30 November, 2003 King Edward Point
My first newsletter and my first full month in paradise. Can I tell you a bit about our world…? I know that the regular readers of this column will know it all but for the new ones- here’s a description – base and people and activities.
I do not know if I can paint a word picture of something that I cannot fully see in my mind. I have tried and failed to grasp the substance of it. It’s all here and now and in my face real and yet unbelievable.
The trip and arrival to South Georgia is quite an experience in itself.
The 360-degree panorama from the bridge of the JCR was blue ocean, icebergs and green land, all seen in the morning light. When I say blue ocean I know you are not going to understand – it because my words are weak and useless to describe this colour.
I have never seen it elsewhere – in a paint tin or in a picture. The surface layer of the ocean glows blue. And this glowing blue is bounced around cracks in icebergs and ripples off the water. It is a colour of coldness and violence of existence and hunger- devouring my attention.
Who savours whom? I cannot pull my eyes away from it. It channels my vision into the hollow of an iceberg and out through another groove and takes my thoughts with it and leaves me gasping.
I am held in the grasp of an iceberg. And as I raise my camera to take photo after photo I know that this cant be caught. This blueness of life and death.
I awoke at 5am the next morning to dash up to the bridge and try to see the sunrise and the peaks of my new home. It was light when I got up there and the weather was still misty. However on the starboard side of the ship through swirling haze there were towering snowy peaks. It felt like Lord of the Rings territory, and me a ring bearer heading for through the gates of Mordor.
As we travelled the mist remained taunting my attempts to see further and the sea had lost the intense blue colour and become milky. Milky is not a good description as it didn’t look white at all but bluey grey, but it was the texture and slide of the water that reminded me of milk. Our ripples on the smooth surface and the apparent thickness of the water.
As we approached closer the milky layer turned into a sheet of thin inconsistent ice that was patched over the sea surface like flecks of peeling skin after days sunburn.
It was snowing as we neared the shore. So with peaks that tipped through mist, milky ocean and gentle snow- I arrived at South Georgia.
I am sitting at my desk typing and out my window there is a 10-meter stretch of rocky beach before the flat water of the bay. The water is blueness itself, blueness that would make a blind person cry if only I could find the way to turn colour into description.
Scattered through the blue are bits of black kelp, and interdispersed with this are slow moving masses that it is easy enough to mistake for large boulders – until they snort, they are elephant seals. Further down the beach there is a heap of them with fat layers moulding to the shape of the rocks and pups at their sides.
Sammy the base sea gull wanders from window to window asking for more breakfast and telling lies about not having been fed already a few windows down, – he is getting fat and has been put on a diet.
I get distracted – view from my window from beach to sea to opposite side of the bay where 3000- meter peaks, all white with snow ascend into the sky.
And that’s just the window. The bay proper is the other side of the base. We are at the top end of the bay, at the curve of the bay nestles the whaling station and the church steeple and the museum where Tim and Pauline live. There is a rough track that leads from our base to the whaling station of Grytvikin. Close to the base end of the track there are three King penguins that have been holding a conference with one another ever since I arrived. They stand around looking busy and in conversation but really I think they are just looking at the scenery too.
The whaling station is a ghost town. It is a relic of mans exploitation and lack of foresight and greed. Thousands of whales were slaughtered here last century (up till 1960s) until there were no more whales left to slaughter – or not enough for it to be commercially viable. They were all too small – infant whales – the large ones had been killed, and even the smaller immature whales were few and far between.
For the first time since whaling stopped whales have been seen in the bay again over the last few years. They seem to forgive. With the bones of their ancestors littering the shoreline I doubt they could have forgotten.
The museum run by Tim and Pauline is historically fascinating and records the history of the place from the first discovery to Shackleton to whaling to the Falklands war when the place was seized by Argentina.
Behind the museum is the church. It is Norwegian, built by the whalers and stands out of the little village clearly because of its spire.
And that’s the structure of the place. Shackletons grave is past Grytvikin on the hillside. At present the cousins of the three King penguins on the track are gathered around the grave and they too are holding long meetings and talking about important things with one another. Birds with a heightened sense of self-importance, – penguins.
The AWG construction crew is living on the far side of Grytvikin and doing the asbestos removal from the old buildings.
Imagine walking upwards balanced on planks that are half attached to your foot and trusting a few small hairs on the bottom of your planks to hold you to the slope that rapidly disappears beneath you.
