Monday 20th February 2012 – NEWS FLASH!

The weather is clearing up here, at long last. We hope that tomorrow will be 'flying weather'. The priorities are to bring the 19 passengers aboard, then their personal luggage, and then whatever cargo can be flown aboard, i.e. the stuff that has been identified as most important. The rest of the cargo will have to remain on the ice until December. I believe that while we wait aboard ship for the flying weather to arrive, the vehicles that will be left behind here (in Antarctica) are being stored inside the old Neumayer 2 base, which is buried under the ice. It is located a few meters from the Summer Station, where the rest of our passengers are holed up.

In fact, when the Germans vacated Neumayer 2 to move into the brand new Neumayer 3 base (about 8 km inland)  in approximately 2009, they said that SANAP could have the containers that made up the living area inside their old base, but we would have to extricate them from the base at our effort. This was done in one season, to the utter astonishment of some, who had thought that it would take about 3 seasons to achieve. Thus, our Summer Station was built on top of a metal frame, using the old German containers for the living areas.

I understand that the Germans at Neumayer 3 have very kindly offered to help open up a certain access point to their old base, where our vehicles can be parked and stored until the ship returns in December. There is a big trap door that must be lifted to gain access, but first, all the snow on top of it must be removed.  The Germans aboard our ship will also hopefully, fly tomorrow. They need to fly to Neumayer 3 to collect 1,5 tons of geological rock samples to bring aboard.  It is possible that they may help to fly passengers from our Summer Station to the ship.  Their choppers are quite a lot smaller, only being able to carry about 4 passengers at a time. However, at this stage of the game, every bit helps.

But, as I have said so many times, this merely  'the plan'. The Weather will call the shots, as always.

NEWS FLASH:  We have just been informed that the ship will turn homewards on Wednesday. If all goes well, the loading will take place tomorrow and will be completed on Wednesday and then we will head back to Cape Town…!!!!!!

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.

Monday 6th February 2012 – Are some people getting a bit desperate around here?

(Drive in!)

Waiting…

While waiting to be shipped off to the ship, Renier decided to take up creative photography.

His first assignment (thought up by himself) is to take portrait photographs of himself and others, shot through a roll of duct tape that is poised on top of a beer glass.

(Creative photography 101)

 

His second assignment (also thought up by himself): capture another camera's flash on one's own camera

Needless to say, this requires extreme counting skills (he's OK on that score) and high precision timing  -  something which he does not appear to have in excess.

This is attempt number 243. Roger despairs and starts to bang his head against the table; Ruan, Renier's staunchest supporter, flees the room in desperation

Sunday 5th February 2012 – Glorious

(View from the top of Nothern Buttress of Vesleskarvet, looking down and across the ice desert, about 200m below)

(Gracious contours of giant sastrugis in the landscape surrounding the mountain)

(Patterns in the ice landscape, far below me)

(Taken from the top of Vesleskarvet: the ice desert merges with the sky)

(Moments of solitude on top of Vesleskarvet – that's me)

Working up a sweat on ice…

Sweating in Antarctica? No kidding!   

 

Seven of us just returned from an extreme smelly-digging experience. The main purpose of the excursion was to expose the hatch, i.e. to ‘dig it open’ so that it would not disappear into oblivion under the driving snow. And then, to fill it up with snow for melting. 

(A digging team departs to 'throw smelly')

As I mentioned, the apparent temperature is about minus 23C. Going outside starts with a very intense process of kitting up:  Don’t hold your breath  -  this takes a while. Here’s my inventory:

  • Thick socks. Thermal pants. Thermal top. Trousers. Sweater. Another sweater. External windproof dungarees, windproof overcoat. 
  • Balaclava, then over that, a thick, thermal beanie. Then over that, the snow goggles. Then the hood of the over coat, closed all the way up to the nose.   
  • Two pairs of gloves. By the time these are on, my fingers are as stiff as sticks and not much use for anything. 
  • Oops, don’t forget the huge boots. When there is a storm blowing outside, we can skip the sunblock.

Just getting dressed up is like a gym session.

I am told about the buddy system, where each person must keep an eye on the person walking ahead of him and check on the one behind. We set off into the blowing snow and disappear into the whiteness like ghosts. We can see each other, but not much beyond that.

My friends up in the northern hemisphere are used to snow and blizzards but for us Africans, it is a novelty to be savoured and enjoyed. The powder snow has covered all the hard, super-slippery blue ice that formed when the sun shone over the past few days, thank God, as this gives one a bit more traction, but in some places, you sink into the snow. I think this is why someone up North invented snow shoes and skis, but we are Africans and not so fussy about sinking into the snow.

