Sunday 11th March 2012 – Simple, but intense

My arrival in Cape Town is a day I will always cherish. I had planned to rush from the ship to the airport to fly back to Johannesburg to my family. Instead, they surprised me and came to get me. That was some kind of wonderful!

From the harbor we drove up the West coast to Yzerfontein, to spend a few days at the beach before flying, together, to Johannesburg and driving home from there.

Spending a few days at the beach was the most perfect ending to this journey. In a beautiful and serene place, our family had time to come together again after the long separation. It also afforded me the chance to withdraw from the ocean slowly and gently and to bid her farewell. Days later, I still felt the ship swaying beneath me, in my dreams.

The first few days on terra firma were imbued with simple but intense pleasures. The kind of pleasures that one experiences when doing something for the first time or with great awareness. It is awesome to experience these seemingly unimportant delights in such a fresh way. These are some that stood out for me:

 

I can’t even describe the delight of hugging my family for the first time, of feeling them safe in my arms again.

Weaving through the traffic and then beetling along the freeway at high speed caused me severe anxiety as for the past three months, nothing had happened at high speed and the environment had been simple, pure  and uncluttered. (Flying in the chopper does not count as one does not really have a sense of speed while up in the air.)

On the day of arrival in Cape Town, we had lunch in an eccentric, coastal restaurant. The owner-cum-chef kindly obliged me by serving me ripe, whole tomatoes and a heap of crispy lettuce, cucumber and fresh herbs. Biting into these crispy fruits was sensational!

Walking on barefoot on the beach, warm sand between my toes.

Curling up beside my children in bed and hearing the sound of their breathing, so close to me…

Back home, walking through our front door and seeing all the beautiful  ‘welcome home’ surprises that my family had prepared for me.

Feeling the soft prickle of freshly cut, bright green grass under my feet.

Picking the very first aromatic lime from a little tree I planted two years ago.

Biting into a ruby-red pomegranate from my own tree, smarting at the tart flavor of a fresh granadilla from my vegetable garden.

Hearing the cacophony of frogs, crickets, cicadas and jackals in the bushveld summer’s night…

Lying in my bed and listening to the joyful dawn chorus of the bushveld birds…

Waking up to a cup of hot tea in bed, in my favourite bone china mug.

Being able to wake up and walk to the kitchen in the nick.

As a welcome gift to me, Pule, our bush cat, went out and caught a rat. Next to my side of the bed, she neatly decapitated and gutted it and left it where I would be sure to notice it. Indeed, I stepped on it as I got out of bed the next morning.

Showering in a shower that does not move around!

A long laze in a hot bath.

Hearing the children discuss something with their dad and their laughter!

The joys of internet access!

Being able to email whatever I want to, whenever I want to.

Sweating in the heat of day… plunging into a cool, blue pool.

Whistling to my heart’s content, without being admonished that I am calling up stormy winds and tempests!

Being told: “Mommy, it felt like you were gone for a long time but now that you are back, it feels like you never went away.”

 

(What do YOU do when you are really happyyyyy?)

 

Thanks to all

I am now well and truly home and have reclaimed my landlocked life. It was an incredible experience all round, both the sea voyage and being on the Antarctic continent. There is still so much that I need to digest and absorb about the trip and all that I learned and lived through. There is still so much to write about! 

To everyone who supported me and my family during my absence, in whatever way, THANK YOU!!!  To SANAP and the Department of Environmental Affairs, thank you for this opportunity. To my fellow passengers, thank you for the company and the great experiences we shared.  To the Ice Pilot, Captain Dave Hall and the Master, Captain Gavin Syndercombe and the ship’s crew, thanks for a safe and enjoyable voyage with great food!  Thanks to the sponsors who ,generously contributed in their various ways. To the SANAE 50 team, welcome home! To the SANAE 51 team: here’s wishing you an incredible year on the ice!

Most of all, thank you to all my family, especially Paul, Gabriella and Matthew, for helping me to make a life-long dream come true and for welcoming me back into your lives.

Thursday 23rd February 2012

And so it was that last night, the day that we were supposed to arrive back in Cape Town, we turned around to leave Antarctica. It should take us 8 to 10 days to sail to Cape Town.

