Whaling station at the end of the earth

Rust in peace

IF YOU'VE never heard of Grytviken you're forgiven. It's not exactly around the corner. To reach it requires several days sailing from The Falkland Islands on some of the fiercest seas you are ever likely to encounter. Grytviken is an old whaling station. It closed down in '64, the year I was born which, I wince to admit, is 50 years ago. When the whaling industry was in full swing, Grytviken, which means 'The Pot Bay' in Swedish, was a bustling and thriving community. I don't approve of whaling. It's barbaric and, in these more enlightened times, an unnecessary practise. I don't know how many whale carcasses passed through Grytviken in its heyday, but the museum there records that around 200 were processed in its first year of operation alone.

Despite its dubious past I was keen to see the remnants of the place when I visited South Georgia. Grytviken has become a popular stopping off point for tourist ships on their way south towards the Antarctic Peninsula. It's easy to see why. The rusting hulks of whaling ships litter the shore and whale bone lies among metal and weathered wood almost everywhere you look. It is a living museum - as fascinating as it is eerie and as beautiful and it is ugly. There is a strange, almost haunting mood about the place. You don't feel like singing in Grytviken; it feels more like a place to sit quietly and think about life.

On the morning I arrived, a light dusting of overnight snow had added an extra wintery twist to the scene that greeted me as I stood on the deck of the ship, looking across to the higgledy-piggledy buildings on the shore. The mountains behind were reflected perfectly in water that was a strange and almost unreal blue. The light was subdued and dark clouds hung above the bay like a threat.

Sir Ernest Shackleton, the great Victorian Antarctic Explorer is buried in a little graveyard (right) on the edge of Grytviken. The incredible bravery shown, and hardship suffered by Shackleton and his men was a testament to the spirit of the Victorian Age. On his third expedition to the polar region, his ship Endurance became trapped in pack ice and they were forced to abandon it. What followed was a heroic, dangerous, punishing but ultimately successful journey to safety. Shackleton and some of his crew somehow made it to Grytviken from where he was able to launch a successful rescue mission for the rest of the men. Some years later Shackleton returned to Grytviken but died of a heart attack. He was buried in the graveyard there at the request of his wife.

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