Footeloose

Antarctica

Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, driest continent on earth. Yet explorers and adventurers have been magnetically drawn to it ever since it became reachable. These days many tourists visit but also, every year, hundreds of people work at the various bases on this inhospitable frozen wasteland. If you visit Antarctica you will be forever changed.   

Introduction to “Crests and Troughs of an Antarctic Voyage”

So how did I get so lucky as to go to Antarctica? I’m married to a helicopter pilot, Dudley Foote and he got offered the job of heading up the Titan Helicopter Team, who assisted with the “takeover” at the SANAE (i.e. South African National Antarctic Expedition) base at the end of 2011. To my eternal amazement and gratitude, I was given the ‘job’ of ‘fireguard’ and allowed to accompany him!

The SANAE base is never uninhabited. 10 brave souls over-winter every year and at the end of each year the SA Agulhas sails down from Cape Town to Antarctica, bringing the new team, as well as ensuring that they have everything they need for the dark winter months, when no-one can get to them. A maintenance team, Oceanographers, Geomorphologists and others also go down to take advantage of the summer months. The whole trip, leaving from Cape Town at the beginning of December and arriving back there at the end of February, depending on the weather and ice build up etc., averages about 2 ½ months, of which the time spent at the base is about 1 month.

I wrote about our experience in journal form – writing almost daily – in my other blog http://janesfooteprints.blogspot.com

For those of you who have plenty of time to read/armchair travel, I’ve re-posted it here.

At the end of this adventure, photos were generously shared, but only a few put their names on their photos. I’m acknowledging and thanking all those I can think of whose photos I’ve added to this post: Janneman Erasmus, Ulwin Hoffman, Amy Weeber, Amy Harding-Goodman, Hanlie Gous, Natheer Tofa, Beatrice van Eden, Angelo Sauer, Tjaart Joubert….apologies to anyone I’ve left out!

I’ll be posting the highlight experiences in separate blogs in the sub-heading:

“A Red Letter Day in Antarctica”

”A ball at Crystal Palace – not a fairy story.”

 

 

Crests and Troughs of an Antarctic Voyage: 8 December 2011 – 3 March 2012

Part 1: No Ice, Part 2: Pack Ice, Part 3: Ice Shelf, Part 4: SANAE IV, Part 5: Final leg

PART 1: NO ICE

Day 1 Thursday 8th December 2011

 

We are on board, on deck and the excitement is palpable. But… the dock-hands are on strike and until this is resolved, we’re not going anywhere. Finally at 4pm, 2 hrs late, a tug nudges our stern around. We ease out of the harbour, waving goodbye to the Lilliputian well-wishers on the dockside.

Rough seas have been predicted and soon we are rocking and rolling along in the 4-5 metre swells. I’m wearing my magnetic arm bands so am confident that I won’t get seasick. D has never been sick so he doesn’t take anything. During the Captain do’s and don’ts briefing, a woman rushes out. Someone’s thrown up in the passage too. We’re still okay and enjoy a roast chicken dinner, with waves sloshing against our porthole window. We’re rocked to sleep in our bunks.

Day 2 Friday 9th December 2011 

We both wake up headachy and queasy but try to convince ourselves that we’ll be fine. Our cabin, although lovely and roomy, has an old sanitary system, no porthole and the air-con doesn’t work.

Maybe this is why we’re feeling ill. We have breakfast. First I’m sick and then after the lifeboat drill, D is too. Turns out many who aren’t normally sick, even crew, have been – a different swell? Who knows…. we skip meals and spend the whole day miserably on our bunks. It’s still light at 8.30 pm and I do my first brisk walk on the heli-deck – 30 laps, 20 minutes – boring, but its exercise and I feel better.

Day 3 Saturday 10th December 2011 

We are up early and seem to have our ‘ sea legs’ i.e. we stagger like drunken sailors, legs akimbo, knees working like shock absorbers.  I revise the engineer’s First Aid Excel spreadsheet list. After breakfast,  SANAP (South African National Antarctic Programme) gives us an overview of who they are and what they do on Marion, Prince Edward, and Gough islands, and the SANAE IV base at Antarctica. You can read more about it here: www.sanap.org.za  All have been serviced by the SA Agulhas since 1978. Read more about the SA Agulhas history here:  https://www.environment.gov.za/sites/default/files/docs/publications/SA_agulhas.pdf This is SA Agulhas 1’s last voyage and for this reason there are 3 journalists among the 76 passengers, as well as the Titan helicopter crew, oceanographers, scientists, radio technicians ,  engineers, geomorphologists (they  say, unlike geologists, they have personalities!) etc. The crew numbers 45. SA Agulhas II (116,000 Euros!) is nearly complete, and is scheduled to do its maiden voyage from Finland to Cape Town in January 2012. We go up to the bridge. No-one is gripping the very small ‘steering wheel’ – it’s on auto pilot. The latest print-out shows that, unlike last year when there was no pack ice, this year there is 1000 kms of it to get through to the ice-shelf, where the off-loading happens. I do 40 laps before dinner.

Day 4 Sunday 11th December 2011 

I’m beginning to see what D means about monotony on board….luckily there are things to look forward to;  breakfast 7.30, church 9, the goodies that appear as if by magic in our little kitchen at 10 and 3 (this am doughnuts –some with cream), a SANAP resources meeting 1 (about conserving water, energy and fuel at SANAE, and dinner 6.30. At 3, ‘ouma en oupa sit op die stoep in die son en drink koffie’ (Dudley’s remark!) i.e. – we enjoy Milo and cookies up on the heli-deck in the sun. It’s not very warm though and we don’t stay long. We see a few birds including an albatross and it is wonderful to watch it gliding along not flapping its wings at all, the updraft of the waves giving it lift. I do 40 laps with a delicious aroma wafting up through the vents. We have dinner; roast lamb and hot mud pudding….soon we might be too fat for our clothes? We are into the roaring 40’s now and it is getting rougher and colder, down to 11 deg C outside. I take a seasick pill just in case. We’re being productive – D’s making slide shows and I’m writing blogs (Thailand and Antarctica) and sorting photos. Lots of people want to learn bridge, so we’ve passed on our computer Easy Bridge programme so they can learn the basics.

Day 5 Monday 12th December 2011 

Touch wood we are both still feeling fine but I take another pill just in case. At breakfast we hear that it is now below 5 deg C on deck. The sea is a lot rougher and the ship shudders when the prop turns in mid-air. Meetings: Titan’s Safety briefing at 8, SANAP’s safety and orientation re SANAE at 9 – VERY interesting; we see photos of the SANAE IV base perched on the top of a 210 metre high mountain – it looks amazing, but is apparently much more impressive when you see it for real. I type up another Excel spreadsheet for the engineer. D‘s group leaders’ meeting at 10.30; he reports that they were told that we should reach the ice pack on Wednesday night or early Thursday, and although the pack ice has started to break up, we will probably only get to the ice shelf around Christmas. Another SANAP lecture at 1 on Waste Management at SANAE.  I don’t do my laps because it is too rough and cold – just a quick trot up to the bridge to check the waves from up there. At 4 I go on a tour of the engine room which is fascinating. This ship’s engines have to be heated rather than cooled.

Day 6 Tuesday 13th December 2011 

It’s calmed down again so I do my laps after breakfast. It’s wonderfully fresh and there is a pair of beautiful Pintado petrels gliding to and fro. 3 hours till lunchtime…. one of the things on the menu is oxtail with courgettes and deep fried potatoes, one of the many different kinds of potatoes that have been on offer; mashed, roast, wedges, Princess, Wagon Wheel, Chateau – so far! I do a bit more typing for John, and D & I wash safety jackets. Lunch and then a SANAP meeting on environmental  don’ts; don’t take any plants there – I’m thinking ‘Who would?’ and then hear that one of the previous over-wintering teams took in a dagga plant and grew more to smoke it there! This is followed by a Public Works Dept talk….and now it is 4 hrs 30 mins till dinner.

I’m reading The Voyages of Captain Scott and D has just finished South by Shackleton. What we are doing, and even the over-wintering team, is mamby-pamby stuff. Man, those men were tough. Here we sit in our cosy 21 deg C cabin – and the SANAE base will be about the same – and there they were camped on the ice in tents. We will go to SANAE by chopper and our supplies will be transported on the cat-train. Scott and his men walked up to 20 miles a day, day after day (except when they were confined to their tents by blizzards), into unknown territory, up mountains, over crevasses (often falling in) pulling loaded sledges. They endured the most appalling weather with shelter that was basic to say the least….and D and I are hoping to avoid the ‘dunking ceremony’ that is supposed to be a kind of initiation for all those who haven’t been to Antarctica before. While watching our two young pilots doing their exercise routine down in the hangar (to see if I would be able to join in – I think not) I see guys building the ‘swimming pool’. They fill it with freezing seawater and throw you in. D says he’ll have a heart attack – will they let us off? Seems wimpy to back out…

Day 7 Wednesday 14th December 2011  

The SANAP meeting at 9 is a) about control and management of fuel spills (it is impressive to hear how conscious they are about this) and b) the routes by vehicle and chopper to SANAE – very interesting. These are strictly designated according to elevation and the avoidance of crevasses etc. It is a lot rougher (and yay…we’re still fine and not taking any pills), and so the washing of boots and checking of outer garments to ensure that no seeds or foreign matter goes onto the ice-shelf, is postponed until further notice. Even with this rocking and rolling, things don’t move about on desks or tables, cups don’t fall over, because they stick to the plastic mesh or sheets on these surfaces – yet it is not sticky to the touch – some clever person’s invention.

It’s down to 1 deg C now, and wet on deck, so I have my first go ever on a treadmill in the well-equipped gym instead. I set it at 5 kms per hour and do 30 mins. D keeps me company by doing about 3 mins on the bicycle and sitting on a chair for the rest of the time! We watch Patch Adams – Robin Williams – very good. After dinner, we have our first bridge lesson/game with the two young pilots, Tjaart & Janneman.

PART 2: PACK ICE

Day 8 Thursday 15th December 2011 

We go out onto the deck before breakfast AND SEE OUR FIRST ICEBERG!

We go up to the bridge and there is another one showing up on the radar but we can’t see it with the naked eye. The Ice Captain (who I thought was the Vice Captain!) says we should reach the ice-pack by this afternoon. The cargo off-loading lecture at 9 turns out to be the best so far – the guy brought some humour into it. We go up to the bridge again and see our first Adelie penguins on an ice floe….and then some chin strap penguins…then a humpback whale, lots more birds, including the snowy petrel, a wandering albatross and the southern fulmar,  and then a lone seal. Some people saw 4 killer whales.

More and more lumps of ice float past and there are some bigger ‘bergy bits’ which are bluer, older ice apparently. Everyone on the bridge is keeping an eye out for ‘growlers’; submerged icebergs that can cause damage to the ship. But it is well-equipped for the smaller stuff; twirling blades chop it up before it can get to the propeller.  The sea is much calmer so at 1 we take our boots and other gear to the poop deck for washing and vacuuming. There is hype at dinner and everyone is talking about what they’ve seen. Meanwhile, Shackleton and his men had to endure a winter on their ship, The Endurance, when it got trapped in the ice, and then had to abandon it when it was subsequently crushed. They had no option but to camp on an ice floe, and then keep moving to others as each one broke up under them. All the while they were on the lookout for open water so that they could launch their boats and get onto terra firma so that Shackleton could try to get them all rescued.

Day 9 Friday 16th December 2011 

The ship went bumpity bump in the night as it broke through ice floes. Today the surface looks much more like the pack-ice we’d imagined – slasto-like slabs with not much water in the gaps.

 

But there are some big areas of dark open water and the Ice Captain tells us that the ominous looking weather up ahead could just be ‘water-sky’ i.e. reflection of the dark water up onto the clouds – but could also be snow – apparently it did snow off and on through the night. The ship easily manages the not so thick bits, but it is not an ice-breaker. When we get to thicker ice, the German Polar Stern ice-breaker may have to come to our assistance. Interestingly in our opinion, there are far fewer icebergs, penguins and birds in this region. But we do see a pair of the beautiful black and white Antarctic petrels and the biggest iceberg we’ve seen so far but quite far away. Apparently last year they went past one that was 60kms long! 2 lectures today; a medical one, which is interesting – must ensure we don’t get frostbite, looks very nasty – and then one on communications, which she manages  to make quite interesting…. Then I do my walk on the treadmill and do 45 mins at 5.8 kms an hour, just over 4kms  – while D does our washing! Tonight there is a party in the pub – fancy dress, something beginning with  ‘P’– D and I don’t like dressing up….

Shackleton and his men meanwhile haven’t had a change of clothes in months and months. Miraculously all three boats reached Elephant Island. They were over the moon with land under their feet after all those months.  But Shackleton realized they would never be found on Elephant Island. He left some men there and made for South Georgia with the five men he’d chosen to accompany him. They had nightmare two week journey in their small very inadequate boat, but managed to land safely at a sound in South Georgia. However it became obvious that steep cliffs and glaciers would prevent them getting inland and so they had to launch the boat again and find another bay. Their spirits seem indomitable – even during the worst times they sang. Smoking gave huge comfort.

D turns his white shirt around making a ‘dog-collar’ and goes as a priest and I go as a pilot, wearing his overalls and my Helicopter Seychelles cap. The oceanographers are the most creatively dressed. Jasmine, one of the leaders of the SANAP team, is a Phat Fairy and works magic with her face paints on everyone’s faces.  It is a lively party – the pub closes at 10 but people squirrel away 6 packs behind curtains etc. to continue after that.

Day 10 Saturday 17th December 2011 

There is snow on the heli-deck early in the morning. The slabs are much bigger now but the sea is very calm. We watch from the bridge for ages and then don warm gear and go out onto the monkey deck, where the sound of the steel hull cracking its way through the ice is much more pronounced. It is fascinating watching the cracks appear as we go through it. D takes a couple of movie clips.

A Southern giant petrel swoops back and forth next to the boat. We only see one or two Adelie penguins far off and the boat doesn’t go anywhere near the icebergs we can see. It is very dry – humidity down to 29 – D says the lowest he’s ever seen it. Our skin is so dry.  At 1, one of Titan’s young pilots, Janneman, gives a helicopter safety lecture – this was sprung on him and he does well, especially considering he partied hard last night. We go up to the bridge again – it is mesmerising – we wear dark glasses now. We see a few Adelies, who almost seem to be debating with one another about whether to brave the icy seas or not – they strut this way and that with their little ‘arms’ out. And then the leader plops onto his fat tummy, toboggans to the edge and plunges in, and the others follow. We watch them porpoising along. They are so delightful and humorous. Do they feel the cold at all I wonder and if yes, are they colder in the water or out?

We are so comfortable on the ship….meanwhile Shackleton describes his walk (with two other men – they left the others at the bay, nursing frost-bite, scurvy etc.), across the interior of South Georgia to the whaling station on the other side and it is mind-boggling. They had to negotiate snowfields, glaciers, frozen lakes, waterfalls etc.  Often they walked at night because the snow was colder and therefore harder and still they marvel at the beauty of a moonlit night. All three men felt as if a fourth person was accompanying them and leading them to safety; Shackleton :  “I have no doubt that Providence guided us.” They had virtually nothing left of their material possessions when they got there, “ but in memories we were rich. We had pierced the veneer of outside things. We had ‘suffered, starved, and triumphed, grovelled down yet grasped at glory, grown bigger in the bigness of the whole.’ We had seen God in his splendours, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.”

Day 11 Sunday 18th December 2011 

Church at 9 – numbers have dwindled, from quite a good turn out last week, to 6. I think maybe people are put off by the singing, which is excruciating with no accompaniment and no strong voice to lead. It’s a pity as the minister’s message is good and he certainly knows his Bible. A lot of us go up to the monkey deck to watch a huge iceberg go by. We are snug in our warm gear and with no wind we can safely sail quite close to it, and it is an impressive and lovely sight. The Ice Captain estimates the iceberg to be 1.6 kms long and 40 metres high. We hope it will calve, but this doesn’t happen.

 

At 1 there is another SANAP lecture, the first bit filling us in a bit on where we are and what will happen when we get to the ice-shelf. The ship is finding lots of pools of open water, which they call puddles – there is a Jacques on the bridge, whom D has nick-named Jacques Puddleduck! The ETA has come forward to the 21st. The 2nd part is about emergency procedures at SANAE – vitally important but I see at least one man nodding off! It snows a bit after lunch, reducing the vis.  The outside temperature is   -5 deg and we are about 65 deg south. Not much wild life, only a few birds about, so I treadmill – 6 kms per hour, 4.5 kms, burn over 2500 calories, pulse rate up to 146 – boring….I miss seeing the sea.

I finished South last night and there’s  a queue to read it.

D has decided he must go through with initiation because he is Team Leader but has told the powers that be that I won’t be doing it. I’m relieved but also feel very conscious of being a spoil sport.  King Neptune and his ugly men with face masks and orange work overalls visit us in our cabin after supper and I’m ordered to go into our bedroom and shut the door. D is shoved roughly, face down onto the floor, stepped on, slapped with a paddle (not that hard he says) and shouted at, accused of thinking he is the best Foote of the two Footes, read his rights and told to come to the heli-deck at 2 pm tomorrow. D told the Dr. that I used to be a radiographer (omitted to mention that this was close to 40 years ago!) and to call me if needs help with X-Rays. He calls me to help with a lumbar spine X-Ray. Somehow I manage to recall a few things and we muddle through and get some reasonable images. Luckily nothing seriously wrong with the guy’s back.  I can’t sleep thinking about poor D having to go through this ordeal and wondering again if I should do it.

