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Why Kirsty is taking on the world's coolest postal job

By Alex Spencer

Kirsty Dick from Madingley will be spending six months at Port Lockroy. She is seen with, right, Camilla Nichol, chief executive, UKAHT. Picture: Keith Heppell
Kirsty Dick from Madingley will be spending six months at Port Lockroy. She is seen with, right, Camilla Nichol, chief executive, UKAHT. Picture: Keith Heppell

Each year a chosen few head to the wilds of Antartica to run the world's most remote post office. But there's a lot more to this job than keeping track of some parcels and letters as Cambridge's Kirsty Dick is about to find out.

Nissen hut living quarters at Antarctic heritage site on Port Lockroy
Nissen hut living quarters at Antarctic heritage site on Port Lockroy

Who would apply to work in a post office at the end of the earth on an island the size of a football pitch which is home to just four other people and 2,000 penguins?

It turns out the job is more popular than you would expect, with a gruelling selection process that whittled down the 250 applicants to just five people.

They will be setting off at the end of this week to Antarctica where they will run the world’s most remote post office, maintain some historic huts and live among a colony of penguins. The intrepid travellers will spend four months working at Port Lockroy, a UK Antarctic Heritage Trust site on a remote island off the Antarctic Peninsula, from November to March.

The group will also be manning the living museum that is Bransfield House, which allows visitors to learn about the early days of British science and exploration in Antarctica on a island no larger than a football pitch.

The team heading to the UKAHT site in Port Lockroy, Antarctica
The team heading to the UKAHT site in Port Lockroy, Antarctica

The hut is the former living quarters of scientists who worked in the Antarctic in the 1950s and 1960s. It has been preserved by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust as a museum to give visitors an insight into the important work done there and the conditions the British scientists lived in.

Kirsty Dick, 24, of Madingley Road, Cambridge, is one of the lucky five who made it through the selection process to win a place on the trip.

She said: “I feel really privileged to have been chosen. I heard about the job four years ago when my brother told me about a friend who had just graduated and was going to work in a post office in Antarctica. That is something that sticks with you as pretty cool job description.So when I finished my degree I Googled it and discovered it still existed so, I applied.

“It is quite a unique opportunity to get to work and live in Antarctica without a scientific background, as I studied history.

The Antarctic heritage site, Port Lockroy
The Antarctic heritage site, Port Lockroy

“I was surprised when I got an email back to say I had been whittled down to the final 12.”

This year’s intrepid, Antarctic explorers, who include three Britons, a Finn and a Frenchman, will be responsible for running the Port Lockroy post office, managing the island’s museum and monitoring the resident gentoo penguin colony.

Situated on the tiny island, Port Lockroy has been home to explorers, whalers, scientists and sailors who have made vital contributions to Antarctic history. It offers some of the most dramatic mountain and glacier scenery on the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula and is a much-loved visitor landing site.

The museum in Bransfield House, which even has its own gift shop, allows visitors to learn about the early days of British science and exploration in Antarctica. It attracts around 18,000 visitors a year on cruise ships but the team living there have no running water, no fresh food and have to live in a bunkhouse in a Nissen hut. They are stuck together working, eating and sleeping 24 hours a day.

The 12 finalists who applied for the jobs this year put through their paces to see who would be able to cope with the punishing demands of living in the Antarctic in a bunk house with four other people and no return boat for four months.

Camilla Nichol, chief executive of UKAHT, based at Madingley Road in Cambridge, said: “It’s small living quarters and you are there for four months with four other people. We have to socially engineer so that we put compatible people together or people who can cope with those conditions. If they do have problems they have to be mature enough and have the emotional intelligence to deal with them.

“After three years of doing this, I can see what kind of characters will work out but on the selection day we bring together a dozen people at an outdoor centre in Northamptonshire, get them to do group tasks and individual tasks, physical ones and mental ones. We keep them up late and make them do presentations. We put them under pressure and tire them out and we put them in little groups and see how they work together and co-operate.

“People do get tired and fractious because you are not alone much and it is a tiring life – everything is very physical.At the end of the day you have to have dinner together and sleep in the same room. It is about finding good, strong, resilient and cheerful characters who have a good work ethic and a passion for heritage and the environment.”

