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.

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)

 

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Wake up in Hout Bay at Marie's house – find the cat blissfully curled up on top of my bag, at rest like only a cat knows how. Even after a good sleep, I wake up in a state that can at best be described as hyper-alert numbness. Not surprisingly, I spend more than half an hour searching for my underwear and ultimately find it inside my laptop bag, where I must have put it. Huh?

Today's plan is to get my special clothing issued by the government department and to do a few other small errands. Marie and I set off…

For those of you who have never been to Cape Town or Hout Bay in particular, the roads are pretty twisty. They go UP and DOWN and AROUND. Sure, that's no big deal, you may be thinking to yourself. But I challenge you to drive those roads as a passenger in my sister's car, and still think: 'no big deal'.

The locals do these roads at 100 miles per hour, come rain wind or snow. I closed my eyes, held on tight, prayed. Then I figured that at least it was excellent pre-departure exposure to some serious motion and therefore, it had to be good for me.

We arrive at the harbor, at the DEA's offices where I will get my special cold weather clothing issued. I get my first glimpse of the SA Agulhas through a window in the office building, right next to the quay. My heart skips a few beats. Godfrey Malagula's friendly face meets us at the clothing store and the games begin. As all of the items are mens' sizes, I had to try on everything. In some brands I took a size small and in others, a medium. Trying on layer upon layer of extreme gear was downright exhausting, especially in Cape Town's summer weather! The worst items were the snow boots and their inners – they felt uncomfortable no matter what size I tried and were impossible to remove without Godfrey's help! This is when I realized why the Department had sent me for a stress-ECG before departure! Panting and sweating, we got it all together – my sister Marie wielding the list and a pen and directing me what to try on next, with what, and making sure that I didn't get it all muddled up!

We went to the ship with the new bags of new clothing and took them and some other baggage on board. This was when I saw my cabin for the first time.

What a luck – a two-berth cabin with a porthole, and near an external door (the strategic importance of this feature will become clearer, later).

Afterwards, Marie kept insisting that we should swing by Tanya's house for no particular reason, before continuing with the rest of the errands. I thought it a bit odd, but agreed without questioning her motives. As we pulled into Tanya's driveway, my jaw dropped in utter amazement: there was Paul! What a shock! All the blood drained from my already frazzled brain and plummeted down to my feet! Soon after, Charl arrived home with their children and ours. This surprise visit and the upcoming send-off at the ship was my Christmas gift from Paul and the kids.