Day 12 Monday 19th December 2011 

Today’s the day and everyone is apprehensive about what is to come at 2 pm. I ask D again if I shouldn’t do it – he says ‘Leave it alone!’ After breakfast we go up to the bridge to watch a beautiful iceberg float by. The Captain says it is probably dozens of years old, its sculpted shape the result of many tumblings. No lectures today. I study the Operator manual for the X-Ray machine and it is helpful, so if there is a next time we should do better. We get stuck in the ice for the first time and see one lone penguin far away – we think it is probably a juvenile Emperor as it looks too big to be an Adelie. Others see a seal….again we wish we had a porthole. With side thrusting, reversing etc. for 45 mins or so, the ship breaks free. We’re 67 deg south now.  At 2 pm I’m on the deck above the heli-deck, camera at the ready to try and capture D’s ordeal. There are about 50 people lying on their tummies on the deck waiting to be dunked. They’re being splashed with buckets of freezing water – or water is poured down a trouser leg.

Crew members first; they’re tipped backwards head first into the ‘swimming pool’ (only about .75X1.25 X1.00 high), and all the young guys are dunked 9 times. And then suddenly it is D’s turn and I don’t get my gloves off in time to get the shot but thankfully he only gets dunked twice. After that King Neptune breaks eggs over his head, Queen Neptune makes ‘cake’ by mixing flour and other revolting looking stuff into his hair. Then some disgusting mixture is squirted into his mouth. He rinses off a bit in a tub on deck and then he can shower. He comes out squeaky clean and says it wasn’t so bad. It is -2, but the sun is shining and the ship stable so I do 20mins of fast walking on the heli-deck. Then there’s a braai out there. The tension is over and it’s very social. Some Adelie penguins amuse us by coming close to the boat to check us out. We are the aliens in their world. The sun shines till very late.

Day 13 Tuesday 20th December 2011 

We see our first Emperor penguin, swimming in the dark blue water behind the boat. Then he treats us by getting out onto the ice, tobogganing, standing up, preening, looking around – magic!

We also see two lolling, ever so sleek crab-eater seals. We’re making good progress today – finding the channels and ‘puddles’ of water between the vast stretches of ice and they say we should get to the ice-shelf tomorrow. We don’t see any ice-bergs. We attend 2 hours of science lectures –interesting stuff – we don’t nod off! Two delightful oceanographers sit at our Titan table now; both Amy, UCT, and vegetarian;  fey Amy  is a tall, thin flower child, with amazing ringlets, and the bigger Amy has a wonderful laugh. Another oceanographer, Bjorn is in the cabin opposite ours and reminds us of our Rob at that age; laid back, friendly, surfer, long hair, charming….

Day 14 Wednesday 21st December 2011 

We go up to the bridge after breakfast and the Captain says we were making good time until they hit a big piece of ice at about 1 am. I have a vague recollection of a jolt at some point, but it wasn’t scary. For those who were awake it was – the ship tilted quite badly. The ETA is now tomorrow. There is tension as everyone readies themselves. There’s an interesting weather lecture. I go up on the monkey deck. It’s lovely up there in the fresh air– very fresh… – 3 deg C now. It’s higher than the bridge, the highest you can go. Today it’s ‘Christmas cake’ ice – like peaked royal icing. The cloud formations are stunning in the pale blue sky.

 

I saw one seal and two new birds; Wilson’s storm petrel and Southern giant petrel. 4.5 kms  on the treadmill. In the bar in the evening, Amy and Amy expertly construct miniature dream catchers, while sipping glasses of chilled white wine.

Day 15 Thursday 22nd December 2011 

It’s an absolutely magnificent day. The ship is idling along in a big pond of open water. But the ship is further away from the ice shelf than it was yesterday. They struggled all night to find a way through, trying many a lead but cut off by solid ice time and time again. D and his co-pilot do their first flight at 7.30 am – an ice recce with the Captain and a journalist on board. What an awesome start to the flying. They can see the ship from 37 miles away!

After the flight, the Captain seems much more confident of finding a way through and we are only about 36 miles from the shelf. We see a seal and two emperor penguins.  Lots of the delightful Wilson Storm petrels flutter about the boat. They don’t often touch down, but one does, with legs folded under and webbed feet sticking out in front. Apparently they have extra long legs to allow for some subsidence in snow, but if they land on a hard surface they can’t support themselves on straight legs.

PART 3: ICE SHELF

Day 15 Thursday 22nd December 2011 

The ship does get through and after lunch we can see the shelf in the distance and lots of grounded icebergs. There is tension on the bridge and huge excitement on the crowded monkey deck as we near the shelf.

The Polar Stern is next to it. We didn’t need its help after all. We will zig-zag  at a distance until tomorrow morning and then the off-loading will begin.  There is a huddle of curious Adelies checking us out. Emperors too are about, swimming singly or in groups, or waddling around. It has taken us two weeks almost to the hour to get to the shelf.

Day 16 Friday 23rd December 2011 

We are a bit shocked to see how the ship ‘moors’; it’s too deep to anchor and can’t tie up, so it pushes into the ice shelf with its bow and keeps up the pressure to hold it there – doesn’t  seem at all environmentally friendly but in fact it does no damage.

It would be so lovely if we could switch off the engines and drink in the silence….but then we’d also be very, very cold and wouldn’t get any food to eat! We’re at Neumeyer, the German Bukta (=Bay in Norwegian), which is much more user-friendly at 25-30 metres high than the 50 metre South African one, and the Germans allow the heavy off-loading here. It’s another beautiful day but bad weather is coming, so the huge crane on the boat works flat out swinging ‘dozers, caterpillars, skidoos (like snow quad bikes), sledges, containers full of stuff etc. across onto the ice.

The over-wintering team go over in a rope ‘basket’ and get their first feel of what will be their home for 14 months. The rugged, hairy lot who have been at SANAE IV for a year, swing onto the Agulhas for lunch.  We spend ages up on the monkey deck watching the proceedings.

Fey Amy sits up there sewing a badge onto a sleeve for one of the over-wintering team, with her nimble fingers – beautiful long and thin. They call for a helicopter to fly a guy with a very bad tooth to Neumeyer, the German base, where our Dr. and theirs do their best for him – no dentist! It is an 8 min flight inland. For the first time I do my fireguard duty; stand at the hangar doors with a fire extinguisher next to me when the chopper takes off and again when it lands – that’s it! They are gone about an hour and a half. It is so lovely that I decide to do 45 mins walking on the heli-deck, 60 laps. What a backdrop – ice-shelf, icebergs, penguins and I also see a dark back with a small sickle-shaped dorsal fin hump out of the water – I check in a journalist’s lovely book on Antarctic wildlife – it’s an Antarctic Minke whale! A Wilson storm petrel swoops back and forth, closer and closer, almost touching me – magic! D says Neumeyer is amazing. It is only about two years old and very up to the minute. It has two floors above ground and two below.

Everything built on the ice gradually sinks. To compensate, they have powerful hydraulic jacks, which thrust the structure up one metre every year. We’d heard that both German helicopters had crashed but no-one would say more. But our guys made a point of finding out. They broke the golden rule and flew when the vis. was poor. Apparently the one tipped right over and quite a few people were injured, but not too badly. The 2nd one made a very hard landing and lots of bits are bent, so it is also out of action. Titan will offer to help with their flying.

Day 17 Saturday 24th December 2011 

I go up to the monkey deck after breakfast and I have it all to myself. It’s lovely but very cold. We are wearing our thermal underwear and thick socks now, and woolly hats with earmuffs, scarves and gloves. I love my woolly hat especially! Lots of Antarctic petrels are flying close to the boat. Some Emperors are in a huddle (flock, gaggle?) having a meeting. It’s heavily overcast and a few soft snowflakes float down.

There is a sense of urgency in the off-loading because new ice is pushing in and they don’t want the ship to be locked against the ice-shelf. In fact we leave during lunch, before it is all off. The journalists are off the ship and will go to the SANAE base in the ‘cat-train’ i.e. the caterpillars, sledges, ‘dozers etc. all driving one behind the other along a very specific route – carefully worked out according to where crevasses etc. are.  It will take at least 24 hours to get there. They sleep in a container, which is called a caboose, somewhere along the way I think. Apparently the sastrugi (icy ridges) make it a bumpy ride too and one can feel seasick.  All going well, it will take the Agulhas about a day to get to the SA Bukta (Penguin).  The oceanographers come round to all the cabins with a little Christmas note and sweets. The Christmas party is tomorrow night but many of the young crowd have a warm up. Lots of Christmas caps with blinking lights, reindeer horns and crazy hats. The party goes on till late but we go to bed at about 10.30. The pilots are on standby so can’t drink. I watch Titanic…no nightmares.

Day 18 Sunday 25th December 2011 Christmas Day!

D didn’t set the alarm for 6.30 as he normally does – and we wake at 8! So we miss breakfast. We’ve been up for a bit before we remember it is Christmas Day! Church is in the library because the kitchen staff are decorating the dining-room for Christmas dinner. There are a few more people than last week. Disappointingly we sing choruses not carols. The 15 min service is even shorter than last week’s, but a good message. At 12 we assemble in the dining-room. The menu says ‘Marry Xmas’ (so not only in Thailand…), and the tables look very festive decorated with crackers, nuts and chocolates. It’s a fantastic four course dinner with an array of desserts to satisfy the sweetest tooth.

After lunch we have a lovely chat with our daughter Sal – it’s amazing that we can hear her fairly clearly all that way away in Thailand. The theme for tonight’s party is something red with a little bit of green and white. I make myself a crown and reindeer horns out of the crackers’ cardboard. I try going up to the monkey deck but the wind is blowing hard and it is freezing….! We go through thick ice, then into open water and past some amazing ice-bergs and reach the ice shelf.  The flying of passengers to the SANAE base will start tomorrow at 7 am. So no partying for Titan but we do go to the pub for a while. The two gorgeous Amy’s are there in their party outfits and I’m bowled over because they’ve made me a beautiful dream catcher. The sparkly bolero fey Amy is wearing is one of her trapeze artist costumes – she was a schoolgirl circus performer!

Day 19 Monday 26th December 2011 

The alarm goes off at 5.30 am. We get up and dress but then see that it is snowing and blowing very hard – zero vis. so no flying today. Now what to do with the rest of the day? D didn’t sleep so well last night so he goes into hibernation till well after lunch. I’m still sorting photos. We feel honoured as the two Amy’s have asked if they can also wear the Titan golf t-shirts to dinner in the evenings. D says yes. We go out a couple of times but it is the worst day we’ve had so far – -4 deg, -20 with the wind chill, which is gusting up to 60 knots, nearly 100kms. The journalists spent Christmas Eve at the summer station at the Neumeyer Bukta and got halfway to the SANAE base on Christmas Day before the storm bogged them down. They had to leave the toboggans and shelter in the caboose, with just the bare necessities. At 15 deg C we are relatively warm in our cabin. Up on the bridge we watch cracks split the solid ice sheets into huge jigsaw puzzle pieces, and in spite of their massive weight, they are blown away behind the boat. The weather predictions for tomorrow are not much better.

Day 20 Tuesday 27th December 2011 

Still no flying as it is much the same as yesterday. An exciting day; we do our washing and I lose my pearl earring on the treadmill! D comes to my rescue (he’s such a star), along with another guy in the gym. They virtually take it apart and thankfully find the pearl, but not the butterfly. It’s such a relief that the machine didn’t jam. The Captain moves the ship to a new position closer to the ice-shelf proper and we see a lot more penguins and a seal. The wind is still very strong up on the monkey deck, but I love the tiny fluttering snowflakes. Late in the day the wind drops and it’s clearer so D and Bees, the only pilot that has flown in Antarctica before, do a short trip to fly some guys across onto the ice to dig out sledges from last year – sounds crazy I know. I go up to the bridge to learn how to do the radio stuff  – D’s suggestion as tomorrow Tjaart, the pilot who has been doing it, will be flying. But afterwards Big John, our chief engineer says I’m a fireguard and so that’s what I must do! The flight goes well but poor vis. so not pleasant at all. Bees praises D’s flying.  We go to bed early in case the weather clears enough for more flying.

Day 21 Wednesday 28th December 2011

We are woken at 3 am for D’s assessment of the conditions, but it’s not good enough. At 6 it is looking much better and at 8.20 D and Janneman fly the first batch of passengers to SANAE in the 212, and then two more sorties after that, landing at 5 pm.

A long day for them. I make myself useful by helping passengers with their life-jackets – they can end up twisted and ‘don’t forget the crutch strap and your ear-plugs’! We all help load the 205 with freight and Bees and Tjaart do two trips. D has to ask the Captain to move away from the ice-shelf because the wind blowing off it causes havoc. I also stand with my fire extinguisher while they take off and land. At lunch I sit next to Jasmine (Phat fairy), who is a real character. A waiter brings her pumpkin fritters – just her. I ask “Why just you?” “If you act like a princess you get treated like a queen,” she says. She told the purser she was missing these sorts of things, so he got the kitchen to make her some! In the evening we hear that the weather is closing in at SANAE.

Day 22 Thursday 29th December 2011

It is so easy to lose track of what day of the week it is and the date…I’ve just realized that we have been on the boat for three weeks today. We are up at 6.30 and D goes up to the bridge to assess the weather. Although it is windier and cloudy, it’s high cloud and so he decides to fly. He and Janneman take off at 8.30 with 9 more passengers. They get about halfway and then they’re into cloud and can’t see the horizon. Then we hear that the vis. at SANAE is poor – it’s amazing how quickly it changes.

The freight chopper decides not to fly. I spend an anxious half hour praying that D and his co-pilot will get there safely and, thank goodness, they do. They can’t fly back and the weather is only expected to clear tomorrow afternoon – so D is there and I’m here….oh well…he will be fine and will find a toothbrush somewhere I’m sure! I speak to him very briefly on the radio but it’s a bad line. It’s snowing on the monkey deck when I go up. We are a long way from the shelf again and somehow they have a way of keeping the boat stationary without anchoring in the big expanse of water we’re in. There is very little to see in the way of wildlife at the moment. I finish my book, watch a movie, and work on photos – wonderful to get some emails to break the monotony.

Day 23 Friday 30th December 2011 

While the cat’s away the mouse will play/sleep late….D’s not here so I don’t set the alarm and I get up at 7.10 instead of 6.30… and I’m still ready for breakfast at 7.30. There’s porridge every morning – this morning is Maltabella – I’ve never eaten so much porridge in my life! I’m there when the tuck-shop opens at 10 to buy toothpaste and tissues. Toothpaste yes, tissues no, but Hansie makes a plan and gets kitchen paper towels delivered to my cabin later. I hear that D probably won’t get back tonight so I need comfort food too; I buy 7 chocolate bars and some jelly babies. Soon I’ll a have a tummy as fat as a penguin’s and will be able to toboggan down the stairs and shimmy round the heli-deck! Then there is action. Bees and Tjaart in the 205 cargo-sling fuel drums and other containers onto the ice-shelf – at least 12 loads. The engineer, Big John, lies on the floor leaning out and looking down to try to let the pilots know when the load is near the ground. They battle. The vis is poor, so optical illusions play havoc and the strong wind causes the load on the end of the hoist to swing violently. But they get the job done.

They also bring back one of the guys who went to dig out the sledges on the 27th. He is so happy to be back on the ship and out of the caboose they were cooped up in on the ice. The heating wasn’t adequate and they only had tinned food. I stand faithfully with my fire extinguisher whenever they take off and land and have a packet of biscuits ready for them when they finish. I wear my ginormous boots (each weighing a kilogram!) for the first time – they are two sizes bigger than my normal shoe size, because you also wear a soft inner boot…lovely warm feet! It feels strange with so few people left on the boat. At 4.30am the weather will be assessed for D and Janneman to fly back….holding thumbs….

Day 24 Saturday  31st December 2011

At 5.30 am I get a knock on my door to tell me the 212 will be landing at 6. But when I get to the hangar they have already landed – early because of a tail wind.  The ice-shelf and icebergs are a magnificent sight, glittering in the morning sunshine. But its starts to cloud over and the pilots only have time to pack their things and have a quick shower before they take off again with another 9 passengers. They are not coming back to fetch the rest of us until the fuel pumping is finished, which will take a few more days. So sadly, D and I will be apart for New Year.  I’ve got the better deal – better food and no kitchen duties – D is down to do this at 4.30 am on New Year’s Day! He is not a happy chappy at the moment – says he prefers the tropics where he can just pull on a pair of shorts instead of all this gear! After they’ve gone, I go up to the monkey deck.  It is  -6 deg! We are ‘parked’, nose into the 50 metre high ice-shelf at South African Penguin Bukta.

The fuel is being pumped via a pipe that snakes its way over the deck (covered in ice), up the face of the shelf and then disappears over the lip to the waiting tankers on sledges. At about 5 pm the Cat-train sets off with the first load. It’s about 220 kms to SANAE and back but it’s a slow drive and with their rest time they are only due back on Tues 3rd.