However, Kirsty doesn’t have any worries about getting along with the rest of her team. She said: “It still feels slightly surreal that in a week and a bit I will be setting off with these four people for four and a half months. But as part of the training we spent 10 days together and it was a lot of fun. They are a great group. It quickly became clear this was going to be absolutely fine.

“At the moment I’m in a world of merino wool and socks and how many pairs of thermal underwear am I going to bring. I’m just taking clothing and a good camera and a very full address book for all the postcards I have been asked to send by my friends and family.”

Sending postcards is a big deal for visitors to the island as it is the southernmost post office in the world. Last year’s Port Lockroy team hand-cancelled more than 70,000 stamps on postcards destined for over 100 countries. Cruise ships setting sail from the Falkland Islands or Argentina regularly make stops at the island for passengers to visit the museum and send a card. In return for regaling the visitors with stories of British science on the island, the team is often rewarded with access to a hot shower and some non-tinned food.

“I’ve seen some of the food they are packing for us,” says Kirsty. “It is seemed like a lot of Fray Bentos pies and tins of fruit cocktail. But we will be able to bake some bread on the island so I’m looking forward to that.”

Port Lockroy is considered an exceptionally dangerous place to work because of the hardships of having no running water, the need to dig paths in the snow for visitors and lift lots of food and water supplies, and the isolation from healthcare.

Camilla said: “My main priority is to make sure everyone comes home safely. You are a long way from hospital but all the ships that visit have doctors. However, you may have to wait two days for a shop. In the event of an emergency you have to be able to stabilise a casualty so we do a lot of emergency drills.”

Apart from running the museum, post office and gift shop, chores on the island include monitoring the penguin colony which moved there in the mid 1980s due to climate change. Working with penguin scientists at the British Antarctic survey, the team receive specialist training to survey the nesting penguins and their chicks to better understand the impact of environment change at this unique visitor site.

And the team has to maintain the buildings, which can be difficult due to the habits of some of the local birds. “They love the putty that we use to keep the windows in because it is made of linseed,” says Camilla. “So you have to watch out for them eating or the windows could fall out!”

Kirsty, who went to The Leys School in Cambridge, says her family were surprised at first about her choice of post-university job.

“They have had some time to get used to it now because I heard I had been successful in May.

“We are quite a well-travelled family so they have taken it in their stride. My dad travels for work and my brother is going away for six months on Saturday. So they are going from quite a full nest to a pretty empty nest,” she says.

Kirsty already has plans for how the team will celebrate Christmas. “I’m up for some Antarctic baking. You could have a three-course meal of great variety. It’s going to be a creative Christmas. We may celebrate Burns Night too, but I’m not sure how Argentinian customs feel about tinned haggis...”

This year’s team

• Heidi Ahvenainen: Originally from Finland, this will be Heidi’s first time in Antarctica and she’s thrilled to be base leader.

• Hannah Johns, from the UK, is returning to Port Lockroy for her second consecutive season.

• Sally Owen is originally from the UK but now living in the Falkland Islands. Sally is returning to Port Lockroy for a third time this year.

• Kirsty Dick, from Cambridge, is currently working part-time for UKAHT helping to prepare for the Port Lockroy season 2018-19. This will be her first time in a polar region.

• Guillaume de Remacle, who is originally from France, will be enjoying his first polar experience.

About Port Lockroy

Port Lockroy (British Base A) is situated on Goudier Island in the Antarctic Peninsula. It was the first permanent British base in Antarctica established by a secret naval operation during the Second World War. It became Britain’s first wintering science station in the Antarctic and operated until its closure n 1962. After a survey of all the abandoned scientific bases in Antarctica in 1994 it was recognised for its historic significance. Port Lockroy was designated Historic Site and Monument No. 61 under the Antarctic Treaty in 1995. The buildings were restored in 1996 by a team from the British Antarctic Survey and have since been open to visitors during the Antarctic summer ever since. UKAHT took over the running of Port Lockroy in 2006. It is one of six historic sites cared for by UKAHT on the Antarctic Peninsula, and is the only one to have staff regularly based there each season.

About United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust

The United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust (UKAHT) exists to advance the preservation, enhancement and promotion of Antarctic heritage and to engage, inform and inspire a global audience. The UKAHT is a UK based charity dedicated to promoting Antarctic heritage and this is achieved through the care and conservation of historic buildings and artefacts and delivering and supporting a range of innovative programmes. All sale proceeds from the shop enable the UKAHT to continue their conservation and awareness programmes.

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