Life in Antarctica: Looking back on a season at the Penguin Post Office

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The view from our doorstep. Looking from the accommodation building on Goudier Island to the historic Base A building at Port Lockroy in January 2020.

The last three months have been a strange time for all of us, and certainly not what I’d anticipated for my return from Port Lockroy. Reunions planned with friends and family were tempered by the COVID pandemic response, filtered through window glass and laptop screens, and those “what next” plans I’d made were left on ice. Potential opportunities for future work drifted away over the horizon or sank without trace, and other responsibilities have surfaced in their wake.

So despite an abundance of time that’s been available during the lockdown, it’s been exceptionally difficult to find the right mental space to reflect on my time in Antarctica at Port Lockroy.

Part of that is the challenge of finding the right language to articulate all the experiences, thoughts, emotions, and ideas I felt in Antarctica, and distil down to something palpable, unmasked by superlatives that a place of such outrageous beauty demands. Over the 110 days of our stay, I took thousands of photographs, made several short films and sound recordings, and filled my journal and sketchbook with observations. But still, it sometimes feels as if the whole thing wasn’t quite real.

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The sailing ship Bark Europa, moored up in the back bay under Jabet Peak, was one of the more unusual vessels visiting Port Lockroy during the season.

It’d taken a long time for me to reach Antarctica. I’ve always been drawn to the region, at first through a fascination with the strange and unusual wildlife that make their home on (and under) the ice, then being captivated by stories of exploration and adventure. Growing up in northeast Scotland, the polar ship RRS Discovery, in drydock in Dundee, was practically on my doorstep, and the rough country of the nearby Angus Glens and Deeside served as a training ground for some of the first to venture South.

I studied marine biology at university, holding a vague and undefined idea that it had the potential to take me there as a research scientist or in a support role at a base, however, the events of my life conspired to take me elsewhere. The cost of visiting Antarctica as a tourist was way beyond my reach, so I forgot all about the possibility for a while.

Then, a few years ago, the idea popped up again. My job in environmental education had been made redundant following cutbacks, and after a summer sailing with Draken Harald Hårfagre in Norway, I needed a paying job. I started in the warehouse of a well-known online shopping company*, working 50 hour weeks stocking shelves as they approached their peak-sales period in November. I can honestly say I have never had a less enjoyable job, although my squat and stretch game was on fire.

*That big river in South America. Not the Orinoco.

Driving home one evening, shortly before the anticipated horror of Black Friday/Cyber Monday shopping, I heard a caller on the radio request a song for the team heading to Antarctica to work in the Penguin Post Office for the season. As soon as I was in the door, I’d searched out the UKAHT website and worked out how to apply for the role. This was my way to go South.

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The ice-bound bay filled with brashy floes, making it impossible for zodiacs to land on the island and leaving us isolated.

The goal had crystallised, but it wasn’t a straightforward route to get there. When applications opened the following February, I submitted from Bermuda, days before setting out on a transatlantic sailing voyage. When we arrived in the UK a month later I didn’t get the news I was hoping for, to be part of the 12 people invited to selection, but had an encouraging note from the Ops manager to tell me to keep applying for the role.

In between other opportunities, following selection on my second time around, I got the call to say I’d been successful. I’d just been ashore to chat about moorings in Loch Spelve on Mull, for Irene, and had hopped into my wee tender, untied and pushed off. My phone rang as I was about to start the outboard, so I let myself drift out into the loch to take the call, hoping I didn’t drift out of mobile reception before I got the official nod.

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The modern nissen hut that provided our home for four months, slowly revealed by thawing snow. On arrival, it was a high as the top of the door frame and we dug our way in.
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Collecting bergy ice for a freshwater supply early in the season. Most of our drinking water was provided by visiting ships, but when the ice closed in and ships couldn’t visit, we melted ice.

The thing about the opportunity that had appealed to me most was the prospect of spending an extended period in a location of which most people only get a snapshot glimpse. To be witness to the progression of time, the comings and goings of the wildlife, and the changing season in the far South.