The oceanographers Amy and Amy have been stars yet again and the bar is decorated for the New Year’s Eve party. It is also Tjaart, one of our pilot’s, 38th birthday.  It’s a great party and everyone dances with everyone, kisses everyone at 10 (for South African time) and again at 12 (Antarctica time). I last till 1.30 am  – if D had been here I think we’d have gone to bed a lot earlier! Some stay up till 5 am, which is when it is midnight in American Jackie’s New Jersey hometown.

Day 25 Sunday: New Years Day 1st January 2012!!!

Only 1 person makes it to breakfast and there are a lot of sore heads – not me!  What an awesome start to the New Year; it is an absolutely beautiful cobalt blue sky day. After lunch I do 30 laps round the heli-deck. Then there’s a treat.  American Jackie is an oceanographer but she also plays the harp.  She gives a few of us a recital in the lounge on the mini harp she has brought with her on this trip – wonderful.

The ship starts moving and soon we are cruising past spectacular icebergs, one with a colony of Adelie penguins on it.

We ‘moor’ against a low shelf, the main ice-shelf, its undulating serrated profile with an occasional cave, creating a stunning backdrop.  There are seals lounging about and Emperor penguins preening and sunning themselves, but all rather far away. A flock of the ever curious Adeiies come and check us out and then wander off again. A bigger group makes its way to a group of three and they seem to socialise for a while, mingling, and then go their separate ways again – what a privilege to witness  this. Sometimes they almost run, with their little wings/arms out and other times they waddle, or they toboggan using their wings as flippers to propel themselves along.  We also see some of them leap out of the water onto the shelf – way better seeing this for real, than on television!  We can see  details through the binocs; their gorgeous pink feet with black ‘toenails’/claws, their pink-tinged wings, their white ringed black eyes, making them look a little fierce.  Some of us watch them for hours. After supper I go up to the monkey deck for another look and their fronts are pearlescent in the evening light. I just wish D had been here to share this day with me.

Day 26 Monday 2nd January 2012

RED LETTER DAY!

And the New Year gets better and better…. We are all swung across onto the ice in the rope basket, to spend some quality time with the penguins. The Captain and his crew keep watch on the bridge in case they see changes in the ice – like big cracks! There are a few dos and don’ts.  For the first time we are togged out in our full ice kit; thermal pants and tops, thick socks and the huge double boots, waterproof, windproof dungarees and jacket with our thick fleece coats under that. Then most of us have on our woolly hats, gloves and sunglasses.  Jackie says that it is this temperature for 4 months of the year in New Jersey, so she is in t-shirt and shorts and no hat. But we all end up shedding as it is amazingly warm. The two Amys,  Jackie and I are the first to land.

The Adelies come running to see what’s going on – waddle, waddle, waddle, hop, waddle waddle, hop. They come quite close. And all day long new groups come running – how does penguin telegraph work?

Later I lie on my tummy and inch closer and closer to a group of three and the Amys come and join me. Later still I have a group of 8 of them all to myself, almost within touching distance.

Up close and personal with Adelie penguins:  They lie dozing on their fat cushion tummies, pink webbed feet tucked neatly into their feathers. Flippers are either tucked in against their sides or held out like airplane wings. Their stiff tail feathers, descending from long to short, protrude from under an upside down U-shaped flap. On either side of the tail, soft black and white pom-poms adorn their little bums. T There are slight differences in their flippers, and in the demarcations of black backs into white tums.  Their closed eyes disappear into their black feathers, but when I crunch closer, they open them and the white ring shows…and it feels like a dirty look! But then they nod off again. Every now and then they stretch, beaks open, backs arched, flippers up, one leg and the tail stretched out, the other leg keeping balance. Then the one closest to me stands up and preens. His front is a beautiful pearlescent creamy white and the black white yin yang curve at his neck is very clearly defined. He holds out his stiff cartilaginous flipper and nibbles along its upper edge. He curls his neck and nuzzles into his upper chest feathers with his mottled pink and black beak. Then he stretches, almost on tippy toes, with his beak pointing skywards, and manages to make himself look quite thin……

The scenery is stunning.

And later three Emperor penguins have come closer. They are much bigger and don’t run. Their gait is ponderous.  Very royal they are in their exquisite black and white ‘tuxedos’ with accents of egg-yolk yellow, and their long elegantly curved beaks.

There is a flurry amongst the penguins on the ice as some others pop up in the water and head for the shelf.  Those on the ice plop in and the others fly out in an arc, that is both graceful and comical.

Other little Adelie penguins strut nonchalantly between the people playing soccer! Snowmen are built, there are snowball fights, the Amys do crazy antics. I’m in the 2nd last basket with some other oceanographers. We’ve missed lunch but who cares?  We’ve had 3 and ½ hours of pure privilege, one of the best days of our entire lives. I’m just so sorry that D missed it.

Later, the rubber ducks and lifeboats are let down onto the millpond calm sea to have a run around. The water looks inviting, but we’re not Gordon Pugh, so that’s out. And the sun still shines in a clear blue sky.

At supper, fey Amy says I’m the Penguin Whisperer!

PART 4: SANAE

Day 27 Tuesday 3rd January 2012  

The ship sails back to the big ice shelf during the night and just before breakfast we feel the bump that tells us we are there. It’s another beautiful day. The pumping of the last of the fuel starts soon after that and is finished by midday. The 205 takes off with the rest of the freight and crosses paths with the 212 coming from SANAE to pick the rest of us up. No-one is injured so the Dr. can fly back to SANAE and the rest of us go with her – 7 of us.  It’s about an hour’s flight, featureless flat white desert most of the way, but spectacular when we get near the base. It is perched on the top of a mountain, with two rocky buttresses.

Logistically it is much more difficult to transport everything to the base than it would be if it was closer to the ice-shelf, but all the previous SA bases sank slowly into the ice and finally had to be abandoned to the snow and ice. One of our pilots who stayed in SANAE III told us how they had to go down 30 metres into the base and each section was closed off with a heavy fridge type door. It was claustrophobic. A depressing thought; if and when all the ice melts, what a mess people (if there are still people around?) will find.

We, the new arrivals go on an orientation of the interior of the base; the hangar, a huge generator  room, waste room ( where everything is sorted and they also have a big compacting machine), radio room,  dry food store (try and picture the amount of food required to feed 10 people for a year), science labs, but also very spacious leisure rooms – the bar, (Sastrugi Inn), a ‘cinema’ room, library, games room with pool table, a gym and even a sauna.

Our room is small but perfectly adequate and the loo and shower are close.  It is so great to be back together. In contrast to the ship, everyone here seems to be working very hard, so we offer to help with whatever.

It is great to have wifi, but it is still restricted, which is disappointing, but hoping to post my blog very soon.

Day 28 Wednesday 4th January 2012 

D and Janneman moved shelves in the library while we were still on the boat and D then offered my services to sort out the rather jumbled books and magazines – a bit of a cheek!..but I’m happy to do it.  I get quite a lot done before 11, which is when five of us do outside orientation. It is another glorious day and we all get hot in our outdoor togs. We are shown the ‘Smelly’, the snow smelter, (not the recycling of sewage plant as one might expect) where snow is melted for the all the base’s water requirements. There is ongoing ‘Smelly’ duty i.e. shovelling of snow into it – heavy work. We haven’t been called upon to do this yet.

We see the new wind turbine, and two more will go up this season. They will produce some power, but it won’t be enough for the whole base. The scientific zones and dangerous areas are pointed out. We are only allowed to walk in the ‘car-park’, which is where the skidoos are parked and the ‘dozers clear snow, and down the ‘road’ to the t-junction.

Later D and I go for a walk down the road. Everyone has to sign out with the time you leave the base, say where you’re going and when you expect to be back – so that if a storm suddenly comes up and you’re not back/missing, someone can go out to look for you – this has happened and people have died at this base! I love the diamond sparkle of the snow and the crunchy feel of it under my boots.  We don’t go all the way to the airstrip/runway, which is about 4 kms there and back, because it is uphill going back and we’re clumping 1 kg of boot on each foot! We go as far as the containers of the summer depot . I’ve been so looking forward to the much-talked about silence of Antarctica, but so far we’ve not experienced this. So on the way back we sit down on a sledge for a bit and drink it in, looking across to the west at the magnificent mountain peaks thrusting up out of the snow. We are at the bottom of the world, but it feels like the  top  – the highest mountains of Antarctica are 5 times higher!

In the evening there is a braai and everyone stand around in t-shirts! There are mountains of meat…..and not enough salads. The cook is battling to cope.

Day 29  Thursday 5th January 2012 

One month gone, one and a half to go! Amazingly it is yet another gorgeous day. I get a lot done in the library. I’m so enjoying it and finding lots of books I’d like to read! We go for a skidoo ride down to the runway, with Tjaart driving there and Bees back and us on the sledge behind – great fun, but not enough places to go to, so it’s over too quickly.

After supper we play bridge with the only other couple here, Beatrice and Kevin, who have over-wintered here. They say that although they have enjoyed it immensely, they will really be happy to get back to South Africa. D and I play as partners, and it goes surprisingly well!

Day 30 Friday 6th January 2012  

It’s yet another lovely day except that the wind is blowing and this brings the temp down to -16.8! The wind turbine guys are very happy because the turbine is turning! D and Janneman fly the two geos and lots of taggers on to some mountains to do some research – full chopper so no room for me. When he gets back, we, Big John, the engineer and two other Titan guys help Abby (the Dr. and over-wintering team leader) organize the dry store-room. Picture a year’s supply of food for 10 people and then enough for the ‘summer crowds’ (an extra 60 or so); mountains of boxes and tins of everything, which have to be sorted and packed on shelves. We finish after lunch, then D goes off to help the wind turbine guys pull a long heavy cable. I sort A-C fiction in the library. Then D & J fetch the geos. They said it was awesome. They did everything they had to do, and climbed up as high as they could go to have lunch – with beers!

Day 33 Monday 9th January 2012 

It is ‘skivvy’ day. As there are no people employed to clean, everyone staying at the base must do their fair share of duty. We are all allocated our various cleaning duties. Jasmine and I have the women’s bathroom in our block and it goes quickly.

The geos invite us to go with them to the northern buttress, where they will do a bit of work. I’m not sure they know what they are letting themselves in for – we are so slow compared to them….even getting into our ‘winter woollies’ takes us ages. The wind is blowing harder today, 18 knots, which takes the temperature down to -10 deg, so we dress extra warmly.  It’s not easy walking at all; the snow is interspersed with uneven tumbled rocks, some of which wobble if you step on them. Then there are icy bits, which are very slippery and some have water underneath. The balaclava and yellow snow goggles (which give the landscape a yellow-wee tinge until the eyes adjust) make me feel claustrophobic and my boots are like lead weights on my feet.  I didn’t think I was that unfit, but in no time I feel exhausted. My heart is thumping, I’m sweating….too hot…. can’t breathe properly….see properly…..legs feel wobbly…..will I twist an ankle?  I feel rising panic.  But then Barend stops to point out various interesting things about the rocks –amazingly there are living microbes on these dolorite rocks and we see some bright yellow lichen growing on one. I am able to catch my breath and calm down.  D is managing much better than me – is this because I’m half his weight but our boots weigh the same? I’d like to think so!  Then Crystal and Barend do some work and we find two rocks to sit on that are high enough so that we won’t have the embarrassment of having to ask for help to get off them when it is time to go! They are sinking sticks into the snow around the perimeter of an icy ‘puddle’ (I must ask them what they were doing – I was just so relieved to sit down that I forgot to ask!)….and Barend slips and ends up flat on his back. But they are used to this and he leaps to his feet immediately – Crystal says she falls at least once a day. It is so lovely just sitting on our rocks enjoying the view, the fresh air and the silence – the ‘dozers have finished shovelling snow. We break off chunks of snow and crunch on them. The texture reminds me of the sugar crystals on string that we used to make as kids. We get back to the base without falling over or twisting anything. In the afternoon, I finally post my blog!

I work in the library from 4 – 6. D would love to be busier, but there isn’t much for him at the moment, so he spends quite a lot of time in the room reading and dozing.

Day 34 Tuesday 10th January 2012              

Just what the Doctor ordered?

D is on Waste duty, which involves ensuring all rubbish in the waste room is in the correct containers, all colour-coded for the different things; glass, cans, paper etc. There is a can-crushing machine that is fun to use – I give it a go. We help Abby (the outgoing Dr.) to do stock-taking of incoming medicines. There is a huge amount of stuff in the pharmacy and she tells us that so much of it is ‘just in case’ stuff e.g. malaria pills, in case someone unknowingly gets here with malaria! So much of it ends up expiring before it is used. An order list is sent but they still end up being sent bizarre things they didn’t order, like vast quantities of Enos. I’m nearly done in the library. We don’t go outside – but should have because the weather is still good – it’s been an amazingly long spell. I wish I was allowed to walk on my own when D doesn’t feel like it….

It is noticeably different in the evening, marginally ‘darker’ and there is an apricot tinge on the horizon. Below is the photo I took through the window of our room.

There are quite a number of other people writing blogs on this trip and I’ve been reading and so enjoying these. One of the journalists, Louise, wrote a gripping account of their epic CAT-train journey from Neumayer, the German base, to SANAE. Here’s the link: www.thesouthpole.co.za  Go to the post for 5 January, entitled Christmas Day: CAT-train departs for SANAE.  You’ll find yourselves wanting to read more!

Then Jon Ward posted a very amusing commentary on the cricket match that took place on the ice a couple of days ago: www.jon.yousemble.com He is one of the over-wintering team. As one person commented “He writes well considering he’s an electrical engineer!”. He also describes the Antarctic initiation ceremony brilliantly; “The night of the bears and the best worst day of your life? “

Roving reporter for Independent Newspapers, Kristin is waiting for the go-ahead from her editors to post more, but in the meantime have a look at what she has published so far on her very impressive website: www.scribblerdownsouth.wordpress.com

Day 35 Wednesday 11th January 2012 

Smelly, smelly? and What to wear?

We are only allowed to shower once every 2nd day; odd room numbers can shower on odd days.  We’re A17, and it is the 11th so it’s our turn – yay! But it’s not a luxurious stretched out affair. You turn on the shower to get wet, turn off and soap yourself, then turn on again to quickly rinse off. We are very conscious of water back home in Port Alfred, but have to be even more so here. One heaped spade full of snow shoveled into the smelter (smelly) only produces about one litre of water and there are about 60 people staying here at the moment. So feeding the ‘Smelly’ is a demanding and ongoing task, in all weathers.  But everyone does it willingly. So we’re all clean – kind of…

We can wear whatever we like here. The most popular ensemble is the royal blue trousers and navy blue shirt (issue with our warm gear) – practical, but not pretty. On feet one sees trainers, slippers, slops, thin socks, thick socks, no socks – one of the over-wintering guys is always barefoot, even out on the heli-deck – he likes his canary yellow t-shirt to compliment his royal blue pants.  Then for outdoor wear, it is the ‘Fweet fweet’ outfit  – this is the sound it makes when you’re walking; waterproof dungarees and jacket over thermal underwear, extra trousers and shirts if you want, woolly hat or balaclava or both, gloves, sun goggles, thick socks, and the gi-normous boots. Some are orange and nick-named pumpkin boots.

I prefer my grey ones. And when you’re all togged up you can’t tell who’s who in the zoo. We don’t ever have to brush our hair if we don’t feel like it – no-one will mind at all. It’s definitely fashionable to grow as much hair as you possibly can – the over-wintering team are all very hairy – except for the two women of course.  Many of the new recruits are sprouting rather measly beards and moustaches already – they have a LOT of catching up to do.

We don’t have nearly as much free time as we did on the boat. Everyone here seems so hectically busy and we are trying to help where we can – one feels guilty taking a break even!  I almost finish sorting the one library….and then someone opens the door of Store 5, and lo and behold…. yet more books… and……!

Day 36 Thursday 12th January 2012 

Troll: Not the mythical cave-dwelling dwarf variety….,

There is a trip to Troll, the Norwegian base. Titan is allowed one other team member to go along as a passenger, apart from the 3 crew, i.e. D, Janneman & John, the engineer. The 205 pilots are on standby so neither of them can go. Faeez, one of the hangar guys’ name comes out of the hat. The geos are on board as well as Kristin the journalist, amongst others. It seems to me th e geos have the most fun here – and Kristin who goes with them on every trip they do. The weather stays good and they are away for most of the day. D says their base is very impressive. Interestingly, unlike SANAE, they are on sand/gravel and so have some proper roads – which do of course get muddy. The snow around their base looks dirty as a result. The landscape from the air is spectacular; they see a glacier, crevasses, mountains, and and and….boo-hoo-hooo – missed it all!

Pandora’S Box:

It’s Big Skivvy day again and I’m one of the kitchen people, so I do that first and then make a start in Store 5. It’s cramped and crammed with all sorts of intriguing stuff. The temptation to open an old battered suitcase labeled ‘Pandora’ is irresistible. Inside is a very old movie reel. And there are loads of these, stacked on top of one another, some spewing out coils of brittle celluloid. There’s a debate going on about whether to keep them, or send back to South Africa….apparently there is a broken projector somewhere?! There are a couple of copies of “The Grass is greener; our love affair with the lawn.” I’m sure there’ll be a queue for those when the word gets out!! There’s an aphrodisiac wheel, with dozens of suggestions – who would donate this to a very small, cut off from the world for a year, 90% male team?   But amongst all this bizarre stuff, there are some very interesting books.

