Friday, May 21, 2010

Kayak Noise - Polar Paradise

Tales from South Georgia......

Savage Island, Resurrection Island and the Unclaimed Coast are just a few titles given to the forboding Sub-Antarctic Island of South Georgia. An exceptionally isolated, storm thrashed island, South Georgia stands alone in the path of relentless storms and the savage winds of the Southern Ocean.
Sir Ernest Shackleton died there and is buried at the foot of one of the glorious mountain ranges. Numerous whales were slaughtered in the whaling stations that at one time thrived along the eastern coast and the land witnessed a war between Britian and Argentina. Adventureous tourists travel to this isolated paradise by ice-strengthened ships and only a handful of elite expeditioners dare to venture in this wild and often merciless polar outpost.
The changelability of South Georgia's weather beats down on the unprepared and tests those who have had previous insight to its unpredictability. If you happen to arrive on a rare day where the wind is simply a whisper, the seas calm and there are fewer animals scattered along the shores – you may gain a false sense of security. As inhospitable as it sounds, South Georgia is also one of the most extraordinarily beautiful places on the planet and lures you with the compelling stage of this Antarctic Serengeti. In amongst the storms, the fridgid climes and moody appearances South Georgia has the ability to make one believe that it is a paddlers paradise.

During the recent Australasian summer I had the fortune of embarking on a kayak journey around South Georgia alone. I was fulfilling a life-long dream as well as building awareness for the Albatross, a species on the brink of exstinction. My goal was to complete a full circumnavigation (500 nautical miles) which could take up to 5 weeks depending on weather. Unfortunately I was unable to complete the island due to incidences beyond my control which delayed my departure by 3 weeks. However 2 weeks of paddling the east coast of South Georgia Island , alone – paddling by day and camping by night, I experienced far more than I ever imagined possible.
When choosing to paddle along an exposed coast in the middle of the Southern Ocean, the next land mass over 1400km away, you require patience, sound judgement and operating 10 steps ahead with the awareness that those steps may have to change as rapidly as if dancing the Tango. Gravity driven winds known as katabatics occur along this eastern coast frequently and without warning. You can be paddling on calm seas, a 10 knot breeze blowing from the west and suddenly within minutes you could be paddling for your life. There were times when I was forced off the water by accelerating winds that could easily blow me offshore. I chose the battle in trying to make it to shore, paddling against these furious winds that are simply screaming down valleys and glaciers that lead out to the bays I was trying to paddle in to, simply to make landfall and get off the now dangerous seas.
Storms keep you beachbound for days on end which is why the history of South Georgia expeditioning is not a romantic one. A British Military team back in the mid 80's was forced to eat penguins when stranded onshore for over 2 weeks with all food- rations diminished. Elegant and proud King Penguins innocently strutting their stuff along the beaches ended up as dinner. Climbing teams have lost ALL tents as sudden winds that gather speed rapidly tear at anything that stands above the ankles. Every movement, every action, every decision has to be well thought through as you attend the South Georgia school of bad knocks.
Days on the water, when there is a moment of calm is absolute bliss. The whines and whimpers of Fur seals are heard from all directions and constantly fill the air. As you paddle ½ a mile off- shore, riding the swell, avoiding the boomers and the confused, rebounding seas, you are traveling in the realm of the Albatross. The 10ft wingspan of the Blackbrowed Albatross glide above you in absolute silence and if the wind diminishes, they are forced to land on the water. During these times you spontaneoulsy drift by their giant bodies, floating with the current, as they wait patiently for the wind to offer them freedom to fly.

Finding a safe place to land is always a challenge, you don't have just yourself to think about. You are forced to consider the needs of all the other critters that stake their claim on this land, and rightly so. The large, cumbersome Elephant seals that dominate the beach simply by their body mass, the territorial Fur seals whom are capable of being rather aggressive, particularly the teens, and the trumpeting King Penguins that strut about the beach as though they too own the place, all have the right of way. The Skuas and Southern Giant Petrels have first dibs on exposed chicks of any kind and soar so close to your head you can feel their wing draft. Oh and a beach without pounding, kayak-breaking surf is another consideration and the potential of katabatic winds which will clear any campsite you have created, even though diligently. And so the challenge of camping at times seems to outweigh the trials and tribulations of paddling such an exposed coast.
In the early evening, once tucked inside your sleeping bag, warmed by the insulation of your tent, your stomach filled with a Harvest Foodworks scrumptious dinner, the daily chores are done, one can finally find rest. Although you hear tedious groans and grunts from Elepant seals as though they are trying to out-do eachother, and the constant calling from mum to pup in the Fur seal kingdom, as well as the early morning (3am) trumpeting calls from the Kings – you can still experience the peace, calm and tranquilty of this polar paradise.

When I set out on this journey, I came with the understanding that South Geogia would dictate when and how far I would paddle. The weather, ice and wildlife would be my guide as to where I could land and establish camp. The awe-inspiring scenes of snow-capped peaks, glaciers bounding through valleys and slithering into the sea, the fear-less animals that congregate abundantly on the few accessible beaches would be my motivation and inspiration. You are not only tested physically, intellectually and emotionally in these polar parts - you are forced to live in the very present, aware of every single element, action and change that surrounds you. Otherwise it takes only a second for South Georgia to dominate and you are then no longer at the helm.
I feel priviledged to have had this opportunity of spending time with South Georgia intimately. The journey offered a personal gain however it was successful in the way that it put the Albatross in the spotlight. Bringing to the public attention the devastating and unnecessary loss of lives continues as I write a book, create a film and share my adventures and experiences through presentations. For more information please visit: and May the Albatross fly forever.

Hayley Shephard