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Stromness and Grytviken: Swamp, Streams, and Sea

Part 6 (November 30, 2007)

By Kate Woodward


Hello All, from a for-the-moment stationary Explorer II.  The official from the Post Office on South Georgia is on board selling stamps and first day covers to passengers who have come back from a day of physical exercise.  Yes, there is a postal officer here, even if there is no post office, per se!

This morning, after a fair amount of motion during the night, which concerned us because if it didn't drop, it would be too rough to launch the Zodiacs, we awoke to dazzling sun over snowy mountain peaks.  We were entering the area where the great explorer, Ernest Shackleton, completed an epic journey to get help to save his men.


Stromness whaling station, buildings literally collapsing, so no entry


Having made it to King Haakon Bay on the south side of South Georgia, he left those of his men who were too weak to go any further and made the journey to find help across the uncharted mountains in the middle of the island to where he knew there was a whaling station on the eastern side of the island, the Stromness station.                                   

He and his two companions struggled over the mountains and, not certain exactly what the best way down was, they decided to follow a stream, thinking that it would eventually spill itself into the sea and they would find the means to rescue their enfeebled comrades who were awaiting succor after Endurance was crushed in the ice and they had to abandon ship.

It had not occurred to them that on a steep mountain, a stream can become a waterfall, so they found themselves, after they crested the last mountain, facing a big drop and an enormous waterfall, through which they had to climb, letting themselves down on ropes. From the base of the waterfall, they had one last mile to go, and that last mile was the one that we were to follow for our morning activity.

When we disembarked (the later group this morning, so we had a very peaceful time getting ready for our 9:30 Zodiacs), the temperature, which was 0 C. when the first group headed out at 7:30, had risen to 15 C. or about 59 F.--staggering!

We were the only ones in our group who did not wear our parkas, and even so, we were very warm in our fleeces over long underwear, as the walk, for which we had 1hr. 45 minutes round trip, was not only on an incline (not a very steep one, but still, not flat), but it began with a seriously boggy area where our boots were almost sucked off every step or two, while we were feeling anxious about some very active fur seals who were feeling distinctly feisty.  



We were warned before we got off our Zodiac that the seals were actively dangerous this morning, and that we should for no reason stop until we were several hundred yards away from the beach/landing area, as they could do us serious injury.  As we made our way up the stony beach and then along the red-flagged route leading into the marsh, we were very grateful for the expedition staff who were keeping the seals at bay with crossed sticks that must have been 10 feet long--they didn't want to get any closer to them than that, either.



The marshy area between Stromness and "Shackleton's Mile"


So we tried to hurry through the marsh (and tried not to lose our boots as they "sucked" and squelched), and eventually reached ground that was merely muddy, at which point we felt we had safely left the seals behind, only to find that some of them had made their way to the more distant areas.  Several of these were up tall on their front flippers, looking at us and making a sort of snorting noise--we hurried on. The red flags were further apart now, and the terrain was splitting up into a dry riverbed that was very stony with thickly grassed banks about a foot-and-a-half above it.  I remembered the warning about staying strictly to the flag-marked "trail" because of birds building nests in the grass; they could become very agitated if people came close enough to threaten the nests and eggs.  In fact, if we ever found birds were dive-bombing us, we should move along quickly, as that meant we were too close.

So, as Roger walked along the edge of the tufted grasses, I made my way along the riverbed, glad that the seals were behind us and that we had only the hike to think about, which was enough, as it was rough walking, especially in Wellies.  I saw some birds swooping above us, and they looked smaller than the giant petrels and albatrosses we'd seen yesterday.  Then they began to come closer, and almost before I knew it, they were swooping down on me, getting closer and closer to my head--eek!

I was crouching down to avoid getting hit by the 4 of them and had my hands up over my head to protect myself, meanwhile wondering what was going on, as I had carefully avoided the grassy banks, in case there were nests. Stumbling along, I tried to get away from the area that was clearly no-go--and the birds kept dive-bombing me. It was really quite scary.  I finally managed to get far enough away from them that they seemed to calm down, and I quick-marched to get as far ahead as I could.  Later, I asked Patricia, the bird expert, about what had happened and she said, "Ah ha, you know these were birds whose eggs look like stones and they hide them among the rocks for camouflage."  Ah ha, indeed!

