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» White noise: South Georgia Island
White noise: South Georgia Island

White noise: South Georgia Island

This story first appeared in Vacations & Travel magazine, autumn 2019, issue 110


With two mountain ranges outlining its landscape, South Georgia Island boasts an abundance of wildlife to see, hear… and smell.

After a week of much silence and solitude in the snowy whiteness of Antarctica, South Georgia Island slaps me in the face with its startling sights, raucous sounds and rancid smells. The wildlife is wilder here. It’s like going back to a time when animals ruled the world.

White noise: South Georgia Island
Capturing an unforgettable moment on South Georgia Island

For two days our ship has sailed from the Antarctic Peninsula to reach the south-eastern tip of this extraordinary territory, often compared to the Galapagos. Clambering onto Zodiacs at Cooper Bay, we zip toward land for our first encounter with the rowdy residents.

Southern fur seals pop up like meerkats from under the icy water and flittering pipits squeak as they fly overhead. Literally thousands of creatures are crowded on top of each other on the shore. Macaroni penguins are cackling, giant petrels are squabbling, seal pups are wailing while their parents honk in a guttural growl.

The cacophony is hard to comprehend. I swear I just heard a kookaburra, then a rooster and a kitten but our guide explains it’s probably penguins. Each one has a unique voice so that mothers and babies can find each other in the melee.

White noise: South Georgia Island
Grytviken whaling station

Enthralled by these crazy farmyard noises yet almost overwhelmed by the stench, I feel as if I am witnessing nature at its purest. Reluctantly we return to the ship after a couple of hours’ ride on this frosty morning, but we look forward to a landing after lunch.

At Gold Harbour, passengers are escorted ashore for a walk where the wild things roam. A pile of huge, moulting elephant seals let out belly-deep belches, when suddenly two males erupt into a chest-slamming fight. But I’m distracted by a baby with lovey-dovey, big, black eyes that gaze straight into my soul. He follows me when I sit on the ground and tries to nibble my gloves.

King penguins and fluffy brown chicks waddle and huddle as far as the eye can see. The monogamous males give a good, swift slap to anyone who tries to steal their partner. South Georgia is also home to the playful, yellow-fringed macaronis who are also hilarious to watch.

Meanwhile, a dozen young fur seals are hanging around our Zodiac, splashing each other like naughty schoolboys. As I try to navigate my way to the boat, one of the more aggressive teenagers lunges at me. Following the advice to stand my ground and roar back at him, flailing my arms above my head to appear bigger and badder, I quickly switch from feeling somewhat scared to totally silly.

The island’s scenery is unexpectedly green. Moss, algae, lichen and kelp become strangely interesting after the blinding white of Antarctica. The magnificent mountains are breathtaking, too. Drygalski Fjord’s heavily crevassed glaciers, icebergs and 1900-metre peaks are a highlight.

White noise: South Georgia Island
A king penguin feeding her chick

South Georgia is also home to the British settlement of Grytviken, the site of a former whaling station that closed in the 1960s but has been preserved as a poignant reminder of the masses of whales that were killed. Sir Ernest Shackleton and Frank Wild are buried in the cemetery, and there’s a gallery of prints by their expedition photographer Frank Hurley.

In the afternoon, we hike from Fortuna Bay to Stromness, the last leg of Shackleton’s heroic ordeal. In 1916 the polar explorer, roped together with two of his crew, Frank Worsley and Tom Crean, spent 36 hours climbing across the harsh terrain, which had never before been traversed. They had already sailed for 17 days in a lifeboat after giving up any hope of rescue from Elephant Island, where their ship, the Endurance, had become trapped in pack ice.

Finally reaching Stromness whaling station, the exhausted trio were welcomed, fed and bathed before Worsley departed to collect their three companions left behind at King Haakon Bay. In a borrowed ship, Shackleton, Worsley and Crean returned to Elephant Island to save the 22 remaining men.

Aurora Expeditions offers a three-day trek retracing this epic crossing, but the three-hour option is enough for most. Along the way are mesmerising views, steep slopes, streams, lakes and waterfalls. Our ship’s historian, Alasdair, brings a copy of Shackleton’s book to read aloud. It’s a fitting end to all of our adventurous journeys to get here.

This was my 70th cruise and my second time to Antarctica. Comparing the two experiences, I recommend this longer itinerary if time and money allows. And it will save you a second trip back to the region when you regret skipping this incredible destination – until, of course, you realise you need to see, feel, hear and smell South Georgia Island again.

White noise: South Georgia Island

THE SHIP: GREG MORTIMER

Launching late 2019, Aurora Expeditions’ 120-passenger Greg Mortimer will debut a ground-breaking design with more viewing platforms and a new X-Bow hull that pierces waves – instead of slamming, rising and dropping –resulting in a smoother sailing across the Drake Passage. The ship is also equipped with 15 Zodiacs, 10 kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, and snorkelling, diving, snowshoeing and ski gear.

TRAVEL FACTS

GETTING THERE

For immaculate snow, pristine penguins and the chance to witness courtship rituals, go to South Georgia in November. To see the most whales, seabirds and seal pups, travel in January or February. The 21-day ‘Falklands, South Georgia & Antarctic Peninsula’ and the 22-day ‘South Georgia & Antarctic Odyssey’ depart from Ushuaia, Argentina.

auroraexpeditions.com.au

Best operators for South Georgia cruising:

Aurora Expeditions – auroraexpeditions.com.au

Chimu Adventures – chimuadventures.com

Lindblad – au.expeditions.com

One Ocean Expeditions – oneoceanexpeditions.com

Ponant – au.ponant.com

Scenic – scenic.com.au

Silversea – silversea.com