It was bucketing down with snow. It hadn’t stopped since we’d set out. Graham and I scraped a flat spot in the gravel with a snow shovel and an old ship’s timber washed up on the beach. Marcus unpacked the tent. By the time we had it pitched my hands had lost their circulation and our kayaks were fast losing their form to the enveloping snow. “Welcome to the School of South Georgia, boys.” It was camp 1 of our attempt to kayak round an island we’d dreamed of circumnavigating for a year and a half. The dream had been much warmer than the reality.
The island of South Georgia is an enigma. It accommodates wildlife in stupendous numbers, but as Captain James Cook noted on his arrival in 1775, there is “not a shrub ever big enough to make a toothpick”. Technically it’s an Antarctic island, encompassed as it is by the Antarctic convergence; it certainly looks Antarctic, and it’s cold enough to defend the claim. “Lands doomed to perpetual frigidness,” wrote Cook, “. . . whose horrible and savage aspects I have not words to describe.” Not horrible enough, though, to stop him raising the Union Jack and claiming the place for King and Country. Cook returned home with vivid accounts of the abundant wildlife, and, ever since, South Georgia has drawn those who covet its animal riches.
This is the island Ernest Shackleton and five men sailed to in 1916 across 800 nm (1500 km) of some of the world’s most notorious seas to send word of their fellow explorers marooned on Elephant Island. Somehow, Frank Worsley, one of New Zealand’s great unsung heroes, using a sodden almanac and minimal sightings of the sun, unerringly navigated the 23 ft (7 m) whaler James Caird to hit the needle of South Georgia in the Southern Ocean haystack. After 14 days at sea in an open boat, the group faced a 30hour crossing of the unmapped icy mountains of the interior to reach Stromness whaling station on the other side.
I was excited about the possibility of venturing into the bays of Shackleton’s heroic account, and by the adventurous aspect of undertaking our own journey. But mostly I was attracted by the stories of the island’s wildlife—a kind of polar equivalent of the Serengeti in terms of animal density. The bull elephants on South Georgia are 4.5 t seals, monstrous sausages of undulating blubber with harems to patrol, while the vultures are giant petrels the size of grainfed geese. Large herbivores scarcely feature, though, and the kayak replaces the 4×4 as the vehicle of choice for observing wildlife.
Circumnavigating South Georgia by kayak had been attempted twice before. In 1991 a British mixed forces expedition ended in deprivation. Its report made for sobering reading: 10 m waves, wind so fierce and persistent it pinned the part down for two weeks, and being forced to slaughter penguins for food.
The second attempt was in 1996, by a team of Australians, who, when faced with the grim prospect of kayaking the southwest coast, elected to portage their boats across the island instead.
Graham Charles, Marcus Waters and I first heard about these exploits in 2001, after returning from Antarctica. From then on, we harboured the dream of being the first ones to kayak what we came to call “the unclaimed coast”—the southwest side of the island, exposed to the full fury of the polar southerlies. Periodically we heard rumours of plans by others and the funding they had secured, but the prize remained unclaimed. Finally, we stated our own intention to kayak round South Georgia—all of it.
That’s how these things begin, with a dream spoken aloud. Then comes the work. A year-and-a-half later we found ourselves ploughing through the South Atlantic towards that lonely outpost of British imperialism, having departed from Port Stanley, in the Falkland Islands, some 700 nm (1300 km) distant.
We were sailing with Greg Landreth and Keri Pashuk aboard their 53 ft (16 m) ketch Northanger, a vessel with a long history of successful polar expeditions. Permission to undertake our kayaking challenge was conditional on having a rescue vessel at the island. Northanger would serve that purpose, and two friends, Kevin Nicholas and Zac Shaw, both competent mountaineers, would stay on the yacht with Greg and Keri in case their skills were required.
After six days of pitching about in the ocean feeling queasy, I had my first glimpse of South Georgia: impossibly jagged peaks, floating untethered in a distant haze, and a large tabular iceberg sticking up from the horizon like a worn molar.
