As I tried to get ashore a penguin was blocking my path. It paused for a while looking me up and down. Following strict instructions I made space so that the path from sea to nest was clear but it refused to move. It wasn’t at all bothered by me – more quizzical as if trying to work out what type of penguin I was. After a while it must have remembered that it had an egg to look after and fishing to do and went on its way, the distinctive waddle making me smile. Having negotiated the penguin issue I now had time to take in Port Lockroy.
To defeat the Nazis Port Lockroy (and other bases) were built by the British. Operation Tabarin. A secret British Antarctic expedition during WW2 which was going to help the allies win the war one Antarctic base at a time. It seems staggering that with all the active fronts in the war somebody managed to persuade high command that denying safe anchorages to enemy patrols in Antarctica was going to make all the difference. Yes I know that France, North Africa, Italy and Singapore are quite active fronts but really, it’s Antarctica that could tip the balance in the war …
What began with Operation Tabarin became the British Antarctic Survey and although Port Lockroy was closed as an active base in 1962 it was recognised as an important historical site in 1994 and is managed today by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust. There is also a post office with mail being sent via cruise ships to the Falkland Islands and from there flown to the UK via Brize Norton for sorting by Royal Mail. Like many others I couldn’t resist sending a postcard home – posted 17th December, arrival 17th January – not bad for a postcard all the way from the other side of the Atlantic.
A small team manage Port Lockroy over the summer but the facilities are basic – camping but in huts. Passing cruising ships offer the chance to get a shower and do laundry.
The original huts are still there, preserved, from the pictures on the wall, to the tins of food. It looks like they have just popped out and will be back at any minute.
For the people who over wintered here in these basic conditions you wonder how they felt as the boat left and the sun sunk below the horizon in the knowledge that it wouldn’t be seen again in a very long time and if anything went wrong there was no chance of rescue. It takes a certain type of person to accept such a challenge – to be that remote with no contact from the outside world. Weather conditions dictate when the isolation will end, ice gives way to sea and ships can anchor once again.
For those that accepted the challenge and endured an Antarctic winter the wild, stark beauty can be beguiling, drawing people back again and again. As I made my way back to the boat I wondered about these brave souls who at the height of the war were sent south so far from safety and so far from home.