We had waited 14 days for the weather to clear so that we could fly the other passengers and some cargo on board. Weeks of cruising east-west-east-west in the open sea, going nowhere, took their toll on my emotions. I was beginning to feel as though I was never going to see my family again! The weather was often so bad that it was thoroughly unpleasant to go outside. My body clock got all muddled up and I ended up being tired when I should be alert and awake when I should be sleepy .

Despite my intense longing to be reunited with my family, yesterday was a tough day for me. I had looked forward to an unhurried, gentle exit from here, slowly making our way out through the pack ice. But it did not happen that way. One moment we were in the ice and the next it was like someone had cut a line and we were gone, out. Open water. At least there were still some icebergs floating around.

(The very weathered remains of a blue iceberg)

The night was dark and cold. It was the first pitch darkness I had seen in a while, as during the last 14 nights that we spent waiting beyond the pack ice, the nights were merely twilight. The Little Red Boat swayed heartily as she built up to about 11 knots  -  the fastest we had cruised in a while.

We have just been given the official estimated time of arrival: 3 March at 08h00. However, we were warned that there are often storms in the lower latitudes that can blow us off course for a day or two…

Although it is not really storming outside, the ship is rolling about. The ocean currents move from West to East and we are going North-ish, aiming straight for Cape Town,  so the swell is hitting us from the side. Earlier, it snowed while the sun shone brightly above. Hey guys, ‘min dae’ (an Afrikaans expression for 'only a few days to go") !

(Interesting shape, I wonder how far this one has travelled with the currents?)

("If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee…" (PB Shelley))

(I just love the clouds and the silver highlights on the ice berg and ocean)

 

Thursday 9th February 2012 – Waiting.

Yes, we are just biding time, waiting for the weather to clear. Outside, it is misty, mysterious, grey. The snow comes and goes. Visibility increases and then disappears almost altogether. The size of the swell depends on the intensity of the storm and the wind speed, which has been ranging between 35 to 45 knots. We are moving through a 'family' of storms and are currently in storm number three.

Hopefully, the wind will change direction soon and instead of blowing the ice to precisely where we don't want it to be, i.e. to the ice shelf, it will blow it away from the ice shelf, thus enabling us to reach the ice shelf. Then the labour-intensive task of back loading may commence. Some people are using this time aboard the Little Red Boat to catch up on reading.  Some are overdosing on movies. Others are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping. And others complain of being bored out of their minds. Of course, there are a few who are working.

Personally, this is a difficult time. My subconscious mind thinks that being back on the ship means that I am on my way home. The enthusiastic movement of the ship in the swell emphasizes the feeling of moving FORWARD (in this case, Northwards) and home. I feel mounting excitement at the prospect of being re-united with my family. But then I have to keep reminding myself that all this movement is going nowhere. We are just sailing around in circles, waiting for the weather to improve and the ice to blow away, so that we can reach the ice shelf

Monday 6th February 2012

Within a few days the storm blew away and the blue sky re-appeared. The first flight carrying passengers from SANAE base back to the ship, departed on Sunday afternoon. There never was a second flight that day, thereby giving me one last night at the base.

I consider the spectacular moonrise that I witnessed on Sunday night as my parting gift from the continent. That was rounded off by a captivating sunrise that saw me on top of the roof of the base for hours.

At about 7am this morning, a group of us was instructed to be ready to depart from SANAE at 07h45.  We flew over crevasses that are big enough to swallow a bus or two. The tracks of the Cat Train were clearly visible from above and glistened like snakes in the sun.  The endless variety of shapes, patterns and textures in the snow had a calming effect on my tumultuous emotions. On the one hand, there is the excitement of being one step closer to being reunited with my family and on the other, the difficulty of parting with this continent.

We received a warm welcome from all those who had remained on the ship while we were away at SANAE.  A few whales even popped up, which I took as a good sign. The chopper, a Bell 212, was refueled so that it could fly another transport. As it started to lift off, it suffered an undercarriage cross tube failure and as a result, it won't be able to fly again during this voyage. Once the disabled chopper had been safely stored in the hangar, the second chopper could come in to land on the helicopter deck. Earlier on, they had landed at Neumayer Station (the German base, near our Summer Station) to wait for the disabled chopper to be cleared off the deck. This chopper then flew to Summer Base on the ice shelf a few times to collect the people who had, at long last, arrived there by Cat Train, after a very trying journey of about 37 hours. It was great to welcome them back to civilization and to hear tales of their overland journey.

