South Georgia is considered part of the Antarctic, even though South Georgia Island is not part of the Antarctic continent, as it lies below the Antarctic convergence. This is the hydrologic boundary between the colder waters of the Antarctic and the warmer waters of the Atlantic. The South Georgian mountains are part of the Andes chain that does a hairpin loop from the bottom of South America back to the top of the Antarctic Peninsula. The climate is colder in South Georgia than that at other similar latitudes. This is due to the prevailing currents, which force cold water from Cape Horn up and around the islands.
South Georgia is about 150 kilometres long and 1.4 to 37 kilometres wide and rises to Mount Paget at almost 3,000 metres.
The main settlement is Grytviken. A small number of scientists and support personnel maintain British Antarctic Survey stations here, on King Edward Point and at Bird Island, off the northwest tip of the island. They constitute the island’s only inhabitants, other than two museum staff at Grytviken who are semi-permanent residents.
James Cook made the first landing on South Georgia in 1775, naming it after King George III. It was primarily used as a whaling station between 1905 and 1966.
South Georgia is an island in the southern Atlantic Ocean. It is part of the British Overseas Territory of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.
Argentina has claimed South Georgia, along with the Falkland Islands, since 1927. They call the island “San Pedro”. Their primary claim is based on proximity to Argentina. They have never had any permanent outpost on the island and their claim is only recognised by a few neighbouring countries in South America. During the 1982 Falkland Islands War, Argentina sent troops to South Georgia.
The Commissioner of South Georgia is also the Governor of the Falkland Islands.
South Georgia Island has been called The Greatest Wildlife Show on Earth. It is the most important penguin and seabird breeding area in the world. Millions of penguins can be found in colonies around the island. King and Gentoo penguins are especially populous. There are millions of other seabirds which inhabit the island as well including albatrosses,skuas, petrels, terns, and gulls. There are also two endemic species: the South Georgia Pipit (the southernmost songbird in the world) and the South Georgia Pintail.
The island currently receives about 5,000 visitors per year, excluding military, shipping and science personnel. There is no landing strip on South Georgia, so all visitors have to come by boat. This makes it one of the least visited territories on Earth. My boat has cruised from the Antarctic Peninsula. We are going on to the Falkland Islands.
From the Antarctic Peninusula, across the Scotia Sea, the eastern end of the Drake Passage, following Shackleton’s route to South Georgia. Thankfully in a much larger vessel. Thankfully also, the weather is mild, the sky is blue (though we’re been trying to outrun some snow clouds all day) and the swell is running in the right direction.
The crew do their best to keep us entertained, encouraging us to run around the ship pursuing whale sightings (imaginary or otherwise) and then, as they peter out, lauding the antics of the sea birds wheeling in the ship’s wake. There are also a series of Antarctic themed lectures. Naturalist, Matty is one of the most infectiously enthusiastic presenters. He’s from Fareham originally, but now has pan-galactic accented English, promoting his offerings by referring to his 85 year old granny’s gradings. ‘Pinnipeds (seals) are ranked presentation number 3’, he explains over the intercom. I think this is a positive.
Another balmy day, at six degrees Celsius, though another long one, with an open, gentle sea, the odd giant petrel or black browed albatross overhead and humpbacks alongside. There are more mandatory briefings (there’s a register) and bio securing in preparation for tomorrow’s landings on South Georgia. It all helps to keep us busy. Much is said about the danger of fur seals in the breeding season. The fur seal population was almost wiped out by hunters in the early twentieth century, but they have come back with a vengeance. It is believed that the fur seal population is now almost fully recovered to its nineteenth Century levels. The seals are said to be fast and aggressive and prone to bite. I’m not as keen to go ashore now as I was. Though South Georgia is billed as The Greatest Wildlife Show on Earth.
We are woken at six (which is actually five, as the clocks have gone forward an hour) to find we have reached South Georgia. The ship is entering the stunning aquamarine Drygalski Fjord, waterfalls, razor peaks and glinting glaciers. This is reputedly where James Cook first set eyes on the island.
