Matt Ridley

South Georgia Notebook

Matt Ridley’s South Atlantic notebook, on explorers’ legacies, the Falklands and a mine-clearing midfielder

South Georgia Notebook
Text settings

The terrible news that Henry Worsley had died just 30 miles short of crossing the Antarctic continent unsupported reached me just after I returned from the South Atlantic. We had been in the very stretch of ocean that a relative of his somehow navigated for 800 miles in a tiny boat with Sir Ernest Shackleton and four crew members after their ship was lost in the ice 100 years ago. Unlike them, we were warm and cosy in the Pharos SG, a government vessel that supplies the bases and patrols the well-managed fisheries of South Georgia. We passed the cove where the six men landed and ate baby albatrosses and an elephant seal before Shackleton, Frank Worsley and Tom Crean set out to tramp over the unmapped mountains to get help from Norwegian whalers on the north coast.

South Georgia is one of the jewels in the British crown: a range of precipitous Alps sticking out of the Antarctic ocean, overlooking bays filled with birds and seals, and named by Captain Cook for George III. The only way to get there is by sea from the Falklands. We had left Stanley in the tail end of a big storm, and Pharos was soon rolling up to 34 degrees in Force 8 winds. The imperturbable captain, Chris Butters, passed on a tip before breakfast on the first day: make sure your sausages are aligned athwartships, not fore-and-aft, on your plate, or you’ll lose them.

Three days of rolling later we woke to jagged peaks, icebergs and glaciers. Although midsummer, it was snowing. In Shackleton’s day the island was home to more than a thousand people, all in the whaling industry, whose deserted settlements still haunt some of the bays — heaps of crumbling buildings, rusting oil tanks and broken jetties. How to conserve these and make them safe is a dilemma facing the South Georgia Heritage Trust. Moored at one jetty is a rusty little wreck called the Dias, which may soon be taken back to her birthplace, Hull’s maritime museum. Launched as the Viola, she was a North Sea trawler converted to anti-submarine operations during the first world war, then turned into a whaler off Africa, and ending her career as a sealer in South Georgia in the 1960s. Viola witnessed the first successful attack on a submarine by an airship, off Northumberland in September 1918. Bizarrely she also witnessed the first (and so far only) successful attack on a submarine by helicopters. This was in 1982 when the Argentine submarine Santa Fe was caught on the surface and disabled by helicopters from HMSs Antrim, Plymouth, Brilliant and Endurance. The Santa Fe limped into Grytviken bay and moored alongside Dias before surrendering to a small force of marines and sailors: it was the incident that led to Margaret Thatcher’s famous ‘Rejoice!’ remark.

To get to the little white-fenced cemetery at Grytviken, where Shackleton is buried (he died here in 1922), you must pick your way through the decaying industrial landscape and past innumerable growling fur seals, belching elephant seals and indifferent king penguins. Nature is reclaiming the island. After lunch at the excellent museum, we climb through the fresh snow to a saddle between two mountains, overlooking the next bay. Only 25 people live on the island and we have met them all, so it is a slight surprise when suddenly from behind the rocks emerges a stranger. He would have walked straight past if we had not engaged him in conversation — and he turns out to speak only French. He trudges off downhill and we later see him on his yacht.

When we left the Falklands for South Georgia, it was on the coldest January day for many years, with the battle-scarred hills behind Stanley white with snow. Nine days later we return to the hottest January day for many years, over 25 degrees in some places. Such is the fickle weather of these parts. Over tea and cake at the community centre in Fox Bay, West Falkland, the talk is of sheep-gathering and competitive peat-cutting tournaments. The election of Mauricio Macri as president of Argentina has brought tentative optimism that relations with South America can return to what they were in the 1990s instead of the histrionics of the Kirchner years. Despite what Seumas Milne and Jeremy Corbyn may believe, the referendum three years ago, on whether the islands should stay British, was fair: it was witnessed by international observers. Just three people voted no and 1,513 yes, on a 92 per cent turnout.

Clearing the minefields laid by the Argentinian forces in the 1982 war is taking decades. A team of expert mine-clearers from Zimbabwe have been working in the Falklands in recent years, inch by painstaking inch. When they first declared an area mine-free, the locals were sceptical, so they staged a football match on it. One of the Zimbabweans, Shupi Chipunza, now represents the Falklands at football: he’s a goal-scoring midfielder.

Matt Ridley’s most recent book is The Evolution of Everything.