An impossible landscape

Jamie Lafferty follows in Shackleton’s footsteps in the subantarctic wilds of South Georgia.

Lying on his deathbed aboard the Quest on 5 January 1922, Sir Ernest Shackleton was bickering with his long-time physician and friend Dr Alexander Macklin. They were anchored in Grytviken Harbour, off the subantarctic island of South Georgia, and Shackleton was suffering what was thought to be his second heart attack of the ill-fated expedition.

Not knowing how close Shackleton was to the end, Macklin encouraged him to live a little more virtuously. “You are always wanting me to give up something, what do you want me to up now?” asked the exasperated expedition leader.

”Chiefly alcohol, Boss, I don’t think it agrees with you,” answered Macklin. He never
got a reply.

King Penguins (Aptenodytes Patagonicus)

If there’s something slightly depressing in knowing that one of the 20th century’s greatest explorers died an unrepentant alcoholic, it’s perhaps some compensation to discover that Shackleton continues to be sodden with booze in the afterlife.

On two expedition cruises five years apart, I’ve stood next to his headstone, just outside the old Grytviken whaling station, and watched dozens of strangers pour whisky on his famous grave. The passengers from every visiting cruise ship do this – even if Shackleton had wanted to give up, there’d be no escaping the firewater now.

This toast to the man they called “the Boss” is one of mercifully few moments that feel like boilerplate tourism on South Georgia. The other – passing through the gift shop in Grytviken’s still-operating post office – includes a chance to visit a small and excellent museum at the same time.

It details the island’s surprisingly dense 250 years of human history, from its early period as a bleak sealing outpost, through the bloody and profitable days of whaling, the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration and the Falklands War, to its now comparatively settled era as an ecological and scientific hub for the few hardy British scientists who call it home during the austral summer.

The museum can tell you a great many things, but ot does little to convey what it feels like to be in South Georgia, a mountainous archipelago adrift in the southern seas, a place that’s by turns beautiful and barbaric, dangerous and delicate. A place that is my favourite of anywhere on earth,

King penguins mating

When I think of South Georgia, the first image my mind reaches for is of Salisbury Plain. A vast grey-sand beach that stretches over half a mile inland, it is thought to be home to as many as 300,000 king penguins.

They represent just a fraction of the 30 million or more suggested something else – a world largely devoid of affection, filled instead with maximum birds living on the islands, but there are none more glamourous than these yammering, waddling regents of the subantarctic.

The first time I met them in 2015 was as dawn light rose groggily over the plain, the pungent air of the colossal colony drifting out across the frigid sea to meet our Zodiac dinghies.

After the reek came the noise, a fuzzy chorus occasionally interrupted by the splashing of other penguins returning from feeding to join the huddled masses.

As we arrived on shore, the Aurora Expeditions staff had a little difficulty holding us back while they reminded us how far to stay from the animals, when the last Zodiac would return to the ship and so on. We nodded as we removed our life jackets, but the mad magnetism of the penguins was impossible to ignore. Ahead, the kings stood in such numbers as to appear shimmering in the cold morning gloom.

“Ahead, the kings stood in such numbers as to appear shimmering in the cold morning gloom.”

Tightly packed king penguins on Salisbury Plain

They were interspersed with bellicose fur seals making deceptively cute whinnying sounds, and colossal elephant seals – some over 16ft long – which had a kind of facial flatulence, a snort so powerful I could feel the ground shaking through my wellies. Each time they did this I watched their rancid breathe rise like smoke from the chimneys of filthy factories.

Even they were overwhelmed by the penguins though, who stretched up into the foothills, disappearing into the low cloud swaddling South Georgia’s interior.

In the middle of this huge black, white and gold display I spotted a single pixel of red – a lone penguin, standing stock-still, with a hideous gash across its stomach. It was unclear what has maimed it (guides later said it could have only been a predotary leopard seal or perhaps an orca) but it was obvious that this particular penguin would not live to see another dawn on Salisbury Plain.

