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Monday, 24 December, 2001, 01:39 GMT
Antarctica's big draw
Port Lockroy, Bas
Port Lockroy: A beautiful place to visit
By Christine McGourty, science correspondent, in Antarctica

During World War Two, Britain sent a secret military expedition to the Antarctic to establish a base and look out to watch for the enemy.

It's pretty basic here. There's no power and we melt snow to get water

Jo Hardy, Port Lockroy post office
The base, at Port Lockroy, has now been renovated by a team from the British Antarctic Survey - and it has become the continent's most popular tourist destination.

"It is right in the hub of the Antarctic tourist industry and when we realised an awful lot of ships were coming here, we decided the base had to be taken care of," said Dave Burkett, who led the restoration work. "And what better way to do that than to establish a permanent base for the summer."

Port Lockroy, sited on the Antarctic Peninsula, is a spectacular natural harbour, surrounded by snow-covered mountain peaks. It is relatively easy for cruise ships to gain access and the scenery and the large penguin colony are a big draw for the tourists.

Summer dancing

As a bonus, the base also hosts Britain's most southerly public post office and shop - run this year by Jo Hardy and Kenn Bak - which help to pay for Port Lockroy's upkeep.

Port Lockroy, BBC
Christine McGourty with those gentoo penguins
"There were about 7,000 tourists last year and we're expecting up to 10,000 this year," said Jo. "It's pretty basic here. There's no power and we melt snow to get water. So it's nice to get a chance to go on board the cruise ships for a shower now and again.

"I've bought a few books to read, but I really don't think there will be a lot of time to myself. There's a lot of maintenance to do on the base and a lot of painting. And Dave's got his wind-up gramophone this year, so I'm sure they'll be teaching me to tango."

Jo will be responsible for the post office, which first operated in 1943. It was set up as part of Operation Tabarin, the secret British military expedition to the Antarctic.

Wartime tea

One of the few surviving members of that original nine-man expedition, Gwion Davies, said that posting letters from Port Lockroy was a way of establishing the territory as British.

But the men's main priority was fighting the cold, not the Germans, he said.

Map, BBC
He told the BBC: "If they had come, we couldn't have done much about it. If they'd come in a battleship, we'd have been helpless. We didn't have a lookout or anything like that and if they'd turned up, we'd have offered them a cup of tea I think. They'd be cold too," he laughed.

The base built by the Operation Tabarin team marked the start of Britain's permanent presence in Antarctica.

It was to be one of a series of bases set up along the Antarctic Peninsula - they were handed over to the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey after the war and the Port Lockroy base, on Goudier Island, is now operated by the British Antarctic Survey.

The staff who run it for the season also run an environmental monitoring programme to study whether the tourists are disturbing the rookery of gentoo penguins. So far, there has been no discernable impact on their breeding success.

The BBC's Christine McGourty
"The team only face minor repairs this year"
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