We cling to edges that fall over cliffs and cross old avalanche areas- following people who have been doing this for 11 years (T&P) until we get to the top of the mountain and gaze over the bank of snow at the view – distant glacier, ocean, mountains and not a soul, except for us here looking at it.
Climbing to this point requires turning around and looking back – and gulping-oh **** – how did I get up here – How the hell am I going to ski back down that. There is much deep breath taking and sighing and swearing, but at the end of the day there is no alternative. Ski down the mountain. I have the bruises to prove I did it.
The Chileans working for AWG kindly agreed to teach us Spanish one evening a week and to give us salsa lessons! The first few Spanish lessons were quite intense- learning every type of form of verbs, perhaps after a day’s work and the evening meal we were not the best possible students.
The salsa lessons – the boys on base weren’t keen on this idea which was probably just as well as the Chilean men didn’t seem that interested in teaching our men – just the ladies. After a barbeque with AWG and an evening spent dancing and swinging on ropes hanging from the ceiling we concluded that they knew about as much as we did about salsa dancing. Further attempts thus far have been abandoned.
The wildlife is always amazing and doesn’t disappoint. The fur seals have pups at Mivikin, the Sooty Albatross are nesting nearby, the weaners are growing rapidly, there is a large Gentoo colony at Mivikin and a number of King penguins at Penguin River.
Now the snow is melting the mountains have become more accessible without having to don snowshoes or skis.
Susie, Frin and John went camping for a night to Mivikin hut, taking all the equipment they needed with them including a good cook and a few other AWG men.
There is always boating going on with the science taking place. Other trips have included a look around Moraine fjord, a trip to view the huts and boating to Maivikin to visit the campers.
The best boat trip this month was a visit to Leith harbour aboard Leeds Castle. The withered whaling stations indent the coastal slopes with their rusting corrugated roofs
Tourist vessels are constant visitors, but the best ones are the ones that invite us all aboard for a meal. Fresh salad and fruit is a treat.
Lyubov Orlova was one such ship where we all got invited. The boys on base were very impressed by the catering- or rather the catering team of European ladies.
The tourist themselves tend to be of the older generation but usually manage to wander around the shoreline – avoiding the fur seals – and visit Shackletons grave and send the obligatory postcard from our post office. Ann and I have had our photographs taken in the post office by a few tourists who regard us island dwellers with the same amount of intrigue that they do the wildlife.
The most distinguished visitor to the island this month was Harriet – the deputy governor of South Georgia on Leeds Castle.
There is constantly social activity happening- whether it is a barbeque with AWG at Gryvikin, a barbeque with the JCR, the regular Saturday night fancy dinner or a birthday party.
We have had mad hatter parties and parties where famous people have to be acted out – no one will ever forget the mad acting that depicted Nina Simone or the fact that no one knew who Watson Watts was including Snips who had written the name.
Both Sue and Andy Whittaker had birthdays this month. Sues gifts were interesting – the toy JCB and handcuffs needing no further explanation.
Andy’s birthday was celebrated at T&Ps with much red wine and delicious food – (including sushi – made by Frin, Susie and Rosy) and as we clung to glasses of red wine – that never seemed to empty – songs were chanted from the Dubliners and the Pogues. And Howie muttered how he was going to repeat Sues and my 100-club feat but from the lower freezer and in broad daylight – something we still await…
The 100 club originated with Sue whose brainchild it was. And the idea is simple – a run without clothing across a 100°C temperature variation.
So at 03h30 this last Friday the two docs and the official 100 club photographer – Ann, awoke. We started the club the way all memorable activities should be started – with a glass of champagne. This then proceeded to a glass of champagne in the kitchen freezer completely naked- accept for a pair of trainers. The freezer temperature was -20c so we drank out champagne fairly quickly – before it froze! The next bit was the fun part – the streak to the sauna. We thought we were safe because the sun had only just risen (4am) and Ann was the only person awake – or so we thought. As we sprinted to the sauna there was the voice of the “sweetie man’ through his window – “morning girls.’ I hope our sprinting blurs the picture he took.
The sauna temperature was 100°C – which means we are actually the 120 club but 100 will do for now.
Ann followed us to the sauna and couldn’t resist the urge to take off her clothes too and join us (Does Ken know this?) The whole proceeding didn’t last for long and soon we disappeared back to bed with a couple of glasses of champagne inside us. So the challenge is out – anyone else want to join the club? I would advise you to keep the date a secret though.
Rich is a scientist and an adventurer. If it’s dangerous and difficult – he’s up for it.
