South Georgia paddle adventure

By Andrew Maffett 10 February 2016
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A group of record-breaking Aussie mates achieved a 30-year dream of circumnavigating South Georgia Island – a journey that saw them named the 2015 AG Society Adventurers of the Year.

AN AUDIENCE OF curious wildlife greeted us and our kayaks in Cooper Sound on the north-eastern tip of South Georgia Island. Fur seals in their thousands surfing offshore reefs like crowded point breaks poked their heads up to peer at us as we passed.

Further along the coast in Gold Harbour, we paddled past a beach packed with noisy penguins. Their raucous cries were bouncing off the dramatically serrated glacier behind them, and, for us, this tuneless wall of sound meant another night of wearing ear plugs as we tried to sleep in our tent.

We were deep in the South Atlantic, on day 10 of our 
circumnavigation of the island by sea kayak. We had already survived furious winds and wild seas, passed surf crashing onto stranded icebergs, and found gaps in reefs where the smallest mistake could mean a possibly deadly capsize. For us this was a cold and stormy world with treacherous potential everywhere – but for a menagerie of perfectly adapted wildlife it is an oasis.

While searching for somewhere to land, we found ourselves among a group of elephant seal bulls, puffing and sighing in annoyance at the disturbance. These massive beasts weigh up to 3 tonnes and are capable of carelessly crushing a kayak. While sheer size makes them worthy of much respect, their movements and behaviour also make them extraordinarily fascinating creatures.

We continued past rocky capes and sandy beaches, looking for some vacant real estate where we could camp between the steep green tussock slopes and beaches thick with wildlife. 
Each penguin species has its niche here. The gentoos were found in the hills, climbing to where their chicks waited to be fed. Macaroni penguins played in the shallows, getting tumbled about in the waves before hopping up the beach in gangs. And 
the kings stood together appearing regal – except for those that were moulting, which looked dishevelled while waiting for their feathers to be renewed

King penguins South Georgia island

King penguins return each year to breed in the subantarctic colony where they were born, the biggest of which is on South Georgia.

South Georgia paddle Australian Geographic

John Jacoby came face to face with a male southern elephant seal – the world’s largest carnivore – in Gold Harbour.

I HAD WANTED TO visit South Georgia since I first found out about it three decades ago, in my early 20s. The island is located 1800km east of Cape Horn, at the southern end of South America, and 1500km north-east of the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Mountain ranges drip with glaciers along the island’s entire 170km length.

Lashed by storms and pounded by ocean swells rolling unhindered from the frozen continent to the south, it is certainly a wild and remote place. But it’s also enticing and exciting for anyone with a thirst for adventure.

I had attempted to organise numerous expeditions to this enigmatic island in the past, but the costs and logistics had always defeated me. In 2013, with the prospect of our 50th birthdays before us, my friend John Jacoby and I decided to make it 
happen. We wanted to celebrate this milestone in 2015 with the 
ultimate adventure and prove that, as John put it: “Old blokes can still do good stuff.”

Since our university days we’d taken many kayaking and mountaineering trips together and both felt that paddling around South Georgia would be a fitting way to celebrate our coming of age. If successful, we would be only the fourth team, and the first Australian one to complete the trip. As we launched into the epic task of planning the expedition we were joined by two mates, Chris Porter and Jim Bucirde. Even after a lifetime of tackling outdoor challenges, we knew this would test us at a whole new level.

Our starting point was the abandoned whaling station of Grytviken, on South Georgia’s north coast and just getting there was a massive effort. Our kayaks were shipped six months ahead of us, on a 40,000km roundabout route via Poland, and in January 2015 we sailed 1400km on the expedition vessel Pelagic from the Falkland Islands to South Georgia. It was a rough voyage and when we finally sighted land, clouds hid the mountain peaks and big seas lashed the coast – but nothing could dampen our excitement upon reaching this wilderness paradise.

King penguins South Georgia island

Jim, Andrew and John take advantage of some mild weather at their camp at Wirik Bay to rest, eat and organise their gear.

AT OUR FIRST campsite, wind blasted across the bay, sending smoking clouds of spray that threatened to demolish the tent. It had already been flattened once, when the kayak we tethered it to landed on top of us.

We scrambled to secure it with large rocks and retreated inside, hoping for better weather. Later, conditions changed from sleet to sunshine and back to snow as we made slow progress battling into 30-knot headwinds. We paddled into a sea of fog and mist past a southern right whale and calf, and found a gloomy campsite at Right Whale Bay.

We were immersed in wildlife and the clouds parted 
occasionally, revealing jagged peaks towering above. It felt like a lost world. Pelagic shadowed us throughout the journey, and the following day, with conditions still dismal, we accepted a lift in its Zodiac to wait out the storm on board. There aren’t many vessels suitable for this kind of support mission, but the 17m steel-hulled Pelagic was purpose-built for polar exploration.

