Tag Archives: Tussock Grass

Falkland Islands 3 – New Island

Sunday 11 March 2024 – Overnight from Carcass to New Island was “not too bad”, a phrase which has been a running joke throughout this whole trip.  When Pippa and the skipper first discussed our overall route and a possible transit through the Drake Passage, the major decision to reverse the direction of our entire outing and make it anticlockwise was done on the basis that the captain’s view was that the wind forecast was “not too bad” – apparently the most sanguine description he ever gives of weather possibilities.  With the exception of maybe two nights, our transits from place to place have been “not too bad”, i.e. absolutely bloody miraculous.  It has been astonishing how good our weather has been, to the point where I was considering (jokingly) the possibility of submitting a complaint about the trip because it wasn’t the “authentic Antarctic experience”.

Anyway, not too bad.

We were able, courtesy of some more skillful navigation from the captain, to get quite near New Island. You can see from the state of the sea that it was pretty breezy.

Closer examination shows it to be a settlement that’s a little more substantial than the one we’d recently visited at Carcass.

Indeed, it has its own shipwreck

and a small but beautifully formed museum

dedicated to supporting the New Island Conservation Trust. This was originally set up by the two co-owners of the island to ensure that it never got exploited and was always a conservation area for wildlife.

Outside, the museum has a gentoo penguin statue

and inside

there’s a lot of information about the trust, many relevant artifacts from the surrounding area

as well as an opportunity to indulge in some retail therapy.

Having perused the place, we started the relatively short walk towards another black-browed albatross colony. On the way, we passed kelp geese,

more of the ubiquitous upland geese

and more rockhoppers using cormorants for added security against marauding skuas,

but the albatrosses were the main objective of the excursion.

An albatross is a big bird and, like the cormorant, one that a skua won’t fuck about with, hence the rockhoppers get the added protection.  The location shown above is also a good demonstration of why rockhoppers get their name, since they’ve clearly hopped up all those rocks to get to a place of relative security.

There were cormorants among the other birds, too;

these were imperial cormorants, distinguished by white on the front of their necks and those yellow-orange eye decorations.

It was windy. Again.  And, as well as some dramatic cliff scenery,

there was tucking fussock grass. Again.

It really was somewhere between “trying” and “dangerous” to find places to watch the penguins and albatrosses – but ultimately rewarding.

The rockhoppers are very engaging creatures

and the wind made their hairstyle very distinctive

and clearly left them at times severely unimpressed.

The albatrosses were feeding their chicks, each residing on the nest that they won’t leave until they can fly.  They’re very demanding.

and it was interesting to watch the way their demands affected the parents.

After a while it was time to head back, this time thankfully with the wind behind us, to the boat, but the final image that stayed with me was this extremely punk rockhopper.

For Jane and me, this was our last landing on the Falklands.  Pippa organised another one, more to the north of New Island, but, frankly, both of us were pretty tuckered out by this stage, and the northern landing didn’t hold the prospect of seeing anything dramatically different from what we’d already seen.  So we awarded ourselves our second Afternoon Off. Which was delightful, I have to say.

And now we had to leave. After our time in the Falklands, all that remained was a Sea Day whilst we headed back to Ushuaia and the end of three weeks exploring Antarctica and the Southern Ocean Islands. We simply hoped that the weather would continue to be “not too bad”.  One of the other captains in the Oceanwide Adventures fleet reportedly has another weather saying: “One day, you’ll pay”. We had to hope that  maybe it wouldn’t be down to us to pick up this particular bill.


Falkland Islands 2 – Carcass

Sunday 10  March 2024 (pm) – The stabilisers on Hondius did a good job of countering the waves as the ship was carefully navigated around to Carcass Island, also off West Falkland; the wind was still strong, but the landing area looked calm enough.

We landed near a settlement and – praise be! – there was a jetty.

Mind you, because of the state of the tide and the slime at the foot of the jetty, we had to disembark part way up, which was a bit of a step up.

There were, broadly speaking, two options for the afternoon: stay near the landing area and drop into the settlement for tea and cakes; or go for a longish walk before dropping into the settlement for tea and cakes.  I suppose there might have been an option which didn’t include tea and cakes, but no-one seemed interested in that one.

