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)