Ski Club of Manchester post 2020 AGM presentation: In Shackleton’s Footsteps — a cruise to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula in November/December 2019
Reporter: Andrew Walker
On Saturday 16 November, Tom Russell and I boarded a plane at Manchester for a flight to Buenos Aires via Heathrow. After a 14 hour overnight flight we arrived into BA on a hot summer day and then did the touristy things such as a city tour and an Argentinian steak and Malbec dinner (which certainly lived up to expectations). The next morning we boarded a flight to Ushuaia, billed as the town at the end of the world. As far south as we had already gone, Ushuaia was a further three hours almost due south.
For Argentina, Ushuaia is not just the most southerly town, but the capital of the Falklands, or rather Las Malvinas. As well as being a tourist hot-spot and the main departure point for Antarctic cruises, it is a naval dockyard and was the final port of call of the General Belgrano light cruiser in April 1982.
After an interesting but whistlestop tour of the Tierra del Fuego National Park we boarded the Hurtigruten MS Fram in the late afternoon, our home for three weeks. With a gross tonnage of 12,700 tons the Fram has berths for 318 although for Antarctic cruises it is limited to 200. Together with around 180 other passengers, primarily north American and European, we cruised east along the Beagle Channel and headed into the South Atlantic for the Falkland Islands.
Distances in the Southern ocean are on a colossal scale, and it took two days at around 13 knots to reach the most westerly part of the Falklands. During that time there was a packed schedule of lectures on animal and bird life as well as geology and the history of Antarctic exploration, plus safety and bio-security briefings. There was also time to spend on the observation decks watching seabirds (some of which spend their early years entirely at sea before going home to mate for the first time) and looking for whales. It was also a time to become acquainted with one’s fellow passengers, ship life, and the excellent food, mainly buffet meals with a wide variety of world cuisines available as the voyage progressed.The Falklands are indeed the windswept outpost I expected them to be, but are astonishingly beautiful, reportedly very much like the Outer Hebrides. We were lucky to have excellent weather, and saw the islands (there are a total of some 774) at their best. What I didn’t know was that they are home to large penguin colonies, as well as albatrosses and other birds, and it was with some surprise that on the first landing on New Island (transferring from the ship to shore via small but fast boats), we crossed a neck of land and saw a huge colony of Rockhopper penguins and black- browed albatrosses, with the inevitable skuas on the lookout for an easy lunch, especially as this was nesting time. Perhaps I should have done a little more research beforehand.We had three further landings on western islands before an overnight cruise to Stanley, the capital, with some 2,400 residents (around two thirds of the entire population). We spent the day there, sightseeing and doing various nature trails. Some of the sights were familiar from the 1982 news, such as Government House. There are a couple of Argentinian residents, but the rest of the population is steadfastly British. All children are entitled to a university education in the UK, and while you might think that many would stay, around two-thirds return to the islands.
The islands are thriving, mainly on tourism and fishing. Given some of the architecture, one could be forgiven for thinking that one was in the UK. The pub we lunched at (excellent fish and chips and a very good pint) was adorned with Union Jacks, and Sky News was on the TV. The difference is that outside this modest town the rest of the population totals only around 1,000 souls in remote settlements accessible only by air or sea, widely spread over nearly 5,000 square miles.
Our next port of call was South Georgia, with a landing at Shackleton’s first landing place at Cave Cove in May 1916 after a treacherous and miraculous 16 day, 800 mile crossing from Elephant Island in a 22 foot lifeboat, the James Caird, by Shackleton and five others. On the two and a half day passage from Stanley we had crossed the Antarctic Convergence, a boundary encircling the globe between the sub- Antarctic and the Antarctic Oceans, which in climate terms effectively separates Antarctica from the rest of the world. As you do so, over a very short distance the sea and air temperatures drop by about 10 degrees. The effect is that South Georgia, despite being at the same latitude south as the Lake District is north, is cold and heavily glaciated
As well as being a spectacularly stark and beautiful place, South Georgia has abundant wildlife. The north coast has several King penguin mega-colonies, ranging from 100,000 to nearly half a million birds. We had two landings, and got a close-up view not only of the rather vexatious fur seals guarding the beach, but the hearts of the penguin colonies. The elephant seals don’t seem to care and just lie around, occasionally snorting and growling. At times it really did feel like we were at a David Attenborough filming location, but what you don’t get on TV is the continuous raucous noise and the overwhelming pungent smell, with strong ammonia overtones.