The ship's next challenge is to get alongside the ice shelf to start the back-loading process. While that is taking place, the last group of passengers will ride the Cat Train from SANAE to the ice shelf to meet up with the ship and to load up some of the vehicles.

Saturday 7th January 2012

I woke up to our 4th day of being beset in the ice.

Just had breakfast, still stuck. If it carries on like this we might not make it to South Georgia. What a disastrous disappointment that would be! I went out late last night to catch some fresh air before bed and it was snowing, very lightly  -  beautiful little flakes that clung to my clothes. I thought of my children and how incredibly excited they were when they saw snow for the first time, last year in Illinois. I would love to see the looks on their faces if they could see where I am now, with their own little eyes!

A little after breakfast, Captain Syndercombe said  he saw an 'opportunity' – from a careful study of the ice around the Little Red Boat. Around 9 am, he sent the crane operator into the large crane that is mounted on the ship.

Then the crane was swung from port to starboard side and back again, causing the ship to roll strongly from one side to the other, as it is a big and heavy crane, and the ship's load has all been offloaded.

(The front part of the crane while the ship was in Cape Town harbour prior to departure)

(and the rear part of the same crane)

This loosened the ice around her. A spot of softer ice and a bit of blue water  had opened up ahead and the Captain was able to free the ship. Yipppeee, we are moving again! For the first time in days, we can see blue water  -  lines and puddles of blue in between the pack ice – sometimes more, sometimes less, but at least we are moving, for now.

Thursday 5th January 2012

I was ready to climb into bed. I just quickly wnet to look what it looked like outside. It was sooooo beautiful – I rushed back to my cabin to collect my cameras and warm clothing. I was outside for almost 3 hours. Every 1/2 hour I went to the bridge where there are heaters and defrosted my hands and bum. This took 15 minutes each time. Then run outside again to look. The temperature was not very cold (-3°C) – but there was a wind that made it feel a lot colder. I walked around with my nose in my hat, with just my eyes peeking out. It was indescribably beautiful and it changes every minute. The sun was behind the clouds and then it started appearing through gaps.

Only went to bed at 2:30. I was a little grumpy and stayed in my cabin to be alone.

I just heard about one technologically challenged family member – the person is so technologically challenged, a friend had to tune in her radio, hold her cell next to the radio and let my family member listen to the interview on their cell to the friend's radio.

The ship is still stuck in the ice. We're waiting till we break free…

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.

(SANAE IV)

 

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)

Thursday 8 December 2011: D- DAY: DEPARTURE DAY

D-Day has arrived. For a while already, I have been steeling my nerves and heart for this day. We were due to sail at 14h00 but were delayed – and we only left at 4pm. There was a festive atmosphere at the quay. Live music.

Excited passengers and their families milling about. I was more afraid than excited. Speeches – one by the director of DEA, Henry Valentine and one by Capt Bill Leith, a retired master of the SA Agulhas, who then unveiled a plaque in honor of the ship and Cape Town as a key link in Antarctic exploration over the past 100 years.

The two hour delay was very difficult for me. Sort of like holding your breath for as long as you can and then having to hold it some more. Worst of all, I was aboard the ship and Paul and the children and Tanya and Charl and kids were on the quay. We passengers were no longer permitted to get off the ship. If we had been able to spend that time together, the delay would have been an enjoyable windfall. Instead, it prolonged the agony of leaving.

The longer I stood up there on the ship's deck, the greater the urge became to leap off, onto terra firma.

When the harbor tug/pilot (whatever that thing is called!) came for us and the ship finally started moving, my heart leaped into my mouth. One of the most unbearable things I have ever experienced was watching my family and friends get smaller and smaller as the ship moved further away from the quay. Even now, writing about it days later, it brings tears to my eyes.

They looked so frail and vulnerable, standing on the outermost point of the quay. That was when I heard that little voice in my head scream out "Oh God, what have I done?" And then the tears flowed freely.

