13 Weekly News 31 January 1999

Dear All,

The high winds seem to be the common theme of the last week and have largely determined what we have been doing, and when. As time is running out we press on with the work whenever possible in the hope there may be time left for a few purely recreational sorties before we are collected in a fortnight.

The wind makes one tetchy after a while of trying to cram cement into little cracks as the wind tries to cram itself down any hole in body or clothing.

The tall headstones at Husvik give just a body’s shelter, so in the bigger gusts I can be seen huddled close in the lee clutching my bucket of cement. These tall stones are not well designed for here, so after the suggestion of one of our visitors who had seen it done elsewhere, instead of trying to re-erect them, we are heaving them to rest at an angle against their bases. Lifting them further would probably be beyond even Pat’s ingenuity. It took a cable winch, six rolling poles, the wrecking bar and the two of us to move the biggest even a few feet. I spent much of yesterday evening on my back on the damp peat pushing a headstone with my legs, as Pat lifted and jemmied the stone in the right direction. Each inch a stone moved was a major achievement. And when the stone slowly crept back down the slope sliding on the wet grass under gravity, we didn’t get too despondent, just set up to heave it back up again.

There is a bottle of Chilean champagne waiting the finish of the cemetery here, and so the finish of the project. We may be able to drink it in three days or so.

We needed to return to Leith to finish the painting since the Norwegians had bought more paint with them. Luckily we got our timing right.

Before we left Husvik I cast off the remains of the deer carcass. Our two resident skuas were soon joined by four others as I dragged it towards the beach feeling like the pied piper. I don’t think they were too impressed when I tossed it in the sea, they don’t seem to like feeding at sea…that’s more the domain of the Giant Petrels.

Now the majority of the fur seal bulls have gone we were able to take the beach routes on the way to Leith. The first bit follows part of the coast on which we did the pup count. Remarkably few of the pups had any white paint on. Had it worn off so quickly or are there really ten unpainted to each painted! Help!

Something that has really been pressed home to me is the suffering that marine debris causes the seals. We have seen four or five “banded” seals in a four kilometre stretch of coast. Multiply that by the length of fur seal inhabited coast and you have hundreds of suffering animals. Okay, there are far too many of them, but I would not wish this inevitable slow death on them. They are curious and if they see a loop of rope will put their heads through it. Because their fur points backwards the rope works down the neck and will never come off again causing horrid wounds, infection and death.

Wanderer 3 had taken some of our camping gear to Leith so our packs were not too heavy and we made good time, allowing us a full afternoon’s painting on our arrival. The weather had trapped Theis and Kicki there. Kicki was muttering that she had seen whaling stations now! But we profited from their misfortune, enjoying their company for the next two days, eating one night on the boat and one night in the garret, and getting paint on their new overalls, a wedding present from a sensible friend, when they helped us paint the second day.

Kicki and I used up the last of a pot picking out the grave surrounds in the little cemetery.

We were finished by early afternoon so there was time to walk round the coast towards Cape Saunders. As we set out Theis pointed out a strange phenomenon. The Giant petrels were eating mud from a pit under the old whaling plan. There was no carcass in there, but a strange soapy smell pervaded the area. I’d love to know what as attracting them to it.

We followed a well cut reindeer path above the little cliffs, then dropped back to the coast. The fur seals mostly keep out of our way, but I thought I had had it when one little female got under my defences and kept coming. I stepped back and tripped over a rock falling defenceless and anticipating the bite to follow. Luckily she stopped…maybe I wasn’t such a threat prone on the ground like that!!!! Later a young male split the party. Pat managed to slip by, but the seal was not giving ground for the rest of us and persuaded us to climb up round him instead.

Up over the headland we dropped down the stony slopes a little to find a wonderful perch above a busy bay. Here we stopped and stretched out in the sun whilst eating cake and sipping tea, and watching lightmantled sooty albatrosses fly below, and elephant seals, fur seals and king penguins in the tussocky bay. This is heaven. New ground, good company to share experiences with, profusion of wildlife. God we love this island.

Next day we packed camp and with much bigger packs set off homewards. It was too windy again for Theis and Kicki to sail so they accompanied us as far as Stromness. There on the beach we lay down to prevent being thrown down by the huge williwaws descending from the hills around. Two snow petrels fed near the shore. I have never before had an opportunity to watch them so close for so long. All white bar map pin black eyes, they are a joyful sight. King penguins walking into the wind were hunkered down and leaning into the gusts. Sometimes when the wind abruptly dropped they would fall forward onto their bellies and beaks. You can’t help laughing as they pick themselves up, shake their heads to loosen the sand, and restart their stately progress.

We checked the work of the Norwegian painters who had put the second coat of paint on at Stromness and were able to declare Stromness, as well as Leith, finished.

We had strengthened the boarding up of the Managers Villa there. The good news was that, despite the high winds, Pat’s handiwork replacing tin on the hall roof had held….the bad news was, instead,the whole roof had lifted off and was propped against a nearby wall. It was too dangerous to attempt any repair in that wind but we have to return to Stromness to collect the last of the gear from there and will hope to do something then.

We left the others at Stromness hoping to see them at Grytviken in February before they leave. They are now quite set on overwintering another year having come thoroughly under the island’s spell.

Back home at Husvik the next day was truly wild. Huge winds ripped past the house gathering water spray from the stream and sea. I chose this time to go out and raise the flag. Not a good idea. The wind was tying knots in the ropes faster then I could unravel them, and in the bigger gust I had to press myself against the pole to prevent being flung down. Thrilling. I had to give up on the task. Pat got the camera out…..it is difficult to depict wind in photography but the spray flung against the jetty may look good.

For a while I sat at the side of the house just to experience the wind. I half expected the station to be picked up as a whole and chucked into the sea. I’ll admit to being a little disappointed to not have seen even one sheet of tin go.

Although I try hard not to dwell on it, the end of our time here approaches. There is so much I am going to miss, not least the evenings by the fire at Husvik, tilly lamp hissing and a good Antarctic book to read. Maybe I’ll just put the video and TV in the loft when we get back…..yeah and maybe it won’t be windy these next two weeks!

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