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.

Saturday 3rd March 2012 – The wonder of arriving!

(Early morning mist, slowly lifting as we near the harbour)

Shouts of excitement bounced back and forth across the water as the Little Red Boat entered the harbour and rounded the first corner of the quay. Passengers milled about outside on the decks, craning their necks to search for their families and friends, already gathered on the quay for our long-awaited arrival.

(As we rounded the first corner of the quay…)

(Almost there!)

(During their absence, Koos had become Oupa (Grandfather) and Dennis had become a father)

Slowly, painstakingly slowly, we moved closer until we could clearly see the expectant faces of those waiting on the quay. The “Welcome home” posters held aloft lent a festive atmosphere, along with the live music that we could hear clearly by now. Then I spotted my husband and two children in the crowd. My heart skipped numerous beats and instantly, there was a lump the size of an apple in my throat. Tears of joy flowed freely down my face!  I had not expected them to fly down to Cape Town again. But boy, was I delighted to see them!

(And then I spotted them! What I did not realise at the time, was that the man with the folded arms was from the SANAE 27 overwintering team who had been with me on the ship in 1987)

(Hey, what's all this commotion about?)

We berthed and then the customs officials came aboard. The SANAE 50 team, who had been away from home for about 14 months, was permitted to leave the ship first, in order to participate in the official welcoming ceremony, led by Henry Valentine from the Department of Environmental Affairs. The rest of us waited patiently for our passports to be stamped and for permission to disembark. Then the frenetic activity started, everyone in a rush to be somewhere else, squashing past each other in the narrow corridors of the ship to get their luggage offloaded. In between, lots of final goodbye hugs… One passenger rushed ashore to propose to his girlfriend, who almost passed out from surprise  -  and I am sure, delight!

(The SANAE 50 team, in black T-shirts, lined up in front of the podium during their welcoming ceremony, conducted by Henry Valentine)

(Master of the ship, Captain Gavin Syndercombe, after 'parking' the ship in the harbour)

(The four of us, reunited and thoroughly delighted!)

There's more to follow, don't go away!

Friday 2nd March 2012

By this morning, all signs of the storms had disappeared. Around midday, I spotted another ship on the horizon. How weird to see that ugly thing and not an iceberg! It looked so out of place and messy. Oddly enough, I actually felt that my space had been invaded.

(A perfect day, with the most intensely blue ocean I have ever seen)

(Soaking up the perfect day on the monkey deck)

(And then a space invader arrived!)

Beautiful sunshine, barely a breeze, lots of people outside, some sunning themselves on the monkey deck, above the bridge. And then we were treated to a spectacular display by a pod of dolphins, darting inches below the surface and leaping out in unison. Wow! They then split up into smaller groups and porpoised all around the ship, to gasps of delight from the onlookers.

(The 'official' dolphin spotters on duty)

(The entertainers have arrived)

(Some passengers lazed about….)

(…some passengers hung about….)

(…and others monkeyed about on the monkey deck)

(…while the crew continued with their daily grind out on the decks…)

(…and way down below, in the galley.)

(Meanwhile, I was making plans with the ice I had imported from Antarctica as a gift to my family)

This afternoon I heard someone yell ‘Land ahoy!’ We could just make out the shape of Table Mountain! Word spread through the ship like wildfire and passengers rushed outside in their hordes to squint at the barely visible landmark. Home -  we are almost there! People started saying their farewells as we all know that tomorrow morning, when the ship berths, things will get hectic.

(Land ahoy!!!! Moving closer and closer to the mountain was an awesome feeling, filled with anticipation and excitement)

A few hours after spotting the mountain, we were able to get cell phone reception. What bliss, to be able to have a loooong conversation with one’s loved ones! All over the ship's decks people wandered about with one arm glued to their ear, yakking away.

(My first call home!)

(The heli-deck, or 'cell phone paradise')

(The sun has almost set, but who needs light for yakking? That was the longest call home ever!)

All the while, Table Mountain was getting bigger and bigger. The ship proceeded to her allocated spot near the harbor where we would lay anchor for the night, before heading into the harbor with a tug boat early tomorrow morning. What a spellbinding view of Table Mountain and the coastline! Darkness fell and the landscape was transformed into millions of tiny lights, like glowing embers in a fire.

(Our last and exquisite sunset on the SA Agulhas, just outside Cape Town harbour)

Back to the future….

…Civilization.

