This wind-whipped island was the focus for the greatest escape in exploration history. Simon Calder gets on the trail of Ernest Shackleton in a part of the world that is forever British

Fortuna Bay possesses a rare, raw beauty. Here at the bitter end of the world, rock and ice converge beneath the broadest of skies on the brink of a seemingly endless ocean. Remarkably, this far-flung cove was the location for the denouement of the greatest escape in polar history.

Two amazing truths, yet the visitor ignores both in favour of an even more enthralling property: Fortuna Bay, on the north coast of the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia, appears to be hosting the casting audition for an epic wildlife documentary, making this lonely square mile one of the most active places on the planet.

On the beach, elephant seals scrap like punch-drunk prizefighters to settle territorial claims. Meanwhile, fur seals flap inland, growling at intruders and revealing fierce incisors to anyone reckless enough to break the statutory five-metre minimum between humans and animals. But marine mammals are just supporting acts for Fortuna Bay's chorus line: an argumentative ensemble of perhaps 40,000 king penguins, who loaf around with engaging contempt for visitors' personal space.

These flightless seabirds are guaranteed to put you in a good mood; their crisp black-and-white uniforms with a cravat of gold brighten a land that seems shrouded in eternal winter. The main reason they cheer you up, though, is that they provide the genetic material for the Parisian waiter.

Every gesture in the table-service livre, from posturing to preening to showing the tourist the quintessence of disdain, is surely inherited from the king penguin. About the only trait these two species do not share is the method of serving food: penguins regurgitate last week's squid into the mouths of their young, not a technique you often witness at restaurants in the French capital. And when the snooty seabirds flounce off with their noses in the air, it is not out of contempt for the tip.

Another advantage you rarely find in Paris: if the going gets tough, you can always pick up a penguin, skin it, cook it and eat it.

One man who owed his survival to the manchot royal (king penguin, which he enjoyed "either boiled or fried") was the greatest of Antarctic explorers, Sir Ernest Shackleton. He first visited the "seventh continent" in 1901 as part of Robert Scott's National Antarctic Expedition, and then returned in 1907 in a vain first attempt to reach the South Pole.

Third time lucky? That was what he hoped in December 1914, when he commanded the Endurance to sail south from South Georgia, beyond Cape Disappointment to the very edge of the world.

On the maritime chart, South Georgia has the pleasing shape of a croissant. But from offshore, the island looks like a stretch of the High Andes, with all the gentle, blunt terrain removed, leaving only the sharp bits piercing the surface of the Southern Ocean. It is the same size as Essex, but the closer you get to this harsh terrain (South Georgia, not Essex), the less suitable it seems for human habitation.

Captain James Cook landed here in 1775. He claimed the island for Britain and named it in honour of George III. Later, the explorer dubbed the southern extreme of the island Cape Disappointment when he discovered the land mass was merely an island rather than part of a great southern continent.

For succeeding British expeditions to Antarctica, Cape Disappointment usually provided a dismally appropriate send-off. Missions to the deepest south had an unfortunate tendency to degenerate via despondency to despair.

Cook himself survived his visit, but it proved disastrous for South Georgia's marine mammals. The explorer reported prodigious numbers of seals. As winter stalks summer, so exploitation shadows exploration. First to come within a bushy whisker of obliteration were the fur seals, killed for the fine, dense insulation provided by their skins; an evolutionary strength became their fatal weakness. Next, elephant seals were butchered for the rich oil in their three-ton bodies.

After one million or more seals had perished, attention turned to even bigger prey. Over six decades from 1904, 175,000 whales were brought ashore to the island. The two largest creatures documented anywhere on Earth were female blue whales caught by South Georgia whalers.

Nature has proved an unforgiving adversary, as you discover a couple of coves east of Fortuna Bay, at Prince Olav Harbour. Man's vulnerability is evident in the line of flimsy white crosses arrayed along the hillside, each commemorating a venturer who died far from home.

Their abandoned whaling station and an old three-master named Brutus silently decompose via rust to dust. Seals have regained the upper flipper to squat in the ghostly voids of factories and homes – an elemental Armageddon gone to seed.

