Used to the excitement of the big cities and busy streets, Jo Stewart found something unexpectedly profound on the blissfully buzz-free sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia.
There are places that offer a visitor non-stop action. Anyone who has traveled has surely been shaken by cities that just won’t quit, until you end up leaving exhausted, sprawled out on the cold, grey airport floor waiting for a red-eye flight that matches the current state of your own bloodshot eyes.
Then there are places that, gently, quietly and softly, give you more than any of those brash cities ever could, and manage to do so with such alarming nonchalance, you begin to question everything.
The sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia is one of those places. There are no roads, traffic, cafés, shops, restaurants or bars. There’s no permanent human population, except for the caretakers who spend a season there each year. Apart from the summer months, when research scientists, film crews shooting nature documentaries, and tourists from large ice-breaking cruise ships often visit, very few are able to spend a large amount of quality time with South Georgia Island. But I was one of the lucky ones.
Having been at sea on a small yacht for weeks, which felt more like months, arriving at South Georgia gave me the first chance in ages to stretch my legs. I mean really stretch my legs. Unlike in Antarctica where I might have gone off for a brief walk through a research station or an uncoordinated scramble up icy rocks in search of penguins (only to return freeze-dried, blue-lipped, and with no feeling in my toes, nose or fingers), South Georgia offered the perfect environment and balmy (read: 2 degree Celsius) temperatures ideal for long rambles. And ramble I did.
Up and over damp, green hills, along blustery shorelines populated with hundreds of penguins, and around the skeletal remains of Grytviken’s former whaling station that ceased operating long ago. Everything on South Georgia is reduced to elemental form; the beauty of the place is distilled, raw, true, and uninterrupted. There’s very little visual clutter to scatter your brain and thoughts, no distractions in the form of billboards or people or street signage. Low on artificial visual distraction, South Georgia also lacks synthetic scent. Wood, earth, sweat, flesh and bone are all detectable to the nose in a place without air freshener, perfume or street sweepers. On South Georgia, it’s just you, the sky and the sodden earth.
I haven’t visited anywhere that has simultaneously stood for both life and death at the same time, to the degree South Georgia does. In most cities I’ve lived in or visited, death tends to be hidden away, cloistered and shamed into submission. But on the wild paradise of South Georgia, everything is hung out to dry in the open. And on a long walk, you experience the whole cosmic shebang of life, death, and everything in between.
Life… A rambunctious fur seal pup plays alone on the shore.
Death… Tiny, shattered fragments of whale bone crunch under my Blundstone boots.
Life… A bunch of king penguins emerge from the water, having survived another day free from the jaws of predators.
Death… Large, rusted vats, once used to store and process whale blubber and oils, act as an outdoor elegy to an industry that spilled the blood of many a beast.
Life…. A small church serves as a reminder of the tiny community of people who once lived here.
Death… A windswept cemetery is the eternal keeper of all the souls who were never able to leave this aloof corner of the world.
If all this sounds heavy, it’s not. South Georgia is light and free. Free of rent, bills, responsibilities, schedules, deadlines, and the relentless cycle of life admin. South Georgia Island and its animal residents know nothing of these things. Fur, crab eater and elephant seals. Chinstrap, gentoo and king penguins. Petrels, albatross, cormorant, skuas and gulls—none of these critters give a damn about any of the things us humans fret about.
There’s an obvious lesson there, although not all of us have been incarnated as aquatic mammals. But while on South Georgia, I decide to let go of it all and live in the moment.
As trite as that sounds, it’s true. Spending my time watching elephant seals snooze, imagining the dialogue between king penguins communing on the beach (“Blimey, did you see the size of that orca out there this morning?”) then having a real conversation with a vocal fur seal playing in the rusty remains of a whaling station—this is how I spent my time on South Georgia.
If a grown woman wandering a windy island talking to animals along the way seems like a form of madness, it may just be. Or maybe this is what happens when you’re left to your own devices without Wi-Fi, Netflix, pubs, juice bars and art installations…
My final night on South Georgia reveals more shooting stars than I’ve ever seen in my life. Falling from the air with such regularity, they become part of the cosmic sky furniture. Up on the deck of the yacht I called home for almost two months, it had become normal to see a shooting star blaze through the sky.
At home, this would be a rare treat worth wishing on, but on South Georgia Island, the sheer number of falling stars means I actually run out of wishes. Plus, in a place like this, I already feel all my wishes have come true. It seems plain greedy to ask for more than South Georgia.
When it comes time to set sail and leave, it feels like a small death in itself. So far from everywhere else in the world, it’s a place that’s both difficult and expensive to reach. Watching the ropes unravel and cast off from the dock, I know I probably won’t be back anytime soon, if ever.
Like everything else in this world, my time on South Georgia Island was impermanent. Yet it’s comforting to know that there’s a place in the world that hasn’t succumbed to fickle trends and inane fads. South Georgia Island is blissfully buzz-free—may it stay that way forever more.