Here is an extract from poem I happened upon. It yanks at the heart strings, doesn't it? But at the same time, it also provides a little solace:

As slow our ship her foamy track
Against the wind was cleaving,

Her trembling pennant still look'd back
To that dear isle 'twas leaving.

So loth we part from all we love,
From all the links that bind us;

So turn our hearts, as on we rove,
To those we've left behind us!

(Last verse:)

As travelers oft look back at eve
When eastward darkly going,

To gaze upon that light they leave
Still faint behind them glowing, – So, when the close of pleasure's day
To gloom hath near consign'd us,

We turn to catch one fading ray
Of joy that's left behind us.

(From: The Journey Onwards, by T. Moore )

Later, on departure day

You may be asking "Why are you so tearful, if you are actually getting the chance to live your dream?" That is a very good question. The reason is that it is hard for me to leave my family for so long, and to be so utterly removed from them. Their vulnerability suddenly becomes so clear. This journey defines the word 'remoteness'. There is basically no turning around and quickly coming home…

Leaving the harbor, the swell was about 2 meters (6 feet) high. As a preventative measure against sea sickness, I went and stood on the main deck, watching the ocean and the horizon, and anticipating the movement.

Bobbing up and down, very rhythmically, I actually thought, 'Hey, this is rather "lekker"!' (Lekker – an extremely versatile Afrikaans adjective without equal in English, meaning enjoyable, tasty, delightful, nice, great, cool…) Within about 2 hours of leaving Cape Town harbor, the swell had increased to 4 to 5 meters (12 to 15 feet). That was rather a quick increase in swell size and my body no longer found things to be so very 'lekker'. Not only that, but the time between the rises and dips was very short, which meant that the ship did not do a simple up -and-down cycle. Rather, she would go UP – then- roll-and-twist-to-the-side and then only, DOWN, and then UP and twist and so on. One of the crew members told me that they call this particular, vomit-inducing motion, 'cork-screwing'. The fact that it had been formally named did nothing to ameliorate the seasickness that quickly gripped my body.

This was the first time that I had ever really experienced seasickness. And my God, it is indeed an ungodly thing to experience. For the un-initiated, imagine you are an old tennis shoe inside a washing machine, soap and all.

Around and around you go, being tossed this way and that. After a while, you no longer have any idea of which way is up. EVERYthing seems to be moving in convulsions, both clockwise and anti-clockwise at the same time.

Every few minutes I had to run outside or find a toilet. This is when I realized how wonderful it was to have a cabin situated close to an external door. Outside, it was getting rather chilly. In between vomits, I tried to dig into my luggage to find some warm clothing but could only search for about 30 seconds, before having to rush outside again. The mere physical position of bending over to rummage inside a bag was enough to send my belly into vomit-mode. I am grateful for one thing and that is that as far as I know, no-one photographed me in the outfit that resulted from these desperate, lightning-fast rummages in the luggage. I am especially grateful that my daughter, Gabriella, (who has excellent dress sense) did not see me in my final outfit of the day. Let me just say that it involved lightweight cotton shorts and long woollen socks pulled up to above the knee, and leave it at that.

At a point I realized it would be a good idea to find the doctor. Perhaps I could even dictate my last will and testament to him. I was told where to find him, but getting to him was not that simple. There was puke everywhere – no, not mine – from other passengers. On the steps, in the passageways, everywhere. Thank God I had not contributed to that.

Luckily, my cabin was close to an external door. With every desperate scramble to get outside in time, I managed to open the heavy door a bit quicker.

The sea sickness persisted. The first 3 days were hell. The good doctor gave me some pills to take and told me that it was important to "eat something before taking them." Ha ha. That kept me busy for a while. I had to eat three times before the food stayed in long enough for me to take the pills.

Then it started to get a little better each day. However, I was still horizontal most of the time. I think it took about 5 days before I felt like myself again. I lost track. Those days are basically blanks in my memory.

Sort of like when I had malaria, in Tanzania. At first you think you are going to die and then on the third day you fear that you might not die. Lest there be any confusion, let me just state that the SA Agulhas is not a pleasure cruise vessel, and does not have very many fancy mechanisms to stabilize itself in the water. This might be why some old sailors have thought up not-so-flattering nicknames for her!