In 1914, a time when 700 whalers endured endless winter in South Georgia, Shackleton sought their expertise about sailing through the Weddell Sea to the Antarctic mainland. The ice surrounding the continent was the worst in living memory, and some urged postponing the expedition until the following summer. But the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition must go on. "The Boss", as Shackleton was known, gave the order to sail.

Pack ice, which Shackleton described with frustration as a "gigantic and interminable jigsaw-puzzle", would wreck his ship and his hopes. Yet it made his reputation – but only after enduring many months at the mercy of Antarctica's fierce climate, making an astonishing journey to salvation across 800 miles of open sea in a tiny boat, and traversing a mile-high ridge that divides South Georgia.u oFinally, he reached Fortuna Bay, on the right side of the island, with his two most trusted officers, Frank Worsley and Tom Crean.

Whether you have been searching for more than a year for an emergency exit from Antarctica, or have simply clambered from the warm comfort of a ship via an inflatable boat to the beach, Fortuna Bay represents delicious deliverance – and a suitably majestic residence for avian royalty.

From the scrum of mountains corrugating three-quarters of the horizon, a glacier's tongue pokes towards the shore, its stately progress licked for speed by a stream rushing down through wind-whipped turf to the ocean. In the centre of this tableau, a shallow river meanders across terrain scraped flat by ice in its constant war of attrition with rock. The water even boasts some mobile scenery in the contorted shapes of icebergs, newly arrived from Antarctica; one floating offshore has been sculpted by the elements into an icy cathedral, in both scale and appearance. The view is complemented by a perfect sound picture: a waterfall to the west, the just-woken-up grunts and snorts of seals straight ahead, and a tuneless chorus of king penguins to the east.

Penguins are remarkable survivors. They are the only species to winter on land in South Georgia, when parents leave their chicks huddling together for warmth. To picture a penguin "rookery", imagine a field full of waddling egg-shaped figures, already the size of their parents but wearing coffee-coloured feathers and lacking in social skills – such as the ability to eat things that have not already been pre-digested for them.

Three out of four chicks make it (via Mohican-headed adolescence) into adulthood. Three out of three escapees from the Endurance survived their jagged winter journey. They descended to Fortuna Bay, trudged across the valley and traversed another mighty ridge.

One final trick from Shackleton's repertoire of Boy's Own stunts – abseiling down a waterfall – was required before they strode towards civilisation with their clothes and dreams in tatters.

"Three more unpleasant-looking ruffians could hardly have been imagined," wrote Shackleton of the moment they walked intoStromness whaling station. The manager, whom he knew, initially failed to recognise the explorer. Later, the whalers listened amazed to the tale of an epic journey from Elephant Island, followed by the first crossing of South Georgia's naked spine.

Straight after his first bath in months, the ever-faithful Worsley was dispatched by sea to collect the men left on the far side of South Georgia. One of the trio expressed surprise that no one from the hiking party had joined the rescue mission; he did not identify the newly clean-shaven Worsley.

The hopes of the 22 men who remained on Elephant Island had dwindled with each passing day, but on the fourth attempt, a ship reached the island and picked up all the men.

In Scott's doomed expedition, five men reached their goal at the South Pole but perished during the journey home. The Imperial Trans-Antarctica Expedition proved the opposite: all its aims were thwarted, yet everyone under Shackleton's direct command survived. Three men died, however, in a separate part of the mission assigned to lay food depots on the far side of the frozen continent. A further three would lose their lives when they returned from what Shackleton called the "White Warfare of the South" to the real battlefields of the First World War.

The last sentence in Shackleton's account of the journey begins: "Though some have gone, there are enough left to rally round and form a nucleus for the next Expedition, when troublous times are over."

In 1921, Shackleton went south again, with a broad brief to unlock some of Antarctica's remaining secrets. As his ship lay in the harbour of South Georgia's diminutive capital, Grytviken, he suffered a fatal heart attack.

The explorer's body was transported to South America for onward shipment to England, but his wife instructed that it should be returned to South Georgia. Shackleton's funeral service took place in Grytviken's little tin church, which still constitutes the social hub of the island.

On South Georgia, the dead easily outnumber the living. Seventy men are buried in the cemetery at the foot of the hill on the north side of Grytviken, which is commanded by one granite headstone: "To the dear memory of Ernest Henry Shackleton, Explorer". On the hillside above stands a reminder of the treachery of the Southern Ocean: a cross is devoted to the 17 men who died aboard the Sudur Havid, a South African fishing vessel that sank in South Georgian waters just a decade ago.