On the path to the settlement, a tussac bird checked us out.

(I assume that the “tussac” in the name of this bird means the same as the more familiar “tussock”.  On several occasions we have had to deal with tussock grass, which, believe me, is not just grass growing in tussocks, oh dear me no. In the Falklands and South Georgia it is a specific plant, Poa Flabbelata, as any fule kno, whose growth builds an ever-increasing pedestal which supports its leaves and can grow up to the height of a man.  This provides shelter for animals and a major trip hazard for humans. For example, one passenger on Hondius had been medevacked on his first attempt to do this trip because the tussock grass concealed a hole which caused his ankle to break in spectacular fashion.)

So, off we went on the walk along a track normally used by local 4x4s.

The info we’d been given asserted that this walk was a chance to see local wildlife, and I suppose it was, provided what you wanted to see was upland geese. There were loads of them,

but for most of the walk out, very little else.  Jane spotted a dark-faced ground tyrant and I managed to catch it before it buggered off,

but apart from that and a few kelp geese spotted in the distance

there was nothing on offer on a long and, frankly, dull walk.

After a couple of wildlifeless kilometres, we decided to turn back, and discovered that what was dull became tedious in the extreme, as we had to stumble back against the infamous Falkland Island wind.  It really was hard work, with the only photographic reward being the spotting by Jane of a couple of magellanic penguins standing guard on their burrows.

I guess I’m being a bit harsh in describing the walk as dull – under other circumstances a bracing walk through the countryside in streaming sunshine would be a pleasure. But I felt that an expedition-style outing should have a bit more pith and moment – or just make it a brief stop for tea, cakes and a look at the wildlife around the landing area.

Having struggled back against the wind, it was nice to get into the house where the tea and cakes were on offer (we had to take off our Muck boots before hand, which is not too surprising, as there was a certain amount of mud around on the paths).  It was an impressive spread

and the tea was very welcome.  Everyone rhapsodised about the how wonderful the baked goods were, but actually I wasn’t as impressed as they were; I thought the chocolate stuff wasn’t chocolatey enough, the shortbread wasn’t quite as sweet as I like, and the macaroons were nice enough but not quite the melt-in-the-mouth treat that a proper macaroon can be. They had ginger biscuits, which were nice, and Jane gave the mince pies the thumbs-up; and it was nice to have a rest after struggling along against that relentless wind.

It was less fun to discover, when I got outside, that someone had taken one of my boots and left one of theirs which was slightly, but tellingly, smaller.  It wasn’t a disaster, but it didn’t help my mood having to hobble back to the landing area with one painful foot.  Not even seeing an austral thrush could lift my spirits much.

The tea house had effectively a pet caracara which entertained the guests for food,

and we had further entertainment at the boot-scrubbing party which was a necessary precursor to getting the Zodiac back to Hondius.

After this somewhat dull interval, the day finished with a flourish, though.  Our one-time Stanley resident, Martin, had extolled the beauties of Falkland Islands sunset, and as we headed out of the bay towards our next rendezvous, we were treated to a great display.

The next day, we were due to visit another West Falkland Island, New Island, which also held the promise of seeing some more albatross action – if the conditions allowed.  But the wind was rising, and we would have to wait until the following morning to see what was possible.


True Gryt

Tuesday March 5 2024 – Even as we were leaving Pippa’s recap yesterday, we could feel the sea getting rougher.  During the night there was quite a lot of pitching and rolling; talk this morning was of gusts of 50-knot winds, which, if memory serves (because it has to; our expensive internet has given way to an entirely non-available one, which means Googling is now impossible) is bordering Storm Force 10.  There were no injuries, but suffice it to say that the rocking and rolling was sufficient to a) cause a slightly mysterious but weighty de-ioniser device to jump off its shelf in our cabin with a considerable thump at 3 in the morning; and b) tip over the cup of milk we had kept in our fridge for the purpose of making tea. A slightly disturbed night, then, but not too uncomfortable otherwise – we both managed to get a reasonable amount of sleep.