The wind is blustering at 60 miles per hour and it’s a struggle to stay upright and enjoy the views; the bow is off limits. Unsurprisingly, this morning’s landing at Cooper’s Bay is off (including, sadly, the macaroni penguins) and we are motoring on to look for more sheltered spots. Appropriately, the headland is named Cape Disappointment. This is to reflect James Cook’s mood when he realised, he had not after all, reached the South American continent.
The weather calms and we are finally decanted at Gold Harbour, one of the island’s iconic viewing spots. There are fifty thousand king penguins, adults and chicks nestling under an azure sky, bit parts are played by elephant seals and fur seals and the whole is framed by mountain peaks and a tumbling glacier. The king penguins are more dignified than the comical gentoos, who still make their presence known, waddling through from the tussocks behind the beach. The air is alive with noise. The fluffy brown king penguin chicks, puffed up balls that are often larger than their parents, whistle, the adults hum like electric grid stations and the elephant seals make farting noises.
The elephant seals mostly dispose themselves about the beach in heaps, occasionally making a bid for another group with languorous break-dance movements. After a few wriggles they have to rest, eventually belly flopping on top of the pile, causing mayhem for a few seconds as they all shuffle around. The large males butt heads, pink mouths ferocious and wide, before they all subside.
The fur seals are far more energetic, moving at an alarming pace. They growl and bare their teeth if we approach too closely, making mock charges. We’ve been instructed to bring walking poles to brandish (not too ferociously) if necessary. But it’s the gorgeous king penguins that are the stars of the show, stately in their dinner jackets, gossiping in groups, politely welcoming and gently curious.
Making our way westwards along the north coast. Another iconic spot today - St Andrew’s Point. We hike over grassy hillocks, terminal moraine and through a rushing river, to a vantage point on a ridge. Here we look down on 400,000 pairs of birds assembled in piano keyboard rows, a cacophony of noise and splendour. The king penguins are at all stages of their 14-month breeding cycle. Groups of chicks clamour for food. It’s a long time for a chick to evade predators whilst waiting hopefully, beak ever at the ready, for his parents to bring him something to eat. Giant petrels line up to sail down the river. They bob along and then skitter into groups of astonished penguins, huge wings held aloft.
On the open grass areas, the fur seals indulge in mock battles and sexual foreplay. The males of both the elephant and fur seal species are mainly the beta boys. Most of the alphas have had their wicked way and left for sea, so the betas are doing their best with their leavings. There are continuing skirmishes with the younger females who have not yet mated. The air reeks of fur seal musk.
In the afternoon Grytviken, where we toast Ernest Shackleton with whisky. His epic and aborted voyage to Antarctic in 1922 ended almost as badly. He and five other men travelled from Elephant Island to South Georgia, by life boat, to fetch help for his crew . They arrived on the wrong side of the island and had to climb the unexplored mountains of the interior to reach a whaling station to get help.
Shackleton died of a heart attack on his return to South Georgia, preparing for another expedition. He is buried in the Grytviken graveyard. To be honest, I’m not clear why he was so venerated, as none of his four expeditions seems to have been very successful.
There’s a little museum devoted to Shackleton, the eradication of rats and the history of whaling, Whaling ceased here in 1965, but is still evidenced by rusting boats ruined habitations and machinery. Officials are keen to explain that South Georgia Island had a large problem with invasive rats. These hitched aboard early whaling vessels and all but wiped out many nesting sites for seabirds by eating their eggs. The government embarked on the world’s largest ever rat eradication programme. This involved spreading tons of pellets of rat poison around the island, using helicopters and manual labour. It worked – they even brought in specially trained terriers to check that no rats remained.
More superb mountain scenery, low snow-capped peaks and glaciers - sadly receding fast. Over scree, trying to keep an eye out for the ten thousand very excitable fur seals, each determined to protect their own five square metres of territory. There are many more males in this area. The alpha seals boisterously pursue those errant females in danger of being lured away from their harems. They’re giving the penguins a hard time, charging through their ranks and scattering them, as they scrap. (I would say sending them flying, but they can’t.) Matty is leading the way, acting as the seal whisperer. ‘It’s ok old chap, we’re just going past’.