And that was undoubtedly the highlight of my time in Antarctica. Paying heed to changes in my surroundings: noting snowmelt or the scouring effects of excoriating wind; the swirling movement of ice floes riding on the tide; and the march of increasing day length, followed by returning night and star-filled skies as we tilted over the equinox. A muffled boom reverberating through the landscape, felt as a pressure wave in the ears as much as heard, as ice calved and crumbled from the glacier. Sculpted chunks of bergy ice which glowed with a blue luminosity, as if lit from within. There’s an ethereal quality to the place.

Then the more subtle captivating things: the shape and movement of clouds; scintillating sundogs and solar arcs; the feel of the wind, from a gentle caress to a knife-sharp slash, the ever-changing play of light and shadow over the landscape. Moments that leave one consistently undone by the beauty of it all.

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Don’t stand so close to me. A fine example of the projectile defecation of penguins. I believe there are even some papers written on why? and even how far?
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The colony surrounding the Stevenson screen at the highest point of the island.

And of course, the wildlife. The ceaseless cacophony of life in the penguin colony. Watching penguins on the island, getting to know them by their nesting locations, and following the progress of a pair, it was hard not to anthropomorphise. Or to foist a unilateral emotional bond upon them. Their swaying, tottering gait, stumpy little legs and rounded tummy, and naïve inquisitiveness around us seem to recall human toddlers, and invoked a secret desire in me to name them all.

Even so, living amongst penguins for any time, happenings in the colony show us any human connections we suppose to these creatures are tenuous. At first glance they’re putting on a chaotic avian comedy show; curious chicks playing with our buckets and brooms, throwing back their wings and chasing adults for food, always demanding more. Taking to the water for the first time, with none of the natural grace one would expect of a sea creature.

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The blatant thievery and cheating in the colony contributes to soap opera levels of drama.
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The chicks are in equal measures adorable and infuriating, especially if you’re trying to transport a 20kg cylinder of propane from sone side of the island to the other, and the priority is to create minimal disturbance to their activity (mainly napping).

In reality, we watched a wholly unsentimental and more elemental existence: newly hatched chicks huddle in nests constructed with bones from ill-fated siblings of previous years; adults voiding excrement on each other, from nests highest on the rock to those below, sheathbills swooping in to eat the debris; the lurking threat of predators from the skies and the depths. Witnessing the awesome and grotesque cycle of life and death on a daily basis, alternately heartwarming then heartbreaking, always fascinating, is part of the unique Antarctic experience.

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At the creching stage, the chicks become bolder and venture away from nests to form small gangs and await a parent to arrive with a regurgitated krill meal.

Though they demand the most attention, penguins are not the only creatures that leave an indelible mark on the memory. Other birds, sleek Antarctic terns, the colour of low cloud on a soft day, and skuas, ever-observant to opportunities to pillage the penguin colonies. Sheathbills, our curious companions with their only-a-mother-could-love appearance, and monstrous giant petrels, their apparent cruelties to distressing to note here.

The uncanny song of Weddell seals, lounging on an ice floe in the back bay. The lurking menace of leopard seals, conducting secret surveillance of the shallows, waiting to surge ashore and snatch the unwary. A boulder, almost the size of a small island, that yawned deeply and transformed into a bull elephant seal.

On still days, when fog lay like a felt blanket over the natural harbour obscuring views of peaks and pinnacles of Wiencke Island, immediate sounds were dampened, amplifying the roaring silence that lay behind. The raucous colonies of penguins and blue-eyed shags muffled long enough to pick out the saltwater signals of whales taking their breaths in the silky, quicksilver water of the bay; two, no three humpbacks scouting the deep water channel on the inside of Lecuyer Point, or a lone minke making its way between the improbably named islands of Boogie and Woogie.

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Graffiti on the rocks of Goudier Island, left by the sailors and whalers of the Solstrief in 1912, one of the largest factory whaling ships to work Antarctic waters.

Port Lockroy is a rare place in Antarctica, a tiny island where the human story of the continent is writ large. Around us was the evidence of the whalers that followed the ships of the Heroic Age of exploration South, through to Operation Tabarin and the construction of Bransfield House/Base A, at the time when international relations on the ice were strained, and politics pushed to the fore. Then the era of science, where the continent was transformed into a vast laboratory of measuring and monitoring, revealed by the artefacts and oral histories of the museum, to our current-day experiences of expedition tourism and bucket-list travel.

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Base A, the first permanent British base established on the Antarctic Peninsula, and now home to the Penguin Post Office and museum.
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The incongruity of the galley view.