It was clear that the captain had had to do a lot of careful navigation; there were a lot of very large icebergs around.

However, as we entered Cumberland Bay, at the back of which the settlement of Grytviken lurks, the waters reverted to millpond stillness, and we could start to see the Grytviken government buildings on King Edward Point

and the settlement itself.

As I’ve said before, Grytviken is the centre of government for the island of South Georgia, which was the first whaling station on the island, established in 1904 by Carl Anton Larsen, a Norwegian who realised there was an enormous fortune to be made from whaling.  Up to that point, the island, which was claimed for King George III in 1775 by James Cook, had been a centre for sealing – fur seals were killed for their pelts, and elephant seals for their blubber.

As I’ve already mentioned, South Georgia operates a very stringent biosecurity policy, and Grytviken is the centre of government for the island; the already-high focus on biosecurity is particularly keen here.  So we experienced an iron fist in a velvet glove.  The glove was operated by Deidre

a nice Scottish lady from the South Georgia Heritage Trust who spent 15 minutes extolling the wonders of South Georgia and particularly the work of the Heritage Trust, whose fundraising has been critical to transforming the area from an ecological disaster to an ecosystem in recovery. And it was, indeed, fundraising for this very worthwhile charity which was clearly to the fore in her messages to us. We took away a sponsorship form from her colleague Bodil (also Scottish) and a determination to support the Trust in some way or other (see later).  The iron fist was the inspection we underwent before we were allowed on to the Zodiacs.  To be as sure as possible that this would not reveal any shortcomings in Hondius’s biosecurity measures, there were staff performing extra checks on people before the inspector got to them.

All of us disembarking on the first Zodiac were checked (we don’t know if those disembarking from the second shell door were also checked). The inspector was cheerful, but brisk, and raised no alarms in checking us over as we went through (and in fact, Pippa revealed later that we had had a 100% clear record, meaning that future inspections would need only to check a smaller sample of passengers).

Off we went to the shore where we were able to wander around some areas of the settlement – not all; some areas were closed to us because of the risk of avian influenza. But we were able to see a lot, and to note the extent to which nature was Taking Back Control over the years.

One had to be careful in walking around, as there were fur seals everywhere, including on the paths.  I nearly stepped on one little one as I was taking a photo; vigilance was very necessary.

So, what’s in the settlement?  As you can see from the above, there’s an old whaling ship, and, on the right is the museum, which used to be the station manager’s villa, with its fragments of whalebone and other items on the lawn outside.

Just behind the flagpole are some pots.

These are the old “trying” pots which were used for boiling up seal blubber, and were what Larsen first saw when he made ground here. It is these pots which give the place its name; Grytviken is the Norwegian for “Pot Cove”.

This nugget, and many others, were provided on our short but informative guided tour, which was led by yet another Scottish lady, whose name, shamefully, I have forgotten. (It seems that there’s some kind of a morphic resonance between South Georgia and Scotland, possibly because of similarity of climate?)

The old machinery used for processing the whales is a major presence across the site,

but regrettably we weren’t allowed to wander around amongst it.  Our guide pointed out that originally these machines would have been housed in buildings, but the preservation work on the site had them removed, as they were (a) unsafe and (b) toxic, particularly riddled with asbestos.

Other surviving buildings include the post office and shop

where one could buy all sorts of things, including, unsurprisingly, stamps, both ornamental, such as Platinum Jubilee or Coronation sets, or functional, to be put on the postcards that one can also buy there to send home or wherever. (“Next post”, a sign proudly announced, “March”).

The museum

has all sorts of items of interest, both historical, to do with whaling and that Shackleton chappie, and also the wildlife.

Above you can see an example of a leopard seal’s skull with its canines and filtering molars.  There was also a pleasing variation on the “Do Not Touch” you see so often in museums the world over:

a seal skin, stroking which gives a very good idea of why they were so sought after.

There were also some quirky exhibits in the museum’s retail area

and both post office and museum gave us the chance to donate to the island and its trust by buying a couple of things as well as making an explicit donation on the “Tap to Donate” pad so thoughtfully placed by the exit.