T-Junction at SANAE:

It’s a beautiful day – light wind, and in the afternoon Angelo and I go for a walk to the T-junction. We think it will take us an hour but in fact it takes us nearly two, but we don’t rush and it’s just gorgeous. We have some quiet time, just sitting on some piles of snow, looking out across the expanse of ice at the grey-blue mountains beyond. We visit the Smelly on the way back. What’s been great about this trip is that we have been able to chat to and get to know so many lovely people – Angelo is one of them.

We have a great phone chat with our son Rob, the line to Port Elizabeth amazingly clear.

Day 37 Friday 13th January 2012 

Snow:  Stand under it…. or bath in it…..

It’s snowing! D and I go and stand on the heli-deck.  Beautiful snowflakes, tiny and very soft, are drifting down.  There isn’t much wind. It’s magical. Apparently here, on occasion, people have seen the structure of snowflakes with the naked eye and have photographs to prove it.

Only those who have to will go outside today – the  ‘windpompers’, Stellenbosch University  wind turbine team – such nice guys.

I sort the fiction in Store 5. D had hoped to drive a ‘dozer today. But there’s no contrast. It’s all just white, no tonal variation to help assess where the bumps and hollows are, making driving hazardous.  No-one else has a job for him. So he does his polar bear thing; curls up under his duvet and goes to sleep, both in the morning and in the afternoon.  He gets his washing done though – and finds a man in the laundry, sitting head in hands, staring at the washing going around and around. This place can play havoc with one’s psyche. Suffice it to say that there are a lot of undercurrents and underlying tensions, a lot of jockeying for position, in our enclosed box at the bottom of the world.

Snow bath:

“There will be a snow-bath at 19.30. All are welcome.”  This is a non-negotiable tradition on birthdays, regardless of the weather.  It’s the new doctor’s turn.  Jako fortifies himself with dinner and a slice of his enormous gaudy birthday cake. We all sing Happy Birthday. Meanwhile the snow-bath has been dug. After dinner, we get togged up in our Fweet Fweet outfits and assemble around the hole.  While we wait, snowballs are thrown and people are thrown – into the hole!  At 19.30 precisely, Jako, sporting a joker’s hat, prances down the steps clad in only in red socks and shorts. He climbs into the bath and snow is shoveled in over him right up to his neck. Coke is fed down a funnel into the mouth of his body-less head. He can’t drink it fast enough and brown froth foams out around his mouth. And then it’s all over. He leaps out, runs up the steps, pauses halfway to pose for the cameras – broad grin – and then Dr. Abby hands him a towel. He bounds up the last steps and heads for a hot shower.

Day 38 Saturday 14th January 2012 

Neumayer old and new: sinking bases and sinking feelings….

D & Janneman are meant to take off for Neumayer III at 7.30 am but although it is a beautiful day here… -4 deg!! and very little wind (almost bikini weather), at Neumayer there is no contrast and cloud right down to the ground and a strong wind blowing bringing the temp down to -30! So they don’t go. D helps me by stamping new books with the ‘51’ stamp. (I don’t think I’ve mentioned before that it’s the SANAE 51 team who are taking over now.)  D is helping me by slotting the new books into the shelves when the call comes through that the weather has improved at Neumayer. So then it is all go, go, go. Angelo is going on this one. They try and take off, but there are three extra large men on board and more freight than was anticipated and they’re too heavy, so poor Angelo has to climb out and stay behind. But it turns out to be a blessing as the vis. is poor and they can’t see much at all and even have to go onto instruments on the way there. D says on the way back, they thought they might have to turn back to the caboose, which is there for emergencies. It would have been a squeeze with 11 people in it.

They wouldn’t have made it back to Neumayer on the fuel they had, but then the SANAE base appears and they get back safely. The wind has picked up a lot and it’s looking ominous out there – “At last some proper Anarctica weather”, says Dr Abby, with glee.

Apparently one can still go into the snow-covered Neumayer II base, but it is slowly collapsing. The station consisted of two parallel steel tubes, each 8m in diameter and around 90m long, in which containers were inserted to accommodate living quarters, kitchen, mess, hospital, various laboratories, workshops, radio operator’s room, sanitary facilities, two power supply stations and a snow melting plant. The first Neumayer was built in 1981 and it too is buried under the snow.  Neumayer III is situated in close proximity to the old bases on the Ekstrom ice shelf. It is about 200m thick in that area and almost completely flat. The Akta Bukta, the ice shelf margin where supply ships moor, is 10kms away. This doesn’t seem that far considering that the ice shelf moves inexorably towards the sea. The base is shifting along with it at a steady 175 metres a year – which means that it will reach the sea in about 55 years time – along with the other two – and the South African ones – and when one looks at the number of bases on the map, how many others? What will be done? Will there be boats waiting to try to remove as much as possible or will it all just sink to the bottom of the ocean or bob about in what would certainly no longer be a pristine environment….it’s thought-provoking and depressing stuff. And up until now I’ve not been to find much on the environmental impact of these old bases on the web.

Here are some interesting sites on Neumayer:

www.awi.de , www.polarconservation.org , www.antarcticconnection.com

I put up all the new labels and the big library is DONE. All the books came off the shelves and I sorted them all into fiction and non-fiction, and also made categories for non-fiction. I’m not a librarian but tried to arrange them according to the Dewey system. It feels good.

Later Ruan plays his guitar and sings some wonderful songs – kind of like the folk songs I remember in the late 60’s, 70’s!

Day 39 Sunday 15th January 2012

When the wind blows….

D and I are up at 6. It was weird to see no-one about. We’d agreed to phone our daughter Sal, who was in the Phillipines, at 6.15 (16.15 her time). We get through to her cell phone and it’s as clear as a bell. It’s wonderful to hear her voice and a bit about what she’s been doing – ‘chillaxing’ (her word) her way around – on her own at this point, but friends are coming to join her for scuba diving.

The wind has picked up progressively as the morning has gone on and now it’s blowing the hardest since we’ve been here – up to 47 knots at one point (about 94 kms an hour).  How does one tell if the wind is blowing? There are no trees to look at, windows aren’t banging as all the windows are sealed. Well if you’re mad, you go out onto the heli-deck to see if the windsock is puffed out and the wind turbine is spinning furiously or if you’re clever, you look on the board in the dining-room….or we look out of our window. When the wind is blowing gently you can just see snow blowing over the rocks.  Right now there is a thick layer of snow blowing over the rocks and we can’t see the summer store. The Smelly too is only just visible. But it still has to be ‘fed’ and a short while ago I could see three figures down there shoveling away – it would be some members of the new team. 

No-one is allowed out alone.  In the not so distant past, in frightful weather, a guy hadn’t returned to base, so three others went out to look for him. They were roped together, but the wind was so strong that the one man was blown away – THIS IS TRUE! The man they’d gone out hunting for had managed to find shelter and survived, but sadly, the other guy didn’t make it. There is a thrumming noise now, but apparently when the wind gets really strong, things rattle inside and stuff can slide off tables.

I’m on kitchen skivvy. There are only two of us, because Johannes is away on the CAT-train.

After Polar Bear’s afternoon snooze we enjoy an hour and half of bridge with electrical engineers, lovely Beatrice and Kevin,  the only other married couple here. They have thoroughly enjoyed their year at SANAE, but are looking forward to going back to South Africa.

D helps me in the kitchen after supper and we only finish just before 8.  Lying in bed reading at 10, I suddenly remember there was church at 8 pm. I’m disappointed, because I missed an inspiring presentation by Angelo. Encouragingly, quite a few people showed up.

Day 40 Monday 16th Jan 2012 

On a cold winter’s night…

I’m still sorting books in Store 5, re-packing the non-fiction shelves in categories. I’m putting the Art & Design and Crafts into alphabetical order…. ballet, cross-stitch, knitting….. Then I’m in the kitchen making chocolate sauce for the ice-cream that will follow the main course for tonight’s dinner. I’ve multiplied my recipe by 10 and I stir and stir and stir and watch and watch and watch – a watched pot never boils…..my thoughts wander:  ‘There’s enough sauce here for the over-wintering team to enjoy after we’ve all gone. It lasts for months in the fridge.  I picture a cold mid-winter’s night at SANAE IV. The team of 9 men and one woman have had their dinner, and enjoyed ice-cream and hot chocolate sauce. They retire to the lounges, some to the bar with their knitting and cross-stitch and others to the library, where they push the chairs against the walls, so that they have more room to practise their ballet steps – pirouettes and the like. They’ve found all they need to know for these skills in Store 5.’ At last the pot boils.

Day 41 Tuesday 17th January 2012 

Flying high or falling flat on my face?

D & Janneman are taking the geos and others (jolly patrollies) to the mountains again. It seems there might be room for me, but in the end there isn’t. I confess to having a cry about this – pathetic I know. It’s a short but wonderful flight by all accounts. D and Tjaart fetch them later in the afternoon.

Part 2 Day 41 Tuesday 17th January 2012 

Not a fairy story….A Ball at Crystal Palace

It’s a beautiful windless, cloudless, cobalt blue sky evening. The ugly sister, dressed in shapeless dungarees and jacket, huge grey boots, gloves, balaclava and  yellow-wee snow goggles, and her ‘handsome prince’ (in similar gear), climb aboard their state-of- the- art  luxury chariot-sled. It has padded seats with straps to hang onto and runners to rest your boots on. Two attendants accompany them and they all sit snugly, one behind the other. Their gung-ho horseman-pilot, Janneman, mounts his horse- skiddo, rubbing his hands in glee at the thought of whipping his steed into action and conquering all obstacles in his path. The chief horseman/charioteer, Rinier, will pull the chariot carrying only backpacks with necessary stuff;  gear in case of mishaps on the way to or at the Palace and  drinks for guests on arrival…and a ladder…. yes a ladder. The other invited guests, dressed for the Ball and in jovial mood, sit astride their chariot, champing at the bit. There are 11 in all going to the Ball. The horsemen whip their steeds into action – Johan, the third horseman and 2nd in charge, standing up in the saddle – and they’re off, skimming over the ice and juddering over the bumps. Soon an unfamiliar bum has pinned the ugly sister’s hands down. Her shouts are drowned out by the snorting of the horses and the whistling wind. She manages to yank them free and grabs onto her ‘handsome prince’s’ legs behind her.  Soon the base is far behind them and they are heading down a slope to the bottom of the mountain on which SANAE IV is perched. (The Norwegians named it Vesleskarvet, the little barren mountain, a bit of a misnomer, in this ugly sister’s opinion!)  On one side, snow-flanked mountains tower above them and on the other, the icy plain stretches away into the ‘not yet setting’ sun.  They ride on and it is exhilarating skimming over the ice in a big arc with the landscape becoming ever more breath-taking.

Then suddenly, the charioteer reigns in, dismounts and orders all the guests to do the same. He points ahead to our destination. “What? – way over there? I’m not going to walk all that way,” wails the ‘handsome prince’. He knows that in Antarctica’s vast landscape, things look much closer than they actually are – and the Palace looks miles away. The ugly sister encourages him, “Just try – it’s got to be worth it”. They see the chief and his side-kick putting on horse-shoes/crampons. “Are we getting those too?” says ugly sister in a small scared voice. “No – we wear them, so that if any of you hurt yourselves we can help you,” says chief horse-man, with a reassuring grin. “It’s not far, just walk carefully and you’ll be fine.”  Now there’s an expanse of blue ice to cross, like a skating rink – but hang on, no-one’s got skates….. “Just take small steps and slide along,” says Rinier. What – in these gigantic boots, with tractor tyre grips on the soles? But amazingly, they work and they all skate – although not very elegantly, across the ice. Ugly sister and ‘handsome prince’ are at the back, taking small careful steps, while the daring, dashing young guys are running, sliding and hooting with glee. Someone falls every now and then, but no-one’s badly hurt and it is all part of the fun. Then there’s some lovely compacted snow to scrunch across, before they reach an innocent-looking patch of jagged ice lumps. A smooth snow strip snakes its way up the mountain from there. Who would guess this was a hidden crevasse? The intrepid charioteer sidles up the slope on the opposite side to get across and then places the ladder over the jagged ice for the guests to cross. “You can cross in whatever way feels most comfortable,” he says. Ugly sister goes across on hands and knees, bum in the air – she no longer cares about looking dignified. Most go across in similar fashion. Now there is a choice between the rocks and a hard place – a small, even more slippery ice rink. Ugly sister and ‘handsome price’ go for the rock option. They puff, sweat, stagger, drag their wobbly leaden legs over the wobbly jagged rocks. And finally they are there at the magnificent Crystal Palace. They flop down on rocky seats, along with the other guests. There’ll be no dancing (ugly sister forgot her glass slippers in any case) but some refreshments are allowed. Awe-struck and humbled, they sip their drinks in that sacred place.

The charioteer and his 2nd in command head further up the slope in the V of the valley, where snow curls over the top of the mountain like thick icing sliding off a cake.

The sky is ultramarine against the dazzling white of the snow.  All too soon it is time to head back. When all the guests have retraced their steps and crossed the ladder safely, the charioteer and his 2nd in command make a hole in the snow-bridge with their ice-picks. Everyone lies down to peer down into the dark blue hole of the 50 metre deep crevasse.  One bumbling guest steps too close and his foot makes an alarming hole in the snow bridge – he is sharply reprimanded.

On the way back the most adventurous guests have fun sliding down a long slippery slope. Ugly sister and ‘handsome prince’ just watch and laugh…. and wish they were 30 years younger…. Then it is back to the chariots and they’re homeward bound. Although horseman/pilot, Tjaart is keen to gallop home, his steed is sluggish. He snorts furiously (the horse, not the horseman), obstinately digs his hooves into the snow and refuses to move on the upward slope. Gallant ‘handsome prince’ gets off as does another guest and then the horse canters effortlessly to the top. Poor tired ‘handsome  prince’ has to trudge up the hill to his chariot. It’s a smooth ride from then on, with a few more photo stops along the way. What a ball they all had at Crystal Palace. The ugly sister and her ‘handsome prince’ agree that it is one of the best experiences of their lives. No words can describe or do justice to what they saw, and neither can the photos really, but for what they’re worth, here are some of the best:

Day 42 Wednesday 18th January 2012 

Golden Oldies

I finish sorting Store 5. The videos too are now stacked in alphabetical order. Koos, a ‘dozer driver,  who has been coming to Antarctica for many, many years, pops his head in the door, and marvels at the old films in suitcases – ‘here’s a good one, this is an excellent Western.’ He is horrified to hear that there has been a debate about throwing them away. He thinks they were brought here by the 2nd or 3rd SANAE team. The new Dr. says they will haul them out in the dark winter months.

Day 43 Thursday 19th January 2012 

Who says walking here is boring?

D, Angelo and I head off down to the T-junction. It’s another beautiful day, with sunny blue skies, no wind and beautiful cloud formations. In the sun it definitely doesn’t feel like -11deg. First we see Fred, the only wind-pomper guy who has done the requisite mountaineering training, hanging from the crane at the top of the wind turbine. He is adjusting a spring at the top.

Then we are startled to see what we are sure is a Wilson’s storm petrel – judging by its flight pattern. We haven’t got our binocs so can’t be sure. We’d been told that the only wild life one might see here are skuas and snow petrels , but we’ve seen neither.  There is apparently a storm on the way so maybe this is our warning? The drivers are back from their sojourn to Neumayer and there are more sledges and a caboose down at the summer store, so we have a look at that. We chomp on some ice and throw chunks of snow at each other. We get a ride in Koos’s ‘dozer for the last bit up to the car park.

And then when we come inside, there’s what looks like a canoe in the entrance. But it is for carrying an injured person or worst case scenario, a body. We assume someone is going out to practice recovery.

Day 44 Friday 20th January 2012 

Stray dart=dozer run

The libraries are done, no skivvy duties today, we’ve offered to help with whatever and there’s nothing at the moment, so I catch up with emails with a clear conscience. And in the afternoon I get out my art materials to start a painting – at last. I’ve heard that they did have an artist on this trip a couple of years ago – I would have loved that…. or a writer.

It is lively in the evening. People are honing their table-tennis, pool and darts skills for the Take-Over party on the 28th. Tequila shots, beer, whisky on the rocks, gin and tonics, Amarula, are all going down a treat.  As the evening goes on, darts start going astray and one hits a picture of a German over-wintering team (who hung it near the dartboard anyhow?). The glass breaks but fortunately the picture isn’t damaged. Chants begin and then grow to a crescendo: “Dozer run, dozer run, DOZER RUN, DOOOZER RUUUN!” When someone has done something which the powers that be judge to be a punishable offence, even losing a game of pool, or throwing a dart badly, a ‘dozer run’ is ordered.  This is a dash from the base to the bulldozers and back – about 60 metres – starkers. I haven’t found out if any females have done it yet – with 90% males here, there’d be a lot more people rushing to the windows to watch. You’re expected to do it virtually straight away. One can choose not to do it, but like all these crazy ‘traditions’ down here, opting out is frowned upon.  The guy who threw the offending dart fortifies himself with more beer and then manages to surreptitiously sneak out to do his run. But very soon he’s spotted, shrieks go up and there’s a dash to the windows. He’s barefoot – shoes are actually allowed, so this extra bravado probably wins him some respect. Meanwhile, the seasoned old hands have raced to the door and brace themselves against it to prevent him coming in too quickly. Then it is all over and he is back to join the party, denying all knowledge of the event. No picture….!

