After visiting Grytviken, we moved on to other destinations in South Georgia; one was yet another whaling station – this time at Stromness. Here, we retraced the final part of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s epic voyage from Elephant Island after he was stranded on the 1904 voyage of the Endurance.
Starting on the far side of the island, this hike took us a fair distance, and I remember feeling very glad of my windproof, waterproof, down-filled
gear – especially when we got to the final portion. Only the most dedicated Shackleton enthusiast would have remembered that after an excruciating journey, he slid down the final hill towards Stromness; the whaling station where he was eventually able to effect a rescue for his men. Although we had the option to walk down if we wanted, I don’t think a single person did – and some of us nearly went up for a second go, wet bum and all.
In addition to being a great leg-stretcher, this stop was fascinating – again we were reminded of the nasty business involved with whale slaughter, but ironically it was a wonderful place to see wildlife. We stopped at a gentoo penguin colony, and observed for as long as we could.
Sitting and watching is really the best way to enjoy the gentoos – their entertainment value isn’t immediately obvious, but hilarity ensues after watching for only a short while.
These crafty little birds use twigs, rocks, pebbles and all sorts of things to build their nests – and for some reason I never quite grasped, these nest-building materials always seem to be at a premium. Rather than seek out their own, new stuff, they prefer to steal from each other! So, no sooner does one penguin turn its beak than another one has sneaked up from behind, stolen a twig or pebble and is running madly back to their nest, clutching their prize.
The act of thievery is funny enough in itself, but the undignified way in which these little birds waddle-run away, wings flapping, clutching their ill-gotten gains in their beak is almost too much.
Penguins weren’t the only creatures we saw running on the island – it turns out that some short-sighted Norwegians decided to introduce reindeer here at the turn of the last century. The project went well, and now, with no natural predators, the reindeer have become a nuisance. In fact, apart from a few snooty looks from otherwise disinterested fur seals, the reindeer seemed to be the only thing on the island that were even slightly put out by our presence.
The following day, we went to Gold Harbour to see a massive colony of king penguins. This was a truly magical stop. It was breeding season, so the king penguin babies were still covered in brown furry feather blankets to keep themselves warm – and many of them looked a little bedraggled, because they’d begun to moult a little.