Christmas Day, 25th December 2011: Today is the day that the “Cat Train” will depart for SANAE

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.



Saturday 24th December 2011

Offloading continues – I can’t believe the amount of ‘stuff’ that is being swung over onto the ice shelf – and all of it must be transported to the SANAE base.

The monkey deck, i.e. the deck directly above the bridge, offers a superb position from which to watch the offloading activities.

(A group of young scientists watching the unloading on the monkey deck)

The variety of shapes and sizes of items to be offloaded seems endless. I marvel at the superb team work of the ship's crew. Even from a distance, I can feel the intense concentration of the crane driver, perched high above the ship inside the towering shaft of the crane. His precision is admirable, so is his patience. He painstakingly swings the heavy loads from the ship, up and over onto the ice shelf. Safety for all persons working with cargo is an issue of concern. Things can easily go wrong and, given the heavy cargo that is swinging about, accidents may have serious consequences for all involved.

(A highly skilled crane operator doing what he does best)

It is back-breaking work for the guys on the deck and inside the ship's holds and, also for the men on the ice shelf who receive the cargo and must ensure that it is correctly loaded onto the sleds.

(Loading the sleds)

I can't believe the amount of 'stuff' that is being swung over onto the ice shelf – and all of it must be transported – overland – to the SANAE base, which is about 300km from that particular point on the ice shelf. The ship brought 306 000kg of cargo and 1 650 000 litres of diesel which must all be offloaded and transported to SANAE. The cargo consists mainly of food and gear for the 10 members of the SANAE team who will spend the next year at SANAE base, all the materials needed for the Department of Public Works' employees who have come down to do routine maintenance and repairs to the base, and a number of vehicles that are needed to do work around the base. In addition, some scientific equipment was also brought to be used in a range of projects. The diesel is used as fuel in the heavy vehicles and includes an emergency supply. The generators at the SANAE base, which generate all the electricity, also run on diesel.

(Some fuel being unloaded)

It is pumped from the ship into large tanks that are brought to the ice shelf, via a long pipe that is swung over onto the ice shelf. This process takes a number of days and is usually performed at Penguin Bukta. From there, the diesel tankers are sledded to SANAE. In good weather, this journey takes about 16 hours.

The next thing I knew, we had to be dressed and ready to be swung over onto the ice shelf in less than 10 minutes. Yikes. Full kit required. I dive into the overalls, throw on my overcoat, grab my bag and charge down the steps, boots in hand. Luckily for me, two fellow passengers helped me get into my snow boots (we call them ‘pumpkins’, for obvious reasons) and got everything tied up, laced up, and ready for departure. By the time I was ready I was sweating like a pig and felt like the Michelin man – a blimp with stubby little legs and stiff arms sticking out at awkward angles. Any movement is difficult and uncomfortable when in full cold weather kit. Most of the time, I feel like I am about to fall over. I was a bit anxious about climbing into the basket. Yes, it went a bit too high for my liking and I do confess to letting out a little squeal when I made the mistake of looking down, but overall, it turned out to be rather pleasant ride – very smooth and pretty tame.

(BACK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Finally. After all of the dreaming and wishing…)

When I stepped off the basket and onto the ice, I could not help howling like a wolf! I can barely describe the joy – and disbelief  -  of being back on the iced shelf (in this lifetime!). How long have I dreamed of this?

We watched as much more cargo was offloaded from the ship and loaded onto the sleds on the ice shelf. These sleds are b-i-g! Each one is long and wide enough for a large container to be loaded onto it. Now I could observe the effort it took to load the sleds, from close by. I was very grateful that I was not expected to participate in that work. If I had, I am sure that my back would have broken in the first few hours! At last, all the sleds were loaded to capacity and we were ready to depart for Summer Station, about an hour's drive away. The way it works is that two or three sleds are hooked up to each other and then hooked up to a Caterpillar Challenger – which is a heavy duty vehicle similar to a bulldozer, but with rubber tracks instead of wheels.

(A Challenger being offloaded)

(A bulldozer makes the ship list a little!)

(A Challenger almost there)

(Sled being removed from the hold)

(Out of the hold, on its way)

(Teamwork onboard keeps the load under control)

(Being received, ready…

to be hooked to the Challenger…)

The plan was to get all the cargo to Summer Station in two runs, to spend that night at Summer Station and to depart for SANAE base the next day.

SANAE is about 300km (186 miles) from the Summer Station. Travelling overland in Antarctica, that is not an afternoon outing. Let alone when pulling heavily-laden sleds.

Many things are not what they appear to be here. The snow surface looks even but climb inside the Challenger and you will find out that it is a hectically bumpy ride. I was pondering on how to describe this experience.

My best description is this: when a bottle of Mrs. Ball's chutney is almost empty, there are always a few chunks of sticky bits left at the bottom of the bottle. The only way to get that last little bit of chutney out of the bottle is to shake the bottle vigorously, to bump it hard against the palm of your hand and to shake it again. Now, imagine that you are that stubborn little chunk of chutney that refuses to un-stick itself from the bottom of the bottle.  That is how it felt inside the cramped cab of the Challenger!

In essence, the ride consisted of a long series of violent jerks in all possible directions, accompanied by heaving and swaying and neck-yanks and head-bumping every few minutes.