On the way along the north coast to Grytviken some 75 of us were disembarked at the head of a fjord to walk the final 5 km of Shackleton’s walk across South Georgia to safety at Stromness, at that time a large whaling station, and the ultimate rescue of the rest of the crew of the Endurance from Elephant Island, albeit four months and four rescue attempts later. Grytviken itself, where we made our final landing, is a grim reminder of an industry which for over half a century plundered the southern seas for whales and seals to satisfy a demand for meat and oil, much of it for human consumption. Over 50 years since it closed down, the paraphernalia remains, rusting but cleaned of debris and asbestos and made safe, and there is now a museum, post office and gift shop, as well as a permanent research station. The lovingly-maintained graveyard is the final resting place of many who lived, worked and died there, as well as Shackleton and his right-hand man, Frank Wild. The captain came ashore that day, with several bottles of whisky and boxes of glasses. The tradition is to sip some of the spirit from your glass and then pour the rest over Shackleton’s grave. Not a bad way to spend eternity.
From there we re-embarked, headed east round the island and towards the Antarctic peninsula, enveloped for much of the two and a half day journey in mist. Our first call was Elephant Island and a landing at Point Wild (named for Frank Wild who was left in charge after the James Caird left for South Georgia), where the remaining 22 of Shackleton’s men spent four months waiting to be rescued, which they finally were in late August 2016. It’s hard to imagine a more desolate or lonely place. Although the scenery is more spectacular than Bognor, you can at least get a hot shower and a hot meal in that seaside town, as well as not having to live under a pair of upturned lifeboats through an Antarctic winter, surviving on seal and penguin meat.
Then south to Antarctic Sound at the northern end of the peninsula, under by now cloudless skies, where we got our first glimpses of icebergs bigger than city blocks, and snow and ice-clad mountains with heavily-crevassed glaciers slowly disgorging into the sea. We also had our first continental (rather than island) landing, at Brown Bluff on Antarctic Sound, where we saw the rather endearing Adelie penguins as well as more of the ubiquitous and constitutionally grumpy fur seals.
A trip north again, to the South Shetlands and Deception Island (where some of us, including me, had a dip in the sea — at a temperature of 1 degree!) was followed by a meandering cruise down the west coast of the peninsula to our furthest south of just over 65 degrees. At that time of year at that latitude the sun only just sets, so for several days the nights offered golden opportunities to see the mountains, and the pinks and mauves of the midnight light, all in very still conditions.
En route we were treated to some of the planet’s most spectacular scenery, including such beauty spots as Paradise Harbour, Wilhelmina Bay, and the Gerlache and Bismarck Straits, but the icing on the cake, and the jewel in the local crown, was the return trip down the Lemaire Channel, 11km Long and up to 1500m wide. This was almost blocked at the southern end by a huge grounded iceberg, leaving only a narrow channel for us to negotiate, before turning round and heading back north. This was our last full day around the peninsula, one of such meteorological and geographic splendour that it was as much as most of us could do to stand and gawp, take hundreds of photos, watch over the side as the ship nudged aside ice floes, and observe groups of gentoo penguins going about their daily business. It was, in short, total sensory overload.
On leaving the channel we headed up the Gerlache Strait to exit the peninsula between Anvers and Brabant Islands and commence our two and a half day trip back to Ushuaia, enjoying the pleasure of a gala dinner after which we retired to the observation lounge for a glorious entertainment by the crew with some clever and very funny shows. As the disco started we were heading into the Drake Passage, and with the wind and waves getting up the dancing turned into a hilarious cakewalk.
The following afternoon I had to retire to my bunk for 18 hours. I have it on good authority that the waves were 7-9 metres high in the middle of the passage, not that I could have cared less. Dinner came and went with me confined to quarters but I did manage a tentative breakfast the following morning. After that it was back to calm conditions as we approached the southern tip of Chile and, with some time in hand, we had a detour via Cape Horn although we were not allowed closer than three miles. We reached a sunlit and colourful Ushuaia at 6 am the following morning, mooched around the town for a few hours, and got on a plane back to Buenos Aires for our last night and a final steak and bottle of Malbec, before returning home the next day.
For me, the whole thing could have been marred by seasickness, but in the end it was only at the very end that this proved to be a problem, and even then it was not nearly as bad as it could have been. Annoyingly, Tom seemed to be impervious to the ship’s movements. Probably just as well that one of us was OK. It was a trip of a lifetime, and we were very fortunate to have done it before Covid restricted such activities.