Moments later the spectacle was swallowed by an avalanche of cloud, and South Georgia became just a smear of luminescence on the radar screen. I couldn’t help but ponder why I wanted to be there. What state of mind drives one to travel to a far-flung scrap of land at the edge of the world, to journey nearer the edge of reason than one cares to admit?
“To be first” was the pitch one made to sponsors, but it was more than that. To experience a life pared back to its elemental essentials, perhaps? I hefted the case of camera gear in my hand. Perhaps not. The thrill of danger, then; the flood of relief and inner glow on the other side? I thought of my daughter, who I’d left behind. I no longer embraced risk with the abandon of youth. So no, not for the danger, rather in spite of it. What, then? It would come to me, I was sure.
we sailed to the British base at King Edward Point, a cluster of small white buildings perched on a stony finger of land. Like every beach on South Georgia in October, the one in front of the base was littered with elephant seals. It was their mating and pupping season, and the air was charged with testosterone. As we sipped cups of tea in the house of the chief government official, we watched two bulls go chest to chest not 10 m from our sofa. It was a passage of sudden violence followed by painful defeat. I stared at the red smudges in the snow that led to the sea. Defeat could be short and sharp in South Georgia. In this instance, it had sprung from a false notion of ability matching ambition. I wondered whether our own aspirations were going to meet a similar end, but it was too late to book the cruise option now.
Nothing I heard from the locals did anything to reduce the anxiety I felt about what lay ahead of us. Everyone we spoke to regaled us with tales of heinous weather, dragged anchors and near misses. We each felt the urgency to get under way. After all the planning, researching, training and preparation, that’s what’s left—to begin.
We set off with only the vaguest notion of where we were heading and how far we would go. It was important that we simply got started. The paddle felt light in my hands, and the boats slid smoothly through the dark water. From the shelter of my hood I peered out at the falling snow. Big flakes plastered my kayak until its colour was lost. I watched my arms punch forward and felt the weight of the boat with each stroke, heavy with my share of the two weeks’ food, fuel and equipment we needed to live between the mountains and the sea and to document our journey. There wasn’t a whole lot of space left.
We paddled beside dark cliffs, criss-crossed with snow-dusted ledges sprouting tussock clumps, like frosted mop-heads frozen to the wall. Chandeliers of ice hung extravagantly from every seepage. Our kayaks ploughed through a slushy surface layer of unmelted snow. A group of penguins porpoised across our bows. I felt intoxicated by the magic of our first hour on the water. If it doesn’t get better than this, I won’t be disappointed, I thought. But it was only a taste of what was to follow.
I wiped snow from the chart as I calculated times and distances. We’d been late getting away, so made the decision to keep things simple. We would camp in the last small inlet before the broad Cumberland Bay. We paddled round a barren headland into a small hook-shaped cove. In the shallows a blue iceberg lay grounded like an uncut sapphire in a puddle of gin. The shore was littered haphazardly with elephant seals, fur seals and penguins. We chose the less populated end of the bay and found a flattish patch of gravel to pitch the tent a stone’s throw from a bull elephant seal.
On the water the next day, I beheld mountains among the most precipitous I’d ever seen—as the Southern Alps had been scalped at the level of their glaciers and the snowy peaks launched upon the sea. Around a craggy headland we met the full swell of the South Atlantic. Three-to four-metre swells rode high up the flanks of the island. At the appropriately named Humpback Reef, a plume of surf shot skyward like the splash of a breaching whale. The sea pounded the land with unrestrained force in a campaign of attrition as old as the earth itself. I found a place between the two in which I was comfortable, neither too close to the one nor too committed to the other. I felt very small.
On the chart I had marked an X at the back of Hercules Bay, indicating a probable landing site—information garnered from something read or heard. We decided to have lunch ashore if possible; however, the cliffs surrounding the bay were as precipitous as the rest of the coastline. I’d never seen a less likely looking bay to land in.
“You sure about this?” enquired Graham.
I wasn’t, but kept paddling. The bay narrowed, and in the farthest corner I could make out the prone forms of elephant seals on a 50 m bench of land.
