Karen Bowerman, reporting live from Antarctica on a special voyage that will reunite Sir Ernest Shackleton and Frank Wild for the final time
Karen Bowerman is reporting live from Antarctica on a special voyage that will reunite Sir Ernest Shackleton and Frank Wild for the final time.
We disembark in heavy rain at Port Stanley. The settlement’s based round a single road that runs along the water. I pause at the memorial to the Falklands war and read the endless names. Wreaths of poppies lay at its base, held down by heavy stones.
Further up the hill there are brightly painted corrugated houses: kit homes sent from Britain for settlers in the 1800s. I pass Christ Church cathedral with an arch made from the jawbones of two blue whales. A little further along, with a rather impressive array of green tiled roofs, is Government House, where I’ve been invited to a reception later.
At the local museum I meet Leona Roberts, the manager. She calls me honey and greets me as if I’m a long lost friend. I notice a massive symphonium in one corner; Leona winds it up, wedging the mechanism with a pencil. The music resonates through the museum’s tiny rooms, past ships’ bells, military drums, stuffed penguins and even a set of false teeth donated by the island’s last residential dentist.
At 11 o’clock it’s time to meet the governor, Ric Nye. As Leona offers me a lift in her Land Rover she tells me about the end of the Falklands war, when at the age of ten, she looked out of their sitting room window and saw hundreds of Argentinians retreating. Her mother took her by the hand and they ran outside, past the bodies of two dead soldiers. Years later her mother revealed how upset she’d felt that her daughter didn’t even flinch.
“I’d got so used to seeing death,” Leona said.
At Government House, I’m ushered into a grand room where over tea and ginger cake I chat to the local rector, the Reverend Dr Richard Hines. He’ll be conducting Wild’s memorial service on South Georgia.
As I return to the ship (still in the pouring rain) I spot a heavy, flat box being winched onto the bow. It’s Wild’s tombstone that Angie had flown across from the UK. She watches, with tears in her eyes, as it’s lowered safely into her arms.
I thought days at sea would be a chance to relax or catch up, instead there are lectures and whale/dolphin/bird watching to keep me busy.
I grab a few moments to read some of Wild’s memoirs. His account of the loss of the Endurance (crushed by freezing ice) is particularly poignant:
“The attack of the ice reached its climax at 4pm on the 27th (October 1915). The decks were breaking upwards and the water was pouring in below. It was a sickening sensation to feel the decks breaking up under one’s feet, the great beams bending and snapping with a noise of heavy gun fire.”
That November the ship sank. Wild wrote, “we heard him (Shackleton) shout, “She’s going boys!” I felt as if I had lost an old friend.”
Today we crossed the Antarctic Convergence where the cold waters of Antarctica meet the relatively warmer waters of the sub-antarctic. The variety of marine life here, particularly krill, attracts numerous birds.
I spot a wandering albatross swooping over the stern and five or six cape petrels. I feel I’m beginning to catch up with the twitchers!
As the sea cools down so does the air. It’s still above freezing but the wind’s definitely picking up. Tonight I’ll dig out the thermals.
I open my curtains to the most desolate island I’ve ever seen: a mass of contorted rocks, snowy peaks and glaciers rise perpendicularly out of the sea. We’ve reached the Bay of Isles on the eastern coast of South Georgia, 54 degrees south.
I stand on Salisbury Plain, a long shingle beach littered with hundreds and thousands of king penguins and am struck not only by the number but the noise. It’s almost electronic-sounding, like the incessant beep of an alarm interspersed with high-pitched whistles. There are birds as far as I can see, nesting all over the beach. And when the beach runs out they spill into rough grassland, and when that’s full up they fill the foothills of the mountains. And then I spot them further up too, on the slopes – masses and masses of tiny white dots emitting the same deafening sound.
Among the adults are chicks: fat, brown and fluffy. Sailors used to call them oakum boys after the coils of tar-soaked rope on their ships.
We spend the afternoon at Fortuna Bay – the pebble beach Shackleton trekked along as they crossed South Georgia in search of help (he’d landed on the wrong side of the island for the whaling station at Stromness). As I look back at our ship, anchored in the bay, I take in the enormity of the challenge that faced a man who’d already spent almost 17 months in freezing temperatures, with little food and constantly wet clothes.
To my left is the glacier he and two men (Frank Worsley and Thomas Crean) had already scaled to reach the beach; to my right, is the Alladyce mountain range with glaciers and crevasses of its own. Shackleton had no choice but to scale the peaks. Armed with just an axe and a length of rope he began the 36 hour climb.
Follow Karen's progress over the next week as she reports live from Antarctica. You'll find her first report here.
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