Petermann Island, 19 March 2004
“I don’t like plaque, but I like this one…” said Ben, the dentist, as we struggled to move our wheelbarrow between the rocks before crossing an icy patch to the steeper terrain beyond.
What was Ben talking about and why were we pushing a wheelbarrow in the Antarctic??
The story starts way back in the early 1900’s with a Frenchman by the name of Jean-Baptiste Charcot. Described by Captain Scott as the “polar gentleman”, Charcot took his first expedition aboard Francais to the Antarctic and explored much of the Peninsula from 1903-05, and it was this expedition that is responsible for many of the place names in the area. It was also this expedition that discovered Port Lockroy, which celebrates its centenary this year.
Five years later during the second voyage South (1908-1910), aboard Pourquoi Pas?, the ship spent the winter here at Petermann Island. During their time here, a shelter for meteorological instruments was built on top of a small rise named Megalestris Hill. On November 23rd 1909, as the expedition prepares to leave Petermann, the hut is demolished and in its place Charcot said “we build a cairn, surmounted by a signal and supporting a large leaden tablet on which are engraved the names of those taking part in the Expedition”.
This “large leaden tablet” was the reason we were now in the process of inventing a brand new sport of “extreme wheelbarrowing”. Let me explain…
In 1994, the French government requested that the plaque should be removed so as to be displayed in a museum. The British, stationed at what was then called Faraday (but is now called Vernadsky and run by the Ukrainians) obliged as Faraday was only a short boat journey from Petermann Island. Subsequently, an exact replica of this plaque had been made and the intention was to site it on the same cairn as the original had been almost 100 years ago.
And so it was that a team led by Rick Atkinson and comprising of Ed McGough, Dave Wattam, Ben Molyneux and Jane Nash was put ashore by RRS Ernest Shackleton to complete this task.
Armed with all manner of paraphernalia, Rick, Ed and Doctor Jane went on ahead and were soon at the top of the hill. Meanwhile, Dave and Ben were tasked with bringing up all the bags of aggregate and cement needed to concrete the plaque into place. They were making good progress until they were stopped by what would later be described as a “yawning chasm” but was in fact a small fissure in the rocks. The wheelbarrow had to be abandoned at this stage and with the help of Ed and Doctor Jane we had soon carried all the bags to the top.
Fortunately the weather was reasonably kind with no rain or snow, but a brisk breeze kept us from overheating! The cairn had not faired well over the last few years and had to be rebuilt but several carefully selected rocks soon turned a pile of rubble into a bastion of strength, fit to withstand the worst that the Antarctic winter could throw at it.
Rick had drawn the short straw of carrying the plaque itself to the top of the hill. It wasn’t particularly small, and being made of lead it weighed in at a chunky 30kg. However, with the concrete mixed, it was now time to site the plaque and fix it into position. All hands quite literally mucked in, pushing the concrete into all the gaps in the rocks and around the back and sides of the plaque. With this done all that remained was to ensure we took all our stuff with us and return to the old Argentine refuge on the shore where some of the Shackleton crew were waiting to return us to the ship.
Above: Left - The Petermann Plaque Posse (Clockwise from bottom left: Ed, Ben, Rick, Dave). Right - The plaque in all its glory. Click the images to enlarge them.
Getting down was much easier and quicker than going up - mainly due to the fact that we didn't have to carry several kilos of sand and cement and a large lump of lead! As Dave and Doctor Jane manhandled the trusty wheelbarrow back over the rocks, the penguins looked on with bemused interest but were wholly unconcerned with these bizarre goings-on.
Above: Left - Rick's verdict: "Job's a good un!". Right - The Plaque Party and ship's crew outside the Argentine refuge. Click the images to enlarge them.
So it was "mission accomplished" and time to return to the ship to congratulate ourselves on a job well done.
Charcot and his men had lived on Petermann Island for over nine months "...amid snow and fog, we have lived through the tiresome monotony of an almost continual gale, and have been through hardships and sufferings, but we have accomplished our task without quailing".
We too had accomplished our task and somehow I think that the man himself would have approved.
References taken from "The Voyage of the Pourquoi Pas? - The Journal of the Second French South Polar Expedition, 1908-1910" by Jean Charcot (ISBN: 0-903983-75-3)