“This is where a lot of the magic lies in the Antarctic realm: a feeling of almost invisibility and a chance to observe fauna in a proximity that can be too much to bear.”

It seemed incredibly profound, seeing this doomed bird surrounded by so much life, but if I had come south hoping to capture cute animal behaviour, South Georgia quickly suggested something else — a world largely devoid of affection, filled instead with maximum chaos and indifference.

Indifference to each other, but towards us visitors as well. This is where a lot of the magic lies in the Antarctic realm: a feeling of almost invisibility and a chance to observe fauna in a proximity that can be too much to bear. Animals don’t scatter on approach – they don’t flee or panic, but rather they treat humans as they do each other, which is to say with little curiosity and only occasional hostility.

“It’s almost like Eden, like a golden time before the Fall of Man,” said the ship’s on-board historian, Carol Knott, with some well-practised theatre during that first trip. “I think we’re all seeking that idea of perfection, before humans.” I wondered if she felt South Georgia offered that. “I think people perceive it that way,” she replied, “and certainly it’s such a special place.”

“Animals don’t scatter on approach – they don’t flee or panic, but rather they treat humans as they do each other, which is to say with little curiosity and only occasional hostility.”

South Georgia and the (yet more remote) South Sandwich Islands is officially a British Overseas Territory in the south Atlantic. The government of these distant rocks is managed in the Falkland Islands, which lie 810 nautical miles to the west.

From the port in Stanley, or from continental Antarctica, it takes two days to reach South Georgia on a modern ship, or three if the ocean is rough, which it often is at these latitudes.

Its Himalayan topography means it’s not possible to land an aeroplane here, and it’s out of helicopter range, too. Because of these extra distances and the time it takes to sail there, South Georgia is a pretty rare prize, even by the exceptional standards of Antarctic tourism.

The old Norwegian church, overlooking Grytviken whaling station

As we approached five years later, the island’s Allardyce Range shining in the cold midday sun, I stood aboard Aurora Expeditions’ new ship, the Greg Mortimer, keenly aware of how privileged I was to return. Nearby, at eye level, black-browed albatrosses glided on freezing gales. The more furious the wind, the more perfectly they flew, and to see those huge birds performing so gracefully in the face of such violence felt like being reintroduced to the archipelago’s first miracle.

Though there were no obvious indicators from the ship – nor later amid the reliable bedlam of Salisbury Plain – in the time I had been away there had been a profound change on South Georgia. Not long after Captain James Cook first landed and claimed it for Britain in 1775, rats were accidentally introduced by sailors. Their effect on the island’s birds was devastating but, for the first time in all those long years, they were eradicated in 2018.

A Capepetrel takes off in Drygalski Fjord

Part of the reason many of the southern bird species are so relaxed around humans
comes from their lack of natural land predators. Rats changed that, and though South Georgia must have been an incredibly harsh environment for the rodents, their high adaptability combined with the abundance of eggs and vulnerable chicks allowed them to thrive.

To see those huge birds performing so gracefully in the face of such violence felt like being reintroduced to the archipelago’s first miracle.

In 2015, the South Georgia Trust launched a hugely ambitious bid to rid the main island of the vermin, the largest rat eradication project in the world. Hundreds of tonnes of poison were dropped by helicopter over the 100-mile-long main island and, three years later, it was declared a success – rats have not been found since. Now, to keep things in this newly rewilded state, tourist ships undergo especially stringent biosecurity checks before going ashore.

The demise of the rodents wasn’t noticed by hardier species like the king penguins
or albatross. But the same could not be said for a tiny, unglamorous bird called the South Georgia pipit. During my first visit, a manic group of birders scurried around beaches hoping to spot them. This was not easy, partly because of the rats, but also because the world’s southernmost songbird is approximately the same size and colour as a common song thrush. Consequently, the birders didn’t see one – they didn’t even hear one.

Thanks to the eradication, just five years later the pipits were present at almost every
landing we made, their sweet songs sounding almost orchestral, especially compared to the tuneless babbling of the penguins.

