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South Georgia Island: The Last Godforsaken Place

South Georgia Island: The Last Godforsaken Place | Monday, August 11, 2014

On the 100th anniversary of Ernest Shackleton’s legendary expedition, a writer retraces the explorer’s steps to one of the cruelest, most gorgeous wildernesses on earth.

By Kate Siber

On a 25-degree austral summer day, loose clouds spackled the sky, and the dark skyline of South Georgia Island, a battering ram of 9,000-foot peaks, 160 glaciers, and frayed coastline, loomed off the bow of the ship. I stood on the lower deck, wrapped in industrial-strength rain gear and giant rubber boots rated to minus 40, about to step into a dinghy to venture to shore, when the captain suddenly ordered us to halt.

Almost instantly, the wind picked up and began gusting at 50 knots. Penguins rolled down the beach. The tideline became a thick white band, and squalls scoured the surface of the bay like ghosts.

This is hardly unusual for South Georgia, a chunk of the Andes that wandered into the southern Atlantic some 50 million years ago. The 100-mile spit of land is so isolated that it creates its own weather system, but despite—or perhaps because of—its ruggedness, it’s also a holy grail. Located 1,300 miles east of Tierra del Fuego in the South Atlantic Ocean, a combination of underwater topography and converging currents produce rich seas that support some of the most populous seal, penguin, and seabird colonies on the planet.

South Georgia was also a grail for one of the previous century’s most famed explorers, Sir Ernest Shackleton, and the men of Endurance, his ill-fated ship. But they didn’t know that when they set sail from London 100 years ago this August.

The British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914 aimed to cross the entire Antarctic continent on foot, a first that Shackleton, already an accomplished explorer, considered the last great polar objective. Instead, they failed famously. Before the expedition even reached Antarctica, Endurance became trapped in the shifting pack ice and sank. The crew spent the next year and a half trying to save themselves, inching across a puzzle of ice and sea, subsisting on seal blubber and penguin giblets, and clinging to survival in the black Antarctic winter. They finally made it to Elephant Island, an uninhabited collection of cliffs on the edge of the continent.

What happened next is adventure legend: Shackleton and five men sailed a lifeboat 800 miles across one of the most violent seas on earth to South Georgia, the only speck of civilization in hundreds of miles. Then they made the first traverse of the spiky isle to summon help from a whaling station. Every member—28 people—of the expedition survived.

As a result of this remarkable story, Shackleton’s leadership has been immortalized in countless books, films, and commemorative expeditions. This year’s 100th anniversary is spurring a new wave of remembrances, but nothing quite compares with going to South Georgia. And there’s only one way to get there: by boat, which takes two full days from the Falkland Islands or three from Ushuaia, Argentina.

Occasionally, pro athletes or private companies like Oceanwide Expeditions organize mountaineering expeditions, but most of South Georgia’s few visitors—a fraction of the number who make it to Antarctica—arrive by passenger ship. I hitched a ride on the National Geographic Explorer, a 148-person reinforced ferry run by Lindblad Expeditions, which pioneered Antarctic tourism in the 1960s.

For me, South Georgia was a different holy grail. Much has changed over the century since Shackleton was at his prime and the world was still partially unexplored. But at least ostensibly, little has changed in South Georgia. For Shackleton, the island was a prized sliver of civilization; for me, it was a vestige of wilderness and a window into a world that vanished nearly a century ago.

That afternoon, the wind eased and I boarded an inflatable raft for shore, a sweep of stones framed by charcoal cliffs, verdant mountainsides, and a skein of waterfalls. The black-and-white dots of thousands of nesting seabirds transformed the tableau into a shifting mosaic.

“There’s quite the greeting party, as you can see,” said Jason, a naturalist manning the motor, as I stepped into the turbulent shallows. A three-foot-tall king penguin waded belly-deep, turned his head, and peered at me with one sidelong eye. He was so close—a few feet—that I could see the beaded water on his feathers and the gleam of light in his eye.

