'Soldiers, all men in fact, are natural hero-worshippers. Officers with a flame for command realise this and emphasise in their conduct, dress and deportment the qualities they seek to produce in their men... the influence one man can have on thousands is a never ending source of wonder to me...'
General George Patton
It was time to go. The blue and yellow sky was still bright behind the distant snow capped peaks but it would not last much longer. The route I had to follow would not be difficult in darkness but I wanted to arrive at my destination in time to watch the twilight fade before I settled down for the night.
I set off around the Eastern edge of the water on a rocky track that led to the head of the bay. I trod carefully for earlier in the day I had disturbed an Antarctic Tern sitting on two eggs which had been delicately laid and nurtured in a rough nest of stones on the side of the track. A constant but gentle wind caused parts of the twisted and rusting buildings in the distance to squeak, groan and flap like a saloon bar door in a spaghetti Western.
I made my way past two forlorn looking boats lying on their sides in the calm water - seemingly at rest from a hard days labour on the high seas. I headed from the bay towards the church, its freshly painted white exterior clearly visible in the distance. Pausing briefly I peered through one of the north windows and picked out the library of mostly Norwegian books, the majority unopened and unread for the past 50 years. But I had to move on.
The light was fading now causing me to take care with my footing over holes in the peaty soil and discarded metalwork. My destination was nearing. I was now on the eastern side of the bay using the reflected light from the water to guide me. I edged inland and uphill towards the white picket fence that I could now clearly see. I opened the gate and headed to the back of the enclosure where I came to a halt. Turning around I sat down on my rucksack and stared out across the bay which was now iridescent in the last few minutes of twilight. A sense of real excitement washed through me.
The feeling one experiences on doing and achieving something that seemed beyond possibility yet was actually about to happen. I unpacked my sleeping bag, climbed in and zipped up. I settled down and then extended an arm to touch the upright granite stone only inches away. Grinning with happiness I wished my sleeping companions a good night and considered for a moment what I was actually doing. I was about to sleep alone through the night of 23 November 2003 in the whaler's cemetery in Grytviken right beside the grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton.
The genesis of my pilgrimage to South Georgia begun when an Army friend of mine was posted to The Falkland Islands to be the Commander of the British Forces. His responsibilities covered the security of all dependencies which included South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands and knowing of my admiration and respect for Sir Ernest Shackleton he asked if I could arrange to join him for his forthcoming second visit to South Georgia.
The day of my journey south finally arrived. The long flight allowed me the time to gorge myself on a diet of Shackleton's writing again. I was eager to learn all I could about the sea journey to Grytviken during the Endurance expedition and Frank Wild's account of Sir Ernest's final days aboard the Quest. I wanted to climb to the high ground above Grytviken and hold in my hand a copy of the photograph that Frank Hurley took of Sir Ernest and Frank Worsley gazing down into the bay.
I wanted to face the memorial with the white cross that was erected by the crew of the Quest. I wanted to walk the paths through the whaling station and stand in the shadows and listen for the talk of the crews from the Endurance and the Quest. Talk of families long left behind, of the Great War, of the glorious age they were living in but also talk of uncertainty and hope at what lay ahead.
HMS Leeds Castle, the Royal Navy's South Atlantic patrol ship, eased away from the south coast of the Falkland Islands towards the horizon where a glorious Spring sky met the calm and pale grey sea. Overhead, a C-130 aircraft returned from an overflight of South Georgia to give the Captain of our ship prior warning of icebergs that lay in our path. No sign this time of a German naval squadron whose presence in 1914 had caused Sir Ernest to avoid Port Stanley and choose South Georgia as the final staging post en route to the Weddell Sea.
Our journey was to take us just over 3 days during which we would cross the Antarctic Convergence Zone and approach South Georgia from the North then pass down the Eastern coast and into Cumberland Bay. Our companions for much of the journey were the Wandering and Black Browed Albatross.
I stood for many hours at the stern of the ship admiring their unforced flight. They seemed like masterful pilots and the sleekest of gliders all rolled into one. Even in the most turbulent wind and swelling sea I never saw one of them beat their wings yet they accelerated past us back and forth for hours riding invisible tracks with such grace, sometimes coming close enough for me to exchange glances with their beady eyes. The birdlife on the open seas must have been such a comfort for the crews who had no means of communication. Somehow they were the link to some unknown land and the bearers of hope and safety in times of loneliness and fear.
We entered the Antarctic Convergence Zone after 2 days voyage. This was marked by a bank of fog and a distinct darkening of the sea. We reduced our speed but made good progress through the calm waters. The wildlife begun to change. Antarctic Prions and Petrels appeared in growing numbers.
In contrast to the stress-free Albatross these little chaps worked at a feverish rate battling against the gathering winds and rising seas. From under the water young fur seals appeared and as we sailed closer to land a flash of yellow from beneath the swell heralded the first sighting of the King penguins.
Through a window in the fog we glimpsed the plume of spray and dorsal fin of a killer whale but just not close enough to see the detail. On the bridge of the ship the radar displayed the presence of distant icebergs that were hiding from us in the fog. Grytviken was still some way off but I sniffed the night air to imagine the tell-tale smell of the whale processing plant. In full operation it was said that the sailors could detect the station many days away as they crossed the open seas due to the overpowering smell.
We turned into Cumberland Bay at dawn on the clearest day imaginable. The water was motionless and reflected Mount Paget in front of a backdrop of pure blue. I searched for Grytviken and recognised the large fuel storage drums and shoreline relief of the whaling station now shades of rusty umber.
Eager for more I tracked around the bay searching for the white fence and the whaler's graveyard where I knew Sir Ernest to be. As we neared our mooring, elephant seals barked, their warm breath briefly turning to a pungent cloud whilst in the bay, with wings swept back the still water was broken by diving Terns. Having moored, we were free to explore. It was a special moment to set foot on South Georgia and difficult to know where to start.
I was pulled in many directions by competing emotions - to photograph the wildlife, to visit the Shackleton memorial, to climb to high ground to overlook the bay, to learn from the museum, to offer a prayer in the church or to visit the grave.
I accomplished all of those. But the night that I spent alone in the graveyard was what I had really come to achieve. The young seek heroes and to this schoolboy turned soldier what Sir Ernest Shackleton embodied for me was his example of triumph over adversity. As I watched the twilight fade from the bay that night I was reminded of a lecture I once heard given by an officer who had commanded a battalion in the Falklands war. He quoted from Gibbon's description of Aleric the king of the Goths when recounting the qualities needed of an operational commander. Gibbon said of Aleric '...he had the invincible temperament of mind which rises superior to every misfortune and derives the resources from adversity'.
I have that quote in my commonplace book and it has been a source of strength to me if only to have as a dim beacon in the distance to aspire to. And it was these qualities that I saw so clearly in Sir Ernest's lifetime achievements and the reason why I have admired him so much since. So, to have reached the place where he ended his life carried great meaning.
As we sailed passed Drygalski Fjord, its mouth blocked by gridlocked icebergs, and headed north west towards Shag Rocks I shall never underestimate the privileged experience that was now coming to an end. South Georgia and Antarctica are financially and physically out of reach to so many who are students of the Golden Age but I had, by luck, made it and by doing so felt a touch closer to a man that the world so admires.
Posted by Henry W on October 17, 2006 7:25 PM