(I'm crammed into a Challenger)

After what seemed like an eternity, we arrived at Summer Base. Wow. What a relief! I was not sure how we were going to cope with 300km of this…..

A few days later, I  found out that the faster you go over the snow bumps, the more you shake about inside the cab. Thus, contrary to what certain people had told us, the intensity of the bumping can indeed be controlled  – it is not something inherent in the vehicle (which, granted, does not sport the suspension of a BMW). I have more than a mild suspicion that the "Wise and Wild Men of the Ice" who drove us to Summer Station (and they will know who they are if they read this), were testing our mettle and secretly chuckling at our astonishment and pleas for mercy.

(Arrival at Summer Camp)

We were made to feel most welcome at the base, which consists of a few containers that have been furnished inside and placed on top of a steel structure, on stilts. The men continued working with the cargo outside and then returned to Akta Bukta to collect more cargo. We were told to expect their return within about 5 or 6 hours. Then we realized that tonight was Christmas Eve! We wanted to do something to make it special for everyone and to show our appreciation for being able to participate in the "Cat Train".

Being of the inquisitive type, we three girls (Hanlie and Kristen and I) started investigating all of the 'resources' inside the base. First, and to our great delight and surprize, Hanlie found a fold-up Christmas tree without a stand. We scratched around and made a plan to make it stand up.

Then we found some red tablecloths. This was followed by a few improvisations, such as using metal washers (from the toolbox) on bits of string for Xmas tree decorations and 3-ply loo paper for festive streamers across the room. Yellow napkins added some colour. One of the most exciting finds was a box of tea light candles. ("Good God, how did these things end up here?" I asked myself!) We then set about  cooking and baking an assortment of breads, deserts, muffins, apple pie etc. The plan was that we would all barbeque meat for the main course, outside on the deck.

(In Antarctica, the fridge is located outside the building!)

(The Three Musketeers)

Eventually, the guys returned from the bukta, finished their tasks outside for the day and came upstairs into the base. Once they were all assembled in the kitchen, we entered the dining room, turned on some Christmas music that Kristen had on her PC, and called them in.

We were greeted with a series of gasps. Clearly, they were highly surprised by the sight that greeted their eyes. We had covered the windows to keep the daylight out. The dozens of little tea lights on the table were lit, bringing warmth and comfort as only a real flame can. The guys certainly seemed to enjoy the spread that we had prepared, especially the delicious hot bread that Hanlie had conjured up. My participation in making this a special Christmas eve was a form of conscious meditation. I felt as though I was giving to my own family; through the act of giving to others, I felt closer to my own family, whom I was missing acutely.

(Christmas Eve, 24 December 2011, South African Summer Base, Antarctica)

Day 14 – Tomorrow I’m off

Just been on the bridge – with binos it is possible to see a spec on the horizon that is making a bit of smoke and that has assorted spikes. That is the Polarstern, in Akta Bukta, busy offloading for her (German) base. Early tomorrow morning we will pull in there.

The Captains and others just spoke with her people. So, looks like we will be getting off the ship tomorrow morning, not sure what time. As you have seen, things change here by the minute!

It is now almost 23h00. Much planning and stuff has been going on.

The Polarstern left the bay a little while ago and sailed past us, flying our flag over a railing. She is going off to do some research and to clear the bay so we can park at the same safe spot to offload.

(Photo from Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research – AWI)

So this is it, probably won't hear from me for a while. Don't know for how long. It now appears about 90% certain that i will be somewhere between the ship and SANAE on Christmas day, in the middle of nowhere.

(Photo from 25 years ago)


Day 13/14 – Anticipation

We are almost at the ice shelf. The anticipation is tangible. Had some long delays yesterday – had to go in a big circle to get around some huge ice and lost a lot of time.  Anyway, we hope to reach ice shelf today. Then it is action stations. The other journos and I will be taken off the ship to film and photograph the ship arriving at the bukta, and to film the start of the offloading.

Then we will be taken to the SA "Summer station" which is near the German base (I thnk). It's about 10 or 12 km from ice shelf 'parking bay'.  We will then go and prepare the summer base for the other people who will be arriving overland from SANAE to meet the ship. We will also cook for the 20 odd people who will spend the night at the summer station.

Then, in the next day or two, the sleds will be loaded (each takes about 50 tons, I think) and will then go in convoy with Caterpillars, pulling the sleds to SANAE. This takes up to about 2 days.  Five cats.  If there is a storm or a white out there are procedures that are followed to ensure that all are safe. They also have radios so that we can all stay in comms, even if we can't see each other in a whiteout. They are pretty organized, and we will be with people who have done this hundreds of times. I do expect my butt to be frozen most of the time and, also, to be vibrated to kingdom come. The plan is that we will spend maybe 10 hours at SANAE so that the drivers can sleep, and then return to the ship. But around here, the plans change ALLLLL the time.

I am discovering that I have become  far more conservative and cautious than I used to be. I think it is because I have a family waiting for me at home.

My bag is packed and all my extreme gear is ready for tomorrow morning. Need to get to bed now and get some sleep. So, I am not sure when I will be able to write again. It might only be in about 3 or 5 days' time.

(Pictures from a previous traveller)