I underestimated South Georgia. I thought it was just a stop on the way to Antarctica, a necessary delay in getting to the good stuff. I was so wrong.
South Georgia is a gateway to a rich and delicate wildlife world, full of creatures that survive on the edge of the unendurable. Adapted to long nights and night-less days, to katabatic winds and sea ice and sun that is no longer filtered by an ozone layer.
It’s home to elephant seals with inflatable snouts who lie in harems, and king penguins that start out as oakum boys, even when they are girls.
It’s a place where abandoned reindeer antlers lie gently on mosses and lichens, slowly returning to their base elements, testament to a time when whalers introduced game from that other pole, so that they could dine on something other than fish when they hauled their catch ashore.
Captain Cook was wrong about this place too. When he first saw it in 1775 he thought it was of no practical use. He complained about the lack of vegetation. “Not a tree or shrub to be seen, no, not even big enough to make a tooth pick.”
But he was limited by his human gaze. There was tussock grass high enough to hide a penguin or a petrel’s nest – before the imported reindeer ate it down to the ground; now they are all gone, aliens eradicated, with only their horns evidence that they were ever here.
There were Antarctic buttercups, bedstraw and hairgrass, pyxie cup lichen and inkcap toadstools, adder’s tongue fern and russet mini-forests of pom-pommed burnet.
And there were penguins.
Penguins in formal suits, penguins with macaroni hair or rock-hopper punk dos hanging around in groups, perambulating, seemingly aimless, yet with private intent. They are literally unflappable – their wings more paddles than flight aids.
In St Andrews Bay, all of them are kings.
It’s a place where whales glide over their own graveyards – 175000 of them were slaughtered here, after the seals were hunted to the point of extinction. These too have now returned to loll on beaches under the ozoneless sky.
Elephant seals are not elegant, but they are magnificent.
I watched their breath coming out in great misty gusts – beautiful and ethereal until you hear the sound that comes with it. Like a cranky old motorbike revving a tired engine, the belch is huge and bellowing and strangely mechanical for such a soft and squishy beast. (I would not choose to stand downwind to that breath!)
This is where black-browed albatrosses stare serenely from kohl-darkened eyes, greeting their mates with sword-crossed beaks, clacking a duelling kissing code.
Alongside them, vast colonies of penguins bray a cacophony through which each one can identify their kin by tenor and tone.
Beneath all the chatter the elemental sound is of wind and water flowing invisible under spongy ground, a sound that has not changed since the beginning of time. Frozen waterfalls hang over cliff caves baring icicle teeth and drip, petrified, into the sea.
This place feels like it is in a state of grace. And then … and then you see the machinery left behind from the whaling industry.
Man’s – and I say ‘man’ advisedly – attempt to insert himself here. Vats and chains and boilers left to rust. Like all the rest, eaten away by the elements, becoming elemental.
And in the middle of all of that, still whitewashed, a church.
It was all about conquering and territory and the great (male) explorers. Whether it’s the post-office stamp, the government building, the flag pole with is pennant, or the gravestone (we visited Shackleton’s).
In between the conquerors and possession are the tufts of ruddy burnet which grow like clover between the whalebones and the bird carcasses and moulted feathers and skeins of slime stretched out on the grass like plastic wrap left to desiccate and disintegrate – these tell you time and the elements will have the final say here. Time will grind and evaporate everything as it cycles through its seasons.
This place stands impervious to conquerors. It says, I will be too cold, too remote for you to influence for too long. Look onto the face of me and be humbled.