A dip in the Antarctic
Antarctica is a weird place in which to remember things my mother told me and recall her tidying frenzies. “Because a visitor’s coming,” she’d say whenever I questioned her furious fluffing of cushions, sweeping and dusting. It meant one thing to a small boy: another Mrs Bucket-like aunt was expected for tea and would inevitably remark, “My, how he’s grown” after inflicting a super-critical inspection.
I blame a boardwalk across the ice, swept in advance of our arrival, for extracting this recollection from the deep recesses of memory. After clambering from rubber Zodiacs, our gumboots crunch snow and ice on yet another shore excursion but, this time, we’re going to be meeting people. The only humans we’ve seen since our nine-night cruise began in Ushuaia, Argentina, have been fellow passengers and crew.
Slabs of floating ice against backdrops of snowy peaks satisfy our curiosity about the frozen continent. We gawk at penguins by the thousand, seals by the dozen, sometimes as they drift past on slabs snapped off gigantic icebergs, and the occasional whale.
And then there’s the swim. “You don’t go to Antarctica to swim,” scoffs a testy passenger as we stand at the ship’s rail. It shouldn’t be a surprise, but clearly it is. Reminders in itineraries to bring swimsuits have been disregarded by those who’ve dismissed the idea as a corny joke. I can’t blame them because, after returning home, I’m accused by friends of inventing my account of a swim. But Deception Island proves no deception for passengers on many a cruise. The water, in 680m Mount Achala’s shadow, is mostly cold, with pockets of heat highlighting the volcanic origin of hot springs. The experience is more dip than swim and getting in and out is bone-chilling.
On tiny Goudier Island, with its splendid harbour at Port Lockroy, we trudge towards a small building flying the union jack. The timber structure, appropriately weather-beaten, boasts guttering in pillar-box red, con- trasting with white window frames. Port Lockroy, one of five British research stations in Antarctica, is visited by many a cruise ship. The freshly swept boardwalk leads to a front door. A plaque reads: “Welcome to Antarctic Treaty Historic Site No 61 — British Base A, Port Lockroy”. Winston Churchill’s World War II government established it as a weather station to “protect British interests”.
We don’t need passports anywhere in Antarctica, but a few passengers carry theirs and get them stamped “Port Lockroy, Antarctica, Antarctic Heritage Trust”. The stamp is illustrated, predictably, with a penguin. “Stamping passports helps us beat the monotony,” a resident scientist confides. He says cruise ship visits, sometimes two a day, sometimes none for weeks, are welcome breaks and “a chance to interact with new people”. The staff, three women and one man, are on one-year contracts. Inside the little building it’s delightfully warm. Closed doors keep out the distinctive fishy smell of penguins, an estimated 2000 of which surround the building.
A gift shop occupies the front room, with made-inChina mementos, tea towels and books. Most people buy, and quickly write, souvenir postcards. Postage stamps say “British Antarctic Territory”. Airmail departs on a Falkland Islands-bound supply ship, then by air to London to be tipped into regular airmail. “Australia? Allow a month,” I am advised. And three weeks to the day after airmailing a postcard home, it’s delivered to my Sydney address.
Behind closed doors are scientific laboratories, accommodation and recreational quarters. A couple of rooms form a museum depicting the lives of British explorers and scientists. Displays include old boots and boats. Detritus, transformed into exhibits, encompasses old Marmite pots, Lyle’s golden syrup cans, tinned steak and kidney and beef brisket and even canned butter. If you don’t like tinned food, clearly you would not be suited to Antarctic research.
After two hours we reboard the Zodiacs and wave goodbye. As soon as we’re out of sight, that boardwalk is no doubt being swept in advance of another ship’s arrival.
A bone-chilling swim on Deception Island, above; the British research station at Port Lockroy, Goudier Island