“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all lessons History has to teach.”
Aldous Huxley once said famously. And I could not help but ponder upon his eternal words as we approached the small settlement of Grytviken, located on South Georgia island.
Imagine a mighty mountain range; the Alps or the Andes for instances. Now have it submerged in a biblical flood so that only their very peaks, shrouded in veils of crystalline white clouds, peek out of the sea. And that image resembles the magnificent sight greeting us as we sailed ever closer to South Georgia islands under a deceptively brilliant sky.
Tremendous rivers of ice forced their way through these stone giants. Ferocious gusts known as the Katabatic winds rose off these glaciers as cold air rolled down their steep gradients, building up speed to the point where they could capsize zodiacs and push one off the deck unless one held on to the railings.
So I wasn’t surprised when the captain opted against landing at Gold harbour, our planned landing site, and decided to push on to St Andrew’s Bay instead.
Not that the new landing site was any less spectacular. With a far more gentle shoreline, St Andrew’s Bay allowed us to make a landing, and almost instantly, be surrounded by one of nature’s greatest spectacles; there, all along the shore as far as the eye could see, stood the largest gathering of King penguins anywhere on the planet. As many as 120,000 of these magnificent birds, walked, stumbled, called out to each other and squabbled with the fur seal pups with whom they shared the land.
They were still glancing at us, as stoically and impassively as before, when we walked reluctantly off their world and back into ours.
The next morning, the remnants of an old, rusting Norwegian whaling station greeted us on the wide bay. Founded in 1904, the station was an extremely profitable and efficient slaughterhouse; taking down hundreds of whales a season. Every part of the animal’s body, from blubbers to muscle and even bone marrow were used in the production of oil, fertilizer and fodder.
Eventually the whale population’s around the area collapsed. The station consequently closed down in December 1966. Today, all that remains are enormous, bleached whale bones scattered around the bay. We wondered around for a while, visiting the museum and Sir Ernest Shackleton’s grave in the island’s tiny cemetery. Impressive as history was there, I wondered just what were they -we- holding onto here? Would we ever learn from what we had done to the animals there? Or was the museum, in an unintentional manner, justifying, even glorifying our past mistakes? I wish that the island had been cleared of its history. I took comfort in the fact that we weren’t leaving any traces of us behind, so that Antarctica would forget we had ever been there.
Of course, I was desperate not to forget it, for I may never have the chance to return to its kingdom.
Yet, as we left Antarctica behind, I had the saddest feeling that I couldn’t hold on to it’s memories forever. The colours and smells would merge together as the years passed, leaving an impression of fantastical proportions, but one that may not be completely true. I think Antarctica is the last place on earth where one might find true, limitless, unspoilt wonder.
But I also knew that it’s wonders had been so immense, so incomprehensible that my memory would eventually find it more and more difficult to hold onto it. And so the memories would be passed onto my imagination’s hands, and there they would remain, forever; indescribable and vague, their outlines blurred out, as if teetering on the edge of reality.
As if none of it had been real at all. As if it had all been nothing but one last dream.
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