Day 45 Saturday 21st January 2012 

White-out braai-ing

It still doesn’t look too bad in the morning – we can see the summer store and a group going down to the Smelly. By midday the wind has picked up dramatically and D, who is constantly checking SANAE’s weather site, says that it is over 40 knots. Another group assemble to go down to the Smelly, presumably roped together – the leader has a rope. I am just able to see an amorphous  dark blob heading down and then they disappear – it is just a white blur down there. They get back safely. By 4 pm, it is a true white-out, everything outside is obscured in swirling snow. From inside, the wind is a constant roar. It registers at high as 64 knots (about 110kms per hour) at one point, bringing the outside temperature down to -35 deg C. Our enclosed structure vibrates underfoot.  We wanted to experience a big storm and after building for a couple of days and it has finally hit us full on.

No-one is allowed out, the sign says, but some of the intrepid overwintering team go outside just ‘for fun’ – with beers in hand! Apparently it can get a lot worse than this – they assure us one can still do Smelly duty in these conditions.

It’s the cooks’ day off and the Titan team is scheduled to do a braai for the evening meal. There’s no way we can braai outdoors and so it is all done in the kitchen.

Then it’s the washing up, washing up, and yet more washing up……..   We climb into our single trembling bunks and I finally drift off, dreaming wistfully of snuggling up to D in our stable double bed back home.

Day 46 Sunday 22nd January 2012 

For us greenhorns the raging storm is still quite exciting. Snow has forced its way into the hangar,  as well as through the fridge-like outside doors.

Apparently in winter, during the really bad storms, it fills up the entrance foyers and they have to dig their way out.  No-one goes outside. D and I are down for kitchen skivvy – aaarrrggghhh – this means washing and drying all those awful pots again after every meal, with less than perfect (far less…) cleaning and drying materials. We are very grateful to our team who all rally round to help.  A few more people than usual come to church. Both the message about pride and humility and Angelo’s slide-show are thought-provoking.  The wind drops and it is strange how one kind of forgets how inhospitable the weather is out there when one feels warm and safe inside, sipping red wine and playing bridge!

Day 47  Monday 23rd January 2012 

No singing in the showers

The storm rages on. It is Big Skivvy day again – Mondays and Thursdays. D’s in the men’s toilets and I’m in the library and TV room, with among others, Essie, one of the Cat drivers. A good thing about  all the names being jumbled for Skivvy is that one gets to chat to new people almost every time. So while we dust, sweep and mop, Essie and I get to know a little bit about each other – actually me more about him….I’m generally the one asking questions! This is his 3rd trip. Hein, the chief PWD man has very kindly made me 60 new book-ends for the libraries. It’s amazing how something like that can give one a lift here. I have a ‘little something’ constructive to do.  It doesn’t take long to put them all in place. “Attention all personnel; there will be no showering or washing of clothes until further notice.” We should have seen this coming had our showers in the morning. Then we hear that the electricity and water will be off for 6 hours tomorrow. Maintenance work is necessary. The storm is rapidly losing its appeal. I find myself thinking again about those admirable early explorers, storm-bound in their shelters or tents for weeks, with no electricity and running water ever. Yet they kept each other’s spirits up with singing and thoughtful actions.  Here the atmosphere is tense,  people are irritable and reluctant to do more than their ‘fair share’. Only one person sings, alone, in her walkman cocoon.

But it’s journalist Kristens’ birthday and when the kitchen brings in a cake for her at supper, we manage to perk up and sing Happy Birthday to her. No snow-bath in this weather. There’s a good party indoors though.

Day 48 Tuesday 24th Jan 2012 

Would you give your eye teeth…if you couldn’t go to the dentist?!

So the electricity goes off at 8.30 and there are only two loos in use. We have to ‘flush’ them with a bucket of water from the big drum that has been filled for this purpose.  And the storm rages on……

We’ve asked again and no-one has a job for us. I decide I’ll work on my painting but then suddenly realize that I need to print the picture I’m working on, off my computer. It is halfway out of the printer when the power goes off. So now all we can do is read……So many of you reading this would give your eye teeth for a day off to just read with a clear conscience. I’m happy. Fey Amy has lent me Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts, a 933 page tome.  It’s set in Bombay/Mumbai . Having been to Mumbai, I remember some of the places he talks about  –  Leopolds, Colaba market. Surprisingly, it is quite strongly philosophical but there are also plenty of laugh-aloud passages. The main character is an escaped prisoner, so he already has an assumed identity, but is given other names by his Indian friends, including Shantaram, which means Man of peace or man of God’s peace. The swearing and smoking of this and that goes with the territory, so although I don’t like it, I can accept it. It reads very authentically. Many sentences stand out for me. Here’s one of them:  ‘The worst things that people do to us always make us feel ashamed’. In between reading, Polar bear has two sleeps, and after lunch I too succumb and have a snooze.

By late afternoon, the power is still not on, so even the scientists can’t work and we play bridge with some new recruits before supper, and again after, with electrical engineers, Beatrice and Kevin. We discuss how we will get clean without showering! My facecloth, bought in the ship’s tuck-shop, bleeds indigo dye into the half-full hand-basin of water – I wonder if this will stain my skin….oh well. One gets beyond caring about little things like that….

Talking of losing eye teeth, one of our team has lost a bottom tooth – the pin in the gum is still there! Nothing he can do….I’m missing wearing my pearl earrings – the butterfly is lying squashed in the treadmill somewhere back on the boat. It does take getting used to – not being able to pop out to the shops… or the dentist. We’re out of sweets and chocolate too!

Day 49 Wednesday 25th January 2012 

The storm blows over – but so does the wind turbine

Woo-hoo, the storm is over, the sun is shining, the wind has dropped, it’s a beautiful day. People can’t wait to open the doors and get outside. But snow has built up outside the hangar doors and the automatic mechanism breaks when they try and open it. The ‘wind-pomper’ guys find that the cone on the turbine has been blown away – it’s probably sitting in the wind-scoop at the bottom of Vesleskarvet.  They find most of the bolts but some nuts are missing. This is a huge disappointment for them. At least the generator and tower are fine, but it is back to the drawing board for the turbine. The ‘dozer guys start clearing the mountain of snow that has built up in the car-park. A crew heads off to the Smelly. Inside there is frustration too as the Internet is still down. But the drivers are happy as they can set off for Neumayer. Three of the over-wintering team members are going with them to learn what it’s all about. I do a slow wander down the passage. There are some intriguing things in the display cabinets – old gear, goggles, fur-lined gloves etc. and even some very ancient looking slabs of Cadbury chocolate!  The photos and accompanying texts on the old SANAE bases makes for fascinating reading.

I finish my first painting….it’s only okay….not really happy with it, but I’m so in love with those adorable Adelies that I just felt I had to start with them. I’m actually finding myself feeling intimidated about painting pictures of Antarctica – how can one ever do it justice?

Take-Over is a-coming and everyone is talking about it. Dr Abi is in the dining-room with a tape-measure, working out how she is going to fit everyone in for the main event. Lists are up for games; pool, darts, table-tennis, tug-of-war, soccer. You play for your team. I’m no good at pool, darts, soccer – and no-one will want little old me in their tug-of-war team. I feel I should put my name down for something – the only thing left is table-tennis – which I last played about 40 years ago. After supper, I suggest to D that we try some table-tennis – and to my absolute amazement, he agrees. We knock around a bit and then Angelo also gives me a bit of practice while D plays pool.

Day 50 Thursday 26th January 2012 

The healing balm of snow

A very impressive 30,000 litres was fed into the Smelly yesterday and at breakfast Dr. Abi rubs the ‘No showering’ notice off the board. There’s a cheer…. but our turn is only tomorrow.

There is upheaval on the base. A quote from the book that I’m reading at the moment,  Shantaram, seems so apt: ‘The worst things that people do to us always make us feel ashamed’. D and Janneman are given orders to fly some people back to the ship, cutting short their stay at the base and preventing them from being a part of the Take-Over ceremony and dinner. Sipho, one of our Titan guys, is allowed to go with them.  They return in the afternoon with 5 people who went on the buoy run to South Georgia; the SANAE 50 team leader, Paul, one scientist and three journalists. You can read Louise’s excellent account of this run on her blog: www.thesouthpole.co.za

I feel the need to get out and away from the base. I so wish I could go for a walk on my own, but this is not allowed. It’s a lovely day – not the sort of weather in which one is likely to encounter problems, so I’m tempted to ask for permission. But in the end I decide not to rock the already rocking boat – and Angelo and I go out together.  It’s sunshine, blue sky, not much wind – beautiful.   The snow is still soft in the shadows. Our boots sink in. Each footprint hollow has an exquisitely pale turquoise base. As we step out of the shade, our eyes are dazzled by the thousands of tiny blue, green, pink and yellow diamonds, glistening and sparkling in the sunlight. We find an amazing ‘wave’ of snow on our way down to the T-junction. Angelo makes a hole in a snow bank and frames some photos with it.

We sit silently on a mound of snow, and look across the vast expanse of ice with its backdrop of mountains.  All this soothes.

After supper, Kristen has her belated birthday snow-bath. It’s been dug at the top of a mini mountain formed during the storm. She is cheered on as she runs to the hole, barefoot and wearing only in a bikini top and denim shorts. She jumps in and in no time she is shovelled in up to her neck. Her cousin stands ready with the funnel and beer. It feels as though she is in the hole for ages as she isn’t able to just glug it down. She plugs the end of the pipe with her thumb after each swallow.

And then it’s over and she is pulled out and runs off to shower.

Day 51 Friday 27th January 2012 

Midnight Sun/set

At last, after 6 days of going without, I can have a shower. What bliss, even though it’s merely a case of lathering up and then rinsing off as quickly as possible. D enjoyed a leisurely one on the boat yesterday.

There’s another flight to take Stephen, the scientist (oceanographer) back to the ship – it’s been a very  abbreviated visit. Most of the seats have to be taken out to fit in two boxes of sensitive equipment that must go back too. There is just room for me and Faeez to go for the ride – permission is given – yay! It’s a lovely evening for flying. Although there are miles and miles of white desert, in between there are little pockets of exquisite beauty. We pass one lonely caterpillar headed back to SANAE. The ship, with her striking red skirt, is a welcoming sight, bobbing in the ocean not far off the ice-shelf. We land and the lovely Amys have made a welcome home banner for Stephen. It is great to see them, some of the other oceanographers, and Bernie, the purser after nearly a month away from the ship.  Very soon we  head back. E base is an art-work from the air.

There’s a camera strapped underneath the chopper and as we near the base there is a request for a flypast over Klein Bergie – no problem…bonus!

In the evening the games begin. Being shy, I’m hoping to play my ping-pong game early in the morning when no-one is about but the next thing I’m being called by opponent Johan. You can’t get hurt by a ping-pong ball, so it’s unisex. Needless to say he wins and it is over mercifully quickly. D didn’t put his name down for anything, so he umpires for darts. For the first time, just about everyone seems to be there participating in some way and it is a great evening.

The sun was supposed to dip below the horizon for the first time last night, but D and I missed that, so just after midnight, we go to the upstairs lab to try and take some photos. Away from the hubbub, it is wonderfully peaceful. Moving horizontally, the very bright sun dips itself lower and lower behind the snowy peaks until finally it goes behind one of them – and that’s the ‘sunset’! We finally fall into bed at 1.30 am.

DAY 52 Saturday 28th January 2012 

Playing the game

It’s a big day – Take-Over; out and indoor games and then in the evening, the ceremony and formal dinner.  First it’s 7 a side soccer, 10 minutes each way and no half time break. Titan invites the chef and radio man Johan onto their team – geriatric D and J cheer from the side-lines and Big John our engineer, back-seat drives the match. At this high altitude it is exhausting stuff, especially in heavy boots and Fweet Fweet outfits. Some have fortified themselves with don’t ask what (or are still fortified from the night before), some play in shorts and silly hats. There are 7 teams in all – and Titan wins!

Then there’s tug-of-war and the drivers and SANAE 50 teams go through to the finals. Finally, there’s an Antarctica special; the throwing of the pumpkin boot! The women and men are separate for this one. I’m a ninny and don’t even try – I’m scared of the competition; two of the women look about 7 foot tall, another is short, but feisty and as tough as nails (she even wrestled with the substantially built DCO), and yet another beat one of our team’s star darts players (Janneman), – so she will surely be able to do a good job of throwing a boot. Louise, one of the journalists, who is smaller than me, manages a very good throw, but she is out-thrown by one of the giantesses.

 

There was a bit of an emergency, a burst pipe, which tomboy Steph, being one of the SANAE  51 team, had to help sort out. But then she’s there, and with stocky legs braced, she slings that boot further than a lot of the men and past Christel’s best. She’s the champion.

The men’s ‘formal’ wear at dinner varies considerably from very smart bow-ties and all-black outfits, to denims. The women are dressed up too. Our team all wear the Titan golf shirts and I’m very happy with that.

The speeches are good, but there is definitely some dissension about how some games have been played. The food is excellent and we are served by the S 50 and 51 teams. After dinner it’s Snowflake/aka Ulwin’s snow-bath and then more indoor games.  There’s a lethal punch doing the rounds with jelly babies in it. I fancy something sweet so fish one out to chew – whoa – they’re  thoroughly inebriated – no wonder so many have passed out at the bottom of the beer mug.  At midnight, D & I call it a day – and actually it still is!

Day 53 Sunday 29th January 2012 

Shovelling of snow and cake

It’s the morning after the night before and there are very few people about. It’s brunch at 11. D and I are both on skivvies.  D does Waste for me (it’s physically demanding) and our team all deal with the never-ending washing up in the kitchen – we’re all sick of this duty!

At 5 pm it’s the finals of the tug-of-war. D & I watch from the sunny library windows. It’s a push-over – or rather a pull-over – in no time at all the drivers have dragged the SANAE 50 team across the line. They’re the champs for the umpteenth year running.

Then there’s a HUGE snow-bath; management of DEAT, (Dept. of Environmental Affairs and Tourism) and the drivers, two of whom have had recent birthdays. We have excellent seats, up in the ‘boxes’ – the upstairs TV lounge windows. The dozers have dug a trench but it’s not deep enough it seems, as an energetic team jumps in to shovel out more snow. And then here they come and it is off with most of their clothing and into the hole. With wild abandon the shovelling begins. Stray shovelfuls of snow slap into faces.

Their burial seems tortuously slow. One DEAT participant (Phat Fairy!), goes into panic mode  and struggles out, arms and legs flailing. There are too many for the funnel treatment, but there’s a photo shoot (with a sponsorship banner), before they are pulled out by their torturers. After supper, there are two cakes, for the birthday boys, creatively decorated by journalist Hanlie; the drivers’ one has a liquorice all-sorts rendition of a Challenger pulling a sledge loaded with containers, and the other has a tin-foil and liquorice wind-turbine on the snowy icing. Huge slices of cake are shovelled into hungry maws and in no time only crumbs remain.

When we come up to our room, the view from our window is beautiful. In the evening light, although man-made, the orange containers of the summer depot , have a strange kind of beauty.

Day 54 Monday 30th January 2012 

Tensions running high

It’s Big Skivvy day again. D is not on the list for a change. I’m in the dining-room. The tedium is alleviated by various people’s accounts of the fisty-cuffs that went on in the bar last night. Tensions are running high as we near the end of our stay here, so in a way it’s a surprise that this is the first aggressive incident. The guy that picked the fight is small and the second guy he punched is way bigger than him, so he came off second best. There will be a disciplinary hearing.

We’re invited to go on a skidoo/Challenger jolly with some of the Titan guys, but Polar Bear is sleeping again. It’s a nice day so I should’ve gone anyway but I don’t. D had said he would come for a walk with me but had forgotten about his washing slot at 4 pm. The times are set at 4 hourly intervals to allow for the waste water to be processed in between. I wish I could go alone. I know these restrictions are there for very good reasons, but I can’t help feeling frustrated. The drivers are meant to be doing the braai, but now they are leaving tomorrow and so our team is asked to do it. Maybe we can go for our walk after supper? It’s amazingly warm out by the gym and very social. Ruan, one of the over-wintering team guys, recounts some of his amazing experiences and how dangerous this place can be for the uninformed and the unwary….emphasizing the ‘don’t go out alone’ ethos. Dinner is late and after a glass or two of wine, we laugh off the walk.

Day 55 Tuesday 31st January 2012 

A bounce gives us a lift

It’s a big day at SANAE IV. A plane is scheduled to land at 7.15 am on the recently ‘dozed runway. Contrary to our hopes that only a few would want to be there, it seems as if the whole base is keen. It’s 6.45 am and half-asleep people mumble and grumble as they struggle to find a spot to pull on their Fweet Fweet outfits, scarves, balaclavas and boots. There’s a 13 knot wind and minus 11 deg out there, so adequate clothing is essential. Skidoos buzz to life and are soon gunning it down the S1 (my name for SANAE’s 1 and only ‘main road’) to the runway.  Poles with black plastic bag flags have to be dug out of the snow and erected next the runway. The red windsock stands out gaily against the snow. At 8 o’clock the plane is spotted. The pilot makes a wide turn to land into wind. He comes in low, fast and a bit short, his skis hitting quite a large ridge of snow at the start of the runway. This is fun to watch. It bounces and is airborne again before touching down, skiing some more, then doing a tight circle turn in a flurry of snow before finally trundling back to the welcoming party. There is a Canadian flag on the tail of the red, white and blue DC3TP – how pretty these colours look after so much white over the last few weeks.

