11 Weekly News 17 January 1999

Dear all,

Crikey, another week whizzed past again already!

We are now back at Husvik enjoying an enforced wait in front of the fire while snow squalls blast past every now and then.

A few last days of excellent weather saw the Stromness cemetery work finished, apart from a second coat of masonry paint on the gravestones. We also put some strengthening boards up where the crew of HMS Endurance had boarded up the manager’s villa the year before. This is the building that Sir Ernest Shackleton and his men got to at the end of their epic journey across the island that finished their longer epic from their crushed ship in the Weddell sea via Elephant Island in the Antarctic by lifeboat. The building was boarded up in an attempt to prevent the weather from ripping it apart as it is doing to all the other buildings. Some of the boards had already come off. Pat constructed a door closing device with some string, a weight and a pulley so that anyone who does get in will not leave the door wide open when they go.

We took advantage of the good weather to spend a few hours at the northern end of Stromness beach watching the fur seals. Lovely when you don’t have to get past them. The bulls are a lot more docile than they were in November and soon tolerated our presence. Pups were playing in a stream, worrying at a length of bright orange kelp, chasing each other about, and generally exploring the world around them. Some played with Pat, who squatted at the edge of the river, and played tug of war with a stick. They are so cute, shame they have to grow up. Sarah, meanwhile, was observing the bulls lazily defending the edges of their territories and shouting warnings to Pat when a larger seal occasionally approached him unobserved from behind. Every now and then a female would emerge from the sea, sleek and still wet, and call out for her pup. A number of hopeful candidates would bleat replies but her own pup would reply more stridently and the two would make their way towards each other calling alternatively. Once reunited, a quick sniff to confirm identity would be followed by a lie down and a long drink of milk.

We sat on the edge of the jetty with a cuppa on a couple of occasions, watching seals and penguins swimming skilfully below us. They all become graceful and sleek when in the water compared to their ungainly waddling, shuffling and ambling on land.

On Wednesday night, just as we had finished the last of the rum in our nightly toddy and had decided that it was time to head back to Husvik, we heard engines in the bay. The Professor Multanovskiy, another Russian ex-research ship now used for tourism, had turned up ready for visits ashore on Thursday. This was the visit we had been expecting: The Norwegian ‘Friends of the island’ club, including a number of men who had worked in the whaling stations, some relatives of men buried in the cemeteries, and a lady who was born here – daughter of the Edward Binnie, Magistrate from 1914 to 1927.

The next morning we were up nice and early, packing up and finishing off a few odd jobs to the sound of Bagpipes wafting across the bay. George Brown, who had been a wireless operator at KEP (King Edward Point) in the fifties and who had spent the summer at Grytviken a couple of years back assisting with the museum, was with them.

By mid morning they were all ashore. Although they had previously expressed the intention of helping with the cemetery work, they were too busy rushing from station to station with the assistant Bishop of Tonsberg, who was carrying out a series of commemorative services at all four cemeteries, to get stuck in. Still, a couple of guys did get the second coat of paint on at Stromness.

The services were particuarly poignant. In the cemeteries are relatives and workmates of a few of our visitors. One man had been only nine years old when his father died and this was the first time he had ever visited the grave at Leith. He had photographs of the burial and decorated the grave with moss and pebbles in the same way that it had originally been done. We were glad to have made the places look cared for before such people turned up. Two months ago the cemetery had been surrounded by the rotting remains of a collapsed wooden fence, half of the headstones were fallen over and the whole place looked shabby and uncared for.

The Commissioner for South Georgia, Richard Ralph, was on the ship, as was South Georgia guru Bob Headland. The latter was rudely ejected from KEP by the Argies in 1982 and has written the definitive reference book on the island. He works in the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge and maintains a strong interest in archiving the history of the island and has provided us with much useful material on the various cemeteries. He has a tremendous knowledge of the history of the island and we tagged along as he walked about the stations pointing out where the roof of the powder store had landed when it was blown up by HMS Endurance in the 70’s, and he pointed out a stand of wild chives that we wished we had known about a few weeks earlier.

We caught up with Betty Biggs, a Falkland Islander who lived at KEP for 16 years up until 1970. Her daughter was laid up by flu on board but Betty, a hardened smoker, never has any problems with airborne germs. We seem to have avoided the flu this time. Fortunately is was a virulent enough strain to keep sufferers on board.

We piled all our gear – tools, food, waste metal and plastics (we had a bonfire to get rid of waste paper and food) – onto the beach and mid afternoon hijacked one of ther inflatable boats plus driver and ferried it all round to Husvik. By this time most of the others were at Husvik cemetery for the final service of the day followed by endless tea and finite biscuits back at the managers villa.

Harald and Hedel Voss, a couple of german yachtspeople who are staying on the island for the next year or so, were at Husvik when we arrived. They have just spent a few weeks cruising before heading to Grytviken to take over from Tim and Pauline Carr at the museum, while the latter are away in the UK and USA promoting their book (Antarctic Oasis by Tim and Pauline Carr). Once the visitors had returned to the ship, the four of us had supper and a good chat.

We have both been relaxing for a couple of days. Getting ourselves and our work clothes cleaned up, some paperwork caught up with, gear unpacked and put away etc etc etc. Yesterday Pat, the big white hunter, did a bit of morning target practice with a borrowed rifle and bravely fought off a couple of savage looking cardboard boxes. In the afternoon a foolish reindeer strayed too close and is now gutted, skinned and hanging up ready to provide some fresh meat.

Today, Sunday 17th Jan, is Possession Day, the 224th anniversary of Capt. Cook’s first landing on this island, which he described as

“. . . doomed by Nature to perpetual frigidness: never to feel the warmth of the sun’s rays; whose horrible and savage aspect I have no words to describe”

He should have been here last week. Sitting in the sun at Leith sharing biscuits and beer with us, or sitting on the beach at Stromness watching the fur seal pups sneaking up on Pat.

So that’s our new for another week or so.

Love from us both

Pat and Sarah

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