Double Entendre of the Day:
Christine: There’s a strong wind and a lot of chop, so you’re going to get a . . . . . . . . . . . . lot of sea spray.
Rosie: Let’s all keep our mouths shut so we don’t swallow a whole load.
With all of my historical study, it seemed I was always having to think about killing. Even now, a friend tells me she’s living within sight of the Gleiwitz radio tower which marks the starting place of WWII, bringing to mind choice details of that little fracas. South Georgia’s history is entirely based on killing too, though here it was in the form of whaling and sealing. Almost as soon as Captain Cook’s discovery became known, whalers and sealers started making their way here, and even further south to Antarctic waters and islands. Both species of prey were almost wiped out, to the point that both industries eventually collapsed, the last base closing in 1965.
Whaling is the story of the day. We visit the abandoned base at Stromness, where Shackleton first made it back to civilisation from being lost in Antarctica (we’ll talk a bit more about him another time). Then on to Grytviken, another station that has since been restored as a historical site and part of a museum complex. The reality of it, though, is incredibly depressing. It’s a site of industrial slaughter, after all. All the machinery is on display, with information boards walking you through the process: how the floating carcasses were moored here, dragged up this ramp by chains around their tails, peeled of their skin “like a banana” by way of steam winches, all the fun details of exactly how they were cut up and boiled down. The oldest guy on the ship is Joerg, an 80-year-old German who moved to the States after the war. He stands quietly for a long time, then gravely says, “It’s like a genocide.”
The real kicker, though, is that the text seems almost congratulatory towards the whalers, and excited by just how impressive the industrial process really was. At one sign, “The distance from here to the white post is 34 metres, the length of a blue whale brought to Grytviken. This is the largest whale ever recorded.” And then blithely, “It was killed in 1916.” You would imagine that the biggest whale ever seen would be an object of awe and respect; instead it was cut up for meat.
The literature says, “One image of whaling is the cruel, ruthless slaughter of wild animals. Another image is of hard-working men making a success of an industry in a remote, desolate corner of the world.” This just doesn’t sit right. Coming back to Joerg’s comment, I could praise Germany’s invasion of Russia as an example of men working hard in a remote and harsh environment, or describe the Holocaust as an impressive technological achievement, but I don’t think either of those comparisons would be greeted too enthusiastically.
The comic relief is provided by flatulent elephant seals, who figuratively lighten the atmosphere while doing the exact opposite in a literal sense. They lie around in great clusters, each one shifting sporadically to rip out the most tremendous burps and farts you’ve ever heard. You laugh and flinch simultaneously. Comedy aside, elephant seals are epic. Aside from being massive, they spend ten months straight at sea feeding, then haul up on land to sleep, moult and get it on elephant style. They can dive nearly two kilometres straight down to chase squid. They’re seals, for Chrissake. And satellite beacons have shown them swimming literally thousands of kilometres a year, from Georgia to the Antarctic to South America and everywhere in between.
The next day at Gold Harbour, our last in South Georgia, is perfect. One of those calm, flat mornings when the sun off the water looks like the flattened-out foil from an Easter egg, glinting in all directions. Where you feel that all is right with the world, and your boat driver looks like some kind of noble hero standing at the tiller. The landing site is stunning: a broad lagoon with a glacier tongue extending down into it; a long curve of stone beach covered with thousands of penguins, a ridge of shale hills dotted with seals. Sheer rock cliffs shoot up from the lagoon, topped with a glacier crown. Our Dear Leader and his top lieutenants are ridiculously obsessed with caution. They’ve already warned us about tsunamis, and when a few small bits of ice fall off the glacier, his Second-in-Command shrieks “Get off the beach! Get off the beach!!!” as a six-centimetre wave creeps up to tickle our gumboots. So I escape the kindergarten mentality and head for the hills. From here, the bizarre grandeur of the landscape is revealed, changing from the Himalayas to the Caribbean in half a mile, with a stop-off at the Serengeti courtesy of the massed wildlife in between. Even from a mile off you can see the carpet of penguins covering the beach; and from here the gold-blue water looks inviting enough to swim.
It’s a beautiful clear day, and it’s hot. We’re dressed for the Antarctic while Georgia hits 17 degrees. As we hike, the clothes get discarded bit by bit – waterproofs, jumpers, thermals – until I’m getting round in a pair of rolled up trousers, gumboots, and a pair of aviators. My shirtlessness surprises Jacques, a French-Canadian ornithologist on the expedition staff. “My goodness!” he says. “I can’t believe what I’m seeing.” (Imagine this in a heavy French accent, it’s funnier.) “The fact that this could happen in South Georgia is incredible. If you want proof of global warming, here it is. I must take your picture, for evidence.” I like to think that it’s really because I’m looking H-O-T-T, but I agree, and he snaps me, shirtless in shades, standing next to a forty-metre glacial cliff. “Look at this,” he goes on, gesturing to the wide lagoon far below where the Zodiacs are black blots on the beach. “Even fifteen years ago, none of this existed. The glacier covered everything, these hills, the lagoon, all the way to the sea. And now look where it is. Soon there won’t even be a glacier on those cliffs. And see what happens,” he says, shaking his head and looking back at me. “As soon as the ice recedes, the apes move in.”
Much like Flava Flav, all of this was iced up until the mid-90s.
Later that day we pull away towards Antarctica. The landscape as viewed from the sea is incredible, especially as the sun dies to a richer gold. Mountains, genuine mountains, jut straight up out of the ocean. No time for intermediaries. The range stands in one thin line, one long narrow razorback. Along its length the glaciers come down in shining rivulets, the fields of snow stand clear and fresh, and the fact that interior decorators use forty-six different shades of white stops seeming so absurd. The naturalist Niall Rankin described it as a section of the Swiss Alps dropped into the sea. Between the peaks are scarves of mist, casually draped, and refracting fields of spray whipped up by the wind. Some peaks are almost obscured behind the diffusion, some are clear-cut as a polished parang. It’s a true fantasy landscape, for all the world like something out of Narnia or Middle-Earth or The Neverending Story. Falcor wuz ere.