And we are almost touching it again. The thought was followed by an involuntary shudder.

After three months in some of the most pristine and isolated places on earth, I wondered what it would be like to once again, see the evidence of man’s ‘progress’ on this earth. The vehicles, roads, noise, smog, litter, colours, buildings, landscaped gardens, crowds. Not to mention the high speed at which we conduct our lives.

 

“Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean –roll!

Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;

Man marks the earth with ruin  –  his control

Stops with the shore.” 

(Lord Byron, 1788 – 1824. Yes, yonks ago!)

 

Then I started wondering how it would feel to step off the Little Red Boat for the last time? I was jolted by the realization that once again, she had become part of me. By now, to a large extent, my internal rhythm was dictated by hers and it was all about to come to a sudden end. How does one say farewell to a ship? Memories of my first voyage on this ship in December 1986 mingled freely with memories of this voyage. It seemed that time was irrelevant. The only important thing was the connection between me and her. There was a sense of having completed the circle.

Feeling overwhelmed, I walked her decks, up the steps, around and down…soaking in the detail of her lines, sights and sounds for one last time…remembering how safe I had always felt aboard her, even in the worst of storms, such as the ones we braved in 1986. Indeed, I was not the only one who felt a deep sense of nostalgia and loss. I know of some big, strong men who have sailed on her dozens of times, who shed a few furtive tears at the end of this last Antarctic voyage of their trusted and well-loved ship, the SA Agulhas.

 

Monday 27th February 2012

Early this morning, the intensity of the storm increased severly. That was apparent to us all. Most of our stuff fell off the shelves and I almost fell out of bed. The chairs have been lying upside for two days already, and there really is no point in trying to keep them upright. Our speed has been reduced to about 4 knots, severely slowing down our progress. Hopefully, the storm will be over by tomorrow, but I hear that there is another on the way that we might just hit or just miss…

(Wild, but pretty exciting! The Little Red Boat is about 110m (330 feet) long  – and is being tossed about by the ocean as if she were a cork in a bathtub)

It is really difficult to do anything when the ship is bucking around like this. Even staying awake is a challenge. I spoke to the doctor and asked why so many of us were feeling so tired. The response was that it is hard work for the brain to maintain the body's balance and its proper, upright position when everything around it is moving unpredictably, especially when one is indoors and unable to see the ocean and the horizon and thereby, anticipate the movement. Makes sense to me. Many passengers spend much of the day in their bunks, emerging only at mealtimes.

(I got soaked taking this photo as the water was splashing onto the deck with great force)

I got up early, had breakfast and was fully intending to be constructive. I sat down and started reading then woke up an hour later, still sitting but just emerging from a gentle coma. I tried reading again. Then woke up another hour later, still sitting up…

Sadly, the Northwesterly wind has transformed into a Southwesterly, which means we get hit by the swell from the side. Thus, instead of a rhythmic up-and-down swaying motion, the ship perfoms an uncomfortable corkscrew motion. My ‘favourite’. Ha, ha! But all that was forgotten for a while when the heavens provided a dramatic and astonishingly beautiful sunset…

(Charcoal clouds barely allow the sunlight to shine through onto the wild ocean)

The weather is not improving and we already lost time yesterday from having to slow down to about 4 knots. The front that was predicted to have passed over us still has not finished passing by. I am not sure that I still have patience for this. I feel so much closer to home and yet still so far away. It certainly looks like this darn storm is following us around!  At midnight tonight, we will set our clocks forward by one hour.

“Time writes no wrinkle on thine azure brow: Such as creation’s dawn beheld, thou rollest now.”  (Lord Byron)

 

 

 

Wednesday 22nd February 2012 – Last moments

Some of the last images I took on the 22nd before we turned home:

(Chopper bringing the last cargo load)

(John, flight engineer, checking on the load below)

(The alluring glow of blue ice)

(Pancake ice  -  the new ice of the coming winter  -  covered in fresh snow)

(Icebergs on a silver horizon)

(Blue ice berg, close-up)

(Pancake ice that has turned a bit 'brashy', up close)

(Panorama of pancake ice in all its diversity)

(Close-up of pancake ice, like overlapping crystalline petals floating on top of the ocean)

(Stages of development from water, to pancake ice to pack ice)

(Two crabeater seals emerge from a gap in the pack ice)

(Silken, sleek hunter, totally at home in this ice world)

(This sunset holds promise…)

(The promise is fulfilled -  our last, glorious sunset in the pack ice)

(Moonrise over the open sea, after turning homewards)

Wednesday 22nd February 2012 – Home we go!