Having spent time on the island without the pipits’ mellifluous warbling, Ashley Perrin, the Greg Mortimer’s assistant expedition leader, seemed particularly attuned to it. Years earlier she’d wintered on Antarctica’s Rothera Research Station, then came to live on South Georgia while working for the British Antarctic Survey.

For some people on board the ship that dropped her off, it was the end of a long period on the continent and arriving at this comparatively lush, alpine environment was overwhelming.

“The first thing most of those who’d wintered in Antarctica did was roll in the grass,” she told me on the Greg Mortimer. “Some of them hadn’t seen grass in two-and-a-half years. There happened to be a yacht in at the same time and there was a family on it. It was so strange to hear children laughing.”

Ashley ended up spending two years working on bases in South Georgia, then came back in 2017 to get married in the old Norwegian church in Grytviken. She continues to return each season, inexorably drawn back to the snow-capped mountains in the sea.

Of course, Sir Ernest Shackleton felt this immortal pull more powerfully than most. Though he passed away here in 1922, his undying association with South Georgia was made years earlier during his most famous mission, the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

Of course, Sir Ernest Shackleton felt this immortal pull more powerfully than most.

Loading final provisions here in 1914, he headed to Antarctica in a bid to cross the continent. Within a few weeks, he’d found only disaster. Trapped by ice in the Weddell Sea, his ship, Endurance, spent months being crushed, forcing his men to make a desperate journey north to Elephant Island. From there, Shackleton and just five others rowed for 16 hellish days to get back to South Georgia.

Despite seeming like a suicide mission, he somehow made it, regrouped on shore and picked the two men least close to death – Tom Crean and Frank Worsley – for a final, gruelling 36-hour trek over the island to reach the whaling station at Stromness.

The Boss wrote with typical Edwardian flintiness afterwards: “Pain and ache, boat journeys, marches, hunger and fatigue seemed to belong to the limbo of forgotten things, and there remained only the perfect contentment that comes of work accomplished.”

Shackleton and the men of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration can be rightly compared to those who followed 50 years later in the Space Race. Men of incontestable courage if not wisdom, they were required to explore the unknown, with no support, in environments where small mistakes could lead to the death of entire crews. They hoped their names and deeds would echo through history.

In Shackleton’s case, it worked, and for the majority of passengers aboard the Greg Mortimer it felt like a genuine honour to hike the final few miles of his epic march to
salvation. Anchoring in Fortuna Bay, we battled through an unwelcoming committee of fur seals, through tussock grass then up to a high pass covered in shale. Giant southern petrels wheeled overhead.

The sun shone – really shone with warmth – and after an hour or so of this pleasant amble, we were presented, just as Shackleton had been, with the appearance of Stromness. It meant much more to him than it did to us, of course, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t special.


The overwhelming majority of South Georgia cruises leave from Ushuaia in the south of Argentina, a three-hour flight from Buenos Aires.

South Georgia tourism happens exclusively during the austral summer, with the first cruises in late October and the last ones returning in early April.


Revolving international buffets on board; normally one al fresco barbecue,
depending on weather. Wine included with dinner.

The Drake Passage is frequently described as the roughest sea in the world and sea sickness tablets are advised. Extra memory cards for cameras are also a good idea.

There’s nowhere on earth quite like South Georgia – the blend of history, nature and impossible landscapes seems almost imagined. It’s still a hard-won prize, too, with several days at open sea and a huge price tag on most reputable cruise ships.

Nonetheless, for a mix of pristine landscapes and up-close animal interactions, I can think of nowhere better. I’ve been to over 110 countries and each continent multiple times but if I could travel back to just one place, South Georgia would be it.

Plan your own trip:

Sunset catching some of the island’s snow-capped peaks

Photo Credits
All images by Jamie Lafferty with the exception of: P6 – Design Pics/Picfair; P11 – Richard l’Anson; P12 – Jocrebbin/Dreamstime; P14 – Rinus Baak/Dreamstime; P15 (left) – Agami Photo Agency/Dreamstime; P17 (top) – Hel080808/Dreamstime.