We sat outside the breaking zone, watching each wave claw at the stony shore. I was the first to tire of waiting. Choosing a big wave, I paddled hard as it passed beneath me, and rode in on the back of it to land high on the shingle slope. (Slipping down the face of the wave would have been disastrous. After being pummelled into the stones, I would probably have reached the end of my trip.) It was steeper that any beach I had ever landed on, and it took all the strength I had to haul my kayak up to and over the lip at the top.
Marcus and Graham also landed without incident. We toasted our first surf success with hot chocolate poured from Thermoses and broke into our lunch packs. The beach was only a thin ribbon of gravel, probably shed from the slopes above, but, like every beach on South Georgia, it was popular. A stream fell 6 m into a small snow-ringed pool surrounded by fur seals. The usual contingent of gentoo and king penguins were preening themselves, and elephant seals lay about like fallen granite menhirs.
The beach would have become a trap in a bigger swell, and we kayaked 20 km further before finding somewhere that offered better protection. At Antarctic Bay, we carried our kayaks up a black-sand beach to where it flattened out, then sought a space to put up our tent. Elephant seals lay on the beach in their hundreds, mostly inert but now and then heaving their way across the sand like giant black larvae.
No sooner had we got the tent up than the wind arrived. In twenty minutes it rose from a breeze to 30 knots (kt). It whipped the sea away in livid streaks, williwaws speeding across the surface in a haze of salt spray, and blasted sand into every crevice. It didn’t abate for two days.
Looking out of the back door of the tent I could see tussock slopes retreating to snowy ridges like a wintry scene from Tongariro National Park. The sounds around the tent, though, were anything but montane: crashing surf, screeching skuas, barking cow seals and bellowing bulls. Out of the other door lay a wind-tossed sea, a beach strewn with glittering blocks of ice, and the populous local zoo. It was the marriage of mountains and sea life that made the island so special.
Fat, furry elephant-seal pups were everywhere, and they looked at us with moist, black eyes impossibly large. The bigger bulls, with their Jabba-the-Hutt bodies, demanded attention. They announced their ardour with a lengthy roar, a guttural, gargling bellow that sounded as if they were belching through a rubber hose poked into an empty vat. Once an alpha male’s ire was focused on a rival bull, nothing stood in his way, and he would plough through and over panicked cows and pups with brute recklessness.
At each camp, a lone, harem-less bull would invariably take an interest in our tent and kayaks. Often he would sleep within a metre or two of our beds, bellowing all night with an intensity borne of unrequited love. This was tolerable until the local alpha male decided enough was enough. The approaching sound of gravel scrunching beneath four-plus tonnes of beach master had me sitting bolt upright, holding my breath. I wondered each time if some flattened billies and three impressions in the shingle might be the last signs of Adventure Philosophy.
We awoke on 4 day unsquashed and keeno to get moving. It was a hard day of headwines. We have made a diversion to a derelict whaling station in prince Olav Harbour, one of seven established on the island early last century. From a distance it was just a smudge of rust beneath a peak shaped like a harpoon head. We’d seen other stations, in Stromness Bay, at a distance, but close up you could feel the history. Grounded in the bay was the rust-streaked hulk of Brutus,a coaling ship abandoned in 1931 when the station closed. Behind this crouched buildings—sightless, black windows staring out to sea, sagging roofs, buckled tanks. The shoreline was covered with long-abandoned flensing blades and other oddments.
Given our attitude toward whales today, I had to remind myself that the station had been constructed for the sole purpose of reducing the giant sea mammals to vats of oil. It must have had a soul at one time—it would have been home to scores of workers, run inter-whaling-station sports events, had a cinema—but the elements had reduced it to a ghost town. The last whaling station shut up shop in 1965 because there were no more whales to kill.
We made two more open-water crossings, sneaking up the side of fiords against the wind before heading to the far side at an angle to the wind. Paddling round a final headland, we entered a wide bay that harboured a clutch of islets. We made for the middle part of the beach, where a broad plain extended inland. Marcus and Graham stayed out deep while I traced the shoreline. It was like nothing I’d seen before—harem after harem of elephant seals, dozens of them, each with its bull and 80 or 100 cows and calves, stretching into the distance, interspersed with penguins and fur seals.