The three visiting consultants disembark with the engines still running. Then the doors close, the plane turns into wind and taxis down the runway, disappearing in a self-created snow-cloud on take-off. We hope for a fly-past but it doesn’t happen. So that’s the excitement over for the day….oh but hang on there’s more…..

Pass the parcel Antarctic style There is a lot of expired food in the walk-in freezer. This is to be transferred into a buried container away from the base and will be available for emergencies. We form a human chain and ‘pass the parcels’ of mostly meat, veggies and bread from the freezer room, down the passage, through the dining-room and then outside.  Very soon there’ll be phase two; putting it all into the under-snow container.

And the Visitor’s Book We will write something in it before we go, but I was keen to read what others had written. Most entries, particularly those in 1997, are about the base rather than Antarctica per se, as that was when SANAE IV was completed. There are some amusing entries: ‘Warm and cosy, but it stinks’ and the very unimaginative ‘Nice place’. I liked the journalists’ entries the best:  ‘Overwhelming, humbling.’ ‘Beyond description’ and John Yeld of the Cape Argus, Cape Town: ‘SANAE expeditions should include poets and artists to try to do justice to this wonderful place.’ I agree.

Day 56 Wednesday 1st February 2012 

Changing weather and changing decisions

We awake to a mini white-out. But by lunch time, it’s blue skies and sunshine again. However there is another big weather system on its way, which could result in everyone being stuck here for a good few days. Meetings are hurriedly arranged to plan the first passenger flights back to the ship. I’m on list no. 1 along with the other people who are not considered essential here – but hang on – I’ve promised to make cheese scones  – isn’t this an essential  service?! I’d planned to do them today anyhow and so at 2.30 pm I begin – multiplying my recipe by 8.

I got the story wrong re what was to happen today regarding ‘pass the parcel’. New foodstuffs, which came on the ship in a container, have to be transferred from the summer depot into the freezer. So once again a human chain is formed to ‘throw’ the mostly 20 kg boxes along the line. Dr. Abi insists I should carry on with my baking. Poor D is in the freezer and every now and again he has to come out for a break – he’s red in the face – ‘blue with cold’…..no…you go pink/red. Dr. Abi is so tough she stays in there without a break and turfs those 20 kg packages as if they’re feather light. It takes me till after 4 pm to bake the 8 trays of muffins and then D helps me with the washing up.

The plans change again. Now both choppers will do two flights, passengers in the 212 and cargo in the 205 and all the Titan crew will stay on the ship until the storm is over. Then the 212 will fetch the remaining passengers. It’s still foggy at the ship though. A lot of people, including the journalists, were hoping for more time here, so there is grumbling at supper. We see Braam and wish him well for the year. It’s a shame we haven’t seen the rest of S51 to say goodbye and good luck. We are looking forward to being back on the boat and we pack our bags and go to bed.  I’m on my way to the bathroom at some point during the night and coming down the passage towards me is journalist Louise, video camera rolling. I look at my watch – it’s 2.20 am! At 4 am Paul, group leader of S50 knocks on our door –we’re not going…yet.  Next check 6 am.

Day 57 Thursday 2nd February 2012 

Breaths; a breath of REALLY fresh air, and ‘take your breath away’ beauty  

We wake at 6.45 am and there’s been no knock on the door, so it’s all off for the time being. I feel like a popped balloon. Maybe we will be able to go on Sunday. My mouth is full of hideous cold sores and it is Big Skivvy day again. At least there is lovely fruit salad with lots of grapefruit and orange in it at breakfast. Maybe the Vitamin C will be healing. I’m in AB link. The toilet hasn’t been cleaned in goodness knows how long and there’s always someone who doesn’t pitch. Today the missing man arrives just as I’m finishing vacuuming – and stands and watches. The Internet was off and on the whole of yesterday and it’s still off.

But…..there’s no wind and it is only minus 7 deg – a stunning day in Antarctica and they have a fun excursion planned for us: “All personnel are to meet in the dining-room for the Chicken Run.”  It’s a rubbish collection exercise – oh I get it….chickens pecking in the dirt. We get dressed in our ‘rooster’ outfits. All teams have designated areas. Ours is the area surrounding the diesel storage tanks and wind turbines. Where we are it is mostly fuel spills. It is pleasing to see there really isn’t a lot. We ‘peck’ away in the ‘dirt’/snow with our ‘beaks’/shovels. It is truly gorgeous out there and soon our jackets come off. We ‘spit’ the lumps of snow into plastic bags and then lumber back to the skidoo to tip these into a drum. Apparently, this will be melted down and then taken back to South Africa for disposal. It doesn’t take us long.

There is still an hour till lunch. We still have the skidoo, so 4 of us decide to go down to the Northern winter depot to see how dozer driver Koos is doing. It is exhilarating whizzing down the S1, on this perfect day. It takes us quite a while to get there – places always look closer than they are here. Why is it so far from the base? Apparently there is less snow build up there. To the uniformed it looks like land-art; a neat row of trenches with big piles of snow at their ends. But containers will be placed on top of the snow hills to prevent their burial by winter snowfalls.One dozer is hard at work and we find Koos having a little break in the other one.

It is so peaceful out there far away from the base. Taking big breaths of the REALLY fresh air feels SO good and those exquisite deep blues in the hollows literally take one’s breath away. The orange dozers too are handsome against a complimentary cerulean sky. We ‘kuier’ for a bit and then all head back for lunch.

Day 58 Friday 3rd February 2012 

Happy Foote (not going on the Cat-train) and Happy Feet

What was that I said – going on Sunday? Nope, wrong again. The weather is worsening and only predicted to clear around the 12th which is when the boat is supposed to set sail for Cape Town. The date of arrival in Cape Town is the 22nd and this is apparently compulsory for various reasons. Also, the longer the delay, the more likelihood there is of the boat being trapped by the ice. The choppers can’t fly until the weather clears so plan B is put into action:   Everyone, except Titan crews, will go by Cat-train to the ship. Two trips will be necessary. The boat has been waiting at the South African Penguin Bukta, which is much closer to the base, in the hope that most of the passengers and some of the cargo could be loaded there. But this hasn’t been possible and so now it is on its way to Akta Bukta (German) and everyone and everything will have to be loaded there. The heavy back-loading is always done there because the ice-shelf is conveniently lower. Instead of an hour and a half’s flight from here to the ship, everyone (except our team) will be bumping their way over sastrugis for at least 36 hours – that’s how long it takes when the weather is good -before they reach Akta Bukta. Two cabooses will be used. One is here, and a team is on its way to fetch the other one from the halfway station. They are due back tomorrow. I look at the lists. The cabooses will be crowded; one is a 4 sleeper and the other an 8, but there will be 10 people in each.  I don’t know how the ‘who goes where’ was decided – I suspect out of a hat, as Louise the journalist, is the only woman in the 4 sleeper one.  There are windows, but they don’t open, and no inside loos – plastic bags for this purpose. Others will go in the Challengers’ cabs. There’s a ‘house’ meeting after dinner. “Departure at 10 am sharp” and “Going on the Cat-train is ‘fun’ “, says the DCO. Well….I don’t think so…. not my kind of fun, and especially not in this weather. I am selfishly SOOOO relieved that I don’t have to do this.  The over-wintering team will assist the drivers going there then they’ll leave them there and drive back to load up the rest of the people and cargo for trip two. If possible, people and cargo will be loaded onto the ship, but at Penguin Bukta, the ship had to move away from the ice-shelf because of shifting ice. It needs to be up against the ice-shelf for loading. If they can’t load, they will all have to stay in the cabooses at E base until things improve.

So… we unpack some things and I get out my paints to take my mind off my disgusting cold sores and what’s going on here. And I finish my 2nd painting. Pairs of Adelies dance across the  icy landscape and I’ve called it “Happy Feet” (after the movie). D likes it, which makes me happy.

DAY 59 Saturday 4th February 2012 

We wake up to the now familiar thrum. It’s snowing and blowing out there, 27 knots and minus 11 deg. Lovely weather for travelling – I think not. Still, preparations for the journey continue. Plenty of stuff has already been packed into Container 4. Bags are piling up in the links. There is a lot of traffic in the passages as the time for departure – ‘10 am sharp’ – approaches. But the Cat that went to fetch the 2nd caboose has not yet returned. They radio through to say that they are stuck at the halfway station with a frozen air- filter.

Plan C: “Attention all personnel, attention all personnel, the Cat-train will now depart after dinner tonight.”   Dr. Abi comes to D with tomorrow’s weather predictions and it looks hopeful for a 24 hour period of flyable weather conditions from about midday tomorrow. Can everyone be flown out now? D has a meeting with the DCO and others. What if the weather predictions turn out to be optimistic and they have to resort to the Cat-train option after all?  They will have lost a day and cut it too fine to do all the back-loading at the ice-shelf. No, Cat-train 1 must go.

Plan D: The Cat-train, with just one caboose will leave at 11.30 am now (instead of after dinner) and they will take a new air filter to the stranded Challenger at the halfway station. If the weather clears as predicted, both choppers will do as many flights as they can from 10 am onwards – probably 3 each….

The train doesn’t get going until much later.

Going down to do Smelly is quite hectic. They take a rope just in case but don’t use it in the end. They can just be seen through the swirling snow.

Now it is 10 pm and we’ve heard that some Challengers are stuck. The going is rough and very slow. Flying may be possible earlier than midday, so we are packing again and I’m posting this tonight in case it is the last one for quite a while. I won’t be able to post on the boat. So the next one will be around the 24th Feb. Pray for a safe journey for all of us please!

Day 60 Sunday 5th February 2012 

Enjoy your food and Vasbyt (min dae)

Well….it’s 1 pm and here we are still. The wind, rather than dropping as we’d hoped, has picked up in the night. It’s gusting up to 37 knots and with the wind chill, it is minus 27 deg outside. There is more and more blue sky though, so we are ever hopeful that we will be able to get away fairly soon….please.  One of the dozers has ‘Vasbyt, min dae’ (grit your teeth, few days) painted on its scoop and I think that says it all at this stage. Plan E: Flying from 6 pm.

I didn’t sleep well last night – I was thinking about all the people in the Cat-train crawling slowly toward Akta Bukta. They will probably only get there tomorrow afternoon – 48 hrs after setting out. At some point very late, we were woken by someone shouting, “Only one minute to go!” What was that about? Things really aren’t so bad – I’m not on that Cat-train for one thing. No-one down to do Waste skivvy with me turns up (huge party again last night) but our Titan guys roll up their sleeves and help me and also D, who is in the kitchen –  again. I was able to catch up with emails before the Internet went off just before lunch.

And there is comfort food all day long; 6.30am, 10am, 12, 3.30pm and 6pm. Paul, the group leader of the S50 team, has been sitting at our table quite a lot lately and what an interesting man he is. He is a meteorologist and very keen on mountaineering. But this morning at breakfast he talks about the strange tastes he has developed during his 14 months here; he spices up his Anchovette toast with Tabasco sauce and loves a good sprinkling of black pepper on his marmalade! Just after that Angelo joins us and on his plate he has made a face, with sausage eyebrows, date ball eyes, a cheesy nose and I am very pleased to see that it has a smiling, not a down-turned, sausage mouth –  I wish I’d taken a photo before he ate it! Bees gives me a small packet of jelly babies – and I eat the lot…..comfort food.

Part 2 Day 60 Sunday 5th February 2012 

Soaring spirits and soaring like a bird

We happen to look out of our window at 3 pm and the wind has almost died. So it is all stations go and at 5.30 pm the 212 takes off for the ship – and I’m on it, along with 9 others – YAY! We do a last swoop past the waving people on the heli-deck and then it’s goodbye to SANAE forever and ever – probably. The hour and a half flight goes quickly. The vis isn’t too good in the middle bit (nothing to see anyway) but as we fly along the ice-shelf toward the heart-warming sight of the little red boat in the distance, I feel my spirits soar. Although the scenery at SANAE is exquisite, the unspoilt beauty of icebergs and floes dotted with living, breathing penguins and seals, is what really takes my breath away.

The wheels to get the choppers into the hangar are coming with the cargo load in the 205. There is no room for two choppers on the heli-deck, so after the passengers disembark (except me!), we fly to Summer Camp to wait on the ice-shelf until the 205 has been put to bed.  Fred and Bez come out to greet us and invite us in for coffee. Some Germans arrive – their new Neumayer base is very close by. They invite us to take a peek inside their old base, which is now completely buried. It’s very exciting – like Famous Five stuff – watching them clear the compacted snow off the trapdoor and open it.

There is a vertical ladder going way down into the gloom. Crystals shimmer in the moving beam of torchlight. People have been down into it, but it is considered dangerous now as the structure is slowly collapsing.

We ‘albatross’ our way back to the boat, swooping low across icebergs, and penguin inhabited floes and the odd seal, all stunningly beautiful in the evening light.

We are welcomed back onto the ship with open arms.  Just before turning in we are treated to a ‘welcome back’ gift; the awesome sight of icebergs tinged a pearly pink by the setting sun.

 

PART 5. FINAL LEG – back on the boat

Day 61 Monday 6th February 2012 

A ‘lucky’ break

We are up at 4 am in order to prepare for the first flight by the 212 at 5 and at 6, the 205 leaves to fetch more cargo. It’s a glorious morning. D and Janneman are to take sandwiches and drinks to the Summer Station for the Cat-train people (who arrived at about 3 am – so in the end only 36 hrs!) en route to SANAE to fetch yet more people. A few of us are watching and fey Amy is filming. As Janneman attempts to lift off, the centre of gravity doesn’t feel right, so he puts it down and then there is a loud cracking noise and the back end of the chopper drops down. Hydraulic fluid starts pouring out. The back skid has broken clean through in the middle.

It is horrible to watch and even more horrible for the pilots to experience. They climb out, shaken, but unhurt. It’s lucky that it broke on the ship. If it had happened at SANAE or on the ice at Summer Camp, it would’ve been a much bigger problem. Amy’s video will be so useful for the inquiry. The crew finally manage to get the poor injured bird into the hangar. The 205 comes in and after off-loading, seats are installed and they go off to fetch another load of people from SANAE. Then they do two more trips to bring the Cat-train lot to the ship.  Meanwhile, someone, (who?)has agreed to take two Belgian Squirrel helicopters back to CT and one of them lands on the heli-deck to see how they are going to fit them in. Later they bring the boxes for the blades, dangling on the end of the hoist. The wind picks up in the afternoon. Another storm is on its way. During the course of the day, Wilson storm petrels flutter about, we see a giant petrel and occasional penguins and every now and then we pass a magnificent iceberg.

This helps take our minds off our troubles – and of course there is always the food – delicious nosh on the boat! Many are complaining that their clothes have shrunk in this very dry climate.

DAY 62 Tuesday 7th February 2012 

A beautiful butterfly in our cabin

The plan is that the 205 will do another trip to SANAE to fetch more cargo, weather permitting. The alarm goes at 4.30 am. D goes up to the bridge to check the weather. The wind is blowing at more than 30 knots and rising. The storm has hit earlier than expected. The ship has retreated quite a way off the ice-shelf and with no pack-ice to flatten the sea, she is rocking and rolling in the 4 to 5 meter swells.  There won’t be any flights today. How are things going at SANAE and Summer Camp? We go back to sleep – and wake at 9 am – obviously yesterday’s drama took its toll.

D, my magpie husband, spots something shiny stuck in the carpet of our cabin….it’s the lost butterfly of my pearl earring! So it wasn’t chewed up by the treadmill after all – I must have hooked it off when I was putting on my gym clothes. It seems miraculous given that the carpet has been vacuumed a number of times. I feel ridiculously happy!

Later we go up to the bridge. The ship is riding into the wind and they are keeping an eagle eye out for growlers, those dangerous large lumps of ice that lurk just beneath the surface. There is concern now about being able to get to the shelf to do the back-loading. This storm isn’t helping as the wind is easterly and instead of blowing the pack-ice away it is pushing it in.

After lunch, amazingly, we sleep again – what bliss to be able to do this without feeling guilty! It is Faeez, one of our team member’s birthday. He just escaped having a snow-bath at SANAE.  Someone pushes a lump of snow down his shirt to compensate.  We all gather in the bar at 8 pm and the delightful Amys have found sparklers to put on top of his deliciously sticky chocolate cake.

There is still beauty all around us; setting sun and rising moon.