(Again, for this post, all photos are courtesy of the webcam at the Neumayer base)

I think it is about 17h00. The chopper has just landed after dropping its last load on the front deck of the Little Red Boat. The crew rushes past me, where I am standing outside on the walkway, port side. They are animated and excitedly slapping each other on the back.

(An animation of the loading seen from Neumayer – the cargo sled is bottom left (photos from 07:00-18:00)

I ask: "Hey guys, what's up? "

They reply: "The Captain has given the order: prepare the ship for seafaring."

That's it: we are on our way home.

One of the young crew members says to me: "Soon, I will be home, I'll see Table Mountain, my house, my bed and my girlfriend in it."

The ice is dense. Pancake ice surrounded by smallish floes. One lone, beautiful blue iceberg on the horizon.  The ship is moving past it, seemingly faster and faster. Perhaps that is just my imagination. I check the heading on the pc inside the lounge:  we are going North. Within minutes the ice starts thinning out. We will be in the open water soon.

Northward, homeward.

Tuesday 21st February 2012 – Loading

(For this post, all photos are courtesy of the webcam at the Neumayer base)

This morning the weather did not look promising but in true Antarctic style, it changed.

(The weather this morning)

At about 12h30, the first chopper took off to fetch the first load of passengers. The Germans are helping us to fly passengers from the Summer Station to the ship in their chopper,…

(The German helicopter in the left foreground)

…while the larger, South African chopper flies cargo from the ice to the ship.

The returnees have been given a hearty welcome. Let's hope they all head straight for the showers… 

The idea is to get as much cargo aboard as possible while the weather holds. I  cannot say how long that will be, as no-one knows. More later!

(More cargo loading)

Thursday 16th February 2012 – Ice

The Captain gets satellite images regularly. However, even the satellite images of the ice conditions don't always help very much. For example, they don't show the vertical thickness of the ice, nor do they show if the ice is what is called 'first year ice' or multiple year ice. First year ice is freshly formed ice from the current season. It is relatively soft and fairly easy to break through. Ice that is a composite of first and second year ice is harder, but can still be attempted, depending. And with extra caution. Ice that is older than 2 years is going to stop the Little Red Boat dead in her tracks. The only way to really know what ice you are dealing with is to sail right up to it and take a look at it. Clearly, this can be risky and can lead you into a dead end, costing time and diesel.

'Polynas' ( I think this is a Russian word) are open leads or patches of blue water between the floes of pack ice. This is what the Captain looks for, and they are not always shown that clearly on satellite images, apart from the fact that they change continuously.

The wind and the tides can and do have a huge effect on the distribution of the ice. I have often stared for hours at the vast expanse of white around the ship. It is easy to be fooled into thinking that it is solid, immovable. However, the heaving swell of the Southern Ocean is merely subdued, and not eliminated by the weight of the seemingly solid cloak of ice floating on top. The wind and tides move these masses of ice around constantly. I have often been amazed at how fast it all can happen.

Another  issue is that we are heading for winter. Thus, the tendency is for the ice to become more and to get thicker and harder. This means that our window of opportunity for back-loading the ship is becoming smaller and smaller. We might just have to leave some things behind, up there on the ice.

This is Antarctica and ANYTHING is possible! You just never know for sure what's going to happen, until it happens. Believe me, I will let you know when IT  happens!

Sunday 12th February 2012 – Plans, changes

We're still biding our time, waiting for the weather to clear.

If necessary, some things will have to stay behind on the ice until next year. Certain scientists are already planning to repack their cargo from one big container into lots of smaller ones, so that they can be airlifted to the ship. It looks like Sunday afternoon will be clear enough for flying and hopefully, the loading will commence then.

Nobody knows.

We have two very competent captains driving this ship and I have full confidence in their ability to make the right decision, when the time presents itself. They don't like to 'get ahead' of themselves. They never commit too far into the future, I saw that on the way here. They like to wait and see a bit, because down here, things change all the time. You never know what might happen. I did hear someone say that one of the captains said 'we float well but we don't crush well', meaning that he does not want to stay here long enough to get crushed by the ice. Winter is approaching, and getting crushed is a reality.

Also, food might get a bit scarce on the ship if we stay down here much longer.

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