I rejoined the others at our beaching point. “Can you believe this place?” I said to Marcus, as we hauled our kayaks up to the flat at the top of the beach. He could only shake his head from side to side and grin with a look of bewilderment.
Reaching as far back as the tussock slopes a kilometre away was an unending penguin-scape. Thousands upon thousands of adults stood in groups like stately gentlemen waiting for something to happen. Around them, chocolate-brown chicks gathered in compact rookeries, their downy coats, like snugly fitted sleeping bags, fluffed up against the cold. Spindrift blew along the ground, plastering them with white and swirling about our legs, like the visible face of the wind.
Later, in the tent, aches from the day’s exertions became fully manifest. I began to appreciate how tough the trip was going to be. With headwinds and loaded boats, it was proving wet, brutal work.
I woke to the patter of spindrift against the tent. Outside the door a river of wind funnelled its way out of the bay towards South Africa. We had no immediate ambition to go there so stayed ashore for the day. From high on the tussocky slope above the bay, it looked for all the world as though the armies of Middle Earth were massing below. Great brown battalions, crammed between companies in blue-grey, spread across the plain. Random individuals made sorties between units, while troops returning from the sea flowed in a constant stream from near the alien orange dome of our tent.
Our next leg was a bitterly fought 16 km, hugging the contours of the shore to gain an infrequent rest in a surging nook or behind a reef. I looked ahead to pick out the shoals of exploding white water in the larger swells. Bull kelp writhed and thrashed like many-tentacled beasts snatching at quarry. Though the wind was blowing from the warmer north-west quarter, it was still snowing heavily. For four hours we sought a place to land, paddling beneath dark cliffs like Gothic castle walls. Tors loomed out of the snowstorm like ghostly turrets, dark caves boomed with surf. The coast possessed a terrible beauty, awesome and forbidding.
We wore dry suits and our boats were insulated, so as long as we kept moving, our muscles generated a warm envelope that insulated us against the all-engulfing frigidity. Yet there was little margin for error. Had one of us tipped over and failed to Eskimo-roll back up, it wouldn’t have been pretty. Hands would have become useless in about 30 seconds, and rescue as close to the rocks as we were would have been unlikely. The surge and suck of the swell, and the relentless wind-blown snow, made for a scene of frosty chaos.
Eventually we found shelter in a small cove at the back of an unnamed bay and landed for lunch. It was a hurried affair as the cold seeped through our clothing. Mitt off, bite to eat, mitt back on; hood down, warmer hat on, hood back up; slurp hot chocolate, wolf down another energy bar, then back on the water, working hard and wiggling toes to stay ahead of the chill; quick pause, before hands lose plot completely, to pull on Neotherm mittens inside pogies (mittens that cover both hand and paddle grip).
We stopped behind the next point, fastened the Velcro round our hoods, then struck out to tackle the real work, hands now aching with cold and eyes narrowed to slits against the snow, our sights set on the next cove. Graham called a sensible end to it all. An inflamed elbow, which had been hurting from the start, was proving too much, and we retreated to the lunch cove, where we called it a day.
The cove harboured many fur seals. While the whales have never returned in anything like the numbers of yesteryear, the seals of South Georgia have fully recovered. They attain astronomical numbers at the peak of the spring breeding season. Fur seals have an infectious bite, are unreasonably aggressive and don’t scare easily.
“Just visualise trying to land on a beach patrolled by a load of 200 kg rottweilers,” was the advice we’d been given by Dion Poncet, who had been to the island more than most. “If you’re prepared to bludgeon your way up the beach, it might be possible.”
We’d timed our arrival for early in the season, when both fur-seal numbers and tempers were down. The disadvantage of avoiding the creatures in full force, though, was that the island was still locked in Antarctica’s wintry embrace. It snowed every day for the first week of the expedition. The sea cliffs were laced with icicles that never melted, and every exhalation of breath formed a cloud of fog about our heads, even when the weather was from the north. When it was from the south, conditions were still more extreme.
“Watch your step outside,” said Graham one evening, “the beach is locked up solid.” Sure enough, the sand was frozen as hard as stone, and a small creek that had been running across it was now a glazed sheet as slippery as rink ice.