The wealth of stories continued with the people we met throughout the season, both face-to-face and through correspondence delivered to the Post Office. Previous Lockroy team members, experienced field guides and expedition leaders, research scientists, and former and current staff of both the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust and British Antarctic Survey passed through Goudier Island during the season, enriching our understanding of the place and welcoming us to the Antarctic family like we already belonged, allowing us to become part of the ongoing history of the place.

Port Lockroy is reported to be one of the most visited sites in Antarctica, and while this season proved to be far from usual, we still welcomed thousands of people into our small world, and helped them pass on their share of wonder and awe written on the back of a postcard.

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Postcards cancelled and packaged, ready to start their journeys around the world.

Finally, all that remains is to say what a privilege it was to share such a profound experience with an incredible team of people, who started the season as my work colleagues and after four months of living in each other’s pockets, are firmly life-long friends. Sitting together on a golden afternoon by the landing site, once the day’s guests had gone, watching for the blown spray and flashes of tail flukes across the Neumayer Channel, listening to the snapcracklepop of melting icebergs, and toasting our luck with gin gifted by the crew of a superyacht and tonic scrounged from our favourite hospitality manager. Or huddled together in a cuddlepuddle under blankets and duvets to watch a film as sleety rain-lashed windows and storm-force winds shook the very building around us. These are the moments I’ll cherish most.

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The awesome 19/20 season Port Lockroy team. Photo Credit: UKAHT
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An icy evening spotting arcs and sun pillars in nacreous skies and shimmering reflections by the landing site.

Standing on the aft deck of the ship that would take us back to Ushuaia I could feel the undeniable magnetic pull from our island, tucked under the sheer rock and ice of Mount Luigi and the Seven Sisters, then a sudden snap as we rounded the headland and Port Lockroy was lost behind the rise of Doumer Island. I think a little piece of my heart was left behind.

By endurance we sauna.

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It wasn’t actually cold enough to justify all those clothes on that day. Taken as part of a photoshoot wearing our branded gear and items for sale in the shop.

Extracts from this piece were first published as posts on the UKAHT Port Lockroy blog.

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Traversing Schiehallion: Scotland’s Magical Mountain

At 1,038 metres (3,547′) Schiehallion isn’t especially close to Ben Nevis in height, but it is certainly one of the most iconic Munros. The distinctive, near-symmetrical profile of the mountain attracts hikers from both home and away looking to experience the great outdoors, and it’s a great choice for first time Munro baggers.

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The view from the western end of Schiehallion, looking along Loch Rannoch to Rannoch Moor and Glencoe. In clear conditions, it’s possible to pick out Ben Nevis.

Schiehallion

In the heart of Highland Perthshire, close to the very centre of Scotland, Schiehallion has the reputation of being both one of the most mysterious of Scotland’s mountains, and the most measured. The name Sidh Chailleann translates from Scots Gaelic as “the fairy hill of the Caledonians”, and it’s not difficult to find traces of folklore and superstition on the slopes of Shiehallion. Continue reading “Traversing Schiehallion: Scotland’s Magical Mountain”

My Alphabet of Adventures

My favourite travel memories from A to Z shared with the #AlphabetAdventure hashtag on social media.

This year, travel has been on the backburner in a big way, with international flights shut down, and many countries, including my home in the UK, imposing a domestic lockdown to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 and ease pressure on health services over the peak of the pandemic.

Throughout April and early May many travel bloggers shared pictures of their travels on social media with the hashtag #AlphabetAdventures. It was a chance to remind ourselves of the wide, wild world out there, waiting for us to explore once the coronavirus pandemic passes, and relive some memories from our travels. It also gave us the chance to travel vicariously to new destinations while we stay safe at home under lockdown.

Here are my favourite memories, from A to Z: Continue reading “My Alphabet of Adventures”

5 Microadventures You Can Make at Home

Five fun microadventures you can make from your own home, suitable for all ages.

Are you familiar with the idea of microadventures? Adventure isn’t all about faraway locations and uncharted territories. Or about being the highest, furthest, fastest at anything.

It’s about the spirit in which you undertake something. It’s being open to new experiences, approaching things with a curious and inquiring mind, and making your own fun and rewarding challenge. And a microadventure is just that, on a simple, local scale.

