Whistle Cove and Shackleton Hike from Fortuna to Stromness
Prince Olav Harbour waves us farewell with winds starting to blow once more over the 30kn. But luckily it left a gap in-between the strongest gusts good enough for yesterday’s evening landing.
We wake up to the new day under quite unstable weather conditions. A mixture of high and low clouds hang over the mountainous area of Fortuna Bay, sporadically opening enough to offer a good view of the alpine landscape all around. Fresh snow covers the scenery and it doesn’t stop snowing. But the seas today have eased, the wind blowing from the head of the bay towards the open sea. Conditions look pretty good to start our day with a landing at Whistle Cove. All the way to the inner parts of Fortuna, this place tells us stories about the sealers that worked in the area in the 18-hundreds. Sure they had a different denomination for the bay, but the current denomination derives from later on, when the whalers made use of it. Fortuna was a whale-catcher, the first on operating out of Grytviken in the early 1900s.
We set foot on the seal crowded beach, as usual after finding a suitable and relatively unoccupied corner. Luckily enough it was straight next to a little cave just on the rocks along the rough coastline. Here, teams of sealers sheltered for days in a row, hunting and processing the seals, while their mother-ship sailed to other places dropping other hunter’s groups here and there, eventually at beaches where other caves of small shelters could be found. On a round trip, she would pick them up with their precious cargo. Our ship doesn’t lay at anchor either, Fortuna does not offer the best of the anchoring grounds, but drifts in the bay under just a breeze, ready to pick us up when we finish with our land operation.
Again the amount of wildlife at the coast is staggering, and the scenery is as stunning as it can be. The rapidly receding glacier Konig lays in the background far behind, veiled today by the low snowy clouds. It has left behind a vast plane crisscrossed by a braided river, a flat area, and a low undulating landscape nested amongst high steep peaks.
Long beach where the swell breaks and a large outwash plain, the terrain preferred by the King penguins to breed. And indeed it is home to about 7000 pairs of them. One of the only large rookeries here that we are actually able to visit, apparently has not been greatly affected by the hit of the disease HPAI that is decimating bird and seal populations all over the world, including in remote South Georgia.
To reach it and return to the landing spot, a hike of a couple of kilometers. First meandering our way amongst the tussock grass to avoid the Fur and Elephant seal-packed beach, then over the grassy flats. Small remains of the glacial moraines make the ideal landscape to have a bit of a high viewpoint, now going lower, or seek for the photographs of the small ponds in-between them reflecting mountains and penguins likewise. A touch of surrealistic scenery, almost black and white while we seem to walk into the cloud. Here and there touches of green and the shiny small orange specks of the beautiful King penguin colour patterns.
Snow falls over the countless penguins, between them all the colony counts with a large number of grown-up and fat chicks, still fashioning their brown coat, not moulting yet to an adult plumage. But in those rookeries, there’s always a mixture of animals in different stages of development. Their breeding cycle is unique amongst any bird, as in the span of three years they try twice to raise a chick, which takes to fledge over 50 weeks.
Following the edge of the main rookery we make our way back to the beach where the zodiacs collect us after yet another bit of adventurous time crossing the tussock grass and the ever-present Fur seals.
Back on board, the light breeze and relatively calm seas anticipate an afternoon ashore too. Up the mountains, the snow keeps falling and the clouds hang low. But the conditions are assessed and considered good enough to try the walk that crosses from here, Fortuna Bay, to the neighbor Stromness.
We talk about the most famous hike in South Georgia, following the very same steps walked over 100 years ago by Shackleton, Worsley, and Crean.
The never-ending days became months, months ended up adding up to a couple of years of struggles for survival, but when those three men reached Fortuna Bay, they were about to finish. Closing up to the end of an incredible ordeal, that looking back brought them to get beset in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea with their ship, the Endurance.
She was crushed and sank, leaving the men to fend for themselves atop the frozen sea water icy sheets. They ended up at Elephant Island, from where six of the crew launched the sloop James Caird seeking help. 16 days later they set foot at South Georgia in an unbelievable feat of Captain Worsley and his skills at positioning the boat by celestial navigation over the most tempestuous waters of the planet. But still not all was set and done, they would still have to cross the glaciated interior of South Georgia, unknown and unmapped. 36 hours later they were knocking at the Station Manager’s door at Stromness Whaling Station, the same that waved them farewell and gave them good luck wishes almost two years before.
Most of the hike is a serious mountaineering and glacial adventure, but the last bit from Fortuna to Stromness leaves the steep alpine areas behind and goes over easy slopes and rocky terrain.
They marched in a race for their lives and the lives of the rest of their crew, braving the island’s harsh winter conditions. Today we do it on a summer day, although we walk over the fresh snow, wind, clouds, and misty weather. A varied hike that offers some significant points of Shackleton’s legendary quest.
Tussock grass gives way quickly to rocky mountainous lands leading to Crean Lake first and Shackleton’s gap afterward. The story goes that the three exhausted men, as reaching a saddle between mountains ran into trouble when the ice broke under Tom Crean’s, falling into the freezing waters of a mountain lake. But not far from there, salvation awaited. The first sign of civilization in a long time, the Stromness whaling station horn calling for a change of watch.
Desperately heading straight downhill, still one more test before arrival at the end of their struggles, a frozen waterfall. There they left their last bit of rope to rappel down. Half an hour more over flat terrain would bring them to Stromness.
The Station is in an advanced state of decay nowadays, but until its closure about 60 years ago it was a very active place. Its last years were transformed more into a repair and storage area than an oil-producing plant. As a witness of its last times, at the beach lay huge spare propellers, masts, crow’s nest, chains, and cables.
Warm and cozy Europa is there as well, anchored in the bay and waiting for us with a tasty dinner.