Our world grew colder. Waterfalls froze into icy columns, salt spray formed an icy patina on the rocks, and bailing out now required an ice axe. We were no strangers to freezing temperatures in the mountains, but at sea level, entering the water everyday, with gear that was constantly wet, this was a cold that hurt.
Launching invariably meant pushing off from the beach with hands that couldn’t feel and toes that required much wiggling to regain circulation. Once warmed to the task of paddling, muscle activity ensured bodily comfort, but landing for lunch or to camp was fraught with the danger of lost circulation to the extremities, freezing hands being of especial concern. Several times I had to resort to dunking my fingers in a mug of hot chocolate to restore circulation before our tasks were done and we could crawl into the tent for the night.
After we’d waited for a day-and-ahalf at Elsehul Harbour (camp ), the wind dropped and we advantage of a flood tide going our way to round South Georgia’s western-most mainland extremity. Thereafter we’d be on our way down the unclaimed south-west coast. The temperature fell, settling at –4°C. Salty splashes froze on our clothing and boats, icicles hung from hat brims and deck cameras, and every trickle of water along the coast became stone.
We camped on a small beach near the entrance to Coal Harbour, with only a lone elephant seal and a handful of fur seals for company. This made a pleasant change from the previous camp, with its ceaseless animal cacophony. There was no brash ice on the beach to melt, but I managed to find running water underneath the ice on top of a half-frozen creek and coaxed some into our billy.
By morning the trickle was frozen solid. It was a bitterly cold transition moving from tent to kayak. As I pulled away from the beach, my fingers felt as if they’d been hit with a mallet. We passed a fantastic wall draped with yellow-and brown-stained icicles. It would have made a great photograph. I slowed down and looked at Graham. His expression made it clear his fingers were in no better shape than mine, and we had to content ourselves with the imprint the scene left in our minds.
Crossing Ice Fjord we were enveloped by a snowstorm, and visibility fell sharply. I took a compass sighting before we lost sight of land, and we paddled on a bearing into the shrouding whiteness. At Cape Demidov the swell was more pronounced. Brooding black cliffs reared straight out of the water, losing themselves above in cloud. At their foot were caves fanged with ice, like grotesque mouths gasping for air. Deep within, the sea boomed.
In one of the most jagged, inhospitable stretches of coast any of us had paddled, Elephant Cove opened and offered sanctuary, a perfectly circular bay surrounded by high mountains. It was exciting to think that probably no one had camped there since the sealing days. We were travelling down a coastline no one had ever kayaked, and the privilege of seeing it from the water, with which, as we progressed stroke by stroke, we were as intimately connected as is possible without swimming, wasn’t lost on me.
The chance of being trapped there for weeks at a time wasn’t lost on us, either. Conditions were as good as could be expected, and each day it felt as if we were sneaking past some great beast that could wake up and take us at any moment. None of us felt any comfort along that coast. It was a trap we knew could spring shut any time. I remember cracked lips, brittle conversation, feigned confidence ringing hollow, creased brows and anxious looks towards the south-west horizon. The constant unease took its toll on our mood.
From Elephant Cove it was another freezing departure, and it took an hour of wiggling to restore circulation to my toes. We reached the enormous King Haakon Bay and paddled into it for an hour before deciding to cross into a light headwind. Almost as we began the crossing the light wind increased to a stiff breeze, and we settled in for a three-hour grind before finally gaining the lee of a reef on the other side.
We paused for a quick cup of hot chocolate and wolfed down some Vitazone bars. Close by was an overhang under which Shackleton’s party had sheltered, dehydrated and exhausted, almost a hundred years before. As we headed back out into the fray I couldn’t help but wonder how those men had managed to survive without dry suits.
It was a wild sea by now, with a wind we could only crawl into using raw effort and working its weaker moments. “Are we just being stupid?” Graham voiced what we were all pondering. But there was nowhere to hide.
“We can always run to Queen Maud Bay,” I yelled over the wind. Queen Maud had followed King Haakon and was now behind us, but we had our sights set on getting to the shelter of Holmestrand, a thin peninsula of land gesturing toward the south like a raised finger. Cape Nunez lay a couple of kilometres ahead of us, and the angle of the wind would ease if we could get around that.
