Fortuna Bay: my rucksack goes hiking

Lenticular clouds over the eastern arm of Fortuna Bay

Three coastal indentations east of the Bay of Islands lies Fortuna Bay, a deep cove in the cliffs surrounded by ice-covered peaks capped with perfect lenticular clouds. Here we spent the night after the excitements of Salisbury Plain. Alone on anchor watch, I saw the sky lighten in the slow, sensuous dawn of high latitudes during Autumn.

When Shackleton landed on South Georgia, after his 16 day voyage in the James Caird, the six men found themselves in King Haakon Bay on the south coast. They knew that all the whaling stations were in the north, and so they needed to walk across the island of South Georgia. The challenge was far from over: this was a trek no-one had yet done. They rested for a day before three of them set off, Shackleton, Crean and Worsley. (The other three were still too ill after the passage.)

On the north coast they descended into Fortuna Bay, then as now deserted, though they were comforted by seeing a shot seal, evidence that people were not far away. Above the eastern arm of the Bay, Shackleton writes in South of their excitement at hearing the sounds of the whaling station at Stromness.

At 6.30 a.m. I thought I heard the sounds of a steam-whistle. I dared not be certain, but I knew that the men at the whaling-station would be called from their beds about that time. Descending to the camp I told the others, and in intense excitement we watched the chronometer for seven o’clock, when the whalers would be summoned to work. Right to the minute the steam-whistle came to us, borne clearly on the wind across the intervening miles of rock and snow. Never had any one of us heard sweeter music. It was the first sound created by outside human agency that had come to our ears since we left Stromness Bay in December 1914.

You can see from Shackleton’s own rough map (below) how hard it was to reach Husvik, let alone for three exhausted men with almost nothing left except the wet and decrepit clothes they wore. It is now a not uncommon trip for people to walk the last stretch from Fortuna Bay to Stromness. I had decided not to go, because my knees were playing up and we were warned it was stiff, but many did. (That’s why I was alone on anchor-watch, as others were getting a sleep-in.)

Shackleton's rough memory-map of the South Georgia crossing, showing Fortuna Bay

Europa’s first mate, Ruud, did go on the hike, both to get a real leg-stretch and because certain numbers of certified guides must go with the walk. He needed a bag for all the kit so I happily lent him my venerable macpac. He was very pleased with it and came back to the ship singing its praises. Most of the crew set off across the hills, where they had a fantastic time. Crewmate Rod took this great picture of Mats luxuriating in the cold water streams made of glacial run-off; you can tell he’s a tough Scandinavian. 

Mats swimming in the streams on Shackleton's Hike from Fortuna Bay (by Rod Macfarlane)

Meanwhile on Europa, we took the short trip round the headlands, past the bay which opens up onto Leith whaling station and into the harbor behind Grass Island where the old whaling-station of Stromness still sits. It is in ruins, and off limits for visitors, the delapidated houses and rusting machinery lying on the thin beach stretching out from the huge glacial valley which bears Shackleton’s name. The steep scree slopes behind it rise up to ice and snow, a small taste of the cruel interior. (The picture frames one of the remaining houses between the dinghy falls holding Sloopy in place.)

Stromness, Shackleton's final arrival at the whaling station after the hike, the last stage from Fortuna Bay

Here the three men came staggering out of the wilderness. No-one had ever arrived from inland before and the whalers were understandably astonished. Mr Sorlle, the Norwegian station manager welcomed them, immediately giving them tea and the chance to bathe. Shackleton describes their first night  there as ‘blissful’.

His first question on arrival though, was when the war had ended. Mr Sorlle had to tell him it was not done with yet. ‘Millions are being killed,’ he said. ‘Europe is mad. The world is mad.’ As I write this, just over 100 years later, the continent is marking the outbreak of the Battle of the Somme.

Shackleton’s chief concern though was the rescue of his men, and he writes of the Norwegian’s immediate dispatch of a whaler to fetch the three men left at King Haakon Bay. It was to take longer to get back to Elephant Island.

As Europa arrived, Stromness basked in the sunshine. Our anchor rattled down and some of the crew took a swim in the 4°C water after a lot of work mending and replacing headsails. The hikers came aboard and after lunch we prepared to walk across the headland to Leith, where Europa planned to meet us. Of course, plans do not always survive the encounter with reality. 

Megan and Toby fixing the headsails as we arrive in Stromness from Fortuna Bay
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