There are larger numbers of adolescent king penguins here. They look oddly ragged as they moult, brown fur, hanging on in patches, and revealing the glorious black white and yellow beneath. It’s only bright orange when they are fully mature. Swimming, in the many small pools or the sea, is a popular pastime for the penguins. The sea is not just a source of food. It’s single file again, into the water, sliding in on their stomachs, and paddling along in a tight flock by the water’s edge, (it's called a raft). Until the inevitable fur seal makes an appearance and they splash back to shore with significantly less decorum.
Sally and Bob from Perth feature often in my meanderings. Bob pops up as often as a meerkat, wielding his tripod and video camera.
Up the coast to Stromness, where Shackleton finished his epic trek. It’s another derelict whaling station that has been totally overrun by seals. There are so many pinnipeds that we take to the zodiacs, instead of running the gauntlet ashore. The seals are literally rocking and rolling all round us in the icy water. We cruise past the beaches and ruins at Stromness and pop around the corner to the largest station of all, at Leith. Now, it’s cold and rainy and altogether like being back in Scotland. But overall, it probably is The Greatest Wildlife Show on Earth.
Today, the weather is playing with us again. We’ve been blown out of the Bay of Isles and past Bird Island, sadly no albatross nests then. W are heading for the Falklands early. They’ve told us to batten down the hatches. Christmas dinner is served this evening. This is too European in my book - but hey by then I’m surviving on sea sick pills and another injection anyway.
Akademik Sergey Vavilov is supposedly the strongest and most stable ship in the waters of Antarctica. That’s why I’ve selected it. Although I’ve since heard that its sister ship, Ioffe, hit a reef in the Arctic earlier this year and is still out of commission. That’s not an encouraging piece of information. Most of the passengers are American - it’s a Canadian run ship - though there are also several Aussies, a few Canadians, a sprinkle of Asians and half a dozen English folk. I’ve just eaten dinner with seven Americans and I’m replaying the same conversations I had on the trains last year. They all hate Donald Trump, and no-one understands Brexit.
I've flown in to King George Island from Punta Arenas in Chile. My cabin is spacious, a little palace for one, with two pull down beds, a couch, masses of storage space and a picture window (too salt spattered to see out of at the moment.) The bathroom is compact with one of these curtain arrangements that’s supposed to protect the toilet, but I’ve somehow managed to soak two rolls of tissue during one shower this morning. And we now are on our way to Orne Harbour.
It’s snowed all morning, so we can’t see much. The drifting flakes are huge and the deck a white carpet. We’ve been entertained by mandatory briefings on not breaching the Antarctic Treaty: how to get in and out of the zodiacs, keeping away from the wildlife, no pollution (we have to bio secure our clothes and boots with vacuum and brushes) and don’t pee (or poo) on land. The latter is referred to as 'Managing your Ballast'.
The gale continues all day – the waves increasing in size. Our Russian crew have been attempting to sail south alongside the Antarctic Peninsula, towards the Lemaire Channel, trying several different routes, but ice and wind force us back each time. We don’t so much as get to see what Orne Harbour looks like - it’s far too dangerous to go ashore. We have to be content with watching a few icebergs drift past, through windows arced with snow a la Victorian Christmas. This is summer, imagine what Shackleton had to endure…
At least, so far, the ship has lived up to billing, with hardly a pitch or yaw. That hasn’t stopped me being nauseous, however. I’m so giddy I can hardly stand up. Surely, it’s not altitude sickness here? The ship’s doctor, Anna, tells me to remove my sea sick patch, as it’s side effects are causing more trouble than sea sickness. Next strategy is pills. People keep making remarks along the lines of ‘Wait till we cross to South Georgia, it will definitely be rough there’. I hope it’s worth it.
