Monday, December 25, 2017

Silver Explorer, Day 8 - Christmas Day

Come back later for the photos

With thanks to Silversea for this hosted cruise

I dunno. You grow up in New Zealand, having summertime Christmases with wintertime traditions, everything seeming upside down; and then for once have Christmas Day so far down south that there will be snow and icy winds – and what happens? You wake up to a sunny day with the temperature almost 12 degrees. It’s just not right.

It was, however, very pleasant – and even though it wasn’t a day of opening presents and eating too much, it was still one of my more memorable Christmas Days. We are in Grytviken, the nearest thing South Georgia has to a town, and it was open and ready to receive us. We anchored in the bay pretty much where Larsen did back in 1894 when he found it filled with “hundreds of whales”. Today, a few spouts blows had been seen, but the place is dominated by the machinery that processed 175,250 whales over 62 years (which, just to underline the carnage, is the number that passed through the land stations only – which was 10% of the total taken by factory ships).

It’s a pretty place, nevertheless: little white Norwegian church where you’re allowed to ring the bells; Post Office with its own stamps where you can send yourself a postcard (“It might arrive by Easter”); former manager’s house converted into an excellent museum; so many seals lying around that you really had to watch your step; picturesque shipwrecks around the shore; and mountains all around. 

We were taken around on two tours by enthusiastic locals, and heard, amongst a lot of really interesting stuff, that the three terriers we’d seen being walked through the village are Kiwi dogs trained by their Kiwi handlers to ferret out rats. There aren’t meant to be any there anymore, having been totally eradicated to the benefit of ground-nesting birds including the pipit, which we heard, the only songbird in the Antarctic region. (Reindeer have been eliminated, too.)

The main focus of the visit to Grytviken is the cemetery further around the shore: white-fenced with 20 or so gravestones within it, the biggest being Shackleton’s – his body facing south, towards Antarctica, breaking with the tradition of facing east. Alongside, on his right, are the ashes of Frank Wild, his right-hand man. We were supplied with glasses of wine or whisky, to drink a toast to ‘the Boss’.

Sailing away, we took a detour to visit the Nordenskold Glacier which reaches down to the sea where broken-off ‘bergy bits’ float around the edge.

Our afternoon stop was Godthul, where we went ashore for a hike, stepping over whale bone and around seal pups, some of them only a week old. We clambered up a hill through clumps of tussock, across shiny grass and peat bog, and then up sloped of broken slate, that tinkled quite melodiously. We had to detour around nesting giant petrels; and I marvelled, as ever, at the perversity of the Gentoo penguins who bypassed plenty of suitable sites to establish their rookery way up the hill.
Some went 100m further all the way to the top, but the rest of us then wandered back down, stopping off for a bit of bird-watching here and there and enjoying the golden light.

Christmas Day dinner, to satisfy the non-Europeans on board, offered roast turkey (though I couldn’t resist the lobster) and we ate with the staff captain, from Finland, and his daughter. We had an interesting conversation (did you know that it’s compulsory to learn Swedish at school in Finland?) but it made for a late night considering there’s a really early start tomorrow. Would you believe 4.30am?

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