At that point, we'd passed the curve of the hillside that sheltered the waterfall, our goal, and now that we could see it up ahead, we could no longer see the ship, and had the impression that we were all alone in the middle of these snowy peaks (and amid the blankety-blank birds!).  Someone pointed out white specks on a distant strip of green and asked whether we saw the reindeer.  I certainly didn't, nor did Roger, but we  may need new glasses! Actually, no one else did, although I took a picture of said strip and in trying to enlarge it, saw that they were something with four legs...and I did find, on the ground, what looked like a segment of antler.  Reindeer have been introduced to South Georgia, and apparently it has been a successful experiment, as there are still some around that have adapted to the new location.


Rivulets that crisscrossed the stony, mainly dry riverbed


Eventually, we had to cross branches of streams that cut the higher land into jig-saw pieces, and two streams in particular were rushing fast enough to cause us some teetering as we were wading through them--never over Wellie height, but enough volume of water, moving with enough speed, that we had to be very careful, taking tiny sliding steps forward, so as not to be overturned and soaked. In the sun, it was extremely warm, but the water, from ice melt, was very cold.

I was beginning to think that we'd have to turn back (or that I would&emdash;Roger, who had not taken as many pictures as I had, was paving the way and actually moving considerably faster than I was), but decided to make a last push to get there.



We did make it and found people from one of the earlier Zodiacs sitting on the damp grass looking up at the dazzling blue sky, taking off their hats and parkas and shooting pictures of the waterfall that tumbled down in several segments.

Since it had taken fully half the allocated time to get up there, we snapped a photo and started back--and in spite of the heat, I took out the white hat Angela (Roger's sister-in-law, who made this trip a couple of years ago) loaned me, and smushed in on firmly, in case of further bird problems on the way back down.

The return, as it was downhill and I'd already taken most of the photos I wanted, was faster and easier than the way up, and the fur seals, as we crossed the last hundred feet or so, seemed less irritable, although Stephanie, the "whale lady" was urging one away from our marked path with her two long sticks.  There was quite a lot of snorting (from the seal, not Stephanie!), but she seemed to have the technique down pat, and we got back to the Zodiac without any problem.

When we got back to the ship, totally drenched with sweat under our waterproof trousers and fleeces, we draped our little cabin with our wet layers, hoping they might dry out in time to use them again for the afternoon outing, and were amazed to hear an announcement that the first mate was making his renowned Caesar salad outside and that because of the dazzling weather, there was going to be a barbeque on the pool deck.  Incredible!



We scrambled into dry things--Roger putting on a short-sleeved shirt!&emdash;and found when we reached the deck that the previously empty pool, which had been covered with a hefty net for safety, was full of water that was glittering in the sun, and the Explorer II Quartet was playing rock music from the late 60's/70's outside, as the first mate tossed incredibly delicious salad and we queued up for steaks that were sizzling in front of us.  Waiters were speeding around with beer, wine, juices, and jugs of ice water, and the tables quickly filled up with passengers in sunglasses and shirtsleeves. The water (not just in the pool!) was a sparkling blue--and the "Alps of the Southern Ocean" (ie South Georgia) were glittering above.  It was almost surreal.  

Just before we went indoors to hit the dessert line, the captain announced from the bridge that we ought to look outside to see the bay into which several glaciers were flowing.  The glacier flows were rather dirty looking, not surprisingly&emdash;and the water color where the bay met the sea was extraordinary&emdash;an incredibly straight line of turquoise, in the bay, and darker blue as the bay joined the sea. And floating, just inside the bay, was a series of pale blue-tinted icebergs.  Just fabulous.



The crew speedily cleared up the BBQ, and the long, lean Dutch chef (who'd beencooking the steak in his shades, as the light is dazzling here) went back to his kitchen, and we went back to number B26, to turn our clothes over so they would dry faster.