And while we’re restricted in the things we can do right now, a new activity in a familiar place can be exactly what you need to feel refreshed and excited, and keep your fire for the great outdoors well stoked.

The simplicity of these ideas also make them an ideal way to introduce adventures to your family, even with very young children, and nurture an appreciation for nature and the outdoors to last them a lifetime. And by keeping them close to home, there’s plenty of opportunities to bail out if things don’t go to plan, or to make a spontaneous change to an everyday routine.

So here are five of my favourite microadventures that don’t mean roaming far from home. Continue reading “5 Microadventures You Can Make at Home”

8 Activities for Adventurers Staying at Home

A list of indoor activities and things to do around the home for outdoor and adventure lovers.

Though we’re encouraged to think of our current situation with the coronavirus lockdown as being safe while we’re at home, there’s no denying if you’re an outdoor type, you’ll inevitably find yourself feeling stuck at home. Denied that usual dose of adventure, there’s a serious risk of an outbreak of cabin fever.

So, given that there’s unlikely to be an immediate cure to our condition, I’ve compiled a list of activities that can bring the outdoors indoors, and help stave off longing aches for the hills, rivers, forests, and beaches for a while longer. They’ll help you stay mentally resilient, and get you prepared to get back out there when the time comes. They’re fun, and virtually all free, or at least affordable, so give them a go!

If you’ve got any of your own tips to share, let me know in the comments below!

Continue reading “8 Activities for Adventurers Staying at Home”

18 interesting facts about the Arctic

A selection of facts about the Arctic you’ll find rather interesting.

While researching ahead of my time in Antarctica, I was continually side-tracked by snippets of information relating to the Arctic, and articles making comparisons between the two polar regions of our globe.  Stories from the rich history of the people who make the region their home, and the explorers seeking new discoveries about the region; the unique ecosystems and wildlife; fascinating geographical phenomena and the spectacular natural beauty of a landscape carved from rock and ice, dark and light.

I’ve long been fascinated by the polar regions, and have travelled widely in the European Arctic.  I accidentally booked a bargain ski break to Finnish Lapland at the end of the polar night*; road-tripped from Tromsø to Kautokeino, Kirkenes, and Nordkapp in the never-setting sun; and sailed southwards from the Norwegian Arctic (ending up in the Algarve), crossing the circle on the way down.  I’ve explored the north coast of Iceland, and the southern tip of Greenland, though whether those constitute the actual Arctic depends on the definition you prefer (see below).

*where I taught myself to ski Nordic-style and discovered the magic of saunas and salmiakki. 

In the process, I’ve uncovered several interesting facts on which to hang my own experience and understanding, and I’m sharing the best of them here.

Continue reading “18 interesting facts about the Arctic”

Three Winter Walks on the Isle of Wight

I’ve been fortunate to spend a few years living and working on the Isle of Wight, and covering some of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the south of England as a Wildlife Ranger.  As days grow shorter and temperatures grow colder, the island’s beaches, creeks, and estuaries seem to look even more beautiful, whatever the weather, and become havens for thousands of overwintering birds.  Without the numbers of tourists that visit in summer, exploring the Isle of Wight in winter often means have beautiful coastal walks all to yourself.

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Continue reading “Three Winter Walks on the Isle of Wight”

15 interesting facts about Antarctica

A series of interesting facts about Antarctica that I uncovered during my research.

Earth’s southernmost continent held us in its thrall long before it was first sighted in January 1820, still just a blank space on the map.  The limitless solitude and silence, the vastness of scale, occupying mythical space in our imagination.  Even now, with the possibility to visit the continent as a tourist, we are drawn by the idea of blankness, the purity of a landscape without the cultural associations of our own, where we can make our own connections and add new pins to the map.

I’ve done a large amount of research recently to familiarise myself with Antarctica: the short human history and tales of exploration; ecosystems and wildlife; the rock and the ice; the striking natural beauty of the continent.  In the process, I’ve uncovered more than a few interesting facts on which to hang my own understanding and experience, and I’m sharing the best of them here.

Continue reading “15 interesting facts about Antarctica”

Photo Journal: Machair Wildflowers on the Isle of Coll

The island of Coll is breathtakingly beautiful.  The sort of place where you leave a little piece of your heart behind when you finally bring yourself to leave.

