Walking in South Georgia

Caramor - sailing around the world
Franco Ferrero / Kath Mcnulty
Wed 17 Feb 2016 00:45

Sparkling snow clad mountains reaching up nearly three thousand metres, their icy summits lost in clouds of their own making. Glaciers, hanging perilously or running down to the ocean in fractured tumults of ice and rock. Barren valleys and plains, where the glaciers have retreated, scoured by the howling winds. South Georgia is an awe inspiring wilderness. 

No paths, no sign posts, no litter, ... but many rules and laws to keep South Georgia pristine (and make up for the horrendous abuse of the past?). The South Georgia Government is an executive without a legislative, which makes it a dictatorship? As with all autocratic regimes, surveillance and control are important aspects of government. Cruise ships spy on each other and on yachts, satellite imagery is scrutinised for infringers, the fishery patrol vessel navigates without AIS which would give away its position and there is even a war ship patrolling the coast.

Landing is only allowed at approved sites and we were issued with the list in Stanley. There are even laws dictating where on the beach one must land, luckily these are common sense. Who, in their right mind would land where the surf is at its most dangerous, rather than a few metres further up the beach where it gently laps the shore? Clean boots, gaiters and equipment are essential to avoid introducing any more alien species or moving them between sites. Once ashore, however, we were able to walk (nearly) wherever we wanted. Our range was limited to day walks as we aren't authorised to stay on land overnight. To camp, one needs an expedition permit and the application process costs £1,000. 

At Grytviken, the tyranny is represented by two friendly and helpful government officers; Pat and Simon. They fully understand the hazards of navigating a small yacht in these waters and are always prepared to waive the rules if safety is an issue. 

We enjoyed several fantastic valley walks though the weather always dictated how long we could leave Caramor unattended. In these latitudes, sunshine gives way to blizzards and gale force winds within minutes. Strong williwaws drop down from the mountain tops without warning and icebergs creep into usually ice-free bays when the wind changes direction.

Not forgetting of course, that the fur seals have the final say whether you go for a walk at all that day. At Ocean Harbour we were unable to cross the half kilometre of tussock grass behind the beach as our every step was barred by a beautiful, growling, snarling fur seal.

We were amazed by the sheer excess of wildlife of so many different species on the beaches and the few hundred metres behind, in contrast with the complete lack of living creatures higher up the slopes. Walking through South Georgia was a lesson in geology, the rawness of the glacial landscape helped us understand how the Welsh landscape was formed several thousand years ago.

At Grytviken we walked up Orca Peak but our ascent of Mt Hodges was thwarted when it started snowing heavily. It was fun 'skiing' back down in our walking boots.

View of Grytviken from Orca Peak

We also tramped across the col to Maiviken to watch the seal pups learning to swim in the lagoon. We crossed the brook in the wrong place and had to back track to avoid disappearing into the marsh.

Looking down towards Lake Maivatn, Maiviken in the distance

The walk from Cobblers Cove on the Barff Peninsula, over the shoulder to Rookery Point on the Barff Peninsula followed reindeer paths down to the macaroni penguin colony.

Gulbrandsen Lake drained when the Neumayer Glacier retreated, leaving concentric rings in the landscape. To get to to shores of the "lake", we walked up the Husdal Valley, past a spectacular waterfall, across a vast glacial outflow plain and over a pass. The weather on the other side was completely different. 

Gulbrandsen “Lake"

Glacial outwash plain, Franco in the distance to give scale

The Olsen Valley joins Husvik in Stromness Bay with Carlita Harbour in West Cumberland Bay. The post man used to row from Grytviken to Carlita, then cross the peninsula to deliver the mail to the whaling stations of Husvik, Stromness and Leith. A skua was protecting her chick from a predatory skua, the yellow chick stood out against the darker vegetation. Eventually it scurried away to a patch of light coloured grass. The final part of the walk down to Carlita is closed to protect birds nesting in burrows on the col.