Expedition leader, David, tells us that things are dramatically different today. I feel he’s being a little over optimistic, but there is certainly less wind and it stops snowing altogether at times. There are low icy peaks and glaciers peeping through the mist. We embark for the shore at Courville Island, but the landing is aborted. There is too much ice blowing into the bay and there are concerns we may not get away again. Not a happy prospect.
Instead, we cruise around the shore in zodiacs, admiring the many gigantic icebergs and watching the antics of the gentoo penguins who live in the large rookeries here. The gentoos are distinctive for their white eyebrows, red bills and pink poo. (This is because they eat krill, and supposedly, means they can be spotted from space.) The penguins seem to be finding the sea problematic today too. They flop in off the rocks and shoot back upwards onto the land like miniature rockets. Once at sea they swim in huddles, often porpoising, leaping right out of the water, wings acting as fins. Back on land they’re almost unbearably cute, navigating the snow drifts. They waddle along in single file, wings now held out backwards for balance, and frequently trip over, righting themselves quickly, like three-year olds in ski school. A leopard seal is resting peacefully on a bergy bit, until he tires of being surrounded by our intrepid group of kayakers and slithers into the water.
The mountains here, in the Antarctic Peninsula, are the southern portion of the Andes chain. Mount Francis, the tallest mountain in Antarctica, stands at the entrance to magnificent Fournier Bay. although it's too misty to see it. The crew say there were several humpbacks here four days ago, but they’re all gone, driven out by the pack ice that now fills the inlet and prevents us landing again. Instead, there are plenty more bergs and gentoos, as well as a pair of Weddell seals to entertain us. The zodiac cruise in the mist is ethereal and peaceful, if chilly. I’m wearing two coats and three layers underneath them.
At last, a proper landing in Antarctica, at Mikkelsen Harbour, even if it is 7 o’clock in the morning. It’s not really a harbour at all. There’s a beach in a bay and some rocks to clamber over. The sun is out, and we trek through the snow past several penguin rookeries on crags and a few slothful Weddell seals. Occasionally, the seals pop up their smooth heads and look to be smiling, but maybe it’s just a grimace and they’re hoping we’ll go away. The penguins rest in rows, flat to the ground, enormous fluffy balls, or shuffle down their highways, teenagers with their jeans at half-mast. They posture, pose in twos and threes and have minor spats. One is ejected noisily from the huddle. He sulks, head to one side, for a few minutes and then creeps back in to the middle. These are mainly gentoo penguins again, with a few chinstraps. I was never hugely bothered about penguins before – too smelly and reclusive. But these are entirely endearing, cheerfully hurrying to greet us. A group of penguins is aptly named a waddle. They’re my new favourite bird.
Late in the afternoon, another landfall, 70 nautical miles away, in the caldera at Deception Island. It’s a dramatic entrance through the towering cliffs of Neptune’s Bellows and we’re faced with the remains of old whaling stations, some vicious nesting terns and pretty grey splattered petrels diving in to rest on the waves. These are now my second favourite bird. There are hikes and a polar plunge on offer. I opt to scramble up to the top of a gap in the high ridge, known as Neptune’s Window (of course), for the view back across the crags to the mainland. I didn’t consider the plunge for a nanosecond.
In-between visits I skip lunch and take to my bed – the ship has started to roll…
We’re through the Antarctic Sound, which is remarkably free of ice and into the Weddell Sea early this morning. There are ice berg blocks floating to the horizon in every direction, iridescent Lost Worlds.
And now we’re drifting at anchor off Paulet Island. It’s another volcanic cone surrounded by black beaches that are home to over 100,000 pairs of adelie penguins (Black heads, white eyeliner). I can see them through my binoculars, serried rows standing lemming like on the edge of the water. We’ve been told that we are making an excursion to commune with them. David waits until the exact second I’ve piled on the requisite number of layers, including waterproof over trousers, manoeuvred my buff over my head, arranged my woolly hat, sunglasses and gloves, pulled on my boots and adjusted my life jacket, before he announces that the wind is too strong and we can’t proceed at the moment.
The tannoy announcements over the next hour or so are punctuated by large amounts of crackle and it’s a case of fill in the gaps, but eventually I conclude that we’ve given up and are heading back into the Sound.