To our surprise, the announcement came that the afternoon trip was going tobegin half an hour earlier than planned (perhaps to accommodate the South Georgia postal officer, who needed to come out to the ship earlier?), and our clothes were nowhere near dry.  Never mind.  We realized we would just have to get a second set damp, and were ready to go in the first group of non-hikers, as we felt we'd done enough in the morning (and since I'd forgotten to wear my ankle support, I was really feeling it).

The Zodiac took us to the edge of Grytviken (54 degrees 16 minutes South, 36 degrees, 30 minutes West, if you want to map it) where we were to find the cemetery where Shackleton is buried, to hear a short talk about him, and to "toast The Boss", as he was known to his men.  


Landing near the small cemetery where Shackleton is buried


Bob Burton, the historian, was there in his aged orange parka (the experts--the guys, anyway--seem to pride themselves on their work-worn parkas, which certainly distinguish them from the passengers!), and he gave a really wonderful short resume of what made Shackleton great, and why he was revered (his care for his men, as exemplified by his incredible journey from Elephant Island, where he left the main body of his men after the loss of Endurance, while he made the 800-mile voyage across the open ocean in a lifeboat with 4 other men, to the southern coast of South Georgia, knowing that there was a whaling station on the other side of the island, where he could ask for assistance).  Then we all raised our paper cups, which we'd been handed by members of the ship staff who had set up a table with some kind of "juice" just inside the white picket fence around the cemetery, and saluted "The Boss" right around his headstone which was pointing, atypically, to his beloved South, rather than to the traditional East.



After this rather touching moment, we walked over to the whaling station itself, which is full of enormous rusting mementoes of the days when the enormous boiling pots were melting down literally tons of whale blubber to make oil. The now pristine waters of the bay used to be full of rotting whale flesh because during the whaling period, the only thing valued was the oil.  Tragic.



Amidst this historic decay, there are only two buildings which have been restored: a charming little Norwegian Lutheran church, very simple, with a wonderful little room lined with books off of it, and bells that one could ring, if one wished, in the little steeple; and the museum, which used to be a nice-sized house, which has a tiny gift shop that is vastly overheated (I suspect to hurry the tourists through, with their pounds sterling or US dollars--Mastercard and Visa also accepted!), and a wonderful conglomeration of artifacts,



from a stuffed Albatross stretched across the ceiling of the entry room, where guests can spread out their arms below to measure how incredibly big a bird it really is, to rooms dedicated to expedition gear that was donated, a bedroom set up as it would have been in the time of the whalers, and a small forge with all the implements needed to make repairs.

Rusting whalers (see next page), that are nearly skeletons, still lie partially in the water and small elephant seals (young ones&emdash;still probably several hundred pounds each) lie almost in their shadow, basking in the sun.  They are given, as our speaker politely said, to "belching from both ends"&emdash;which is quite true, and quite startling, especially if one hasn't noticed them, as they tend to blend in!



So we made our way back to the ship just in time for tea and to snatch some computer time.  Roger has a bridge game set up for this evening and I plan to spend mine reading.

The ship is still anchored, but the postal representative should be leaving very soon, because I feel the "shiver" of the engines starting, and it's just 15 minutes until the daily recap, which will include PowerPoint presentations and tales of things that went on during the outings today by our experts&emdash;and will introduce us to what lies ahead tomorrow.  What is so remarkable is that, thus far, each of these trips has been different.  Wonderful.


Hugs to you all,





From Buenos Aires to Tierra del Fuego (Part 1)

Our First Day at Sea, then Wind! (Part 2)

Land Ho: The Falklands, by Kate Woodward (Part 3)

 Ice! and preparing for South Georgia, by Kate Woodward (Part 4)

 Zooming in Zodiacs, by Kate Woodward (Part 5)



© Kate Woodward 2008

PROMETHEUS, Internet Bulletin - News, Politics, Art and Science. Nr. 133, July 2008