Seafarers send warm missives from the coldest continent – but only once the postmistress has arrived, writes Catherine Marshall.
The postmistress is hitching a lift to the most southerly post office in the world. She’s cruised into Port Lockroy on the Antarctic Peninsula and found her landing point sealed with fast ice. But the ship can’t hang around for summer to thaw out the icy obstacle, and Britton Adele Jackson has a job to do: she must raise the flag, prepare the postage stamps, take museum artefacts out of winter storage – and clean penguin poo from the path leading up to Port Lockroy’s bright red Penguin Post Box.
But there’s help close at hand: Lindblad’s National Geographic Orion, which has also just arrived in the bay. We’re the first tourist vessel of the season, and we, too, are finding it tricky navigating our way through unthawed ice. But we’ve got time to kill – and postcards to post – and so Adele and her colleague, Lucy, transfer to our ship, eat a hot meal with us, chat to passengers – and then, in the twilight, take a Zodiac to the far end of Goudier Island, their home for the next four months.
I stare from behind the glass window of my own heated cabin and watch as the women (with the help of Lindblad’s expedition leader, Peter Carey) drag sled-loads of supplies up a snowy hillock, then disappear into the whiteness.
It’s long after dark (and I’m deep in dreamland) by the time they reach their base; they’ve trekked across sea-ice that within days will thaw out into a bay, dug snow compacted during the long winter to make a path to their doorway, lit the burner inside to warm themselves before they can finally flop into bed and get some rest.
Their first customers arrive next morning. It’s us, the passengers from the National Geographic Orion. Like Adele and Lucy, we trek across land then sea ice then land, skirting deep crevasses and avoiding thin ice. But where they did it in darkness, we make the journey in full daylight, the sun flaring off the snow-crusted landscape and so guiding us on our way.
You’d think the postmistress and her assistant had been here all year, for they serve customers with ease, stamping the Antarctic postmark on their cards, ringing up purchases and answering questions about their work here. Soon they’ll be joined by another two women, and the four of them will run this post office, shop and museum during Antarctica’s summer season, serving around 18,000 cruise ship passengers. There’ll certainly be no time to get lonely.
I sit down at the table in the cramped post office and write my missives. My husband takes a photo of me as I drop them into the post-box. From here they’ll be hauled aboard another tourist ship and will sail back across the Drake Passage to Ushuaia or Punte Arenas. From there they’ll fly all the way to London, and will be sent onwards to their final destination.
It’s an effort almost as big as the one Adele and Lucy had to make to get to Port Lockroy. But the postcards’ recipients – my children and friends in Australia, my mother-in-law in South Africa – will receive a memorable keepsake, a missive from the world’s most southerly post office. TTW
Catherine Marshall was a guest of Lindblad. Photos © Catherine Marshall