We hugged the contours of the coast, arms windmilling to gain the next nook while the sea reared and pitched about us. The swells exploded against the cape. We inched our way around, hoods drawn tightly about pinched faces, through a confusion of reflected waves and swell.
After nine hours of solid effort we reached Holmestrand and paddled to it’s lee side, which was strewn with giant ice blocks and elephant seals. As we arrived, the crew of Northanger were in the process of marking a food cache we had asked them to lay there for us, and we waved in greeting. Then we found a gap in the brash ice, hauled our boats up to a flat area and busied ourselves with creating a home. Opposite us the blue-white Esmark Glacier tumbled into the bay like the edge of a badly handled ice-cream cake, and a waterfall of ice oozed down the cliffs nearby. I drifted off to sleep to the sound of the by now familiar lonely bull elephant seal, his irregular breathing two metres from my ear.
It was good to see the crew of Northanger again and hear of their adventures. Now that we were committed to the south-west coast, I definitely had the feeling of having rolled the dice. The chance of a weather system pinning us down for a week or more was high, and escaping across the island was one of our strategies for if our food ran out and re-supply was impossible which it probably would be, as no sane skipper would venture onto the exposed coast if a strong onshore system approached.
When conditions were sufficiently favourable a day later for us to continue on our way, therefore, we made the most of them. We left with ten days’ food with which to finish our journey, hoping to get to Ducloz Head that evening. My diary recorded some snapshot impressions of the day:
Shattered! 56 kilometres, ten hours on the go. Big tabular bergs—busted glaciers—forbidding black walls veined with ice disappearing into cloud—heaving swell on the capes-falling snow all day and glaciers creaking-the boom of icefalls thundered to us out of the fog—followed bearing through white-out across Newark Bay, filled with brash ice—snow plastering the SeaBears [our kayaks]—reefs exploding white water—snatched lunch in small cove beneath the lee of a cliff—tired smiles as we entered Ducloz Head—clawing through dense brash to the beach—mate… what a day!
That night I slept the sleep of the dead.
Ducloz head was the site of an experiment by Duncan Carse, who led four expeditions over the period 1951–57 to survey the island’s interior. He leased 4 ha of land for a shilling and built a hut there with the intention of spending a year living alone to achieve “perspective in his relationship with an incomprehensible world”. After three months, his hut was destroyed by a tidal wave and his provisions lost to the sea. He was lucky not to join them, but instead survived a total of 116 days before a sealing vessel happened by, at which point he decided to finish his experiment and return from the wilds.
The wooden outline of Carse’s hut can still be seen protruding from the snow. We were always mindful of Carse’s wave and tried to camp high up the beach, but at Ducloz Head, as in many other places, we had to be content with pitching our tent only a metre or two above the tide.
Two days later we were poised to leave Diaz Cove, the last bolt hole before South Georgia’s southern-most cape. Once we left there we’d be committed to rounding the bottom of the island. Graham had the aerial of our satellite-phone pointing at the roof of the tent. The phone made a queer sound and he scrutinised its little screen.
“We’ve got mail,” he said. “Twenty-five knots from the south-west. It’ll be here by noon.”
“Best have breakfast then,” I said, a little louder than necessary.
”What’s that?” asked Marcus.
“Breakfast, mate. Hurry it up—we’re on a deadline.”
As we kayaked south towards a Matterhorn-shaped peak, my gaze kept returning to the point where its precipitous flank met the sea. It marked the end of the west coast. There had been tension in the air during the last week. A metaphorical cloud had seemed to hang over us like the white-grey belly of the sky. I knew that once we rounded the south end of the island, our mood would lift. We could let up on the constant hustle we had imposed on ourselves.
When Cook rounded the south-west corner of the island and discovered that South Georgia wasn’t the fabled southern continent, he named it Cape Disappointment. For us the cape was anything but disappointing. We rounded it just as the projected sou’westerlies kicked in.
I was closer inshore than Marcus and Graham, and each time I looked across to them they were further away. Then it dawned on me why. Ahead lay a barren hump of rock I’d identified as Green Island, although from where we were it looked just like a cape, with no hint of space between it and the mainland. The others were paddling away from me to go round it. I waved them over. “That’s Green Island,” I shouted.