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The sweeping arc of Feall Bay, on the southwestern coast of Coll
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The beaches of Feall and Crossapol are separated by a fixed dune system rising over 50 metres in places, including a large swathe of flower-rich machair

The turquoise waters of the Sea of the Hebrides wash up on sweeping silver-white beaches backed by lofty, marram-clad dunes, reaching over 50 metres high behind the strand at Feall.  Between the coastal bents and the bogs and bare rock inland, is a rare place; machair, a habitat unique to the Hebrides, the fringes of northwestern Scotland, and western coast of Ireland. Continue reading “Photo Journal: Machair Wildflowers on the Isle of Coll”

What I’ve loved this season: Summer 2019

Where I’ve been and what I’ve done:

Through this summer most of my travels have either been onboard Irene, or around the areas where the ship has been based.  After completing the TGO Challenge, and taking part in an interview for a winter job, I returned to Oban to rejoin the ship.  After a quick turn around, we picked up Kag, our kayaking guide, and a bunch of boats, and headed out to explore the islands of the Inner Hebrides.

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Looking back at Oban from the middle of the Sound of Kerrera

Our first stop was the sheltered water of Loch Spelve, on the eastern side of Mull, to wait out high winds and feast on mussels from the local farm and foraged seaweed.  As I was pottering about in the tender I had a phone call.  I was successful at the interview.  I got the job!  Or more accurately, I was going to be part of the team to do the job.  More about that below.

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Deckhand Dan, possibly the least successful fisherman on Irene.

Once storms abated, we headed through the Sound of Mull and round Ardnamurchan Point to the Small Isles, spotting a couple of minke whales on the way.  We dropped anchor off Eigg, under the imposing An Sgurr, for a couple of nights, and I was fortunate to join the group for a paddle along the east side of the island accompanied by singing seals and diving gannets.  Kag also introduced us to the concept of sea diamonds, which made kayaking in a total downpour seem damply magical.

Back in Oban, we had time for a quick crew turn around and a couple of great nights out, before heading out.  This time we turned southwards, heading for Jura, and the sheltered water of Loch Tarbert, and Islay, dropping the kayakers in near Ardbeg for a paddle round to Port Ellen, with as many whisky stops as they could manage.  On the return leg, we called in by the islands of Oronsay and Colonsay, anchoring in beautiful Kiloran Bay for a barbecue on the beach.

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Irene at anchor in Kiloran Bay, Colonsay.  An extremely damp beach recce, but the weather dried up overnight for a beautiful stay.

At the end of June, I had what felt like my first proper holiday in a very long time.  I spent five days on the Isle of Coll in the Inner Hebrides, and was blessed with the best weather conditions.  A spot of rain on the first afternoon, just enough that I didn’t feel I was missing out while I caught up on sleep after leaving the ship.  Then beautiful sunshine and light winds to cycle around from one end of the island roads to the other, and stopping off at spots around the island to hike, swim, birdwatch and beachcomb.

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The sweeping silver sand beach at Feall Bay, Isle of Coll

At the end of my leave, I returned to Irene in Swansea, to move her round to Cornwall for the final months of the season.  We stopped off at Lundy on the way, anchoring overnight beneath the cliffs.  A 1am wake-up call to move anchor at the turn of tide turned out to be one of the most magical experiences of the voyage, as thousands of Manx shearwaters swirled through the air around us, through the rigging, and called out from their burrows.  A stowaway bird emerged from the hawsepipe the following morning, and I helped her back to the sea.

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At anchor off Lundy in the Bristol Channel on our way between Wales and Cornwall.

We finished our voyage in Newlyn, which became our base for the next month for voyages to the Isles of Scilly and Brittany, and very quickly one of my favourite places.  As a working fishing port, life here lacks the softness and sanitation of nearby coastal villages.  You wouldn’t be wrong to describe the place as rough or gritty, especially after a night out to the Swordfish pub, once considered one of the toughest in the UK, but the richness of the stories I found was compelling.

