Antarctica, the loneliest continent, sacred and demanding of utmost respect, now lies behind us. I leave with the same sense of awe with which I arrived. Its towering walls, cold and resolute in their imposing stance, were the only company present for our departure. However, the company of ice was soon traded for the company of birds and seals as we arrived at the South Sandwich Islands—the precious jewel of the Antarctic.
Departing from Antarctica, we encountered little ice compared to our arrival and soon met with the open Southern Ocean. The summer thaw had performed its annual duty. Initial smooth seas led to rough seas as we came between the titanic battle waged between Zeus and Poseidon, the pendulum of power swaying between the wind and sea. Captain Nemo puts it better than I could in Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, addressing the protagonist, Professor Pierre Aronnax, “Is not the ocean gifted with real life, professor? It is sometimes gentle, at other times tempestuous. Yesterday it slept as we did, and now it has awaked after a peaceful night.” This was to be but only a taste of what was to come.
“Is not the ocean gifted with real life, professor? It is sometimes gentle, at other times tempestuous. Yesterday it slept as we did, and now it has awaked after a peaceful night.”
Our first stop was to be South Thule (pronounced too-lee), the southernmost of the South Sandwich Islands. SAWS (South African Weather Service) members on the cruise went ashore to retrieve and replace a buoy which they keep there throughout the year to collect data. The island contains relics of a former sealing station as well as an Argentinian base used during the Falklands War and is now dominated by local bird, penguin and seal colonies. The stopover was to be a short one and we were soon on our way out of the protected bay of South Thule.
From South Thule, a course was plotted which would skirt the Eastern rim of the Islands before making for South Georgia, where we were bound to step foot. For most of the way we were surrounded in thick fog and could only glimpse a few of the islands we passed. At this point we had also left the Antarctic circle and so we were treated to our first dark night in quite some time at the expense of perhaps spotting some of the other islands. Once we had cleared the final island before South Georgia, we headed into large stormy seas, notorious in this region so close to Drake’s Passage, the small stretch of water between South America and Antarctica where some of the world’s most turbulent seas brew and loom. Steve and I were awoken in the night as our bedside desk, in a moment of lucid self-awareness, no doubt brought on by a large rolling of the ship, decided to throw half of our belongings to the ground in protest of its destined purpose. Steve’s bed drawers were soon persuaded by the desk to do the same. One drawer was so fanatical that Steve decided to rather let it take on its new self-determined purpose of being a floor rug until the storm had been weathered. At the same time, Tahlia’s cabin furniture also initiated a revolt with the chairs flipping over and the TV swinging hither and thither. It was at this point that Tahlia, nimble on foot with a gorilla’s grip, managed to swoop in, catch her cup of tea as it slid across her coffee table mid-roll. On the outside decks the conditions were extreme. Small pieces of ice and cold water would blow up from the sea surface and sting your face. When the bow slammed into the water the kicked up spray would reach up to the seventh deck and soak you through all your clothing. What must sound chaotic to some was some of the most exciting time on the seas.
When we finally broke through the fog, South Georgia rose up before us demanding attention, an ancient monument to the strength of nature and the weakness of man. It was as though someone had put a piece of the snowy alps on an island in the southern Atlantic. South Georgia’s history is comprised of whaling, sealing, war and exploration. The many abandoned whaling and sealing stations across the island can still be seen and the town we were to visit, Grytviken, was just one such former station. The approach to the protected cove of Grytviken offered views of glaciers, mountains, seals and penguins in the water and birds in the air. Closer to the town, remnants of the Falklands War become visible—a fortified bunker and a helicopter wreckage against a hill just outside the cove. White crosses marking memorials and graves of those who’ve lost their lives on the island become visible before the town finally comes into view. At first glimpse, it seems like a rusting relic of the industrial era—chimneys, tanks, pipes and all manner of machinery in red-brown oxidised drab dominate the cove. These are the remnants of the whaling factory. The odious but arguably necessary evil was carried out by mankind here for the better half of the 20th century. Looking closer reveals the scientific buildings, museum, post office and church.
Gingerly, in small groups, we made our way onto the Agulhas’s small crafts for ferrying to the island where myself, Steve and Tahlia headed for the museum. Our time at the island was limited due to the poor weather en route to the island slowing us down and the need for enough of a window to successfully pull off Tahlia’s upcoming mooring op. This meant that I couldn’t give the museum the attention I would have liked—my priorities lay in first visiting the shop, then the grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton and the reservoir above the bay. I wish I could have immersed myself in the history of the island, especially before exploring much of the area, but I was a slave to circumstance. Having purchased what wares we wanted from the shop, we made for Shackleton’s grave.
Of Sir Ernest Shackleton I also ashamedly know far too little for my own good but I will tell you why he is synonymous with the island upon which he lays buried. He was an antarctic explorer and took part in the race to be the first to the South Pole. He could have been the first, but instead turned around before reaching it in order to guarantee the lives of his crew. On one of his expeditions his ship, Endurance, became beset in ice over the winter and the hull was crushed under the pressure. He and his crew were forced to use the lifeboats to sail to safety. Having landed the entire crew on Elephant Island, he and five others took the James Caird, deemed most sturdy of the three lifeboats, and sailed 1500km through manic seas to South Georgia to find help for the rest of his crew. It is deemed one of the greatest small-boat journeys ever taken. The six men then hiked across the island without any maps eventually finding the help they sought. In a later expedition Shackleton was to die of a heart attack while moored at South Georgia and then buried there. In all his expeditions, Shackleton never lost a single man—a feat unrivalled by his contemporaries. For these reasons, visiting his grave was a priority. Seeing his gravestone, being in as much of his presence as I could ever be, was a profound and humbling experience.
Getting to the cemetery and the reservoir thereafter proved to be a comical and risky task—the way was patrolled by antarctic fur seals. These seals are much like the fur seals we have in Cape Town, but the males come with added aggression during the mating months which coincided with our time on the island. Fortunately Steve, bestowed with much valour and daring, met the bulls head-on and distracted them while the rest of us snuck by, traversing the gauntlet. Even after getting past one or two distracted bulls you needed to be on the lookout because there would always be another nearby waiting to charge at you. Then, just before the cemetery, as a kind of last sentry, lay the elephant seals. These seals are gargantuan and smell worse than your uncle’s foulest mature cheese. Fortunately their size meant they were slow to react, but we gave their formidable bodies wide berth regardless. Heading to the reservoir meant further games of cat-and-mouse but the views were totally worth the risk of tetanus shots.
The South Georgia experience was to be a bittersweet moment. While it was an incredible and rare experience, it was also to be the beginning of the journey home. The next stop would be for the mooring and directly after that the course would be made for Cape Town.