Arghhh! Suffocation!  Need to inhale deeply but can’t. Feel like yanking everything off my head and face. Has something moved? Try to expose my nose but can’t do anything with these thick gloves. Feeling anxious. Mouth is entirely covered and I can’t uncover it wiith the clumsy gloves on my hands. It feels as though I can’t get any air into my mouth.  

Aha!! Discover that the reverse works – breathe in through nose and blow out through mouth.

It works. Till my nose starts to run as a result of getting a bit of exercise.

Then the watery snot freezes. Now that is an interesting experience. Like little needles prickling  me. A most unusual sensation.

Try to take photos. Wearing 2 pairs of gloves? Ha ha.

Eventually figure out a way to turn on camera via friction with my glove on the dial.

Then need to change settings! This is no joke to achieve.  

Camera won’t work as it can’t focus on the vague objects in the driving snow. Darn, and now I will have to drag it around with me.

Check buddy behind and in front.

 

It’s not that cold, really. Sun just visible, trying to burn through the whiteness. A soft yellow glowing ball in the white sky.

 

Reach the smelly. There is a pole in the snow, but where is it exactly, in relation to the smelly?

Cautious digging and probing….Eureka! The guys have discovered the exact layout of the smelly.

Digging starts in all earnest. I just love the sound of digging into soft snow.

And the deep, gentle thud that it makes when it falls into the smelly.

Pretty soon, I am boiling hot and sweating.  

I open a gap between a sleeve and the gloves to let some fresh air in. Wherever the wind touches the skin, it feels like a knife is cutting my flesh. That is the wind chill factor.

Try the camera again and find I can take pictures of my co-diggers, close enough to focus on them. Landscapes prove to be a bit more difficult.

 

Mental note  -   next time, dress down a bit. When working outside, you need to protect your skin against the cold wind, but your body warms up quickly from the exercise.

 

The wind snakes between us, sandblasting us with soft snow.

The whiteness envelopes us as we scrunch our way back up to the base.

(Scenic walk back to base from smelly in a bit of a blizzard)

In all, it is magnificent!

(Ulwin: Master Smelly digger after a dig)

(Smelly team returns)

Sunday 5th February 2012 – Ready to Rock ‘n Roll

Turned out to be a busy day!

 

Ready to rock 'n roll

 

We’re ALLLL packed and ready to rock and roll.

And I mean it, literally.

Soon, about 10 of us will be riding inside a caboose that's going to be bouncing across the snow and ice for 300km, from SANAE to Summer Station.

 

But things have not been going quite according to plan. Not that that is unusual!

Let's see what Antarctica has dished up so far:

Today, the wind is blowing at 27 knots; the outside temperature is –11.7⁰ C but the apparent temperature, which takes into account the windchill factor and is the temperature that you actually feel when you go outside, is a nippy -22.9⁰.

 

One of the Caterpillar vehicles is giving problems. That vehicle is about halfway between SANAE and the Summer Station, i.e about 150km from here. It is pulling a sled with a caboose on top, but things aren't working out as well as they should.

 

So, at about 12h30 today, the first load of people -  about 21 of them -  climbed into another caboose and set off from SANAE, accompanied by 4 other Caterpillars, to meet up with the problem vehicle and to help fix it and drop the passengers at Summer Station. 

 

I am scheduled to leave on the second caboose run -  i.e when those 2 cabooses return to SANAE to collect us. That may happen tomorrow. However, the weather man says that some good weather will be arriving here soon, which means that the choppers might be able to fly out to the ship, taking some passengers with them.

 

As I said, can only say with certainty that I don’t know anything with certainty!

(Taken from the top of Vesleskarvet, view of the Caterpillar tracks disappearing into the horizon…)

Saturday 4th February 2012 – Back to the LRB

"…there is no such thing as time…"

More than once, when enquiring the time of day, I have been told: "In Antarctica there is no such thing as time; there is just weather". How true that has turned out to be!

But let me not get ahead of myself…

It's almost time to leave SANAE IV base. Most of the work has been done, the new overwintering team has been taught (some of) the ropes; take-over is drawing to a close. Getting 70-odd people from SANAE base and aboard the Little Red Boat, 300km away, requires excellent planning at the best of times. Usually, some people drive to the ice shelf (for example, the drivers who load cargo back onto the ship) and the rest fly from SANAE to the ship, wherever she awaits them, either at Penguin, RSA or Neumayer Bukta.

