South Georgia rises sheer and stark from the sea, a hundred-mile arc of dark Antarctic peaks, ice fields, and hanging glaciers. From the deck of a ship, the island makes a startling apparition, like the Himalaya just emerged from the Flood. For a polar outpost so solid and austere, covered half by permanent snow and ice and half by bare rock and tundralike vegetation, South Georgia is strangely chimerical. Its meanings are contrary and elusive. Its moods are mercurial, brightening one moment, darkening and spitting sleet the next, then brightening again. The island seems marked in some unusual way, simultaneously favored and cursed. Few spots on Earth are so full of ambiguity and paradox.
The first paradox for the visitor has to do with one's latitude of departure. To travelers arriving from the north, the island seems forbiddingly antipodal and cold. To travelers arriving from the south, voyaging up from the Antarctic Peninsula, the island seems almost tropically lush. (In Antarctica there are two native species of vascular plants; on South Georgia there are 26.) To the explorer Ernest Shackleton—whose ship Endurance was crushed nearly a century ago by Antarctic pack ice, who rallied his crew through 16 months of entrapment in the floes, and who escaped finally with five of his men in a small lifeboat, crossing 800 miles of mountainous seas to the whaling stations of South Georgia—that snowy island looked like paradise.
Last February photographer Paul Nicklen and I retraced Shackleton's route. We left the Antarctic Peninsula and sailed, as Shackleton had, just offshore to the South Shetland Islands, from which the explorer had launched his desperate run for South Georgia. His lifeboat, James Caird, was 20 feet long. The cruise ship on which Nicklen and I hitched a ride, National Geographic Explorer, was 367 feet and 6,000 tons. Where Shackleton's little vessel was pounded by a hurricane and a succession of gales, our big ship enjoyed fair weather. I was beginning to feel cheated of the true Antarctic experience when we raised South Georgia, which greeted us with hurricane-force winds of 110 miles an hour.