We follow a chain of islands, melded into one by snow and ice, back north, the mountains scuffed and scowling. Two long ice floes jampacked with adelie penguins float past – a wildlife cruise ship. Some of the penguins are lounging on their stomachs and a few leap off, swim alongside and then jump back aboard. It’s almost as crowded as an African river ferry.
Brown’s Bluff is Plan B destination, but that too is abandoned. Third time lucky is aptly named Hope Bay. However, hoping is not getting us anywhere today. It’s still too windy to launch any boats. Whales have also been elusive for us so far, distant blows and fins, after our promising start, though the Russian sailors report that the ship has been surrounded with them at night on more than one occasion. We are finally rewarded with an extravaganza of humpback whales, who motor past with a Bellagio style display of blowing and a flourish of flukes.
Then we crackle, at snail’s pace through an ice sea of gigantic blue crystals against a backdrop of huge slab monolithic bergs. Once into open water the ice bergs are less frequent, solitary colossal fortresses. One, a towering Mervyn Peake Gormenghast. Then we’re back to low tabular blocks. One is eleven miles long and takes an hour to pass. If Tino was here, he would probably say he was bergered out now.
Open sea now, destination Elephant Island. Waves rolling, ship lurching, petrels circling.
I haven’t said much about the other Antarctica passengers. As one would expect they are a well-travelled and knowledgeable bunch. I'm travelling with eminent oceanographers, climatologists, neurobiologists and geologists amongst others. Australian biologists Bob and Sally are toting enough equipment to film a Hollywood epic. And American Sandy has travelled further than most. She’s been to the international space lab four times. I'm spending quite a lot of time with Austrian/Australian Petra - unfortunately she suffers from everyone thinking she can't spell when she writes her nationality as Austrian and speaks with a Sydney accent.
There’s no landing at Elephant Island either. It’s too rough. Apparently, there’s only been one successful landing at Elephant Island over the last seven years. As if on cue, our reward this time is a mega extravaganza of fin whales (huge and at up to 26 metres second only to the blue whale in size) steaming along. There are fifty or so of them, screeching and blowing tall spouts.
We’re now en route for South Georgia and mal de mer has set in with a vengeance. I’m confined to bed and Anna is bringing me stronger tablets, ginger ale and ice. That all comes back up, so she next appears with a hypodermic. No prizes for guessing what’s happening next. I have the distinction of being the most sea sick person on board.
I’ve been avoiding Antarctica for years because I’m not a good sailor. But now you can fly across the notoriously rough Drake Passage direct to the South Shetland Islands and pick up a cruise ship there and at Dr Tino’s suggestion, I’m trialling scopolamine – a five pence piece sized anti sea sick patch I stick behind my ear for my first day at sea . I’m a little anxious about the journey in a lumbering jet designed for heavy weather, but it turns flight from Punta Arenas in Chile, turns out to be the smoothest I’ve had this year. It’s sunny and there are tremendous views of Tierra del Fuego and a deceptively mild looking ocean before we land at the base on King George Island. So now I’m bipolar. My ships is set to navigate both coasts of the Antarctic Peninsula as far as ice and weather will allow and then turn north to South Georgia.
The scenery is already snow laden, craggy and stunning, though marred by the various utilitarian research station base buildings and storage facilities. We walk back along the side of the dirt runway cautiously – there’s another plane coming in - down to the beach, where zodiacs are moored, ready to ferry us to our boat. Two chinstrap penguins are waiting to entertain us with a display of clowning before they slide into the sea on their bellies. A hump back whale spins past as we make our way to the vessel. Welcome to Antarctica.
The first confirmed sighting of Antarctica was in 1820 and explorers (Amundsen) first reached the South Pole in 1911.
The continent is governed by an international treaty (the Antarctic Treaty 1959) and does not belong to any particular country, although there are various historical territorial claims. Among the original signatories of the Antarctic Treaty were the seven countries – Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom – with territorial claims to parts of Antarctica, some overlapping.
