In Shackleton’s footsteps

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After our magical morning at Fortuna Bay, we sail to Grytviken in deteriorating weather. Grytviken is the “headquarters” of South Georgia and it is there that the British Government has its representatives, runs a museum and post office and has a research base. Before we disembark to explore the small settlement, we are treated to a presentation from one of the staff who tells about the rat eradication program that has been and is being carried out on South Georgia. The rats have had a devastating impact on the South Georgian Pipit population, a small bird endemic to South Georgia. But the program is succeeding and in every place on the island where the rats have been eradicated, the pipits bounce back immediately.

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The South Georgia Pipit

It is slightly snowing when we land in the zodiacs on the beach at Grytviken and again we walk the gauntlet between fur seals and elephant seals. The main attraction in Grytviken is a visit Shackleton’s grave and in the small graveyard where his remains were laid to rest. There is also the museum that showcases the history of South Georgia, a church and the remains of the old whaling station. In order to avoid the last minute crush I start of by buying a few souvenirs and mailing some postcards , before I meander around the place. On a snowy day like today it looks like a bleak little spot, but it must be quite lovely when there is a blue sky and the sun is shining.

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Old whaling vessels

One of the museum buildings houses a replica of the James Caird, the boat in which Shackleton and five other men sailed from Elephant Island to South Georgia to find help. When you see the size of the boat you can hardly believe that he made it. It was so tiny and with six men in there, three were trying to rest under the cover of the boat – not exactly a big space – and the other three must have been crammed into the small space where they were steering. It hammers home what a remarkable feat of survival and navigation the journey was.

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The old whaling vessel Petrel

That evening we meet two of the government representatives stationed on South Georgia on board, who have been invited for dinner, along with other staff from the museum. We end up having dinner with Simon and Adam who tell us about life on the island, how long they’ve been there and what they did before (army and law enforcement).

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Salisbury Plain

On our second day in South Georgia we visit Salisbury Plain. Due to the weather conditions we can’t land close to the penguin rookery, as originally envisioned, but we have to land at a point much further out from where we walk in. Effectively plan D has been activated! And it’s a bit of a tightrope walk at first, having to avoid the fur seals around the place, who are particularly feisty that day. We also watch an angry elephant seal charge at another male elephant seal who is trying to get into a bit of his action. It’s amazing how quickly these blubbery big animals can move over land.

 

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A bit over a week after our visit to Salisbury Plain, news reaches the ship that a British tourist was bitten by what was suspected to be a fur seal and his arm was so badly injured that the British Navy had to come in to do a rescue! The second time the Navy has been in action for tourists in a short period of time.

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Fur seal with attitude
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Young fur seal
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All of us reflected in his eyes

Our walk takes place without incidents and when we get to the rookery we sink deep into mud, and scramble to find a good place on top of some tussock grass to watch the rookery and take photographs. Again, we see a lot of king penguin adults and brown fluffy chicks, squawking and feeding. The scenery around it is also spectacular, with tall mountains. Salisbury Plain itself is the largest flat area on South Georgia, which says something about the mountainous nature of the island.

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The old whaling station of Stromness

In the afternoon we visit the old whaling station of Stromness, which is also the end point of Shackleton’s amazing journey across South Georgia, after sailing there in the James Caird. We walk to the waterfall which was the last obstacle Shackleton, Worsley and Crean had to overcome before they could reach safety at Stromness. We follow in their footsteps when we retrace our steps from the waterfall to Stromness. I found that a very special, sobering and emotional moment, to think about the condition in which these men walked those final miles and the incredible journey they undertook to save their mates. It is a privilege to be able to walk in their footsteps and have some idea of what they saw.

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Retracing Shackleton’s steps to Stromness

If today was a special day, the next day was even better! Stay tuned.

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