Footsteps on South Georgia Island
By Tom MacTavish, Images by Rob Stimpson & Tom MacTavish
In October 2015, Tom MacTavish took part in the Antarctic Heritage Trust’s Inspiring Explorers Expedition, to traverse South Georgia Island. The expedition marked the centenary of Shackleton’s famous Endurance expedition (1914-1917) and is part of the Trust’s intention to inspire youth to explore and share their experiences with others.
Name: Tom MacTavish
Home town: Moeraki, Otago
Occupation & Special Interests:
“I studied Zoology and Marine Science at Otago University and have also worked in adventure tourism. In recent years I’ve been living abroad, but I’m now about to start my first ‘real’ job, as a Ranger for the Department of Conservation. My main outdoor interests are backcountry skiing and rock climbing, but like most Kiwis I enjoy having a crack at pretty much anything adventurous, and outside.”
What attracted you to a remote adventure on South Georgia Island?
“I’ve always had a fascination for cold, remote places - it’s that fascination that had previously taken me to Alaska, Northern Canada and the Norwegian Arctic in winter.
On previous adventures, particularly while backcountry skiing, I quickly learnt the experience became a lot richer when there was an element of human history. So to have an opportunity to ski in the footsteps of Shackleton, Worsley and Crean, across such a cold and remote sub-Antarctic Island, for the centenary… I really don’t think I could have imagined anything more exciting.”
How did you get involved?
“The New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust (nzaht.org) invited applications from interested 20 to 29 year olds who identified with one or more of the nationalities of Shackleton (England), Worsley (New Zealand) or Crean (Ireland). They wanted to select applicants to represent each of the three nationalities.
Selection was based on relevant skills and the applicants’ plans to inspire others to explore. My plan was centred on sharing the expedition through articles, and with children at small, rural South Island schools. I thought this was quite a fitting plan, given Worsley himself grew up in the small South Island town of Akaroa. Luckily for me, the Trust agreed.”
What were the logistics?
“Most of the planning and logistics were taken care of by the Antarctic Heritage Trust and they did a flawless job. But there were some things that remained beyond our control. Shackleton, Worsley and Crean began their crossing from King Haakon Bay, on the rarely frequented and notoriously rough western side of South Georgia.
Our transport to and from the island was via a small expedition ship that also had the interests of other passengers to consider. So we knew that with only a short window of time, there was a very real possibility poor weather would prevent us from making it to King Haakon Bay at all. Thankfully the weather was kind to us - at least until we made it onto land.”
Who else was in the tour party?
“The Expedition Leader was Nigel Watson, the Executive Director of the Antarctic Heritage Trust. The other members were James Blake - an Anglo-Kiwi film-maker and adventurer (son of the late Sir Peter Blake); Lieutenant Sinead Hunt, who proudly serves in the Irish Defence Force, as Crean did; and Sean Brooks and Kevin Nicholas - two Kiwi Antarctic mountain guides with One Ocean Expeditions. Companionship is an important part of any adventure, and we had a lot of fun together.”
What was the expedition goal?
“Our aim was to trace the 55 kilometre route that Shackleton, Worsley and Crean had followed to cross South Georgia 100 years earlier. Their crossing was the final act in a survival story that the likes of Sir Edmund Hillary have described as the greatest in recorded history. It’s a timeless, inspirational tale of human endurance, and I’d encourage anyone who isn’t familiar to read about it.
How did your expedition work out?
“We successfully completed the crossing and it was an adventure that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. It was the combination of history, wildlife and Mother Nature at her very rawest, that made it so uniquely special for me.
We saw the very places and features; glaciers, islands and kelp reefs, that the men had noted 100 years earlier. We mingled with wildlife that one only normally sees in David Attenborough films, and we dealt with the strongest winds any of us had ever encountered in the mountains. Did I say we were skiing? I forget about that part!”
Was there life on the island?
“The climate is too harsh for vegetation, but I found the diversity and abundance of wildlife staggering. The ocean that surrounds the island is home to the most concentrated phytoplankton bloom in the Southern Ocean. In turn, the phytoplankton provides food for krill, which are the ‘engine’ for the entire food web.
During spring time the beaches of South Georgia are home to the highest density of marine mammals on earth. After completing the Shackleton crossing, we visited a beach that held 300,000 king penguins, and harems of three-tonne elephant seals. I felt like an alien intruder on that beach.”
What were your lasting memories from the island and your adventure?
“Obviously the history, the wildlife and the wild weather. The enthusiasm of school children from Hampden School, East Otago High School and Waitaki Boys High School, on hearing about our expedition, is another enduring memory. It was a new experience for me to share an adventure with young people; I found it hugely rewarding and hope to do it again. I’d like to contribute a little towards the next generation of Kiwi explorers and outdoor enthusiasts.
Where to now? Are you planning another adventure?
“Funnily enough, my new job with DOC is based out of Akaroa - I guess there is something about following in the footsteps of these old explorers, so I’m really looking forward to making a positive contribution towards the natural environment there. But in my free time I’ll certainly be seeking more adventures, including accessing the Canterbury club ski areas.
The expedition was sponsored by Antarctic Heritage Trust, with support from the New Zealand Alpine Club, One Ocean Expeditions and GoPro. Photographs of the expedition can be found on the Trust’s website: nzaht.org