Antarctica is a protected area and the only demilitarised continent in the world. Military forces and installations are forbidden, and all of Antarctica has been designated for peaceful and scientific purposes. Consequently, there are research stations with people from many different countries here.
The British Antarctic Territory is one of these claimed areas. It is an unusual situation as these areas are regarded as overseas territories by the countries involved, but largely unrecognised by all other nations. In the case of the British Antarctic Territory, it is not recognised by the ATS or by nearly every country on the planet – only Australia, France New Zealand, Norway and, of course, the United Kingdom recognise it. In fact, Argentina and Chile dispute the claim, as they believe their territories overlap it
The people who travel to or live in Antarctica fall into two main groups, those who live and work on scientific research stations or bases, and tourists. There are no permanent residents. But up to 4,000 people may be living at various research stations.
I’m really excited, as today I get to fill in the giant gap on my map of places I've travelled. I’m flying from Copenhagen to Greenland. It takes me a while to realise that the cloud cover beneath the plane has broken up and I have a direct view of the colossal ice sheet. Some crags peep up at us as we descend. We circle and approach, up a frozen fjord, to land at Kangerlussuaq. The captain has announced that the temperature is minus thirty degrees. That’s the coldest weather I’ve ever encountered. My Danish neighbour assures me that dry cold doesn’t feel nearly as bad. I think she’s trying to convince herself too.
Through the window, I can see the ground staff on the tarmac, muffled in huge hoods and surrounded by clouds of steamy breath. I brace myself for the fifty yard walk to the terminal. It’s not too awful, although the hair in my nostrils freezes instantly. They have to keep the engines of all the baggage equipment running constantly, or the engines stall. From the safety of the buildings, I can admire the red liveried Air Greenland planes, beautifully framed by snowy peaks and a blue and white sky. There are three scarlet prop planes nestled around the huge Air Bus I came in on, a mother and her litter. Kangerlussuaq, just inside the Arctic Circle, was founded as an American air force base, hence the long snow free runway.
The next flight is a short hop up the coast, a small stretch of the vast Baffin Bay, in a prop plane - a Dash 8 - to Ilulissat. It’s sunny and clear all the way and the pilots open their door so we can queue to ooh and ah at the view from the cockpit. No-one is worried about security here. The whole country is one huge white blanket, and this time we loop in, over Disko Bay and the ice fjord, huge glistening icebergs sailing beneath us. It’s a spectacular welcome.
I’m staying in the Hotel Arctic, advertised as the world's most northerly four star hotel. It’s built on the edge of the Ilulissat Icefjord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which contains the biggest glacier outside Antarctica. My room has stunning views across the bay. Ilulissat means ice berg in Greenlander, (the town used to be called Jakobshavn). It’s the third largest town in Greenland and has a population of 5,000 people and 1,800 sledge dogs. The dogs are chained in groups, next to tiny wooden kennels and indulge in a great deal of yelping and eerie howling. Mostly howling, when they are being fed and when they think there’s a chance they might go out with a sled. Dog sleds are the main form of transport here; there are very few roads.
I’m signed up for a ‘city’ tour this afternoon. It moves exceedingly slowly and seems to involve a lot of shops, where the local people make things out of whalebone. The artisans aren’t there, presumably because it’s late on a Friday afternoon. I wander off several times, firstly down to the harbour, where the boats lie oddly askew, scattered on deep ice and covered in snow. It’s hard to tell which is land and which water at times. Whirring cranes are unloading packed crates of cod and enormous halibut.
There are some great views across the bay, from a stone marker at the top of a little hill, which I climb cautiously. There are no tracks to follow and there are pockets of deep snow, lying in wait for the unwary. The photographic expedition is already fraught. My sunglasses fog over instantly. The camera LCD also mists over, every time I look through the view finder. In both cases, the condensation immediately freezes.
Back with the group, I can see other tourists are also struggling. One lady has tiny curly icicles hanging from the peak of her red hat. I’ve returned in time to hear the guide talking about the re-housing of some Greenlanders from Disko Bay Island, to some new apartment blocks in town. There was a rush to provide the requisite steel tables after it was discovered that the new tenants were butchering their walrus catches on the wooden floors. The state of the art laundry rooms in the basement had to be abandoned, after the Greenlanders decided that the tumblers were a great way to dry their fish.