DAYS 63,64,65 Wednesday, Thursday, Friday 8th, 9th, 10th February 2102 

Riding out the storm

The last three days have all rolled together into a misty blur of flurrying snow, eating, gentle swells, drinking, bergy bits, sleeping, ice floes, talking, (about delay), birds (soaring effortlessly without a care in the world), reading, a few Adelies, more eating, the odd seal (nonchalantly chilling), more sleeping, more drinking and talking (nonsense in the pub), pack-ice (packed very tight), some drawing (more penguins), then open sea once more.  The ship has been zig-zagging back and forth waiting for a break in the weather. Their attempts to get closer to the ice-shelf have been thwarted time and time again. Now it is very likely that we won’t be back in Cape Town on the 22nd. Everyone is more than ready to go home. Many have booked flights, exams to write, commitments. Frustrations are mounting, tension is building. Cabin mates who merely irritated before, are now becoming intolerable. In the bar, there is an ongoing war over music – whose turn is it for their kind of music and what volume is tolerable? Is this the time in a voyage when really ugly things can happen? There is an axe hanging on the wall just around the corner from our cabin on B deck. The story goes that this was the weapon used (perhaps not the very same one?!) to murder the chef, on this ship’s maiden voyage. No-one would murder the chef on this voyage – the food is just too good!

I love sitting up on the monkey deck, breathing lungfuls of the cold air, the snow swirling all around. This is a first for me – sitting out in a snowstorm.  I can enjoy it because I’m warmly dressed in my water-proof Fweet Fweet outfit.  Alone with my thoughts, I think ‘What makes snow so magical?’  The panel in front of the seat where I sit is painted a dark blue and it is fascinating to see that the snow is often actually just very small threads. There are a few bigger classic star shape flakes, but they’re still very small.  They melt almost immediately. How awesome it would be photograph one and see its structure – it blows my mind to think that every single one is unique in design.  Part of the magic I think is the silence – you don’t hear snow falling like you do rain or hail. Then there’s its gentleness; flakes float down and settle on my clothes and gloves. There is no discomfort – only wonder at the beauty of them. Their touch on my face is feather-light and refreshing – snow kisses….

.Days 66, 67, 68 Saturday, Sunday, Monday 11th,12th,13th February 2012

 

Ice – beauty and the beast

The original leaving date, Sunday the 12th, comes and goes with no break in the weather.  At last on Monday 13th there is blue sky and sunshine. According to the weather predictions, more weather is moving in and so the 205 must do as many flights as possible. It takes off to fetch its first cargo load from Summer Camp, while the ship begins pushing her way pugnaciously through the pack ice.  It goes well initially but the ice gets thicker, the Captain gets worried, tries to turn and gets stuck.  Eventually, holding forward thrust, the ice shifts and the boat is able to retreat to safety.  But now all the flying has to include the 13 or so miles to the shelf as well as 7 more to Summer Camp. Each flight takes almost an hour.

They do 9 trips (3100 litres of fuel!), but even this only makes a small dent in the amount of stuff that still has to be brought back to the ship – all the containers etc. that would normally be lifted by the ship’s crane at the shelf. D is up on the bridge all day, on the radio to the 205 and I’m down on the heli-deck, standing next to my fire-extinguisher.  In between flights we marvel at hugely imposing ice-bergs and whipped meringue ice floes, pierced with exquisite turquoise hollows and holes.

We also see a number of seals – the poor things panicked by the clattering choppers.

In the evening, two Belgian helicopters, very handsome Squirrels, are flown onto the deck.  Someone – who? –  has agreed to take them back to CT. They take off the blades and stabilizers, and juggle to fit them into the hangar.

 

We felt we’d better have the new chopper guys at our table, so sadly the Amys have had to move. We hear that at last the Cat-train is on its way to Summer Camp with the remaining people from SANAE.

Why is everyone complaining? They are safe and warm, they can enjoy three good meals every day that they don’t have to cook themselves, their dishes are washed and cabins cleaned by someone else. They can read, play cards, indulge in hobbies (I am busy with 4 new paintings – two watercolour and two oils), watch movies, or sit in the fresh air and imbibe this unique environment, go to the gym – or sleep all day if they want to. These are things they complain they don’t have time for back home.  Do we feel we have to earn our leisure time through hard work?  Whatever, everyone is moaning and groaning about the delay. Supplies on the boat are already being affected.  Things like lettuce, tomatoes and bananas were of course finished long ago, and now there is much more tinned fruit than fresh at meals. The tea-time treats have diminished considerably and if you don’t get in there quickly, gannets swoop in and leave only crumbs. We’ve been asked to conserve milk and bottled drinking water.  Remaining fuel too will have to be carefully monitored. Interesting facts: The ship burns 10 tons a day! It has used 700 tons so far and has about 400 left. We are not burning up much fuel ourselves – I still haven’t got on the treadmill! But we are having to eke out our personal stuff as well now.

Days 69 & 70 Wednesday,Thursday 14th 15th February 2012

Limping…..

We are the Aliens

Valentine’s Day:  Apart from us, there is only one other married couple on board. Some people have paired up on board, but the majority’s loved ones are far away.  So no matter then that there is no florist on board and the tuck-shop is virtually out of chocolates. What about a party then, to cheer people up? The Amys (of course!) decide on the theme; Antarctic Aliens.  Behind cabin doors, people puzzle over what they’ll wear and busily construct their alien appendages – but not us. D has challenged Dr. Abi and Tiki, another member of the S50 team, to a game of bridge.  A good few hours of the afternoon pass pleasantly.  After supper I dress up; I stick toothbrush feelers into the band of my SA Agulhas woolly cap.  Time taken to get ready, 1 minute! D, predictably, is doing nothing.  We head for the bar. It is hilarious watching the people coming in – loads of creative ideas and the oceanographer’s lab must surely be out of foil if all the fantastic headdresses are anything to go by.  Jasmine, the face-painting wizard is there and she brings life and soul to the party with every face she paints. The music is loud but nobody moans or cares because it is a party and everyone is planning to let their hair/feelers down. Drinking games generate shrieks of laughter –false gaiety – maybe… but so what? We go to bed at midnight but the die-hards party on until 6 am.

 

Hardly any of us make breakfast the next morning – at our table there’s only me and Big John (our engineer).  I go up to the monkey deck after breakfast and sit up there for an hour. I catch a glimpse of a whale – just the dorsal fin and the hump of its back appear briefly above the surface and then there’s a small blow – not enough to identify it unfortunately. I think to myself, he/she belongs here. The ship is heading towards the pack-ice and through the binocs I can see some gorgeous icebergs embedded in it, one an amazing intense turquoise. They belong there. Our ‘little’ ship (she really is dwarfed in this landscape) reaches the pack-ice, but there’s no way through. The message seems to be, ‘You don’t belong here – please go home now.’ Later, we see some Adelies milling about on an ice floe at the edge of the pack-ice.  They belong here. All the seals we’ve seen lying on their icy beds have looked totally chilled/relaxed – until the choppers flew over them. They belong here. We are the aliens in Antarctica.

Days 71, 72, 73 Thursday, Friday , Saturday 16th 17th 18th February 2012

Limping badly…..

More trough than crests

The Cat-train, bearing the DCO arrived safely at Summer Camp and the powers that be are trying to make decisions about what can be done under the present circumstances. Up on the bridge the latest weather print out adds greater concern; snow and strong winds from the east for a number of days still, so no flying yet. The pack-ice is growing by the day, making it less and less likely that the ship will get anywhere near the shelf, never mind up to it. The absolute last day that the ship can hang around – to make sure it has enough fuel to get back to Cape Town – is the 25th. Occasional emails moving back and forth, between the DCO, his side-kick here on the ship, the Captain and Dudley, but no-one can do anything until the weather clears.  Food is running low at Summer Camp and on the boat (not just biscuits at tea and cheese at the evening meal!) – interesting fact, the ship left Cape Town with 10 tons of potatoes and they are down to the last 10 kg bag, which will be finished by tomorrow. The purser is hoping that when the chopper flies to the Summer Camp to pick up people and cargo, they can salvage some of the time-ex food from SANAE (all that ‘pass the parcel’ stuff), that is sitting in a container on the ice waiting to come back to South Africa. Nearly everyone is saying “ I just want to go home.” It really feels as if we are down to the wire now.

But always there are things to give one a lift: Up on the bridge, we see a Minky whale cruising nonchalantly by; I go up on the monkey deck. At first I’m on my own, then oceanographer Stephen joins me and we move through a proper beautiful snowstorm, with really big flakes. His weather gadget measures wind-speed 45 km, wind chill -11 deg and humidity 60% (25% in our cabin); I’m reading a really interesting book called The Case for a Creator. A journalist investigates scientific evidence that points towards God, by Lee Strobel. One fact that really blows me away ‘The expansion rate of the universe is fine-tuned to one part in a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion. If it were changed by one part in either direction – a little faster, a little slower – we could not have a universe that would be capable of supporting life.’ Stephen C. Meyer, PhD . That’s more than good enough for me to believe in God; talking to people on the boat – getting to know so many interesting people, especially the young ones, most of whom are young enough to be our children!; there’s a Pictionary contest in the bar- lots of laughs. The oceanographers organized it and they win.

Days 74, 75 Sunday, Monday 19th 20th February 2012  

Dangling….

As tough as leather?

We’re still playing the waiting game – waiting, waiting and waiting some more for the weather to clear. Days blur into one another…Wednesday, Sunday, Thursday, they all feel the same. But I make my own notes on little things that happen which distinguish one day from another; we continue to see beautiful icebergs that are unusual enough to take yet more photos – not all of us are blasé about them yet. We’re also seeing a lot more seals in the pack-ice. They are disturbed by the ship, but not enough to take the plunge into the icy water surrounding their floes.  I try going up to the monkey deck but the 40 knot wind almost blows me off my feet and with the wind chill it’s -27 deg. Our cabin is much colder too but it still feels cozy. I finish my 5th penguin watercolour and I give one to Jasmine as a thank you for her face-painting and the help she gave me at SANAE with laminating labels for the library. Oceanographer Patrick has loaned us his beautiful book ‘To the ends of the earth, The History of Polar Exploration’ by Richard Sale, which makes for fascinating reading. So many more died than made it home. We have run out of potatoes amongst other things, the food has deteriorated and the meat is often tough. We feel a bit hard done by, but a British expedition leader, John Franklin, and some of his men survived an over-wintering land exploration expedition (having first sailed from England to Hudson Bay),  by eating tripe de roche, a lichen growing on rocks and the leather of their boots and jackets! The book also has some wonderful photographs, including an amazingly good colour one of Shackleton’s ship, Endurance, taken by Frank Hurley on a Paget plate.

Days 76, 77 Tuesday, Wednesday 21st 22nd February 2012

Kicking at last….

Fly boys to the rescue

21st Feb There is an upbeat mood on the boat. The weather conditions have improved and flying can begin after lunch. Because the ship cannot get close to the shelf, the pilots request that everything to be transported be taken to the ice-shelf, in case of poor visibility and also to save time and fuel. The Germans have generously offered 5 free flying hours on one of their Belgian Squirrels. She has been parked backwards and wingless, into the hangar. So first she is wheeled out onto the heli-deck to have her blades and stabilizer fitted and then she is filled with fuel and is ready to go. It’s a single pilot, double engine machine and can seat 5 passengers, so the plan is for them to bring most of the people back – the 205 is not supposed to carry passengers. They also have their own cargo to bring onto the boat, mostly the geo-physicist’s rocks – a staggering 1.5 tons – our geos are only 200kgs! The 205 will do as many cargo loads as they can. The big crane is swung out of the way so that the choppers can drop loads that are to go straight into the hold. Bees and Tjaart pilot the 205. Angelo is on that deck ready to unclip the loads. Big John has the worst job; he has to lie on his tummy leaning out of the door and direct the pilots. D is up on the bridge all day talking to the pilots on the radio, Janneman is in charge of the hangar, Faeez and Sipho do the hot refueling, i.e. fill up with the engines running to save time – the ship has a tank of Jet A1 fuel in the hold and this is pumped into the chopper with a long thick hose.  I’m overseer of life-jackets, recorder of fuel, tea-lady and fireguard! All afternoon, the choppers buzz back and forth, alternating their take-offs and landings. Everyone except helicopter personnel and necessary ship’s crew have been banned from the hangar, but people still filter in to collect their personal baggage and to welcome the Summer Station people back to the boat.  There are cheers and reunion hugs. Our engineer, Big John, has been very concerned about Molly – no, she is not his girlfriend, she’s the expensive little tractor (R80,000) that pushes and pulls the choppers in and out of the hangar! She had to go by Cat-train from SANAE to the Summer Station and the weather was foul.  She is dropped onto the heli-deck, unharmed but every crevasse is filled with compacted snow, as are all the spares cupboards.  So in between flights, Janneman and I scrape and brush her clean, while Faeez and Sipho clean out the cupboards.

By the end of the day everyone from the Summer Station is on board as well as a lot of the cargo.

And still the landscape takes one’s breath away. To top off all the excitement, there is a beautiful sunset – and then the inevitable party!

22nd Feb The weather is not as good as it was yesterday, but the pilots of the 205 decide it is flyable and at 8.15 they take off for their first sortie. On their 2nd flight they take some nets to drop on the ice as a reference point because the vis is poor. They fly all day non-stop, 11 flights in all and over 8 hours of flying and by 16.45pm they have flown off all the flyable stuff. The Caterpillars and ‘dozers will have to over-winter on the ice.  While they are doing their last flight, the ship turns around and starts heading out of the ice and home.

By supper at 6.30 pm we are out in the open sea.  Everyone heaves a sigh of relief – and heads for the bar!

Day 79 Thursday 23rd February 2012 

A life is more important than a laptop

Alarm signal blares. Pull on warm clothing and life jackets ,  lug survival bags, head for heli-deck. Line up on allotted cabin numbers, odds starboard (us), evens, port. Stand in freezing cold wind while purser checks everyone’s there, then head for life-boats on each side of ship.  D and Janneman, who have done this twice before, hold back to the end – last in first out! Climb steep metal stairs up into life-boat. Take last three seats in enclosed pod/sardine tin – we’re sitting bolt upright and are packed in like sardines – about 55 people. Door closes. I don’t see any portholes/windows but discover later that there is one on each side. The third mate reads out some stuff about a real ship evacuation situation; dress as warmly as possible, don’t waste time grabbing ‘valuables’ – a life is more important than a laptop, there is food water, fuel and even seasick pills in the life-boat. This is a modern design – a fully enclosed pod that will right itself if it tips over when dropped into the sea – there are seat-belts to hold you in place.

 

Looking around at all the squashed-in people, doing this for real didn’t bear thinking about. My thoughts drift; toast rationed to only one each at breakfast now. Still we are far from starving. How long would the food last as we bobbed in the sea in our crowded cocoon? Would there be fighting as it ran out? Who would resort to cannibalism when it did, as Franklin’s ill-fated Arctic expedition members are reputed to have done? D & I are together, as are the other two married couples on board. What about the shipboard romance couples – would they be allowed to swap cabin numbers so that they could be together if push came to shove in a real life emergency?   I hope there will be no need to find out. I didn’t go into it on the outward journey as I was seasick, as were so many others. Imagine everyone getting seasick in here? Is there a ‘loo’ of sorts? Should’ve asked when he said “Any questions?”, but we couldn’t wait to get out of there.

Day 80 Friday 24th February 2012 

Kicking strongly…..           

Whaling and wailing

We are fairly galloping along at 13 knots and getting somewhere fast! While having my morning coffee, I watch an excellent documentary on the SA Agulhas, SANAE expedition called Antarctica: Journey to a frozen desert, made about 4 years ago, before the Neumayer underground base was closed. It is wonderful to see what we’ve experienced summarized into an entertaining hour or so’s viewing. A couple of things we’d heard about but hadn’t seen are on it: a) making a ramp at the ice-shelf. This had to be done because the shelf was too high for the crane to lift the heavy stuff up there. Bez is the very brave dozer driver who did this very dangerous job. He is alive to tell the tale but said that once the shelf gave way beneath him and it was the scariest moment of his life. He has been to Antarctica 18 times but now he drives the Caterpillars and dozers but not the really scary stuff. b) Going down a crevasse. This looked utterly amazing, the blues being indescribable. Apparently there is a big one near Crystal Palace, but we weren’t shown it. The guy who took us there did take one of the over-wintering guys to see it – they both had crampons on. Perhaps it’s the one where a SANAE guy lost his life, not that long ago – this must have happened after this movie was made. I think since then they don’t go down them anymore.  In Richard Sale’s book ‘To the ends of the Earth’, there is a photo of two Australian explorers Mawson and Merz, lying on their tummies peering down into a huge hole going down into a crevasse. They had skied and sledged over it safely before the snow bridge hiding it suddenly gave way when their companion Ninnes was crossing it. He disappeared into it along with his dog team and sledge and all they could see was a pair of dogs about 45 metres down. There was no sign at all of Ninnis, the other dogs and his sledge, carrying most of the food. It doesn’t sound as though they hung around to try and rescue poor Ninnes – but what could they do? They themselves were in trouble – 500kms from their base with limited food….they ended up having to eat the remaining dogs to survive. The dogs were starving themselves, so not much meat on them, but their livers were big and M&M mistakenly thought these would be nutritious. But in fact the all meat diet of the dogs had resulted in an excess of vitamin A, which poisoned the men. Merz died but Mawson miraculously survived. It makes for fascinating, if somewhat maudlin, reading. Lives are still lost at the poles, but these are few and far between by comparison – we have minor injuries such as someone falling down the stairs of the ship after too many tequilas and sustaining mild concussion!