He is a surfer/skier/ mountain climber. He likes to read and paint and is painting a large picture of fish in one of the rooms on base. He likes cockney slang and oily rags.
Susie is one of the scientists is very organised has parents that are “sisters” (solicitors) and likes visiting the AWG camp… She is always getting rid of clothes that don’t fit her. She is chief muffin maker on base. She is a potential candidate for the South Georgia half marathon as well as Frin…
Frin (chief scientist) likes to think happy thoughts. When we were telling a continuous ghost story on Halloween and going around the circle – one person starts with a sentence and the next picks up on the sentence and continues the story and so on- the story would get to Frin and be something like ‘…and the wicked iceman was holding the bloody knife above the heads of the whalers and then..’
And she would continue the story as ..’and then they all decided to dance because it was a beautiful evening…’ She likes pink (a lot).
Ken and Ann (marine officer and deputy post mistress) are a couple. Ann is an excellent cook and grew up in NZ before moving to UK when 9 years old. Ken has a yacht and sails around the world. He likes to ski but isn’t very good at it. Last time he got concussed.
We had a multiple cruise ships in and so I’ve helped run the post office with Anne. That may not sound like hard work but there are hundreds of hurried tourists all wanting to get their postcards stamped and passports stamped and buy this or that before photographing the King penguin outside the window – that King has just become the most photographed penguin in the world. At one stage there was a cluster of about 15 tourists around the poor bird all aiming cameras at it.
Andy is working for the museum, an ex-marine, a very good skier a vegetarian and into wholesome lifestyle. (except for the occasional cigarette!) He is building a climbing wall in the old jail and has a story to tell for every occasion.
Rosie is a psychology graduate and is helping out in the museum for the next 3 months. She is a gym instructor, likes to ski and to scream as she skis down slopes so everybody knows that she is coming and to move out of her way! More than once she has woken up with a foodstuff in her hair- from baked beans to coconut mousse. She prefers Spanish nouns to verbs.
Howie is one of the boatmen. Chief barbequer, chief party organiser and owner of every cd you can think of. Known to many as “Howzer”.
Pete Love is the new boatman and has already acquired a number of names- “Captain Love’, “Captain Haddock’ and “Sweetie man.’ He has a never-ending supply of sweets in his pockets, which he produces at regular intervals (the fruit pastels are the best-Pete.)
John is part of the technical services team and a Cornish lad who makes an excellent pasty and not bad treacle sponge cake too. He is being replaced when he leaves by Brian.
Brian Beck is the new mechanic. He is a keen runner – (although he doesn’t know it yet) and into wholesome lifestyle (he doesn’t know this either). We was an active participant in crazy Chris’ first circuit training class.
Chris is hard task master- my abs are still stiff from doing his circuits- and that was two days ago. He is the sparky for the base and has as he says, “abs like slabs, and shoulders like boulders.”
Andy Cope is the technical services man – here for the next month, for him this is truly the island of love- the place where he got engaged a year ago. He usually wakes up at 3am in the morning…
Snips is the previous base commander. However dire the situation he always seems to be smiling – but especially now that Vicky and Les have just arrived on the Endurance. Vicky is our new base commander taking over form Snips (Ian) she hasn’t been here a full day yet and I’m wondering if she thinks we are all mad.
Les is here for a month and from BAS operations department – he’s here to check up on us!
Sue has been chief rat catcher, assistant deputy postmistress, food store manager, seismic hut manager and doctor- for the past year so these are going to be my jobs.
Rat catching involves crawling on bellies under the building over jagged rocks and waste and dead things and animal excrement to check for holes in the foundation skirting. And then of course setting the traps. Not a job I relish although it was favourite of hers.
Sue taught us all how not to dance with a man at the AWG barbeque. Eventually she was thrown over the guys shoulder and carried off- which was not a bad thing for the rest of us.
And lastly me – Jenny. The organiser of the first South Georgia marathon to be held later in the season… and writer of this attempt at literary merit. Hello to all who all who know me who might read this – (don’t cringe too much) – my parents, my gran (gunny), my brothers – Geoff and John, Chris, Gosia, Sarah, Ed, Hil, Andy-all of you.(and Tysnd my cat)
I smile as I write because I live in a framed picture – a picture of tranquillity and perfection and natural silence – a picture that hangs on walls in drab houses in smoggy cities, that frequents wall calendars and coffee table books belonging to people who believe in the pictures existence in much the same way as they believe in going to church on Sundays – it is in hope – and a weak and stilted hope – that paradise exists.