In the footsteps of Shackleton
AFTER A FORTNIGHT of being held in daily thrall on an odyssey aboard the ice-strengthened 54 passenger ship Polar Pioneer around the most southerly region of the planet, what was once a tick box at the top of my must-see list has turned into something much more enduring. This isn’t a place you simply mark off and move on from. There’s something entirely elemental about the vast, heaving ocean, the grandeur and scale of the landscapes and the explosion of wild creatures clearly thriving at what might appear, to the uninitiated, to be the margins of existence.
Some came to follow in the footsteps of Sir Ernest Shackleton, others to experience a place far beyond the reach of the usual tourist hordes, but all were united by a willingness to immerse themselves in everything that a voyage to Antarctica has to offer.
Even the prospect of sailing the legendary Drake Passage between the southernmost extremity of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula was part of the deal, but a rare smooth crossing augured well for the adventure ahead.
Our earliest encounter with the white continent saw us weaving a passage through the South Shetland Islands, off the Antarctic Peninsula, and making landfall at Aitcho Island where we met our first penguins - a mixed colony of gentoos and chinstraps, many of whom were in moult.
We threaded our way through the narrow cleft of Neptune’s Bellows to enter the safe haven of Deception Island, a vast volcanic caldera that was once the site of a major whaling station and the location of Sir Hubert Wilkins’ first Antarctic flight. The following morning we awoke to a pink gold dawn and looked on as a group of climbers, who had joined the expedition to attempt Shackleton’s traverse of South Georgia later in the voyage, set off to scale Livingstone Island as part of their training, while the kayakers, myself among them, paddled away to circumnavigate Half Moon Island greeted by scores of juvenile Antarctic fur seals frolicking along the shoreline providing the thrill of our first close mammalian encounter.
Our next port of call was the aptly named Paradise Harbour. The precipitous snow clad peaks encircling the bay were perfectly mirrored in the glassy waters, to every photographer’s delight, whilst also providing perfect conditions for the dreaded polar plunge later that morning. Rite of passage over, Danco Island called as we came face to face with docile crab eater seals lounging on small bergs and curious leopard seals powering through the clear ice-strewn waters.
The time to head north across unpredictable seas to South Georgia was drawing near as we made several landfalls on the continent itself, and the southern ocean, so tranquil thus far, began to reveal its true nature.
We finally intersected with Shackleton’s journey when Polar Pioneer’s Russian Captain Aleksander deftly manoeuvred the ship close in to wind-scoured Point Wild on Elephant Island as Alasdair McGregor, our onboard Shackleton expert, raised a glass to wives and sweethearts (may they never meet) on the bow deck.
The ocean finally unleashed her fury as we crossed to South Georgia, but a growing respect for the gutsy endurance of those few men who made this perilous journey in a small lifeboat 100 years earlier kept complaints to a minimum.
Now firmly treading in the footsteps of Shackleton, we awoke flanked by the grandeur of King Haakon Bay’s glaciated peaks under bright clear skies. Peggotty’s Bluff introduced us to our first king penguins whose entertaining antics instantly endeared us to these most elegant of birds. We even spotted our first pipit; a fragile little songbird now bouncing back in great numbers after a successful pest eradication program on the isle in recent years.
South Georgia fulfilled its promise as a wildlife hotspot like no other on the planet. Over the next few days we would navigate around its indented coastline, mooring in natural harbours of indescribable beauty.
We left Shackleton’s footsteps to our courageous climbers who traversed the island’s jagged spine across treacherous glaciers and steep grassy inclines. The rest of us witnessed one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on earth at Salisbury Plain where 200,000 breeding pairs of king penguins battled the elements and opportunist predatory seabirds. Scores of feisty young fur seal pups tested their mettle against the Gore-Tex clad army invading their shores. We climbed Prion Island’s grassy summit to see the rare sight of nesting wandering albatrosses and tramped the final segment of Shackleton’s epic traverse before raising another toast to “The Boss” at his graveside in Gritvyken the following afternoon, bathed in warm South Georgia sunshine.
We were treated to one final sensory overload at Goldharbour’s magnificent king penguin colony where the calls and response of parents and chicks were occasionally outdone by the belchings of huge elephant seals lazily hauled out along the kelp-strewn black sandy beach ignoring innumerable energetic little fur seals cavorting around them – an assembly of wild creatures like no other I’ve ever seen.
What an adventure we had.
Steeped in the legacy of the pioneers of Polar exploration and rich in the wildness of a place far removed from the ravages of humankind, but not immune to them, we have been privileged to set foot in these precious places. No, I’m not ticking it off. It’s the last truly wild and, mostly, pristine continent and once you let it into your heart, it will undoubtedly call you back again and again.
Chrissie Goldrick travelled with Aurora Expeditions.
Aurora Expeditions next In Shackleton’s Footsteps voyage departs 7 March 2018. Call 1800 637 688 or visit www.auroraexpeditions.com.au