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Irene of Bridgwater sailing in Mount’s Bay. Photo credit: Penzance NCI
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Irene approaching Newlyn harbour under full sail. Photo credit: Penzance NCI
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Sailing onto the mooring alongside in Newlyn. Photo credit: Penzance NCI

I’d been looking forward to visiting the Isles of Scilly all summer, however weather conditions were not in our favour.  One drizzly grey voyage, and another blown out by an Atlantic storm.  However, the Brittany trip was fantastic, with a few days exploring around Tréguier and Ile de Bréhat, and a wonderful wildlife-filled channel crossing, with common dolphins accompanying the ship from sunrise onward.  The only disappointment was that we arrived back to Newlyn on the very same day a humpback whale was filmed lunge feeding just a couple of miles away, and we missed it.  Check out the awesome photos on the Lone Kayaker’s blog, including one of Irene passing St Michael’s Mount. 

On my next leave, I caught up with the rest of the team for my new job for a couple of days in London to get to know each other better, and for the chance to bombard Lucy, returning for a second season, with hundreds of questions about what to expect.

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Keeping lookout from the top of the lightbox
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Sailing onto our mooring outside Charlestown Harbour.

Back on Irene, we relocated the ship to Falmouth, using it as a base to explore the coast from The Lizard and Start Point, visiting Salcombe, Fowey, and Mevagissey, as well as a favourite anchorage in the Helford River.  With big winds forecast on a couple of days, we also explored the upper reaches of the Fal above Trelissick Gardens.  At the very end of August, we dropped in by the Classic Sail Festival at Charleston Harbour, deep in Poldark country.  So many beautiful boats that I want to sail on.

 

The new job!

So, it’s going to be very different this winter.  I’m extremely excited to share the news that I’ll be heading to Antarctica, to spend the southern summer season working in the Penguin Post Office at Port Lockroy.  I’ll be part of the team helping to run the Post Office and greet visitors to the island, and have the responsibility to monitor the resident penguin population through the season.  I’m beyond overjoyed about it all, though a bit daunted at the prospect of four months on a small island in a remote setting.

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My summer love list:

Books: It’s been difficult to find time to read through the summer, but long train journeys to meet the ship in Swansea and Newlyn were perfect. I read Empire Antarctic: Ice, Silence and Emperor Penguins by Gavin Francis, taking screeds of notes.  I also discovered the fabulous Beerwolf pub/bookshop in Falmouth, and succumbed to temptation, buying a couple of copies of Granta Magazine.

TV Show: When I’m off the ship I can catch up on watching films and TV that I don’t usually get the chance to see.  The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance has me so excited.  I absolutely adored the film when I was young.  And, inspired by my time in Cornwall this summer, I’ve got really into Poldark.  For the traditional sailing ships, not the shirtless scything, honestly.

Clothing: I’ve been living in shorts and flipflops for the past three months.  I don’t think I’ll ever manage to wear proper shoes again…

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Equipment: I think my most used bit of kit through the summer has been a heavy duty drybag with a shoulder strap that I discovered in the magic middle aisle of Aldi.  It’s been perfect for getting back and forward to the ship in the dingy while we’re on a mooring buoy or anchorage.

Food: Have you ever found a restaurant so good that you go back again the following night to finish off the menu?  The Sound Pantry in Newlyn is one of those places. The most delicious home-made Portuguese food for dinner two nights in a row, plus a morning visit to pick up pasteis de nata for our coffee break.

Treats: I spent an afternoon in the galley with our ship’s chef Alex and learned how to make the most fantastic baklava. So good.

What’s next:

These next few weeks are going to be an exciting time, as I prepare for spending the next few months living in Antarctica and working at the Penguin Post Office in Port Lockroy.

I’ve also got a few hiking trips planned, including the Great Corset Caper, where I’ll join with a bunch of awesome women to take on Pen y Fan, in the Brecon Beacons, wearing period costume.  I have to admit, I’m very nervous about it, particularly the corset.

Thanks for following These Vagabond Shoes.  You can keep up to date with my adventures on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.  And look out for plenty of penguin facts to fill the time while I’m out of contact down south.

Read about my spring adventures here.
I’d love to hear about what you’ve been up to this season, or plans you have for the season ahead.
Let me know in the comments below.

 

This post contains affiliate links.  If you purchase through my link, I will make a small commission* at no additional cost to you.  These help me to continue to run this site, providing tips and advice, and sharing stories from my adventures.  Thank you for supporting me.

*Maybe enough for a coffee.  Not enough for a yacht.