Last word to Shackleton, the late, great survivor, as he stumbled down the hill from Fortuna Bay to salvation for himself and his men:

"We had seen God in his splendours, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man."

Traveller's Guide

Getting there

South Georgia has no airport, so visitors arrive by ship, often as part of a cruise. Simon Calder travelled as a guest lecturer aboard the Sergei Vavilov, chartered for a photographic expedition by Exodus (0845 330 6013; to the Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica. The 23-day trip includes flights from Gatwick to Ushuaia in Argentina, 18 nights' full board on ship, and hotels in Ushuaia and Buenos Aires. Prices next season range from £6,770 to £9,330 in a twin cabin.

For independent travellers, the nearest airport is Mount Pleasant on East Falkland, served by the RAF from Brize Norton; flights are bookable through the Falkland Islands Government Office in London (020-7222 2542; falklands. Lower fares are available via Santiago on a combination of BA or Iberia to Madrid, and Lan Chile from there via Santiago and Punta Arenas.

More information

South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands:

Shackleton: the Greatest Escape

Summer 1914: Europe stood on the brink of the deadliest conflict in human history. But at 4 New Burlington Street in central London, Sir Ernest Shackleton was busy selecting crew and raising funds for the Imperial Trans-Antarctica Expedition. No one, including the 5,000 applicants, could anticipate that the mission would inadvertently extend through 1916 and into 1917.

In 1909 Shackleton had turned back just 97 miles short of the South Pole. After Amundsen's Norwegian expedition beat Scott's ill-fated team to polar glory in 1911-1912, Britain was hungry for the last great prize on earth: to cross the seventh continent from coast to coast, via the South Pole.

The expedition's flagship, the Endurance, left London on 1 August 1914 and set sail for Antarctica from their pit-stop of Grytviken, capital of South Georgia on 5 December.

Just a couple of days later, the Endurance encountered the first of the ice that was to dog, then delay, then devour her. Helpless, the crew and ship were taken on a 1,000-mile ride on ice floes north across the Weddell Sea.

Gradually the ice tightened its grip. On 21 November 1915, almost a year after leaving South Georgia, the mariners watched in horror as their crippled mother ship sank. Shackleton wrote, "Without her, our destination seems more emphasised, our desolation more complete."

The 28 men drifted on a patch of ice for a further five months, before their floating home began to disintegrate. The only means of escape were three lifeboats that had been salvaged from the mother ship. The party boarded these tiny vessels and sailed north to Elephant Island, off the Antarctic peninsula. They were already a year late, and most of their loved ones had concluded the Endurance had been lost with all hands. Time for Shackleton's last throw of the dice: make the largest lifeboat, the James Caird – named after the mission's main backer – ready for an ocean voyage across what Shackleton called "the most tempestuous storm-swept area of water in the world". A crew of half-a-dozen, equipped with barely more than the Burberry coats they stood up in, would sail a 22-foot boat to try to summon help for the remaining men.

Prevailing winds and currents made it advisable to head 800 miles north-east. Shackleton's captain, a New Zealander named Frank Worsley, proved an extraordinary navigator. They evaded all the ocean's efforts to destroy their craft, and reached the south-west shore of the island after 16 days – not a moment too soon, since their fresh drinking water supply had run out on day 14.

The makeshift yachtsmen had a maritime chart that showed they were at King Haakon Bay. No human settlement existed anywhere on this windward side of South Georgia, which endures the planet's worst weather. Shackleton chose Worsley and Tom Crean, second officer on the Endurance, to join him as he sought a path across an unmapped range of mountains to the prospect of safety. No one had ever crossed this inhospitable range before; why would they? But 28 lives depended on their success.

As the trio set off from their makeshift camp at 3am, Shackleton left the three remaining members of the crew with a shotgun for picking off penguins, plus a letter outlining his proposed route in full detail. All he wrote was: "East magnetic".

They were travelling absurdly light. Their specialist equipment comprised a carpenter's adze as a makeshift ice axe, a length of rope, a stove and meagre supplies. Yet within a day-and-a-half they had reached the far side of the island and had begun to organise the rescue of their stranded comrades on Elephant Island – "Like men awakened from a long sleep".