“Isn’t that Green Island out there?” asked Marcus, pointing to another lump of rock, distinctly separate from the mainland.
I looked at the map. “No way. That’s Brode Island. This is definitely Green here,” I called back, pointing with a paddle blade. If I was right, we could save ourselves three kilometres of kayaking; if I was wrong, we would paddle into a dead-end pocket of wind-hammered coast.
“You sure, Jonesy?” yelled Graham. His look said, “You’d better be!”
I said I was and headed towards the wall of rock, not entirely convinced. Graham and Marcus followed at a distance. The closer we approached, the less there appeared to be an opening, with swells breaking in a froth of white water and the looming ramparts defying us to prove they were separated from the land by sea.
Finally, as we came right up to the wall, the illusion was dispelled. A remarkable passage revealed itself, 100 m long and scarcely wide enough to turn a kayak sideways in. We made our way along this secret corridor feeling very smug for having found a shortcut. A big swell lifted us, and Graham paddled hard to catch it, surfed the remaining distance and rocketed out of the far end. Marcus and I followed. It was like passing through a door, the water in the lee of the island almost calm by comparison with that on the other side.
We landed on a tiny beach covered with elephant seals for a quick bite and a hot drink. It was the site of the furthest camp of the 1991 British expedition, which had attempted to circumnavigate the island clockwise, the opposite direction to ours. They spent over a week pinned down there. On the eighth day they watched an attempted airdrop get snatched by a fickle wind and blown out to sea. Eventually they managed to retreat to Drygalski Fjord, where they were once again unable to move, this time for two weeks. They were finally picked up by a naval vessel on October 29, 1991.
It was now October 27, 2005, 14 years later almost to the day, and the wind had returned, but for the time being it was going our way. Within the space of an hour the swells doubled in size and we found ourselves surfing down 3 m wave faces at reckless speed.
The south coast was a big place of wind-tossed seas and crashing swell. Great fortress walls veined with ice defied the elements, jagged peaks reared above, and the relentless ocean bashed away endlessly as though its sole quest was to reduce all that was solid to sand and rubble.
We were intent on making Drygalski Fjord, a deep breach in the snout of the island that on the map looked like a grinning mouth. When we arrived, its icy breath told us the free ride was over, and we battled into it for 90 minutes before reaching the sanctuary of Williams Harbour.
By mid-morning the following day, the sun had burned through. It was nice to get some indication after ten days of perpetual gloom that we were part of a solar system; to know that all the world was not composed of grey sky, snow and an endless barrier of rock and ice; and to have toes you could feel without wiggling them. There was another sort of lightness to the day, too, now that we’d shed the tension of the west coast and our tiredness evaporated with the damp in our clothes.
From camp 12, in an unnamed bay, we launched our kayaks through a metre of surf. It was a day in staggering contrast to those we’d just lived through on the south-west coast. The mountains beamed.
“That’s Mt Carse there,” said Marcus, dipping his head toward a summit surrounded by an entourage of lower peaks. At 2330 m it was the third highest on the island.
My face lit up as two snow petrels flew by. They had the elegance of a dove and the grace of a swallow, but doves and swallows seem very plain once you’ve seen a snow petrel. My eyes followed them until they were lost behind a berg the size of a small castle.
The coastline opened at Gold Harbour. As we paddled into it we could hear the wildlife long before we could see it—from more than a kilometre away. I tried to make out the elephant seals on the beach as we approached, then realised they were the beach. There was no room even to contemplate a landing.
We paddled on, along a kilometre of coast that tested my credulity: an unbroken chaos of domestic hostility, maternal concern, interbeach-master battles, playing pups, piping penguins—on and on in an overwhelming spectacle of squawking, grunting and groaning bodies. I felt an overwhelming sense of delight seeing nature so unchecked, unsullied and unpeopled.