On Wednesday evening, a list was posted with the names of those people who would be flown back to the ship the next morning. They would then wait aboard ship until her departure, about 9 days later. I was disappointed to see my name up there as I would prefer to spend that time at the base. However, it is totally understandable that personnel who are not essential to the takeover functions are returned to the ship first, while the rest of the work is wrapped up at the base. The DCO (Departmental Coordinating Officer) had hoped to get the first few loads of 10 passengers each, aboard ship. I stayed up all night, taking a mournful, long, last look at my surroundings, both inside and outside the base.

At  4am on Thursday, the weather officer broke the news that the 5am flight would not be able to fly as the ship was shrouded in mist  -  but it might burn away, a little later. By 6am it had not improved. By noon, all flights were cancelled.

To my joy, the great mistress of Antarctica, 'Madame Weather', had blown in. She arrived in rather a hurry and according to the experts, will stay until about 12 February. That is the day the Little Red Boat was supposed to turn north to return to Cape Town, already replete with returning cargo and passengers. Thus, it seems to me that the arrival of Madame has turned a tricky challenge into a bit of a logistical nightmare: how and when to get all these people back aboard ship?

The chopper pilots fly under 'visual flight rules'. This means that for the choppers to fly, the weather must be excellent at point of departure as well at the destination. Needless to say, (but I will say it anyway as the flight takes about 1 hour and down here a lot can change in that time) there must be a strong probability that it will remain excellent until the chopper has landed aboard ship. Cloud cover should preferably not be lower than 500 feet (about 170m) otherwise they tend to cause problems with visibility and 'contrast'. By 'contrast', I mean one must be able to see the detail in the landscape, the horizon must be clearly visible and one must have depth perception. Depth perception is usually one of the first things to say goodbye in bad weather, thereby rendering flying as safe as jumping off a cliff. Wind speed is important when starting up the rotors, when it may not exceed 38 knots but during the flight it is not very important.

Yesterday, the weather at SANAE was nothing short of magnificent. The sun shone brightly, the sky was bright blue and the wind lay sleeping. It was about – 8 C⁰  but I did not even notice the cold and comfortably spent most of the day outside.

By now, I know that you know that plans change around here, by the minute. The first plan is seldom the plan that is implemented. Given the weather forecast for the next week and the fact that back-loading must commence soon in order that the ship may depart on 12 Feb at the latest, some very creative planning has entered the equation.

The latest plan is that most passengers will travel to the ice shelf inside a caboose, on a sled, drawn by a Caterpillar. A caboose is a container with a few (non-opening) windows, bunks, a stove and a loo.  Some may even travel the distance inside a container, thereby saving an extra trip. As far as I am aware, they will be hauled to Neumayer Bukta, which is the reverse of the 300km Cat Train trip that I did at Christmas. The first trip might commence tomorrow and I will probably be one of the passengers.

I wonder how many people can squeeze into the “Summer Base” at Neumayer? The last time we were there, an important water pipe had burst, thus there was no piped water. The choppers must fly back to the ship from SANAE, as they cannot be sledded to the ice shelf, the journey being far too rough and bouncy. Who knows how long it will be before the weather is good enough for that to happen?

But that is not all. Mother Nature has a few more trump cards up her sleeve, one being the amount and location of pack ice and another being the thickness of the ice. The ship needs to be able to pull right up to the ice cliff, in order for the back-loading to take place. A week ago, when the chopper came to collect us from the ship to fly us to SANAE, the ship was unable to berth at the ice cliff, as she could not break through the thick pack ice.

This morning, the sun shone brightly in a blue sky here at SANAE.  I heard that the Little Red Boat was still shrouded in mist. But now it is snowing here. It seems to be falling in ‘sheets’ that are clearly visible, one quickly following upon the heels of the other. It is impossible to tell where the sky ends and the ground begins.

I am enveloped by this glorious, pure whiteness. I feel a deep sense of gratitude that I am fortunate enough to be here to see, feel, taste and smell this beautiful, falling ice as it flutters about me.  

And as for getting back aboard the Little Red Boat? All I can say with certainty is that I don’t know anything with certainty.

Photos – SANAE IV: Food, glorious food!

These photos accompany my blog entry on the 2nd of February 2012…

(Unpacking the frozen food into the emergency storage container, under the ice)

(Another human chain to pack emergency frozen food stash into storage container under the ice)

(Human chain unpacking freezer on base)

(Human chain unpacking huge freezer on base)

(Loading the frozen food onto the vehicle to take it to storage)