Where working is a treat – South Georgia
South Georgia Island sits at the fringes of Antarctica with wild ice-covered peaks, soaring albatrosses, constant wind, massive glaciers calving, and wave-pounded beaches filled with wildlife so dense that it is hard to walk. In summer thousands of fur seals, elephant seals and penguins congregate here to fight, mate and rear their young.
South Georgia is my Ultimate Thule. I had read about Shackleton’s harrowing journey after his ship the Endurance got crushed by ice and his journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia, 800 nautical miles across the Southern Ocean in a tiny boat. Having landed on the uninhabited southern side of the island they then had to cross the unknown mountainous interior with nothing more than a carpenter’s axe and a few screws fixed to the soles of their leather boots. And when I heard kiwi Graham Charles talk about his kayak circumnavigation of South Georgia in 2005 I was transfixed.
How could I say no to the offer of work as guide and lecturer on a cruise ship sailing from Ushuaia in Terra del Fuego to South Georgia? Do you want to visit the most stunning place in the world and be paid for it? We left Ushuaia and headed southwest, visiting the Falkland Islands, and on the fifth day land appeared on the horizon, South Georgia.
The island is well known for its wind and we immediately got a taste of this when we tried to land in Right Whale Bay. Ferocious winds buffeted the ship; one moment I could see gusts coming across the water, the next I had my breath knocked out of me as they hit. Katabatic winds accelerate down glaciers and ice caps, driven on by gravity. They are the strongest winds on Earth. Water was flung into the air, the sea a violent maelstrom making a landing impossible.
Overnight we anchored in the sheltered Bay of Isles sharing it with 120 000 king penguins and their strong smell of guano. When I went ashore the beach was covered with fur seals, seal pubs and king penguins with brown fluffy chicks. Kings are one of the two biggest penguin species, over a meter tall with beautiful dark orange plumage on either side of their neck. Gleaming penguins with beads of water on their feathers came out of the surf waddling towards their chicks. Sounds of gawking and trumpeting and fishy smells surrounded me.
The penguins showed no fear, in contrast the seals snarled and even the pups opened their snouts and bared their tiny teeth which made me laugh. A king penguin couple courted right in front of me. The craning of necks and crossing of beaks ranged from tender to forceful as they had only eyes for each other.
It had been snowing, but when the sun broke through, 1000m pointy peaks were revealed. I was helping to land zodiacs standing with my waders thigh deep in icy water. Once everybody was ashore I accompanied the passengers to the colony where downy chicks stood flipper deep in mud. King penguin chicks look so different from their parents in their brown rompers that the early explorers mistook them for a different species. One chick took a special liking to me, cuddling up to my knees and pecking at my camera. Environmental protocol meant that we couldn’t approach any wildlife closer than 5m, but nobody told the wildlife….
In the afternoon we got permission to land on specially protected Prion Island, the only place to see wandering albatrosses on their nests. I love albatrosses, when other kids wanted to be dogs, lions or cats I always wanted to be a wandering albatross. I remember pouring over the pages of my kids book on “Birds of the World” that showed the wandering albatross with its 3m wingspan. In the 90 glorious minutes that I was allowed to stay on the island I had to escort passengers up and down the wooden steps to the viewing platforms which had been built to protect the fragile ground. An amazing ritual is the dance of the albatross, large wings spread, and beaks point skywards then touch each other gently nibbling feathers. Wandering albatrosses get whiter with age and right in front of me was a pure white bird sitting on its nest, from time to time getting up and stretching its legs and wings. Others gracefully swept overhead and I desperately wanted to soar with them.
“The wind sails the open sea steered by the albatross that glides, falls, dances, climbs, hangs motionless in the fading light….the statue of the wind.”
My days in South Georgia were long. Like a kid on Christmas day I woke early to see the sunrise at 4am. One morning we landed in Grytviken, the oldest whaling station on the Island. It is also the place of Shackleton’s grave. He died here in 1922 of a heart attack, just when heading South again for another expedition. On the back of the headstone is a quote by Robert Browning: “I hold that a man should strive to the uttermost for his life’s set prize.”
Rusty ships, derelict buildings and the big flensing plan spoke of the whaling past. South Georgia is steeped in the blood of whales. In the years between 1906 and 1931 a shocking 200 000 whales were killed around South Georgia in order to make soap, lamp oil, corsets, cat food and explosives. Men’s cruel efficiency.
When we landed at St Andrews Bay, the sea was glassy calm, heavily glaciated 2000m mountains rose from the sea and on the beach were half a million king penguins! It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in my life and for the rest of the day I couldn’t get the grin off my face.
It was my job to round up passengers and herd them back to the landing site. Nobody could better understand than me why they were reluctant to leave. By the time we were back at the landing site the sun had dropped and the light turned soft and golden. We sent the last zodiac with passengers back to the ship and had 20 minutes of “staff time”, just five guides. We dispersed and sat quietly, alone, absorbing. When I now close my eyes I still see this scene - a river flowing from the mountains, its banks lined with penguins forming the shape of a heart while the sun slowly sets behind the mountains and lenticular clouds turn golden.
For the final day we sailed to Cooper Bay on the south-eastern coast. When the anchor chain clattered into the sea thick fog engulfed us. Mine was the second zodiac to leave and I felt my way through the fog. Slowly it started to clear. Low cloud on the sea cliffs created an eerie atmosphere. The water around my zodiac was full of fur seals. Chinstrap and macaroni penguins porpoised along to their colonies. Sooty albatrosses soared in perfect synchronised flight, shags fed fluffy chicks on cliff tops, and kelp created abstract patterns on the water. After a steep climb, dodging several fur seals which were hiding in the tussock, we reached the upper cliffs where macaronis were sitting on chicks or courting with neck twisting and squawking. They got their name from the stringy yellow feathers on both sides of their head which reminded the early sailors of hats worn by flamboyant young men in England in the 18th century called "Macaronis."
In the afternoon the captain manoeuvred the ship 14km into the narrow Drygalski Fjord. Here mighty peaks rose sheer out from the sea to over 2000m. Shattered glaciers and ice falls fringed the fiord, and ice towers tottered ready to tumble into the water. Beautiful pure white snow petrels with friendly dark button eyes, and hectic Antarctic terns wheeled in search of food. The fiord was so narrow at its end that the ship had to do a three point turn in order to leave.
This was our last destination in South Georgia and as far as I was concerned time could have stopped there and then. This moment could have lasted forever, but soon the southern coast with its rugged mountains was disappearing astern.