We sheltered inside, listening to the storm as it escalated. By the afternoon the wind gauge was consistently registering above 50 knots and during dinner there was a loud crash. The 3cm-thick anchor snubbing had snapped and the squall had lifted the Zodiac out of the water and flipped it over. Another gust threw crew member Kirsten Neuschafer into the air as we struggled to right the Zodiac. Luckily, Chris grabbed her just in time and she escaped an icy swim.

King penguins South Georgia island

Huge icebergs are a hazard in Drygalski Fjord, which reaches 15km into the island’s interior. It is a narrow passage cutting a spectacular swathe through the mountains, with steep walls of glacial ice and tumbling waterfalls.

ON DAY SIX the grey conditions reflected our thoughts as we approached the turning point south at Cape 
Paradigm, imagining the worst about the treacherous south coast around the corner. It was famed for its sheer cliffs and massive swells; my mind flashed images of kayaks dashed onto rocks and of paddling through the night to avoid treacherous big-surf landings.

The world, however, didn’t end as we rounded the corner. We could almost touch the rocks of the cape as we were joined by a flying escort of hundreds of Antarctic prions, small southern latitude seabirds on a feeding sortie from their onshore breeding sites. Almost immediately the sun came out, and, instead of the menacing environment we had feared, the majesty of the south coast opened before us in myriad crystal colours.

We set off towards an iceberg that lay ahead like a jewel, but hours later we were still paddling. We completely misjudged this lump of ice. Up close we could see its full grandeur, almost the size of a container ship, with 50m-high ice walls.

Idyllic conditions continued as we paddled past sea cliffs and threaded our way through anvil-like sea stacks until we reached the mouth of the massive King Haakon Bay. To our left was the landing point for famed polar explorer Ernest Shackleton and five of his men, but I doubt they appreciated the same grandeur in the glaciers that tumbled down its sides. After their ship Endurance became trapped in Antarctic pack ice (AG 117) in 1916, they trekked across the island to reach Stromness whaling station on the north coast. Here they raised the alarm to rescue the remainder of their stranded crew.

We paddled on and tempted fate by manoeuvring under the towering faces of ice cliffs at the base of the glistening Allardyce Range, which is studded with glaciers and snowy plateaus. The constant flow from the glaciers creates swathes of brash ice, a gently moving carpet that pops and crackles as it releases air bubbles trapped for thousands of years. In three 13-hour paddling days we covered 200km and had a dream run along one of the world’s most dramatic coastlines. But then with just 30km to go, our good luck broke and conditions turned rugged. Wind magnified the ocean’s movements and we were soon flying down large waves, playing Russian roulette with shallow reefs and creamy-topped swells.

Exhilaration turned to concern as waves bounced back at us from Cape Disappointment’s imposing cliffs, and, on the edge of control, I back-paddled to stop my kayak burying its nose and wrestled my sail down. I steered towards a narrow gap that satellite images had shown was between the cape and Green Island, but for now all I could see was a wave-lashed rock wall.

Icebergs loomed nearby and the wind increased, whipping up confused seas that drove me towards the surf zone. Then, just in time, the gap in the cliffs appeared and I crossed into a sheltered sanctum. Relief washed over me as I glided to John and the others. Sea kayaking doesn’t get much more exciting but we had completed the crux of our trip down the forbidding south coast.

South Georgia island paddle adventure

Chris, Andrew, Jim and John complete the circumnavigation of South Georgia Island, where they celebrate in style.

BY THE TIME WE returned to King Edward Cove we 
had been on the water for 13 days, and had completed 
our circumnavigation six days faster than anyone before us. It meant we had time to retrace Shackleton’s land traverse of South Georgia to complete a unique double achieved by none of our predecessors.

Equipped with maps, GPS and the latest camping gear, we felt for Shackleton and his team as we followed the path they took during their desperate march 100 years previously. 
They were lucky to have clear conditions and a full moon, but had to push on non-stop for 36 hours to make the crossing.

It took us three days to reach Stromness, now a whale 
graveyard that has become the dominion of fur seals and penguins. It was where we ended our South Georgia odyssey. As we waited to be collected by Pelagic, I felt a weight lift from my shoulders and euphoria rose in me. After years of dreaming and planning, we’d completed both of our objectives. But my sense of achievement ran much deeper.

South Georgia is a wild and beautiful place where life is marginal but remarkably abundant, and it’s impossible not to be inspired by the miraculous scope for existence on our planet. Away from home comforts and pleasures, the important things in life had become clearer and we realised that what truly keeps us alive is our strength of spirit. We had shared an extraordinary adventure and shown that old blokes really can do great stuff.

This article originally appeared in AG#129 (Nov-Dec 129).

VIDEO: Paddling South Georgia Island