In my scandi super stylish room to thaw out. It has at least 20 power sockets, I’ve given up counting. The TV is an uber cool Bang and Olufsen, though I can’t manage to get any sort of picture on it. I suppose I have to be content with admiring the TV itself. Or there’s a glorious sunset over the bay and all the bergs to look at, instead. The shower has an ultra-modern large head, but the water doesn’t drain away properly, so I quickly have a one inch deep flood across the whole of the bathroom floor. That’s what you call a wet room.
Despite the results of the happiest people in the world survey I’m not finding the Danes very sociable - more Nordic cool or even melancholy. Tonight, is an included ‘Welcome Dinner’. I’m seated with two separate couples from Copenhagen, who speak Danish most of the time and share a bottle of red wine. I’m not offered so much as a sip. The food is delicious though, smoked whale, scallop carpaccio and cod.
I think it’s time to take to my bed. Greenland is three hours behind GMT and four hours behind my early starting point, in Copenhagen. But I glance out of the window as I’m about to undress and notice some green flashes above the bay. So I grab my coat and camera and hurry out for an impressive Northern Light display on my door step. A kind little German man lends me his tripod so I can take some decent pictures. A very long and very special day.
Waking up to sunrise, over the icebergs. I have a desk that faces the window. It would be easy to sit here all day watching and taking photos. It’s a hopeless challenge to attempt to write. The rosy hue over the peaks has given way to turquoise patches, where the sea is not frozen. The little fishing boats are having to carve another channel, out of the ice sheets ,as they chug into the harbour to my left. A trail of squawking gulls follow. To my right is a colossal berg that wouldn’t look out of place in a Stalinist city centre. In the centre, a patch of them, the pointy one in the foreground a massive whipped ice cream. The sky is still beautifully clear, I’ve been exceptionally lucky so far and I feel I should capitalise on it. Make hay while the sun shines. Sort of.
Today, I have a dog sled ride. I’m wearing normal underwear, long johns, a thermal vest, a fleece, two gilets, ski socks, a ski jacket, salopettes, a balaclava, a neck warmer, two pairs of gloves, a woolly hat and my new Sorel snow boots. They could use me in the tyre adverts. When I get there the woman in the office tells me the rental of sealskin clothes is not included in my package, but she thinks I will be fine anyway. ‘It’s only two hours’. And I can’t take my camera on the sled, as I have to be prepared for emergencies.
At the dog enclosure, the man tells me that I have already paid for sealskin clothes and it is very cold, so I will need them. He also tells me to put my camera round my neck. So the sealskin goes on top of all the other gear. It must be bad, if even the locals keep saying it’s cold. It’s minus 25 degrees today, but there’s a wind wafting powdery snow around and taking the feel of the temperature (as they say) down to minus 35.
It’s a very different ride from the Iditarod style excursion in Alaska. Here, it’s a much slower pace, through fairly deep snow (much less chance of falling off at least) and the ten dogs (all cute huskies) are individually tethered to the sleigh. (There, they were hitched in pairs.) So, they all do their own thing, which includes running back to try and poo, and so getting jerked forwards very suddenly, as the sled moves on, or getting tangled up in the traces of overtaking sleds. The musher deftly untangles the strings, whilst both sleds are still moving. The dogs seem very happy and playful, eyes on the musher, watching out for their pals, bright eyed and tongues lolling. It’s all very Call of the Wild. But we’ve also been warned not to go near them. ‘They’re working dogs’.
Even with all those togs on, I’m only just warm enough. Comfortable would be pushing it too far. My camera battery keeps dying in the freezing temperatures. It usually lasts a week, here two hours, if I’m lucky. I have to remove it from the camera and warm it in my hands every so often. This necessitates taking my glove off, a foolish move. My hand instantly goes bright red and totally numb.
