A journey of courage and determination from Fortuna Bay to Stromness.
As we stepped onto the black sandy shores of Fortuna Bay, South Georgia, negotiating the gauntlet of ever angry fur seals, I wondered if Kevin had made the right decision. Far be it for me to judge anyone wanting to hike, but they had advised it was a tough but manageable hike for people who were relatively fit. Kev didn’t really fit this description. He was a large set English man with a taste for beer. He later admitted that as soon as he stepped off the boat he knew he had made a grave mistake.
As it began to spit and the low grey clouds rolled in off the bay causing the light to fade, I too wondered if I had made a grave mistake. The first 20 meters was almost straight up, and as I caught my breath at the top I looked back, with everyone still scrambling up the Tussock Grass in their big red jackets, it was impossible to make out who was who.
We were attempting to re-trace history. In 1916, in an effort to save his crew stranded on Elephant Island, explorer Ernest Shackleton and his men Tom Crean and Frank Worsley trekked a formidable 35.5km across un-mapped South Georgia. We were hiking the final 5km of this heroic journey, from Fortuna Bay to the now disused whaling station of Stromness, where Shackleton and his men found help and were ultimately able to save his crew. The historical significance of this journey is too great to go into here, but needless to say it was an incredible story of survival, mental strength and comradery.
As we traversed up and across the sandstone slee, it slipping from under our feet on occasion, the group petered out into a single line, each person quietly dealing with their own ability to carry on. I slowed and turned to check on my boat bestie Emma and saw her walking from side to side. “Hey Em, you ok?” “Yeh, I’m doing switchbacks, so my knee doesn’t hurt.” she yelled in her cute Canadian accent fighting against the noise of the wind. “I always do switchbacks when I hike.” Using her two hiking poles, left and right she went.
As I took a moment to breathe in the scenery and allow some cool air into my overheating jacket, I noticed that far behind Emma was Kev. He was really doing it tough. Stopping every few steps to rest and he had a face full of tomato red flush. Several meters behind him was Bismarck, or a “lifesaver” as Kev would call him. He was our tall, tough and rugged Argentinian guide, his face barely visible, covered with his robust beard, ski goggles, a scarf and beanie. His silent strong stance and no-nonsense attitude setting him apart from the other crew. The best zodiac driver and the exact person you want if you’re lost in the wilderness or when your will to live has faded. Kev said Bismarck never spoke, he never tried to hurry him, he never tried to motivate him. He just stayed 6-7meters back giving Kev all the time and space he needed. The comfort of Bismarck’s strength and care was all that was necessary to somehow keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Just as I was about to head on my way, I saw Emma stop. She waited patiently for Kev to reach her and handed over one of her poles. Kev later said Emma also “saved his life” with that generosity.
The clouds became lower and the wind higher. As the group waited at Crean Lake (named after Tom Crean) I caught up. With the snow-capped mountains in the background and freezing wind scorching our faces and whistling painfully through our ears, we set of again. Through snow and ice we trudged.
Then, as we came over the rise, we were treated to the view that Shackleton and his men had been hoping to find. A vision of beautiful Stromness. As we stood on the pass, there was amazement and elation at seeing the run down and rusty old station in the distance. It seemed so small and perfectly picturesque, almost surreal. The greens and browns of the grass, the blues of the water and sky meeting at the horizon only interrupted by mountains jutting in and out. With the white and greys of the clouds all coming together, it perfectly framed the MS Expedition casually floating in the bay.
My mind travelled back to what it must have been like for Shackleton and his men to have seen it, in-comprehendible one thinks, but they, like us, still had the most treacherous part to conquer. An inhospitable descent, unstable and rocky ground and winds so fierce they lifted you off your feet. Shackleton and his men did it their way, fearlessly sliding down ice faces. We chose a safer, yet still unpredictable route. After some dicey and panicky moments, arms being flung out to re-balance, bums scraping on the ground to be as low as possible and the inevitable lose your footing heel slides, we made it to Shackletons Waterfall. Fresh water cascaded over the rocks surrounded by lush green grass. We sipped from the cool waters with our hands as Shackleton would have done years before.
As steep descents made way for flat marsh like land, deeper than expected streams (my boots were flooded more than once), penguins and fur seals, I was pleased to see Kev. No longer walking by himself with a tail made of Bismarck, but chatting to his brother who had also done the trek. Somehow, we had all made it.
As we reminisced in the dimly lit but always excessively busy Irish Pub in Ushuaia, Kev was still under no illusions of how much Emma and Bismarck had helped “It almost bloody killed me. Those two saved my life”.
©️ The Universe’s Bike
This hike was part of the three week Spirit of Shackleton Expedition exploring the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Island and Antarctica with G Adventures in Nov/Dec 2017.