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Landfall on South Georgia – an extract from The Two-Headed Whale

  06 Oct '22   |  Posted by: Birlinn

The story of whaling is a sensitive subject. Sandy Winterbottom handles it beautifully in her mix of historical narrative, the fictionalised, tragic account of one young boy who entered into the whaling industry to see the world and make money to send home, and the present day reality of Antarctica from a six-week tall-ship voyage of discovery from Uruguay to Antarctica. There are many sides to this story. In The Two-Headed Whale, Sandy captures them all. Read an extract from this remarkable book below.

An extract from The Two-Headed Whale by Sandy Winterbottom

We explored the sheltered northeast coast of South Georgia for several days, ferried ashore here and there for a closer look. The wildlife – penguins, fur seals, elephant seals – seemed indifferent to us, their lack of fear borne of having no land predators, and though a two-metre rule kept us away from them, they didn’t obey it. We’d had our mandatory lectures on the strict visitor protocols. Lex had provided us with our Antarctic mantra – leave nothing, take nothing, not even a stone. We’d vacuumed the pockets of our jackets and picked fluff and grass seeds from our Velcro; we’d cleaned and disinfected our boots, scoured every crevice of tread: the introduction of alien species to this landscape could be catastrophic. Although humans, it seemed, were allowed.

South Georgia is a fleck of an island in the midst of the vast Southern Ocean. At fifty-four degrees south, if you sailed west from its shores, after 1,000 miles you’d land at Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America. If you sailed east instead, following the trade winds, you’d also land at Cape Horn, though after a much longer journey. No other land lies at this latitude.

In Fortuna Bay, mist drifted thin and low across the slick sea. A lone iceberg bobbed half stranded near the shore, bright against the dull rubbled land. We stepped ashore, carrying in our rucksacks the lunches we’d packed at breakfast – white bread only, nothing with seeds, no fruit – and stood in silence waiting for the fog to lift, listening to fur seals calling across the bay.

Lex, hands on hips, looked up to the peaks above us. ‘Once the fog lifts, we’ll do the last part of Shackleton’s walk over the hill to Stromness.’ After the Endurance sank, Shackleton sailed to Elephant Island and dropped off most of his men before he continued on to South Georgia with a crew of five in a small leaky lifeboat.

Frozen and malnourished, they landed on the wrong side of the island; South Georgia has two very different faces. On the southwest coast, cliffs plunge into the sea, and on the sheltered northeast coast, the land levels more gently to natural harbours and inlets. The whaling stations lay on the northeast side. Taking Frank Worsley and Tom Crean with him after a few days’ rest, and leaving the three weakest men on the shore, Shackleton crossed the island on foot wearing sodden leather boots, screws driven through the soles for grip, carrying scant supplies and an old hessian
rope. The men traversed the complex ground of glaciers and crevasses without crampons or ice axes in thirty-six hours.
They had no map and only a pocket compass. In the year 2000, three experienced climbers retraced Shackleton’s
thirty-four-mile route. They were fit, well conditioned and had all the latest mountain equipment. It took them three
days.

We were only following the final few miles of the walk. As we made our way up the sparsely tussocked slope, I stopped to catch my breath and look down at our ship, turning around her anchor, sails hoisted and rucked on her
yards.

‘Some view, isn’t it?’ said Kate, catching up with me.

I started to get my geologist’s eye into the landscape, finding features I’d studied and taught but only ever seen in textbooks and photos. To our left, a gritty glacier slaked down the mountainside, seeping milky meltwater into the bay. Half a mile or so off its snout, a linear island marked its previous extent. I pointed it out to Kate. ‘That’s how much these glaciers have melted over the last twenty years or so. Utterly frightening to see it in reality.’

As we headed up to the high plateau, the grass and moss petered out to leave a landscape of slate, meticulously organised into stripes and circles by millennia of heaving frosts, as if Sisyphus himself, tired of pushing one of the giant boulders now strewn across the hillside, had decided to stop and tidy up a bit.

Towards the summit, on a flat plateau, nestled Crean Lake, where Tom Crean fell through thin ice and landed up to his waist in freezing water. Shackleton and Worsley hauled him out, and they carried on.

We crested the pass, and the view stretched away from us to Stromness whaling station on the shore of a broad sheltered harbour. Between us and our pick-up point lay scree: the entire vast valley was smothered in a post-apocalyptic stratum of rough unsorted rubble that flanked the slopes and filled the valley floor. It was split and sliced by meltwater channels, etched by streams and puddled by lakes. This is what ice leaves behind. It scrapes and grinds its way across landscapes, prises rocks apart, pulverising and shovelling through, leaving nothing but debris when it melts.

Years before, I’d worked with a team of academics recreating ancient landscapes in virtual reality. We interpreted
rocks, landforms and tiny grains of pollen preserved in the soils, and pieced together rich pictures of places and how
they’d evolved through time. We once made a film of Loch Lomond from 10,000 years ago as the last ice-sheets ebbed
away from Scotland’s shores. It looked exactly like this: a place scraped clean of everything but rock and rubble. Moving through time, the film showed the first simple lichens and mosses colonising the land, then tussock grass, the first shrubs and trees – birch, hazel, juniper, ash, Scots pine and oak – and finally, the most rapid and profound transformation of all: the arrival of humans. Felled forests and roads divided land into neat parcels, laced with cables. Over time, the warming of our climate would reshape this South Georgia landscape too, soothing the brittle earth into
something different, something softer and green.

Looking out across Stromness Bay, a tiny dot moved slowly towards the harbour. Kate raised her binoculars. ‘That’s our ship. She looks so small from here. So insignificant.’

Shackleton, Worsely and Crean stood in this very spot and heard the station’s whistle call the whalers to their morning’s work. They saw movement and life, smoke rising from boilers, their first sight of other people after seventeen months of exile. I can only imagine the relief.

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