On a lighter note, later in the morning, we see whales, whales and more whales, both near and far. Some of us are up on the monkey deck and it is thrilling to see them blow, hump their backs out of the water, and even give us a few tail displays but always there is only a brief glimpse before they disappear. This makes them incredibly hard to identify. Journalist Louise has a fantastic and very comprehensive book and I feel sure I will be able to identify the ones we’ve seen from tail flukes, dorsal fins etc. But no, in the end I’m only certain about seeing a pod of about 4 Antarctic Minky whales close to the boat. Louise thinks we also saw Sperm, Southern Right and Humpback….mmmmm?!

We also see an amazing black and white iceberg. The explanation for its strange appearance is that is must have picked up the dark bits off the see floor and then turned upside down.

Day 81 Saturday 25th February 2012 

Trying to keep balance 

A monkey’s wedding on the Monkey deck

At 10 am I go to see what University of Cape Town oceanographers Amy and Amy do at regular four hourly intervals throughout the day. They pour samples of sea water into containers and these drain through filters of various densities, catching any micro organisms, many of which are miniscule. All the filters are preserved in various solutions and frozen and will be studied back in Cape Town. It’s mundane work but they are as cheerful as always and they say they play music while they’re working.

While they are busy in the lab a depressing sight greets our eyes through the open door onto the deck; crew are busy tipping all the kitchen waste into the sea – bags and bags and bags and bags of it. No waste can be disposed of south of I think 60 degrees, so all the left-over food and waste has been saved up until now. It is at least in biodegradable bags, not plastic ones.  Dumping at sea is probably the preferable option to taking it back to a landfill in South Africa? Fey Amy, Jackie and I stay up on the monkey deck for ages. Even though there is blue sky and sunshine, at one point very large, beautiful snowflakes flutter on and around us. In South Africa, if it rains when the sun is shining we say it is a monkey’s wedding – well why not with snow too, especially as we are on the monkey deck?! We are still seeing icebergs at 58 degrees but this might be the last day we’ll see them, as on the outward journey we saw our first one somewhere between 55 and 56 degrees.  We are seeing some different birds now, but again so hard to identify, but those in the know tell us two definites; the gorgeous wandering albatross and the much smaller, very pretty Southern Fulmar.

It gets a lot rougher as the day goes on, so we all lurch around like drunken sailors (showering is fun!) but mercifully we don’t feel sick at all and so enjoy dinner – it’s better tonight; steak followed by a wafer ice-cream. Poor Faeez, one of our team, is suffering though, even after seasick pills. D doesn’t feel like going to the bar. I go down to get a cup of coffee and one of the over-wintering guys, Ruan, is playing his guitar and singing a mix of Afrikaans and English folk type songs. The atmosphere in there is accordingly subdued, but some people are singing along. I listen while I drink my coffee, then we read in bed and we’re rocked to sleep, counting the days ….we’ve been told we will be there on Friday evening and will dock on Saturday morning, so …..6 more sleeps till we’re in Cape Town!

Day 82  Sunday 26th February 2012 

Lurching…..

After lunch on Sunday it is still nice up onto the monkey deck but the wind is picking up. I don’t see any icebergs but quite a few birds are about. I have a good look through the binocs and feel sure I will be able to identify them when I get back to the cabin – wrong! Bad weather is predicted with 60-80 knot winds and by evening the sea is rougher even than when we left Cape Town all those months ago. Very thankfully, we don’t feel sick at all, but may well end up with bruises from lurching into things! We go to bed early but don’t sleep well in our pitching bunks with things clattering off shelves onto the floor every so often and the old boat creaking, groaning and juddering all night long. We don’t feel afraid but some confess they do – fey Amy, who says this is much rougher than anything they experienced on the way to South Georgia. I finish Richard Sale’s ‘To the ends of the Earth’. In a way it is quite a relief to be finished with all the gory stories – all true. Not only did so many men endure terrible hardships, so many more disappeared without trace and then still more men lost their lives looking for those who’d gone missing.

Day 83 Monday 27th February 2012 

Poop deck therapy

It’s still very rough on Monday and windy but not nearly as strong as predicted and the sun is shining. D doesn’t think it’s a good idea to go on the monkey deck with the boat pitching and rolling as much as it is, so instead I go onto the poop deck at the back of the boat. It’s the first time I’ve stood out there and what a fantastic experience it is. It’s much lower than the monkey deck, the same level as the dining-room and lounge, which is where the waves sometimes splash against the windows, so you get a much greater sense of the size of the swells. I feel very safe as the sides of the boat come up to my chest but I do have to brace myself and hold on tightly when the really big swells move through. The turquoise and white frothy wake of the boat contrasts wonderfully with the indigo of the surrounding deep blue sea. Rainbows shimmer magically in the spray. The many birds, including two Wandering Albatrosses, are in their element and swoop back and forth in the wake of the boat, just skimming the surface.

American oceanographer and harpist Jackie shows me her lab and makes an attempt to explain what she does. She came out to South Africa with her machine and had to set it all up herself. At one point it stopped working and amazingly, she took it apart and got it going again!

After lunch we both succumb to Polar Bear disease and have a sleep. Clocks go forward by one hour at midnight tonight. Now it is dark at 7 pm. It seems such a short while ago that we were taking photos of the midnight sun! I watch a movie called ‘As it was in Heaven’ which is quite intense but in my opinion very good. The main character, a very talented musician, who was bullied as a child, finds fulfilment, when he goes back to the village of his childhood and coaches the church choir. He manages to unite and give feelings of self-worth to all those people through the healing balm of music. I don’t sleep well at all – we are into the roaring forties now and the pitching is dramatic – the thing is we are not going into the waves, but across them. Also, for some reason, we are getting a strong cigarette smoke smell in our cabin, which is appalling – but mercifully, we’re still not feeling sick.

Day 84 Tuesday 28th February 2012  

Crashing and bashing….

Scrabbling and Scrabble

I can’t sleep. It feels as if I’ve lain awake for ages. I’m lifted off my bunk and then pressed down into it again, innumerable times. I check my watch – 4.20 am. I try to sleep a bit, thinking ‘only 3 hours till breakfast’. When next I check it is 8 am – too late for brekkie. D sleeps on. I feel as if I’ve hardly slept. The cabin reeks of stale cigarette smoke even though we have taped up where we think it’s coming in (smoker’s lounge right next door to us) and closed the roof vents. We’ve had the problem all along but why is it sometimes so much worse? I can’t wait to get to the poop deck for some fresh air. There are four people already there – two of them smoking! But they don’t stay long and I have it to myself. What bliss to breathe in the cold air off the sea.  Why is it called the ‘poop’ deck? D says maybe in days gone by it really was the ‘poop’ deck…. ironic then that that is where some of us go for fresh air!

When I get back to the cabin D is still asleep. It is so rough that the rubbish bin has fallen over, a chair falls over and my coffee mug too tumbles off the desk, luckily with the lid on and just the little spout open, so not too much dribbles out onto the carpet. I mop up the coffee, right the rubbish bin and chair but in no time they are over again and so that’s where they’ll stay until it calms down. While writing emails, I hang onto the desk edge whenever there is a big lurch to stop myself from tippling over backwards. D emerges for a short while, but poor him, he’s feeling nauseous so he spends most of the day in bed and he skips lunch and dinner. I’m amazed that I don’t feel ill at all. I find these rough seas mesmerising. But the videos I take on both the poop deck and the bridge don’t do them justice. Out on the deck one gets a very real sense of the immense power of the waves buffeting our ship. But ‘She’s handling it well’, says Jacques on the bridge. For me her character is pugnacious.  On the central window of the bridge, there is a drawing of Table Mountain and a ‘This side up’ arrow – drawn by the Captain!

Journalist Hanlie and I have a game of travel Scrabble – first one on this trip – and luckily the letters clip in! I watch ‘Finding Neverland’, about the conception of J. M. Barrie’s play Peter Pan – and it makes me cry! Later, again on the poop deck, I watch oceanographers Nazeera, Patrick and Bjorn bring in their R100,000 ‘fish’ which has been out at the back of the boat collecting data –salinity, iron etc. Everyone scrabbles for a handhold as they make their way to supper.  The waves slosh repeatedly over the porthole by my seat and for the first time the rails are up on the tables to stop things sliding off and all the sauce bottles are lying down!

Day 85 Wednesday 29th February 2012 

Bruised…… 

Still leaping about

It’s a leap year – ‘skikkel  jaar’ in Afrikaans, which is more expressive than the English I think. Isn’t there some romantic thing to do with this – a woman can ask a man to marry her? This seems totally old fashioned now anyhow.  Our boat is still doing some leaping of her own. The seas have not calmed down as predicted, although not quite as rough as they were. I slept a bit better and wasn’t woken by the huge jolt at 2 am as some people were. Oceanographer Bjorn comes to check his ‘fish’, and is horrified to find it’s gone – R70,000’s worth.  Water came through the closed porthole of the Germans cabin – although people have said they couldn’t have had it properly closed. Worse still some people have had sewerage sloshing out of their toilets – maybe near the poop deck?! D is still feeling grim so spends another quiet day in the cabin.  Hanlie and I play another game of Scrabble. She is Afrikaans, so we bend the rules – English or Afrikaans words! I also start to collect other people’s photos and make an attempt at starting a new painting, but somehow I just can’t get into it. So I watch Cold Mountain, starring Nicole Kidman and Jude Law, which I think is excellent.  In between I’m on the poop deck and it’s raining – first rain in nearly 3 months! It’s still not nice enough to go on the monkey deck.  D comes to supper – his first meal in 6, but as he says, he does have reserves! The gorgeous Amys have organized a leap year party – Beach bums and bimbos and spent all afternoon making cardboard fish, octopi etc. to hang for the ceiling.

Most people show up and dress up – the closest I have to beach wear is pedal pushers and t-shirt. D has a coke and then heads for bed. I really enjoy talking to Beatrice, Kevin, Hanlie, Jorn, Louise and Angelo.  I leave at 11 but then can’t sleep. Eventually I get up to make myself some tea and find short(er) Amy (they are our adopted daughters now!) in the kitchen making noodles. We go to the poop deck and ask someone the time – 2.20 am! Some people are still partying. Come back to bed and try to sleep, but feel as if I’m in a washing machine – and this morning feel a bit like a washed out rag!

Last post till we get home on the 5th March! Thanks to my daughter Sal for posting for me while we were on the boat.

Day 86 Thursday 1st March 2012 

Even more bruised……

The party goes on till very late for many and till morning for some, so there are very few people at breakfast. At our table, there’s only Deetlief (the German geo-physicist), me and meteorologist Paul. I’m surprised when Paul asks our waiter for brown bread toast – surely he knows the brown bread was finished ages ago? Then I’m even more surprised to see him pull a half apple out of one pocket and a piece of brown bread out of the other. He made his own brown bread at SANAE and brought some back to the boat, and has been finishing off the last few slices, which he’d stored in a freezer somewhere. Cleverly too, when he realized the apples and oranges were running out, he hoarded a few and has been eating them at his leisure. Paul is a guy who peppers his marmalade, so why am I surprised that he’s been so savvy about his food?

After breakfast, I go to the poop deck to watch the oceanographers launching a weather buoy.  I stand ready with my camera, but then see the ‘No memory’ sign – we forgot to put the card back in after downloading some other photos – damn! – I’ll have to post someone else’s photos. They have a clever way of tying a rope around the buoy, which releases when it is in the water. It is heavy but fragile, so it is let down gently and released. It has an orange ‘aerial’ type thing sticking up which Bjorn says is about the height of a human head. It is in the wake of the boat and as it rapidly bobs off into the distance and disappears, one gets a sense of how quickly anyone falling overboard would vanish behind the boat. It’s a very clever device that measures all sorts of things and helps the weather people in South Africa predict what’s coming – well that is the idea! You can read more about the Buoy Run that the SA Agulhas did to South Georgia in January (while take-over was happening at SANAE) on Louise’s blog www.thesouthpole.co.za  , 11 January 2012 post.  I thought the buoys would be the same but they’re not.

The sun is out and overnight it has warmed up considerably. I spend most of the rest of the day on the heli-deck reading and finish ‘The Case for Creator’. The author, Lee Strobel, wrote two books before this one, The Case for Christ and The Case for Faith. He is a journalist, who was an atheist but became a Christian after very thorough research. He was also a Darwinist until he thoroughly researched his evolutionary theories. Scientific discoveries over recent years have shown up the many flaws in Darwinism and most scientists have moved toward theism and are convinced that an ‘Intelligent Designer’ /Creator is at the helm.  It’s an absorbing book – do yourselves a favour and read it!

We hand back our warm gear. We are allowed to keep quite a lot of it – stuff that touches your skin; thermal underwear, socks, gloves, our lovely woolly hats, the inners of our boots….I think we will have to go to Norway or Iceland to see the Northern Lights…or to Antarctica again, so that we can make use of it all!

Polar bear is feeling better and comes out of hibernation, so we go to the bar and he is very sociable. We chat to Stephen, a Master’s student and Nicholas, who is doing his Doctorate. Both came to Antarctica as volunteers, as did Gavin and Minko… to give of their expertise where they could, but also of course for the experience.

DAY 87 Friday 2nd March 2012 

Jumping for joy……

Wishes can come true  

It’s our last day on the boat and it’s a beautiful day. The sea has calmed down considerably. I wish that D will come out of hibernation. He does. I wish that we see dolphins. We do – while we are on the heli-deck. They aren’t bottle-nosed and they’re small, so we can’t identify them but they give us an awesome short show, surfing a bit in the bow of the wave next to the boat and then peeling off into the wake I wish that we see a whale or whales. We do – a humpback from the monkey deck. We don’t see it breaching, just blowing and pushing its stubby dorsal fin out of the water when it humps its back.

One of the shipboard romance couples has to be asked to step down from the ‘Titanic’ rail right at the front of the boat, so that the penguin figure-head can be hoisted, to see us into Cape Town.

Wessie, one of the Public Works Department men is up on the monkey deck with us. He is one of the many who have been to Antarctica as well as Marion umpteen times and what a nice guy he is – and boy, does he know his birds! He identifies the white-chinned petrel, the black-browed and yellow-nosed albatrosses. And he is the first to spot THE MOUNTAIN through the mist. He shouts ‘Land ahoy!’ and soon the deck is crowded, all of us watching the beautiful mountainous coastline drawing closer and closer, becoming  clearer and clearer.

We try to imagine how wonderful it must have been for those early sailors, when they first set eyes on the ‘fairest Cape in all the world’. Cameras are out, as are cell phones. Soon there is a signal and everyone is talking to or texting loved ones back on land. By 7 am, we are outside the docks of Cape Town and the city’s lights are a welcoming sight. Then there is the cliché happy ending; ‘Jack and Rose’ are kissing against the backdrop of a stunning sunset.and a beautiful half moon.

It’s a quiet evening in the pub for most of us – last minute packing etc. Will, one of the wind-pomper guys, tells me that he is going to propose to his girlfriend as soon as he gets off the ship. He bought the ring before he left and has had it in the pursers safe for the whole trip, but now it is in his pocket and that’s where it will be until tomorrow! Contact details and yet more photos are exchanged. Ulwin, another wind-pomper guy tells us that his amazing 80 year Gran will be there tomorrow and that she is looking forward to meeting all of us who have kept her informed about the trip through our blogs. Hanlie requested that anyone reading her blog bring her salt and vinegar chips and so far she has three packets coming her way! I should’ve asked for some Mint Thins or something….

We go to bed and I doze off thinking:

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wished that I could go to Antarctica – AND NOW I HAVE – HOW AWESOME IS THAT? – WISHES CAN COME TRUE!

Day 88 Saturday 3rd March 2012 

Terra firma at last…..

Home sweet beautiful home; Cape Town 

After breakfast everyone is milling about sorting out their stuff. We hear that Paul has been summoned. The story was that the harbour police needed to speak to him urgently ….but in fact it is his daughter, who has come to welcome him back after his 14 months away – on a jet-ski! Then at last we are nosing our way into the harbour – in the nick of time – the mist closes in just as we dock at 8 o’clock.

We see all the families, friends and lovers waiting on the quayside, many with welcoming banners.  There are at least two new babies, one waiting to meet his father (Dennis)and the other his grandfather (Koos). There are some surprises – people who thought family wouldn’t be there to meet them are, so emotions run high. But no-one is allowed to disembark until we’ve been cleared by customs and passport control. But somehow Hanlie gets her salt and vinegar chips and we all chomp on these while we wait to get off. We make ship to shore acquaintance with Ulwin’s on the ball Gran, but unfortunately I don’t get to meet her properly after this. Finally the all clear is given to disembark.  We are delighted to meet the lovely Amys’ parents.  In what seems like a very short time, the ship empties – all except the chopper guys. The engineers get busy on the 212 and while that is going on, the Germans reassemble their Squirrels and fly off. Then off goes the 205. Now it is just D & I and the Titan engineers. The bolts don’t fit properly and more have to be fetched but the job gets done and at about 2.30 pm D & I fly off the ship to CTI (CapeTown International). I’m in the co-pilot’s seat – but not touching the stick! I wish that we can do a pleasure flight around gorgeous Table Mountain, with its tablecloth spilling over – but that wish doesn’t come true!  We pick up the few things we left there and then we’re in our car and heading for City Lodge, Pinelands. It is great to be back.

Now it truly is OVER!

 

 

 

 

One thought on “Antarctica

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