South Georgia has to be the most extraordinary mind-blowing small island on the planet.
Far from being a deserted island, South Georgia offers a history of intrepid explorers, dramatic survival stories, deserted whaling stations and wildlife galore. Absolutely my favourite stop on a recent cruise to the Falklands, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula.
Nothing can prepare you for the sight of hundreds of thousands of king penguins, accompanied by a cacophony of squawking (reminiscent of the discordant vuvuzelas) and a waft of ammonia. It is a total delight to watch them waddle along, stopping to chat and groom, groups of young ones huddling together.
We had time to wander and soak up the surroundings and were encouraged to just sit still to see what would happen. Being extraordinarily curious, penguins come right up to you – literally face to face, which can result in some great photos of penguin faces looking down your camera lens.
I sat atop a hill and, sure enough, soon attracted attention. To climb the hill, the penguin used his beak like an ice-axe to dig into the snow, walking his feet up to his beak, and repeating the process to get to the top to see me. I hope I was worth it!
Being early summer (October), there were many teen-age chicks about – looking wonderfully bedraggled in their fluffy brown feathers. The Salisbury Plain was a veritable sea of penguins as far as the eye could see. At St Andrews a similar sight – the striking black, white and yellow of the adults contrasting with the fluffy brown chicks, beaks pointing to the heavens. It is heart-warming to see native birdlife returning as a result of efforts to cull vermin and introduced species.
The other locals demanding attention were the multitudes of sea-lions. I was particular enchanted by the beauty of the females with their saucer-like eyes and cat-like whiskers. The aggressive side of nature was also at play, with seal-lions fighting for territory, skua picking away at carcasses and tell-tales signed of bites from fighting sea-lions.
The size of the resident elephant seals is akin to the size of a Land Rover. The males are quite unattractive, yet extremely flexible, striking balletic poses with their tails in the air. One had to sympathise with the female in the mating process. I can’t believe that with the size difference the female even survives!
A highlight was sea-kayaking around the deserted whaling station of Stromness, with snow falling in slow-motion, observed only by crows perched on a shipwreck. We walked to the spot where, during their epic 1916 Endurance Expedition, Shackleton, Crean and Worsley finally came in to sight of the whaling station – their hope for salvation. In Grytviken we had a wee dram and read a poem at the grave of Shackleton. The museum was a fascinating insight, with photos and replica of Shackleton’s row-boat the James Caird.
Remote and inhospitable it may be, but South Georgia is truly a David Attenborough wonderland, well worth the effort.