Penguins have no natural land predators, and they are not only fearless but comically inquisitive. Dozens toddled down the beach, pecked at my boots, and whacked each other with stumpy wings like bored siblings. Shackleton would have looked at these jellybean birds and thought: snack. I, on the other hand, was happy to be an audience. Hundreds of fur seals lounged in the tussac grass. Pups with globelike eyes bluff-charged me, barking like Labrador puppies. Elephant seals the size of sedans sunned on the beach and galumphed into the water.

Being so outnumbered inspired the prick of both fear and wonder. I instantly understood why people have a cultlike reverence for this place. Many of the 100 passengers on the National Geographic Explorer had been here before and felt compelled to return, some more than half a dozen times. Perhaps partly this was because—happily—our experience on this ship was nothing like Shackleton’s.

He and his crew ate pemmican and penguin legs and, on a good day, an albatross chick. We enjoyed wild boar steaks and Chilean wines. (“If I had not some strength of will, I would make a first-class drunkard,” admitted Shackleton.) They catnapped in slimy rotting reindeer hides. We snored under fluffy down duvets. They navigated with a sextant; the Explorer’s bridge is equipped with GPS, radar, constantly updated weather forecasts, and more than 2,000 paper charts. The only real emergency this ship has seen? “I think we ran out of beer one time,” said captain Oliver Kruess.

The island’s weather conditions are often so treacherous, however, that even the most well-equipped ships can’t land, which is why few people ever make it to the interior of the island. But a few days later, I hiked through a moonscape of sparse plants and past a pewter lake to Grytviken, a historic Norwegian whaling station and now the island’s densest population center, home to 30 hardy scientists, UK fisheries regulators, and nonprofit workers in summer and 10 in winter. The blubber cookers and bone boilers are now rusted, but the contorted machinery suggests the savage life whalers suffered here 100 years ago.

On beaches stinking with carcasses, they butchered as many as 25 whales a day below skies that hurled wind and snow, even in summer. The God-fearing Norwegian station manager forbid the whalers to drink, so they resorted to cocktails made with boot polish. He built them a trim, white clapboard church, which they used to store potatoes. Life was bleak, but some couldn’t stay away.

It was here, in 1922, on his way to yet another Antarctic expedition, that Sir Ernest Shackleton died of a massive heart attack aboard his ship. He was eulogized in the church, which now displays dozens of tributes from across the globe, and buried in the cemetery facing south, his own magnetic direction. At his grave, as the wind blew the snow sideways, a Lindblad staffer poured me a cup of Irish whiskey, Shackleton’s favorite. “To the boss,” he said. I thought that coming to South Georgia Island would put his legendary accomplishment into perspective, but instead, it made it more incomprehensible.

As the ship motored east, I visited the bridge, where Captain Kruess, a strong-jawed German with a buzz cut, gazed intensely over weather monitors, which showed two storms beelining toward us. “It’s not really funny, yah, but it’s not so catastrophic,” he said in his European staccato. “It’s not like I must go and change my underwear or something like zis.”

It was hard to imagine how the sea, serenely reflecting the light in shards, could change so dramatically. But sure enough, in a few days, the wind accelerated to 60 knots and the swells soared to 25 feet. The bow slammed into troughs and sent spray four stories up over the bridge. In the kitchen, dishes crashed and saltshakers hurtled off the tables. In my cabin, I listened to swells boom against the side of the ship. At times it felt like everything in the room was suspended, including me. The ocean seemed like a living thing, slowly devouring this 367-foot ship. I thought about Shackleton, who encountered the exact same conditions in his 22-foot boat, and I shuddered.

“Unlike the land, where courage and the simple will to endure can often see a man through, the struggle against the sea is an act of physical combat, and there is no escape,” wrote Alfred Lansing in Endurance, arguably the most famed account of the expedition. “It is a battle against a tireless enemy in which man never actually wins; the most that he can hope for is not to be defeated.”

The ocean has always been a great equalizer. Even Shackleton, with his dauntless swagger, knew that no matter how bold your personality or how big your ship, this place could quickly show you the true nature of our flimsy existence. This seems like a reminder we need now more than ever. After a century in which humans have explored corners of the solar system Shackleton could never have imagined, I’m heartened to know there are wildernesses that still inspire that rare, unnerving, but lovely feeling: awed humility.