whale. There are many photographs of the whole process. But I did not really want to look as they sicken me. One photo that is now, unfortunately, imprinted in my brain, is of a huge whale lying on its side, with 3 men in gumboots, walking on top of it, inside its flesh. Each man is carrying a long pole with a curved blade at its end. With this blade they cut and separate the external layer of blubber from the inner layer of flesh. This is called 'flensing'. At the other end of the photo is a huge winch, pulling up the whole gigantic piece of outer flesh that the men had cut loose.
Another museum display states that the largest animal ever found on earth was a blue whale of 34 meters in length. You guessed it. Yes, it was killed, right here.
The hours passed like minutes and then it was time to return to the ship.
The sun and clouds over the mountains encircling the bay gave us a spectacular farewell, with an especially beautiful play of light on one of the glaciers that we passed, where it tumbles down into the sea.