A dip in the Antarc­tic

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - CHRIS PRITCHARD

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

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