We all enjoyed Christmas breakfast together and spent the rest of the morning getting organized for our departure to the SANAE base. This included tidying up the base, washing dishes from the night before, putting away all the garbage, making and packing food for the road ("padkos"), switching off all electrical equipment and appliances and securing the base against invasion (by snow and ice!). We also had to drain all the water in the main water tank, otherwise it freezes and creates havoc in the pipes.
Outside, the weather was deteriorating. The wind was picking up and visibility was decreasing. At about 2pm, fully kitted out, we climbed down the ladder and then the men started hooking up the cargo sleds to the different Challengers. This took about 2 hours. At last, we were ready to hit the road!
"SANAE, SANAE, SANAE, come in for Cat Train."
"Cat Train, Cat Train, Cat Train, this is SANAE, standing by."
"SANAE, Cat Train is ready to depart from Summer Station for SANAE…. "
When these words came over the radio, my heart skipped a few beats. I am REALLY here! This is really happening!
The engines were already warmed up. And so was our sense of adventure! Our Cat Train consisted of 5 Caterpillar Challengers, each pulling a series of sleds chained together. An empty sled probably weighs about 2 tons; some Challengers were pulling two or three sleds, with loads of 50 tons or more.
The intrepid Cat Train drivers consisted of two members of the SANAE 50 team, i.e. the 'old' overwintering team (who have had many of their own hair-raising ice adventures) and 8 others, mostly from the SA military.
This is the reason for these 8 men being here: to drive the Challengers and to ensure that the cargo got from the ice shelf to the sleds and from there, to SANAE IV base.
(Ready for departure – observe the weather)
The route took us close by the German base, Neumayer III. Long before we got there, we had been stuck in the snow more than a few times. By the time we had covered the 8km to reach Neumayer, about 4 hours had passed. The visibility was much less and the wind was howling loudly. I noticed that the snow was all moving horizontally. One of our vehicles got stuck a few hundred metres from the German base and took about an hour to free. Then another got stuck. Apparently, the Germans thought it unsafe to venture outside in this type of weather. This is probably why they did not rush out to treat us to a cup of hot chocolate. But they did wish us a merry Christmas over the radio, as well as a safe trip and promised to monitor two radio stations while we were on the road. It was reassuring to know that our German 'neighbours' were there to call upon in case of dire need.
(The German Neumayer Station)
We drove a little further. And then something else got stuck. It took hours to "unstick" it and then the next thing got stuck. Sometimes, more than one thing was stuck. When a thing (any sort of thing) weighing about 50 tons gets stuck in sticky snow and ice, in a blizzard, things get complicated. I am no expert but I suspect that when the cab of a 20-ton vehicle with a 50-ton load shudders and shakes in the wind, I think one can safely call it a blizzard. And that is what was screaming outside.
Each time something got stuck, the drivers had to brave the blizzard outside in order to free it. More than once, they had to change the combinations of sleds pulled by various Challengers, as these vehicles are like people - each one seems to have its own personality and quirks. This one session of getting stuck and unstuck took the better part of 9 hours.
(Working in a blizzard)
The simplest task turned into a major challenge. Then, two men spent almost two hours trying to change an air filter that was blocked up with ice. By this stage, we could barely see the nose of the Challenger that we were driving in, let alone any other vehicle.
(Servicing a Challenger)
The 'locals' call this a 'white out'. For those who don't know, you can experience almost exactly the same effect (minus the cold) by sticking your head inside a bag of white cotton wool, opening your eyes nice and wide, and then trying to drive to town, in traffic. You will have no idea of where 'up' or 'down' is. It is all the same: all WHITE. But we carried on driving.
(Whiteout, and driving)
This meant that each driver had to rely fully on his GPS to determine if he was staying on track. Given the gigantic crevasses along the route, staying on track is pretty important to survival. Andrew, leader of the Cat Train, communicated with all the drivers by radio, thus ensuring that we were well spaced out, with more than a mile between each vehicle, one driving about 40m left of the track and the next driving 40m right of the track. If anyone slowed down or stopped for any reason, including to get stuck, they had to announce it over the radio so that the others could take evasive action in good time. But even this plan did not always work perfectly.
And so we ground on, through the night, averaging about 4,5km per hour. We 'only' had 300km to go, to get to SANAE. The drivers took turns to drive and to grab a cat nap in the (mostly) crowded and sometimes, unheated cabs.
(A driver catching a catnap)
About a day later, the fight against the elements had calmed down. As the weather improved, our speed picked up to 14 to 18km per hour. This was exciting stuff! Now we REALLY felt like we were moving!
(Train in motion)
It never gets dark here in summer. The sun dips towards the horizon but stays above it. The soft and changing light transforms the scenery by the minute. What a spectacle. I did not want it to end. It felt as though I was truly at the end of the earth. And I really liked it there!
Someday soon, I will recount more details of the adventures we had during the first three days of this 'road trip'. Suffice it to say that it was extreme in the extreme.
Thinking back, I still cannot believe what this group of drivers managed to do in that awful cold, howling wind and horizontal snow. I take my hat off to them. Without such people who are willing to brave the elements and to work as hard as slaves hauling cargo from the ship, across the seemingly endless ice shelf and all the way to SANAE, there could not be an overwintering base with an overwintering team.
I wish to thank them for one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had. Suffice it to say that my definition of 'extreme' has undergone serious revision! It was also wonderful to experience how a group of people can maintain good humour and high spirits, regardless of the challenges thrown at them.
By the fourth day, Vesleskarvet started to slowly rise above the horizon like a phantom in a shimmering sea of white. This is the 'little barren mountain' on which the base, SANAE IV, is built. From first sighting to arriving at the base took almost 5 hours.
(The destination appears)
Along the way, we passed spectacular scenery: mountains that made me drool and in the distance, gigantic, beautiful blue crevasses that made my hair stand on end. The mountains were the first ROCKS that I had seen in Antarctica. It was a profound experience for me: at last, I was actually on the continent!
We arrived at SANAE IV base on the afternoon of 28 December. I was led to the bedroom that I was to share with Hanlie. On the door there were two small labels, one with the words "Johanna Gouws", and the other, with "Louise Muller". That was definitely one of the most breathtaking things I have ever read! The realization that I am actually HERE is sinking in.