We found a place to land at the end of the beach and each reached for a camera, as though the spectacle might suddenly disappear. But there was no hurry; the action was continuous and never-ending. Bloody-headed petrels scavenging deep among entrails, bull elephant seals belly to belly, throngs of penguins trekking back from the surf, and a gleaming hanging glacier as a backdrop—it was an astonishing scene. I eventually sat camera-less, acknowledging defeat in my attempts to “capture the moment”, enthralled, awe-struck, euphoric at the absolute extravagance of it all. All the cold and effort, all the pain and anguish, was suddenly worth that one moment of glory before the wondrousness of nature.
We should have stayed another day, wallowing in the luxury of such a rich feast for the soul. But there was something drawing us on that was stronger than the desire to stay: the urge to close the circle. In the morning we packed our boats, edged past the mobbing penguins, slipped between the herds of elephant seals and continued on our way.
It was a great day to capture some video footage, and at the next headland I rolled the deck-cam mounted on top of my cockpit in preparation for running a gap between two reefs. I watched a couple of big swells surge through the passage towards me and decided it was doable. But I’d misread the situation badly. As I put in some power strokes to punch my way through, a swell came from the opposite direction, from behind, and as it rose beneath me to squeeze through the narrows, it steepened to breaking point. I tried to get off it, braking with all my strength, but I had too much momentum and the wave launched me down its face in a full surf before burying the nose of my kayak. I was viciously corkscrewed, then suddenly under the water and half out of the boat. I set up to roll, but my hips and knees had no purchase. I removed my hands from their pogies, tucked the paddle shaft under one arm, and grabbed the cockpit rim to pull my body back into the kayak properly as the next wave broke over me. I was only a few metres from the reef now, so hurriedly stuffed my hands back inside their pogies, quickly rolled up, and paddled clear of the next wave.
Graham, who’d been following me, had watched my dumping and could barely contain his mirth. “What was that about?”
I sheepishly recounted my error.
“Never count your albatross chicks in South ,”
Georgia said Marcus with a grin. “We’re not home yet.”
We paddled 46 km that day, to reach Ocean Harbour on dusk, and bunked down in an old brick hut standing amid the ruins of a whaling station.
That evening we reminisced about the extraordinary sights we’d seen during the day: St Andrews Bay, which, unbelievably, had made the show at Gold Harbour seem like a minor production, with kilometre after kilometre of elephant seals, hectare after hectare of king penguins, all rolling out of the mist seemingly without end; the leg across Hound Bay, the water like glass, the light clean, the sun low, illuminating the kayaks like lanterns as giant petrels wheeled overhead; paddling past the rust-eaten carcass of an old whaling ship to land, finally, at the back of a deep bay dotted with industrial relics and reindeer.
One side of the bay comprised a sheer wall, black against the stars, that threw back the sounds from the seal harems on the beach, magnifying and distorting them so that otherworldly echoes seemed to emanate from the ruins about us. Spooky.
I had mixed feelings on our last day. Half of me looked forward to finishing, half was sad the journey was coming to a close. We rounded the final headland into Cumberland Bay, were reunited with Northanger, then made our way slowly to the finish, stretching out the final minutes of our adventure together. It was a day in marked contrast to that of our departure, with blue sky and a feast of mountains spread out before us.
As King Edward Point came into view the entire population of the base—about a dozen people cheered from the shore. We could see a “Congrats Kiwis” banner and a New Zealand flag, both drawn on sheets with felt pen. The strains of the New Zealand national anthem, played on a saxophone, carried across the water, and we responded with raised paddles and a team Eskimo roll before paddling into the beach for much handshaking, hugs and champagne.
We had added no coastline to the charts of South Georgia, and discovered nothing of great significance about its islets and bays, yet the appreciation of these people for what we had accomplished was palpable.
“What does it matter if a coast is paddled one stroke at a time?” I wrote in my diary. I’d been awed by nature; known the quickness of breath that comes from daring, and the warm glow of satisfaction at the end of a hard-won day; and shared good company and the joy of achievement. “The real success is on the inside. If there is conquest it is there. If a frontier has been pushed back it is there.”
My life had been made richer by the experience, and, in a way I didn’t quite understand, our expedition had enriched the lives of those who’d followed our progress. It was a warm welcome back, and we celebrated with them long into the night.