Another important building is this

which houses a replica of the James Caird, the little boat that you’ll have read about in previous posts, so I won’t bore you again with its story; it also, importantly, houses

the only public toilets on the island.

Inside the James Caird hut

gives an impactful insight into the stuff of which Shackleton and his men were made.  Remember, there were six men on this boat, which means that five had to be below decks

alongside ballast rocks and other supplies.  On the wall are Shackleton’s makeshift crampons

amid a plethora of other items pertinent to the momentous journey this little boat undertook.

Finally, there is the church

constructed in Norway, then dis-assembled, transported and reconstructed here.  It wasn’t apparently, used so much as a church as a cinema.  Inside

it’s well-maintained, and includes the lending library that was in use at the time.

It has two bells, which punters can ring.  I did (I have the video) and it gave me quite an insight into the skill of church bell ringing.

Outside the church, the guides from Hondius were organising a toast to “The Boss” (yes, Shackleton – difficult to get away from the man), led by Saskia

using his own blend of whisky (now made by Mackinlay’s according to an original recipe specified by the man himself, apparently).  Normally, this toast would have been conducted at his grave in the cemetery, but we were not allowed to go there.  Instead, we took a look from the shore as part of the Zodiac ride back to Hondius.

Shackleton’s headstone is the big grey one in the centre of the cemetery.

For all its dark past, the Grytviken settlement makes for an emotional visit, possibly because it shows that humans are beginning to pay more respect not only to the past but to the environment.  In any case, it was an absorbing morning, and we feel privileged to have been able to visit the site.

In the afternoon, the skipper took Hondius gingerly towards the afternoon’s site – gingerly because of the care with which he had to navigate.

The location for the afternoon was a nearby cove called Godthul.  Ursula was our guide for a cruise which was to be followed by a landing.

The cruise took us by more thundering great lumps of ice

some of which had penguins on.

It was engaging watching them leap out of the water on to the ice – not always, it has to be said, successfully. (Yes, I have video.)

The cruise didn’t reveal too much in the way of new wildlife, except for one fur seal which was leucistic – a very pale colour, but not albino. They’re apparently known as “blondies”.

After the cruise, we landed at a cove whence we could wander along the beach and/or take a hike to either a penguin colony or a freshwater lake.  The hike was through tussock grass. The lower part of it was up a steep bank (for an idea of scale, the tussocks are 2-3 feet in diameter and rather taller than they are wide).

It was at times difficult to see where to put one’s feet, the tussocks concealed some unsuspected deep gaps and holes, and there were some large steps to be scrambled up. Once you’d conquered the first, tough, part, the going got easier as it went across mossy ground.

We eschewed the penguin colony on the basis that we’d already seen quite a few gentoos by now, and instead headed to the glacial lake

where there were just a couple of penguins loitering nearby.

I’m not quite sure what penguins make of fresh water, but there they were.  On the way down, we got a decent view over the cove and Hondius.

As usual we were enjoined to follow the track laid down by the guides, who set up red poles to guide visitors.  Even so, to avoid stressing the local wildlife, one still had to extemporise occasionally.

And so ended the day’s entertainment, apart from the usual daily recap from Pippa, which was, as ever, well-attended by everyone, agog to see what was planned for the next day.

That plan turned out to be a bit of a gamble, since the lack of an internet meant that even she and the ship’s crew didn’t have an up-to-date wind forecast.  The dice were loaded in favour of decent weather, but, as with all random events like weather and dice, there was the chance of an unexpected outcome. But the plan was to go to Fortuna Bay, the place where (him again) Shackleton actually reached the coast after crossing the island from Peggotty Bluff – it’s next to Stromness so he could hear the whistle from the whaling station there to guide him to what passed for civilisation in those days in these parts. In order to reduce the chance of birds choosing to land on the ship, something which requires a special procedure to be followed to ensure that they take off safely again, we headed out to sea to make the short hop northwards along the coast from Godthul. There is the chance of rougher seas, therefore; with luck, it won’t be too rough, the conditions will stay calm and we’ll have a good final day on South Georgia at Fortuna Bay.