It’s a very long two hours. By the time it’s finished, I’m dusted white all over (passing snow mobiles complete the job the wind has begun) and have lost the feeling in my toes, fingers and nose. I’m spending the whole afternoon defrosting and catching up on a little sleep.
Today, and every day now until I leave (according to the forecast) is thick cloud cover. So it will be warmer, even if I can’t see as much. It’s definitely atmospheric, the white snow stark against the brooding grey backdrop. The bergs have drifted. The Soviet monolith is now centre stage and the ice cream cone has retreated, west, across the bay.
I’ve read that the small bergs are called bergy bits and the very little ones growlers, because of the noise they make, when they melt. A proper berg has to be at least five metres wide. These are 100 metres, and even more. The craggy ones are upright, the smooth rounded ones have rolled over and inverted. Mist gradually descends, there are only a few bergy bits left in view. The huskies are howling like wolves, and ebony ravens are cawing overhead. It’s like a scene from Game of Thrones-Winter has definitely arrived here.
A walk through town and down to the Icefjord. I’m adopted by two loose huskies, which is a little disconcerting. The waiter last night was explaining how wild the dogs are, ‘They’re related to wolves you know’. He gossiped happily about recent occasions when they had attacked people. ‘Then they have to be shot and any dogs who were watching too. Once they’ve got the taste of blood that’s it.’
I’m hopeful my new companions are large puppies. They’re frisking and seem quite friendly, but I’m relieved when they trot off, after meeting a third dog. The man at hotel reception has told me that this is an easy walk, well signposted. Needless to say there aren’t any signposts visible after the start and I’m unsure which way to go, when the track veers left instead of south as expected. I’ve left my phone behind, so I don’t have a compass or, indeed, any means of communication if I get lost, or there’s a blizzard. I wish I had thought of these things before I set off.
I shamble up a long hill to find a ranger with a rifle, smoking and surveying the scene. He points me back down the hill, naturally. I wonder if I should tell him that his rifle won’t be any use against the White Walkers, before I return the way I came. I eventually find a semi snow covered boardwalk which I can follow, almost down to the fjord edge. It’s treacherous in parts, as there’s a hidden ridge of ice down the centre, so I have to concentrate hard. There are warning signs, forbidding access to the beach as ‘calving bergs cause tsunamis’. The mammoth bergs themselves are now in sight, lining the horizon. Imagine the tsunami if one of these giants turned over.
It’s an incredible view, peering right up the fjord, though the glacier itself is eight miles away and out of sight. This is where the majority of northern hemisphere bergs spawn, taking as long as a year to sail out into the Disko area (they get stuck on the bottom as they exit the fjord), roll down Baffin Bay and into the North West Atlantic, where they lie in wait for ships like the Titanic.
A tasty meal of reindeer in the restaurant tonight. The café upstairs is like Fawlty Towers, with queues of people at the bar, waiters ignoring them and glasses smashing on the floor.
Unsurprisingly, my Northern Lights Safari tonight has been cancelled. That’s ok - I saw them without having to travel anywhere on Friday.
The sun has defied the weather forecasters and is peeping through the clouds, which is helpful for my boat trip into Disko Bay and the gigantic Jakobshavn (Sermeq Kujalleq) Glacier at the eastern end of the bay. It calves over 35 billion tons of ice ever year. It’s thought that it was a an iceberg from here, that sank the Titanic. I’ve now seen the ice bergs from every possible angle and, I reiterate, ‘They are huge’. It’s an exciting trip. We have to ram our way through the ice, which is up to a foot thick at times.
Several times the boat has to reverse and try again as the ice won’t break the first time and the bows are forced upwards. Once, the captain retreats entirely and chooses another route, creating jagged, ever spreading tessellations across the water to the front and side, huge slabs of paving stones . To the stern, a churning mass of smaller cubes, a giant cocktail shaker. Up close to the megaliths, glistening formations, ice chimneys and triangular pinnacles. There’s even a Great Wall with a watchtower perched on top. If I squint I’m sure I can see Jon and Sansa leaning out of the window.
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