South Georgia: Population 2

It takes a special kind of person to live alone on a remote island for 14 years.

And it takes extra special people to live alone on a cold, isolated and windswept island, covered in snow and ice, on the edge of the Antarctic.

Tim and Pauline Carr are special people - they were the only permanent residents from 1992 on South Georgia, 1500kms from Antarctica and 2100kms from South America. The nearest substantial landmass is the Falkland Islands, 1400kms away.

The Carrs, living at the old whaling settlement of Grytviken, did have temporary companions: post Falkland Islands war, a small British military garrison was stationed there; later, research scientists spent summers not far away at King Edward Point.

I'm with Tim and Pauline on a nostalgic visit back to their island aboard a Russian expedition ship, Akademik Sergey Vavilov, on a three-week Quark Expedition to the Antarctic, via the Falkland Islands and South Georgia.

South Georgia, like a piece of the Andes mountain range dropped in the ocean, is 170kms long and up to 40kms wide with a landmass of 3500sq kms. Glaciers and icefields cover more than half the island.

The island has a rich wildlife - the planet's greatest concentration not only of fur seals, but also of penguins, albatross and other birds. In the polar summer, the island's shoreline offers Antarctic wildlife a place to mate and rear their young.

Along with whales, fur seal colonies were hunted to near-extinction but are coming back to the point that South Georgia now has an estimated four million fur seals, 95 per cent of the world's population. Elephant seals are also returning and now number around 400,000. Whales are also returning.

The Carrs say there are well over 50 colonies of the elegant king penguins (the largest of which has 200,000 breeding pairs) and the island has one-third of the world's population of gentoo penguins.

There are also at least two million macaroni penguins, whose distinctive features are golden crests and deep red eyes, and about 25,000 chinstrap penguins.

Some 230,000 albatrosses also make their nests here _ mostly on cliffy hillsides from which they can spread their more than three-metre wings and soar on the wind.

The Carrs' adventure began much earlier, in 1967, with the purchase of a nine-metre by three-metre motorless yacht, a 100-year-old cutter, Curlew, in which they spent 25 years sailing the world before coming to their icy paradise.

Pauline was just 21 and Tim 26 when they set out on their adventure. They bought their wooden yacht in Malta for $US1500 ($NZ2155) and made it seaworthy. When they were ready to set out they asked for directions to the Caribbean. "Just sail south and turn right when the butter starts to melt. You are then in the Caribbean," they were told. Were they crazy? "We must have been," they said.

In 1992 Tim and Pauline, while working in the museum at Stanley on the Falkland Islands, were encouraged to become involved with the South Georgia Whaling Museum at Grytviken. So they sailed to South Georgia, fell in love with it and made it their home. For the first eight years they lived aboard their yacht.

They developed a deep fascination with the island, its wildlife and its history. "It is the most exceptional place on earth," they said.

The Carrs wrote a coffee-table book, Antarctic Oasis, published in 1998 by WW Norton & Company, recounting the first five years of their stay on South Georgia.

The English-born couple are now Australian citizens but left South Georgia three years ago to live in New Zealand's South Island at Waimate.

It's a fine day when we arrive in the bay at Grytviken and take a short Zodiac boat ride ashore.

The Carrs lead us on a tour of the small settlement where they lived. The excellent museum is now known as the South Georgia Museum. The Carrs developed it to show the more positive aspects of the island and it now reflects the island's broader history, including natural history. A section is also devoted to Sir Ernest Shackleton, one of the most respected of the Antarctic explorers.

The couple spent much of their time on the island sailing around it collecting items from abandoned whaling stations to put in the museum. They refurbished artefacts and renovated the museum building which initially had two rooms of exhibits but has now expanded to six, plus a souvenir shop.

There's a post office where tourists, who stop here on cruise ships bound for the Antarctic in the summer months, November to March, can buy South Georgia stamps. (The mail box inside the post office announces: "The next collection will be in January".) There's a museum manager's residence and a church. Most buildings date from the early 1900s.

Norwegian whalers used the island as a base from 1904 to 1965. They slaughtered, to near extinction, up to 40,000 whales each year at whaling's peak. The rusting remains of the old whaling station are stark reminders of those dark days of whaling. The Carrs say the station has become a place to ``intrigue and horrify, to commemorate and condemn'' the whaling.

A visit to the museum and the old whaling station is well worthwhile. Both are now heritage sites. Centrepiece is the old whaler, Petrel, whose harpoon gun sits in the ship's bow. But now it is pointing skywards and will never take the life of another whale.

Shackleton died in 1922 at King Edward Cove, South Georgia, on board his ship Quest and is buried in the Grytviken cemetery. His gravesite is a must-see for tourists.

In front of the white-picketed and well-maintained cemetery a group of elephant seals lies unconcerned as we trek past on our way to see Shackleton's grave. We raise a toast to Shackleton, whose men called him ``the Boss''.

When his ship became icebound, eventually sinking, he and a handful of crew undertook one of the greatest small boat journeys ever of 800 nautical miles over an Antarctic winter. A replica of the small boat, the James Caird, in which Shackleton went for help, is in Grytviken's Carr Maritime Museum.

I'm now with Tim and Pauline at the rail of Vavilov, looking back at the spectacular Drygalski Fjord as we leave South Georgia and head for Antarctica. Do I see a tear in their eyes? But they promise to come back.

AAP